Kiekeboe, by Merho
De Kiekeboes - 'De Doedelzak van Mac Reel' (1979).

Merho is best known as the creator of the funny family comic 'De Kiekeboes' (1977), which managed to become one of the most succesful comics series in Flanders. The books are brimful with all kinds of visual jokes, slapstick, running gags, parodies, innuendo and especially word play. Comics specialist Jan Smet once named Merho "the cabaret artist of Flemish comics". Another nickname Merho received over the years is "Willy Vandersteen's natural successor". 'De Kiekeboes' managed to become the best-selling comics series in Flanders since Vandersteen's equally popular 'Suske en Wiske', even surpassing it in local sales today. Contrary to most other comics in the region which are either marketed to children or adults Merho managed to appeal to both demographics. The adventures of the Kiekeboe family are not stuck in an old-fashioned setting, but very much of their own age, constantly evolving with the times. Storylines handle mature themes like politics, business fraud, violent deaths and even sex, but do so in a clever, tasteful and always amusing manner. Merho is also easily one of the most experimental Flemish comics artists. Occasionally he tries out unusual narratives and collaborates with other artists and writers, which keep the franchise fresh and interesting.

Comi en Drackske, by Merho
'Comi en Dacske', by Merho.

Early life and career
Robert Merhottein was born in 1948 in Antwerp as the son of a collector for a gas company who later became a telephonist. Merho always had an interest in comedy. From a young age he eagerly watched humoristic movies, TV shows, stand-up and cabaret artists. He considers Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton, W.C. Fields, Jacques Tati, Toon Hermans, Wim Kan, Youp Van 't Hek and Monty Python his favorites, but has also been influenced by comedians which are nowadays a bit forgotten. For instance, the arrogant businessman Van De Kasseien in 'De Kiekeboes' was inspired by actor Jerry Desmonde in the comedy films of Norman Wisdom. Merho always wanted to become a comedian, but suffered from stage fright. He compensated for this missed career choice by staging his comics scripts like a stage/film comedy, with different kinds of jokes appealing to different audiences. He has an equal love for humoristic writers such as Simon Carmiggelt.

Yet he also took an interest in comics. In high school he made his first comic book, 'Zoz en Zef', which he sold from door to door to fund a school tip to Rome. It was also published in the Catholic magazine Jong Caritas. Merho eventually studied graphic arts at St. Lucas in Brussels. His first professional comic strip was 'Comi En Dacske' (1964), a series of gags for the retailers' magazine Middenstand. Among Merho's graphic influences are Hergé, André Franquin, Maurice Tillieux, René GoscinnyCharles M. SchulzMarc Sleen and especially Willy Vandersteen. As a child he once visited Sleen at his home, while as an adult he also frequently visited Pom and Bob Mau for professional advice. 


'Soldaat Jansens' (1970).

Studio Vandersteen (1970-1977)
In 1970, Merho got a job at the Vandersteen Studios, where he inked 'Jerom' stories for the German market. He happened to apply when Eduard De Rop just quit his job that same afternoon. While Merho felt honoured to work for one of his childhood idols, after three months he suddenly had to fulfill his military service. In his interview book 'Zwart op Wit' (2013) by Toon Horsten, Merho looked back at his army period as a complete waste of time. Luckily he managed to find a creative outlet through the gag comic 'Soldaat Jansens' (later corrected by his colleagues under the proper title: 'Jager Jansens') for the base paper, which was later continued by Hec Leemans. At a certain point Merho managed to be in charge of the military library, which allowed him to stay away from pointless drills and even find excuses to leave the base to order accessories from time to time. Years later, when he had to give his protagonist Kiekeboe an annoying, self-important neighbour - Leon Van der Neffe - he made him a professional soldier. The 'Kiekeboes' album 'Gééééf Acht' (1982) completely centers around ridiculing the army. 

Jager Jansens, by Merho
'Jager Jansens' (1971).

