Robert van der Kroft is one of the most prominent Dutch comic artists, with a track record in both the mainstream and alternative comics scenes. He began his career working in a round drawing style for the magazines Donald Duck and Pep, but settled on a Clear Line-approach when taking over 'Sjors en Sjimmie' (1975-2001) and co-creating 'Claire' (1988-2017) with Wilbert Plijnaar and Jan van Die. He was furthermore co-founder of the Dutch alternative comics magazines De Vrije Balloen (1975) and Zone 5300 (1994), and is the driving force behind the Cross Comix Festival in Rotterdam (2016).
Van der Kroft was born in 1952 in Rotterdam. His interest in drawing and comics didn't come from a stranger, since his father worked as an advertising illustrator. Robert started collecting comics at an early age. At the age of 4, he colored the black-and-white pages in his copy of 'Aventuren in Minasoussa' by Frans Piët, starring the characters Sjors and Sjimmie, whom he would draw himself for over 25 years. He drew his first comic stories for his high school newspaper, and later also contributed a couple of drawings to the alternative cultural newspaper Aloha. He spent a total of seven weeks at the Rotterdam Art Academy (three weeks in the first, and four in the second year), but discovered he couldn't develop his ambitions for cartooning there. Besides his father, Robert has mentioned André Franquin, François Walthéry, Roy Crane and Hergé as important inspirations for his work.
He applied for a job with Oberon, the comics division of the publishing company VNU. Although he initially tried to get his work published in Sjors, he was hired by the weekly Donald Duck magazine instead. Between 1973 and 1977, Van der Kroft drew many covers, posters and comic stories starring Disney characters like 'Donald Duck' and 'The Big Bad Wolf' (including the test script of future editor-in-chief Thom Roep). He got the opportunity to develop his more personal style with his strip 'Pepijn', which was published in Pep from 1973 to 1975. After a couple of sporadic appearances, it became a weekly half-page strip in which Van der Kroft announced the content of that week's issue, and experimented freely with lay-outs and comics conventions. He also published a couple of independent stories in Pep, which included his first collaboration with Wilbert Plijnaar in late 1973.
The decision of Oberon to shut down its titles Sjors and Pep, and merge them to a new magazine called Eppo, caused a lot of unrest among the authors involved. As a result, several of them teamed up to create the independent magazine De Vrije Balloen in 1975. The magazine gave its contributors full artistic freedom, which resulted in more satirical and adult-oriented comic stories than printed in the Oberon magazines. Robert van der Kroft was part of the original team, alongside Jan van Haasteren, Thé Tjong-Khing, Jan Steeman, Andries Brandt, Lo Hartog van Banda and Patty Klein. He experimented with several drawing styles, from realistic over comical to more stylized, in the first seven issues of 1975 and 1976.
During the 1970s, Van der Kroft's work additionally appeared in De Bajeskrant and Studio, the magazine of broadcasting company KRO. For the latter, he made the short-lived comic 'Jopper en Bars' (1976-1977). This comic was allegedly cancelled because of an offending episode against Dutch prime-minister Dries van Agt. A selection of Robert van der Kroft's work for Pep, De Vrije Balloen, De Bajeskrant and KRO-gids Studio was published in the album 'Ratje Toe' by Jumbo-Offset in 1985.
The launch of Eppo magazine in 1975 meant a turning point in Robert van der Kroft's career. Editor-in-chief Frits van der Heide initially asked him to draw a local version of 'Billy Bunter', a British comic drawn by Reg Parlett, which had appeared in Sjors as 'Billie Turf'. This project was cancelled, but the young artist was offered the 'Sjors & Sjimmie' comic instead. This comic was originally created by Frans Piët in 1938 as 'Sjors van de Rebellenclub', and was based on Martin Branner's US newspaper comic 'Perry Winkle'. The white, blond-haired young boy Sjors looked exactly like Perry in his early years, but Piët streamlined him more into his own character and made the setting more Dutch. The series also gradually evolved into an adventure comic. In 1949 Piët introduced Sjors' black friend Sjimmie to the cast, after which the series was retitled 'Sjors en Sjimmie'. The original comics were a product of their time and therefore Sjimmie looked, talked and acted like a stereotypical dim-witted, primitive and overly scared black African. When Jan Kruis took over the series in 1969 he redesigned the protagonists, including Sjimmie who became more intelligent, brave and less racially offensive. The stories themselves were modernized as well, and even sci-fi and fantasy elements were added by Jan Steeman and his scriptwriters, who succeeded Kruis after two stories.