When his military service was finally over, Merho gladly returned to Studio Vandersteen, where he provided backgrounds to Vandersteen's series 'Safari' and revamped older 'Karl May' comic adaptations by Vandersteen into "new" 'Bessy' stories for the German market. Since both were western comics by Vandersteen and German readers were unfamiliar with the old 'Karl May' stories nobody noticed the difference. Other studio contributors did the same thing, though sometimes vice versa. Eventually Merho became an inker on Vandersteen's children's comic 'Pats', based on the Punch & Judy plays by Karel Weyler. 'Pats' appeared as the main feature in Pats, a juvenile supplement of Het Nieuwsblad, De Standaard, Het Handelsblad, De Gentenaar and De Landwacht which ran from 1962 to 1974, after which it changed its name to 'Patskrant'. He did his job so well that he was allowed to write and draw the series too, alongside Peter Koeken. Merho learned a lot about narration, lay-out and drawing at Studio Vandersteen, both from Willy Vandersteen himself as well as his co-workers. Yet he still wanted to do his own thing and in 1976 he left the company. 'Pats' would be continued by Peter Koeken and change its name to 'Tits' after a legal dispute with Karel Weyler. 

Jef Nys
During this period Merho also applied for a job in Jef Nys' studio, assisting on his comic strip 'Jommeke'. While he provided him with a lot of professional advice Merho felt Nys was too demanding, yet respected this attitude. Later, when Merho hired assistants of his own, he understood Nys' high standards much better. 

Tits, by Merho
Pats - 'Lieve Loempia'.

De Kiekeboes
One of Merho's final jobs at Studio Vandersteen was co-operating with Wies Andersen's 1976-1977 TV adaptation of Vandersteen's popular comics series 'Suske en Wiske' as puppet plays. He had first-hand experience since his brother, Walter Merhottein, had his own puppet theater: 'Poppenspel Kiekeboe'. In 1973 Merho had co-designed the main puppet characters, Marcel Kiekeboe and the villain Balthazar. Five years later Merho took Kiekeboe and Balthazar to build a newspaper comic strip around them. He went to Het Laatste Nieuws and De Nieuwe Gazet since they were the only Flemish papers without a major comic strip of their own, except for Hec Leemans' 'Bakelandt'. At first the editorial board was reluctant, but Merho convinced them to let his comic strip be read by their (grand)children, a tactic Vandersteen once used when he offered 'Bessy' to an equally resistant newspaper boss. Once again the strategy worked and on 15 February 1977 the first episode of 'Kiekeboe' was prepublished in the papers. Throughout its first 33 years the series was known as 'Kiekeboe' (Dutch for 'Peekaboo'), but in 2010 Merho retitled it as 'De Kiekeboes' ('The Kiekeboes'). He always felt the original title sounded too infantile, which no longer matched the adult content. Other than that the franchise revolves around the entire family, rather than just Marcel Kiekeboe alone. One-page gags of 'Kiekeboe' also ran in Ons Volk and as 'Guidon' in the French-language sister magazine Chez Nous in the late 1970s. 

Right from the start 'Kiekeboe' (or 'De Kiekeboes') has always been rooted in the Flemish humoristic family comic tradition. Marcel Kiekeboe is the big-moustached father who, together with his wife Charlotte, has two children: teenage daughter Fanny and her much younger brother Konstantinopel. During its first six years the stories were still a bit childish and awkward at times, much to Merho's later embarrassment. Yet even back then it notably deviated from certain clichés. There are no talking animals, absent-minded professors, time travel devices or magical/ super powers. Marcel and Charlotte are actually married to one another and their children are their own, rather than adopted orphans. Everything is set in the present and plausible reality. Gradually the series matured. Daughter Fanny became a free-spirited, assertive young woman who had many boyfriends over the years. Several storylines feature her in suggestive erotic situations, without ever becoming tasteless or flat-out pornographic. It also explains why she became the franchise's breakout character, equally popular with male as well as female readers. Over the decades Merho often challenged the boundaries of censorship, tackling many adult topics classic Flemish family comics wouldn't touch. One of Fanny's best friends, Tomboy, is a mulatto prostitute. Kiekeboe's boss, Firmin Van De Kasseien, is a corrupt business executive who frequently commits adultery. Other narratives have dealt with computer technology, white-collar crime, striptease bars, homosexuality and hormone doping. 

Kiekeboe by Merho
Kiekeboe - 'De Wollebollen' (1977).

While storylines moved along with the times, characters did the same thing. Kiekeboe's wife, Charlotte, was originally just a shallow housewife, but became more briskly from 'Het Lot van Charlotte' (1985) on, working part-time jobs now and then. In 'En In Kwade Dagen' (2007) the Kiekeboe's neighbours, the Van der Neffes, went through a permanent divorce. Up to that point the racist, snobby and prejudiced couple had been the kind of characters you love to hate. Their separation gave Merho the opportunity to flesh out their personalities and make them more pitiable loners. Other antagonists became more interesting too. In the early days Kiekeboe only had two recurring nemeses: Balthazar and Timotheus Triangl. Both were typical comic book villains. Balthazar is a naïve comedic henchman whose plans are easily foiled, while Triangl was a preposterous megalomaniac dwarf modelled after the Bond villain Blofeld. In 'Met De Franse Slag' (1991) Merho introduced a more menacing antagonist: the French gangster Dédé La Canaille who is a genuine threat to Kiekeboe's life. Triangl was also drastically changed. In 'Zeg Het Met Bloemen' (1993) he underwent a sex change and became a transsexual woman (!), a "first" in Belgian comics history. 

Afgelast wegens ziekte by Merho
'Afgelast wegens ziekte' (1991).

Style
Apart from its more contemporary and adult tone 'De Kiekeboes' also owes its popularity to Merho's skill as a comedy writer. Every gag is carefully staged and inbedded in the plot, with a logical set-up and funny pay-offs. They flow like a well-constructed comedy film. The side characters are comparable to recurring sitcom characters, each with their own running gags. Kiekeboe is frequently victim of unwanted visitors. His mother, Moemoe, often forces him to do things for her, without showing any gratitude. If not that, she tries to guilt-shame him. Her brother-in-law, Nonkel Vital, is a more jolly character but nevertheless can't learn to mind his own business and is always quarreling with Moemoe. The Kiekeboes are furthermore bothered by their sourpussed neighour Leon Van Der Neffe and their saliva-spitting neighbour-over-the-way Fernand Goegebuer. Even at work Marcel isn't left in peace. His arrogant boss Firmin Van De Kasseien often exploits his naïvité and goodwillingness by letting him do dirty, dangerous or illegal jobs for him. Less obnoxious but sometimes a nuisance is police inspector Sapperdeboere who has an enormous appetite. Two minor characters have also become running gags. The first one is Mevrouw Stokvis, a good friend of Moemoe who's nevertheless always been an invisible character. The other is an obese lady who has appeared in every album since the series' debut. Fans have nicknamed her "De Dikke Dame" ("The Fat Lady") since she is usually regulated to cameos and never received a name.

Het lot van Charlotte
Examples of word play in 'Het Lot van Charlotte' (1985). The boss of a factory of toilet paper is called W.C. Roll (=Toilet roll in Dutch). His partner's name is Sthoel (Roll + Sthoel = Rolstoel = Wheelchair in Dutch). Mr. Sthoel's gang of thugs is the "Sthoel gang" (meaning "bowel motion"), and part of this team are Harry V. ("Arrivez"), Pol K. ("Polka") and Dan Q. ("Dank u" = "Thank you" in Dutch). With Merho's typical tongue-in-cheek approach, character Fanny kicked off the story by announcing not to take part in this album, because of these corny names.

Experimentation
While most albums are adventure stories, Merho isn't afraid of experimenting and deviating from his own formula. In 'De wereld volgens Kiekeboe' (1997), Kiekeboe travels to a future modelled after his own franchise. In 'De Heeren van Scheurbuyck' (2002), the main cast is placed in a medieval setting. The plot in 'De spray-historie' (1988) is frequently interrupted by commercial breaks, drawn in a realistic style by guest artist Claus Scholz. In 'Hoe Meer Kijkers' (1997) the main story is intercut with a TV-like ratings system to see which scenes hold the readers' interest? As the plot progresses ratings often go down, with a major moment when all readers start "changing channels" to look at other comics series. The 50th album, 'Afgelast Wegens Ziekte' (1991), shows deleted scenes from previous albums, while executive producers in 'De Simstones' (2000) change the franchise in the most extreme ways. 'Vrouwen komen van Mars' (2010) was inspired by the film 'Pleasantville' (1998) and has the Kiekeboes dive into a fictional 1950s comic book, 'Stiefbeen en Zoon', complete with blue-brown printing and ben-day dots. The most beloved of Merho's experiments is 'Album 26' (1984). Inspired by the cult comedy classic 'Hellzapoppin' (1941), the plot is full with gags that spoof comic book tropes and break the fourth wall.