The new magazine Eppo needed an even more modern rendition of the classic comic strip. Van der Kroft was assigned to redesign the children once again and at the suggestion of editor Martin Lodewijk the series returned to its original format as a gag comic. Sjors and Sjimmie became more rebellious, like in Piët's early tenure on the strip. Existing characters like Colonel Snork (known simply as "De Kolonel") and his daughter Sally became the boys' parental tutors and frequent victims of their shenanigans, which usually end with the Colonel sighing "Bareuh!". Dikkie, another character from the original 1930s series, became more crooked, always trying to trick his friends into giving him food or money. Van der Kroft's initial gags were written by Patty Klein, but when Wilbert Plijnaar and Jan van Die took over in 1977, the series got its definitive look.
Although the setting of the fictional Frisian isle Schiermeeuwenoog of their predecessors was maintained, the new authors situated their characters in an urban environment, inspired by their hometown Rotterdam. The comic was stripped from all the racial stereotyping of the previous decades, and turned into a multicultural and contemporary comic full of pop culture references. The trio introduced themes like young romance, star-fandom, graffiti, hiphop, fastfood, breakdance, video games and other cool stuff to their episodes, which makes their version of 'Sjors & Sjimmie' an interesting period document of teenage life in the 1980s and 1990s.
Robert van der Kroft, Wilbert Plijnaar and Jan van Die proved to be a golden team, and became known as the "Wiroja's", an acronym of the first letters of their first names. The authors applied an almost schematic working method. Every page consisted of 12 panels of an equal height and width, with an occasional double panel. They used only overall shots from one viewpoint, and no close-ups or changes of perspective. The artwork evolved into a variation of the Clear Line, a drawing style introduced by classic authors like Hergé and Edgar P. Jacobs in the 1940s. All these structured elements make the comic pages of the Wiroja's instantly recognizable and legible.
The readers responded so well to the changes they made that the magazine Eppo (later Eppo/Wordt Vervolgd) was re-named to Sjors & Sjimmie Stripblad in 1988. By then, the editors wanted to let the characters star in short stories instead of gags. The work pressure got too high and the Wiroja's decided to cut down their work on 'Sjors en Sjimmie' after 637 pages. New writers and artists were assigned to make new stories, but under supervision of the original team. The trio made a "Sjors and Sjimmie Bible" with strict guidelines for plot structure, character traits and page lay-outs. Many freelance writers have contributed to the franchise in this new period, such as Evert Geradts, Mars Gremmen, Remco Polman, Wilfred Ottenheim, Mark Middelhuis, Paul Hoogma, Piet Zeeman, Peter de Wit, Branko Collin, Ruud Straatman, Michael Engler and Michiel van de Pol, as well as editors from the Oberon comic magazines (Kees Vuik, Jos Beekman, Frans Hasselaar, Ed van Schuijlenburg). Hein Haakman wrote and drew episodes between 1988 and 1994, and Hans van Oudenaarden also drew a couple of stories. However, most of the artwork was outsourced to Spanish studios like Creaciones Editoriales, Bonnet, Comicon and most notably Studio Comicup, who assigned Carlos Guirado and Josep Nebot to do the job. Sjors and Sjimmie continued their adventures in Sjors & Sjimmie Stripblad (1988-1994), SjoSji (1994-1998) and Striparazzi (1998-1999), after which the series came to an end. Robert van der Kroft's work on 'Sjors & Sjimmie' has been collected in 45 albums by Oberon and Big Balloon between 1977 and 2000. Attempts to relaunch the series have been put on hold because of copyright issues.
While 'Sjors & Sjimmie' was continued by a wide range of other authors, the Wirojas developed a new comic called 'Claire' (1988-2017), also in their well-known format. It appeared in the Belgian women's magazine Flair, both in the Flemish as well as the Walloon edition, while it also ran in its sister magazine Flair in The Netherlands. Albums are published by Divo, the publishing company of Jan van Die. The series was a gag comic centering around twenty-year old Claire, her black boyfriend Ricky and her girlfriends Jup (the one with the spectacles) and Brix (the shorter one). The title character was named after the song 'Clair' (1972) by Gilbert O'Sullivan, despite the fact that the Clair in that context was the singer's three year old daughter. The name 'Claire' was also chosen since the name is common both among Dutch-language as well as French-language speakers.