Cultural references, cameos and puns
Merho also enjoys cultural-historical nods to novels, comics, films, TV series and real-life people and events. Particularly comedians often have cameos in his stories, such as Jacques Tati ('Klavertje Vier', 1984), Louis De Funés ('De Medusa-Stichting', 1991), Youp Van 't Hek ('De Aqua-rel', 1999), John Cleese ('Verkeerd Verbonden', 2003) and Laurel & Hardy ('De Zwarte Zonnekoning', 1979). He also caricatured fellow comics artists, like Willy Vandersteen ('De Onthoofde Sfinx', 1978), Hector Leemans ('Kies Kiekeboe', 1980), Berck ('De Eén Zijn Dood', 1985), Hergé ('De Aqua-Rel', 1999), René Goscinny ('Het Lijk Had Gelijk', 2000) and Willy Linthout ('Vluchtmisdrijf', 2009). But 'De Kiekeboes' is most infamous for its witty wordplay. Much like in René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo's 'Asterix' Merho takes delight in thinking up funny names for all his characters. Usually the combination of a character's first and last name reveals a hidden pun. Other verbal jokes can be spotted in the names of countries, store signs, street signs, advertisements, book titles, film titles or simply in the dialogues or album titles. Fans enjoy deciphering these puns, even though not all of them are immediately clear upon first reading. To help readers out Merho released a book named 'Kiekepedia' (2008), in which all 691 character names up to that point are listed alphabetically and with an explanation. Another book, 'Museum K' (2011), documents all cultural references in the series. 

Album 26 by Merho
Behind the scenes in 'Album 26' (1984).

Collaborations and crossovers
Merho furthermore enjoys collaborating with fellow creative spirits. The album 'Kiekebanus' (1998) was a crossover between Merho's characters and those from Willy Linthout and Urbanus' series 'Urbanus'. Both drew in their respective style, which gave a funny and sometimes bizarre atmosphere. The same year Merho and Erika Raven also made a graphic contribution to the comic strip 'Suske Wiet' (1998) by Yaack Bakker and WEgé for De Brug. 'Bij Fanny op Schoot' (2005) featured Fanny interviewing various comics characters from other series, all drawn by their respective authors, including Sleen, Linthout, Urbanus, Jan Bosschaert ('De Geverniste Vernepelingskes'), Luc Morjaeu ('Suske en Wiske'), Kamagurka and Herr Seele ('Cowboy Henk'), Jean-Pol ('Kramikske'), François Walthéry ('Natasja'), Kim Duchateau ('Esther Verkest'), Ivan Adriaenssens ('De Zusjes Kriegel'), Ilah ('Cordelia'), Hec Leemans ('F.C. De Kampioenen'), Martin Lodewijk ('Agent 327') and Erik Meynen. The album 'Grof Wild' (2011) was notable for being based on a novel by crime author Pieter Aspe, who gave his permission to adapt it. Merho also worked on the crossover album 'Het Geheim van de Kousenband' (2001), in which other artists like Marc Sleen, Dirk Stallaert ('Nero'), Hec Leemans ('F.C. De Kampioenen'), Karel Biddeloo ('De Rode Ridder'), Marc Legendre ('Biebel'), Paul Geerts ('Suske en Wiske') and Urbanus and Willy Linthout ('Urbanus') all added storylines.

Vrouwen komen van Mars by Merho
'Vrouwen komen van Mars' (2001).