A muscle injury in his shoulder forced Van der Kroft to seek assistance for his production from the 16th album on. Carlos Guirado of Studio Comicup had proven to be most capable to approach his style, and was assigned to finish and ink Van der Kroft's pencils and lay-outs. Wilbert Plijnaar became too busy with his work for American animation studios and was replaced as a writer by Evert Geradts in 2002. A small trademark Robert put in the bottom right of each final panel of his 'Claire and 'Sjors & Sjimmie' pages was a little man with the gag number written on his body. Observant readers could spot which episodes were drawn without Spanish assistance, as only Robert's own pages contained the "number man". This trademark ending is reminscent of the animated autographs Franquin used for his 'Gaston' and 'Idées Noires' gags.
'Claire' was a mainstay in Flair for decades and became somewhat of a mascot. In readers' polls it was generally considered to be the most popular feature, particularly with people who fell outside the magazine's demographic, such as men. In 2009 'Claire' was discontinued in the Dutch edition of Flair, though it kept running in the Belgian original until March 2017. By then, Guirado was already over 70 and wanted to retire. Apart from that, the Belgian Flair had only published a new episode every three weeks and filled the other issues with reprints of older gags. In the final episode Claire and Ricky got married, ending the series in style. New albums will still appear, mostly with episodes that hadn't been published yet. Certain gags have also been made available for iPhone download in the App Store, even though Apple censored episodes with too much nudity.
Besides his work for 'Sjors en Sjimmie' and 'Claire', Robert van der Kroft has been an illustrator and comic artist for commercial and educational purposes. His best-known work in this genre is the character 'Droppie Water'. The character first appeared in an educational strip commissioned by the district water control board of the Schieland area near Rotterdam, which was published in a free local newspaper. Since then, Van der Kroft has produced much promotional artwork with the character for the Dutch Water Authorities, including five educational comic booklets about the work of water boards between 1982 and 2016. Other commercial work include strips for insurance company RVS (De Paraplu, 1977-1980), Calvé peanut butter ('Opinda vertelt' in Calvé Pindakaas Club Krant, 1979-1981) and Mona deserts (Libelle, 1980-1981). He has furthermore made designs for the TV show Kinder Kafee (1995) and the children's section of the C&A department stores (1996), as well as illustrations for book adaptations of the Dutch musicals 'Annie' (2005, written by Lydia Rood and based on Harold Gray's classic comic strip) and 'Dokter Dolittle' (2010, written by Gerard van Midden, and based on the stories by Hugh Lofting) for Douwe Egberts coffee.
In the early 1990s, Robert met Tonio van Vugt at the celebration of the 250th issue of comics information magazine Stripschrift in the Rotterdam public library. Van Vugt had launched a smallpress magazine called Barwoel with a couple of his fellow art school students. The two men toyed around with the idea to launch a new indie magazine, which was partially filled with comics and partially with cultural news and interviews. It took a while before they realized a dummy issue, which was presented at the Haarlem Comics Festival of 1994. The name for this new small-press publication was Zone 5300, after the postal code of Rotterdam. Like De Vrije Balloen, the black-and-white magazine in comics format was completely self-made. Many contemporary authors from the Netherlands and Flanders have contributed to the magazine over the years, including Erik Kriek, Milan Hulsing, Michiel de Jong, Jeroen Steehouwer, Wasco, Gerrie Hondius, Marcel Ruijters, Simon Spruyt, Barbara Stok, Rob van Barneveld, Gummbah, Kim Duchateau, Typex, Sandra de Haan, Luuk Bode, Lamelos, Michiel de Jong, Schwantz, Jan Vriends and Pieter van Oudheusden. Already in its second year, Zone 5300 was awarded the Stripschap penny for special merits. Production and printing activities were transferred to a foundation after five years. Stichting Rotown Magic has been the publisher since 2004. Robert van der Kroft has remained involved with the magazine as an editor, while Van Vugt assumes the role of editor-in-chief with Marcel Ruijters.
Robert van der Kroft, Wilbert Plijnaar and Jan van Die won the Stripschap Award for their collective oeuvre in 1995. Besides his work as an artist, Van der Kroft has been active as a musician. Throughout the years, he has performed in several bands in genres varying from punk and ska to rock-a-billy. He is also for hire as a DJ, in recent years as "The Plastic Fantastic Timemachine". Robert van der Kroft has spent several years in Italy, but eventually returned to his hometown Rotterdam. He was one of the driving forces behind the Cross Comix Festival in this city, of which the first edition was successfuly held in October 2016. The festival intends to showcase the many manifestations of comics art, and the importance of comics and cartoons for the arts and society.
Robert van der Kroft in Lambiek's Nederlandse Stripgeschiedenis