Success
'De Kiekeboes' was the final Flemish comic strip to evolve into a long-running series without being based on a media celebrity or TV show. From 1977 to 1990 all albums were published by the N.V. Hoste, after which they moved to Standaard Uitgeverij. Between 1993 and 2003, 'De Kiekeboes' was prepublished in Suske en Wiske Weekblad. From 2004 on, the series is prepublished in Het Belang van Limburg and Gazet van Antwerpen. By that point the series had risen from a cult series to the best-selling comics series in Flanders, eventually outselling the original market leader 'Suske en Wiske' by Willy Vandersteen! Much has to do with the fact that 'De Kiekeboes' appeals as much to children as to adult readers, a field where it has little rivalry in Flanders. Over the years attempts have been made to launch the series in other languages, such as English ('Jo & Co'), French ('Guidon', 'Fanny & Cie', 'Les Marteaux') and German ('Die Kuckucks'), which never caught on. Even in the Netherlands it remains mostly a cult series. 

Het geslacht Kinkel by Merho
'Het geslacht Kinkel' (1995).

Spin-off
In 2017 a spin-off trilogy was published, named 'Fanny K.' It stars Fanny as a slightly older young woman in a captivating thriller. The script was written by Dutch popular novelist Toni Coppers (best known for his 'Liese Meerhout' novels), while Jean-Marc Krings provided artwork. 

Media adaptations
In 1992 one of 'De Kiekeboes' most popular albums, 'Het Witte Bloed' was adapted into a feature film, directed by Herman Fabri. It wasn't a huge success, mostly because of bad pacing. Yet Merho liked it well enough that in 2003 it was added as a free gift with the album 'Mona, de Musical' (2003), albeit in a re-edited version. In 2000 Renaat Coppens directed another Kiekeboes film adaptation, 'Misstoestanden' (2000), which wasn't based on a pre-existing album, but an original script by Merho. However, executive meddling transformed the picture into a complete box office flop. Even before its premier Merho was already determined to make sure that it would never became available on DVD. To ventilate his frustrations about the whole miserable experience he created no less than two stories ridiculing it: 'Misstoestanden' (2000) and 'De Simstones' (2000). A more satisfying project was a theatrical stage production of the album 'Baas Boven Baas' (2006), adapted for stage in 2007 by Studio 100. It was both a critical and commercial success, which Merho credited to Gert Verhulst's resolute creative involvement. 

De Simstones by Merho
'De Simstones' (2001).

Assistants
Merho's earliest assistant was Erik Meynen, who drew the backgrounds in 'Kiekeboe in Carré' (1978). Among Merho's co-workers are Peter Koeken, Rik Dewulf, Dirk Stallaert and his wife, Ria Smits. Smits, a full-time teacher, started as inker and letterer. When 'De Kiekeboes' became a success, she did the bookkeeping as well. Originally, the coloring was done by Resi Van Treeck, sister of Manu Van Treeck, head of the comics department of Standaard Uitgeverij. After Smits quit teaching, she became Merho's colorist, later joined by the couple's daughter, Ine Merhottein. Koeken, a Studio Vandersteen protégé, inked the stories between 1986 and 1991. Dewulf became co-artist in 1989 and stayed for a decade until he left to make the series 'Sam & Pilou' with Marc Daniëls. In 2002 Dirk Stallaert became his successor, but he too left three years later to join Studio Vandersteen. He was replaced by Steve Van Bael and Thomas Du Caju. Van Bael quit in 2008 to start his own series, 'Figaro'. Merho replaced him with Kristof Fagard. Jos Vanspauwen is the digital inker of the series. Since 2018 'De Kiekeboes' have two additional scriptwriters: Peter van Gucht and Bruno De Roover. Steve Van Bael returned in July 2019.

Kiekeboe by Merho
Kiekeboe - 'Doodeenvoudig/Eenvoudig dood' (2009).

Written and graphic contributions
In 2005 Merho was one of many artists who made a graphic contribution to the book 'Suske en Wiske 60 Jaar!', which paid homage to Willy Vandersteen's series 'Suske en Wiske'. He also drew a homage to Marc Sleen in the books  'Marc Sleen. Een uitgave van de Bronzen Adhemar Stichting' (1993), 'Marc Sleen 80. De enige echte' (2002) and  'Marc Sleen 90. Liber Amicorum' (2012). In 2014 Merho, Carll Cneut and Mark Borgions all designed the cover of the 'Jommeke' album 'De boemerang van Kirimbir' in their own style. All three albums with these unique covers could be collected, while the original story drawn by Philippe Delzenne was also available. Apart from the covers nothing else was different about the publications. Merho furthermore paid tribute to André Franquin's 'Gaston Lagaffe' in the collective tribute album 'Gefeliciflaterd!' (2017).

Recognition
In 1983, Merho received the Bronzen Adhemar, the most prestigious Flemish comics prize. A year later, Marcel Kiekeboe was elected "Moustache of the Year" by the Antwerp Moustache Club. This inspired the plot of the story 'De Snor van Kiekeboe' (1984). In 1991 'De Kiekeboes' won the Award for 'Best Flemish Comics Series' from the Flemish Chamber of Comics Experts. In 1998 Merho furthermore received a Gouden Potlood at the Comics Festival of Middelkerke. Since 2002 he is a honorary citizen of Zoersel, his home town. 

Legacy and influence
'De Kiekeboes' has inspired quite some monuments in the Flemish landscape over the years. In 1999 Luc Madou sculpted a statue depicting Marcel Kiekeboe, which was placed on the sea dike of Middelkerke. During the summer of 2007 Fanny also received a statue there, sculpted by Josyanne Vanhoutte. On 26 August 2007 Marcel received another statue, but in Zoersel, sculpted by Valeir Peirsman. On 21 April 2013 Luk van Soom sculpted another monument to the character, which was placed in the Deuzeldlaan in Schoten, where Merho once lived for twenty years. In May 2009 'De Kiekeboes' received a comic book mural at the entrance of the Amerikaans Theater (the American Theater) in Laken, as part of the local Brussels' Comic Book Route. But two years later the painting was already in decay. On 16 November 2018 it was announced that a new mural would be recreated in the Kerkeveldstraat, near the swimming pool of Laken. On 7 May 2007 'De Kiekeboes' also received their own comic mural in Antwerp, located in the Paradijsstraat. On 17 June 2012 an exclusive set of beer holder cards depicting the characters was introduced in Turnhout. On 5 October of that same year 'De Kiekeboes' received another comic book wall in the Draaiboomstraat in Turnhout, as part of their local Comic Book Route. On 13 August 2018 yet another mural was inaugurated in the Duinenlaan, part of their local comic book route in Middelkerke.

Homages
Paul Geerts gave both Merho and Marcel Kiekeboe a cameo in the 'Suske en Wiske' story 'De Speelgoedspiegel' (1989) as two customers in a restaurant. Merho also had a cameo in Dirk Stallaert's 'Nino' story 'De Grote Draak' (1994) where he talks with Laurel & Hardy. He appeared as stage actor Merhottini in Hec Leemans' 'Bakelandt' story 'Rita op de Planken' (1988) and as an art collector in his 'F.C. De Kampioenen' story 'Xavier in de puree' (2000). For the 12th 'Jump' album, 'De Kop van Kiekeboe', Merho gave Charel Cambré permission to make a cross-over with the cast of his own series 'De Kiekeboes'. In 2018, to celebrate Merho's 70th birthday, a special tribute comic book was published: 'Hoor Je Het Ook Eens Van Een Ander' (2018). in which artists like Kim Duchateau, Nix, Frodo De Decker and the Dutch artist Gerben Valkema all drew their own version of a 'Kiekeboes' story. 

Books about Merho
For those interested in Merho's life and career Ronald Grossey's biography 'KiekeboeK. In de coulissen van een strip' (1997) is very much recommended. The book 'www.dekiekeboes.be' (2010) compiles the most interesting stories and anecdotes from Merho's personal blog. Even more detailed is 'Zwart op Wit' (2013), a series of interviews with Merho conducted by Toon Horsten. Originally intended to talk about every possible topic the comics artist regularly receives questions about, Horsten's book is also the closest Merho ever came to writing an autobiography.

Merho by Marc Sleen
Drawing of Merho by Marc Sleen, after Merho had won the "Bronzen Adhemar" in 1983.

www.dekiekeboes.be

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