Robert Merhottein (better known as Merho) was born in Antwerp as the son of a collector for a gas company. He had an early interest in comics and visited all the artists he knew, like Pom, Bob Mau and Marc Sleen. His biggest influences, however, are Hergé, André Franquin, Maurice Tillieux, Charles M. Schulz and especially Willy Vandersteen. Merho loves comedy in general. He enjoys watching comedies, cabaret and stand-up acts, but lacked the courage to become a comedian himself. Nevertheless his signature series, 'De Kiekeboes', is brimful with all kinds of visual jokes, slapstick, running gags, word play and parodies. Comics specialist Jan Smet once named Merho "the cabaret artist of Flemish comics."
Comi en Dacske, by Merho
Merho studied graphic arts at St. Lucas in Brussels. He published his first album in high school. To fund a school trip to Rome he made a comic book album, 'Zoz en Zef', which was sold from door to door. The series was also published in the Catholic magazine Jong Karitas. His first professional comic strip was 'Comi En Dacske' (1964), a series of gags for the retailers' magazine Middenstand. In 1970, Merho got a job at the Vandersteen Studios, where he inked 'Jerom' stories for the German market. During his military service, he created the comic strip 'Jager Jansens' for the base paper, which was later continued by Hec Leemans.
Back in civilian life, he returned to Vandersteen, where he did backgrounds on 'Safari' and revamped German 'Bessy' stories to 'Karl May' stories for the Flemish market. Eventually, he was assigned to the series 'Pats', that was based on the puppet play by Karel Weyler. Merhottein initially inked the series, but later also did scripts and pencil work. The series was later retitled to 'Tits'. He also co-operated with Wies Andersen on the puppet TV adaptation of 'Suske en Wiske', which increased the series' popularity in the Netherlands. During this period, Merho also applied for a job in Jef Nys' studio, but found him too demanding, though he learned much on a technical and narrative level.
Pats - Lieve Loempia
In 1973, Merho created his first version of his own character 'Kiekeboe'. Both the series' protagonist, Marcel Kiekeboe, as well as the main villain Balthazar, originated in a puppet show, created by his brother Walter, though Merho did design Kiekeboe's face. Four years later, a new version of the strip was launched in the daily newspapers Het Laatste Nieuws and De Nieuwe Gazet. Almost two years later, the first Kiekeboe album, 'De Wollebollen,' appeared. Merho eventually left Studio Vandersteen in 1976, leaving 'Pats' to Peter Koeken. 'Kiekeboe' (renamed 'De Kiekeboes' in 2010) centers around the family Kiekeboe, with father Marcel, mother Charlotte, son Konstantinopel and daughter Fanny.
While firmly rooted in the Flemish family comics tradition, 'De Kiekeboes' notably deviated from certain clichés. There are no talking animals, absent-minded professors or magical/super powers. Marcel and Charlotte are actually married to one another and have children of their own, rather than adopted orphans. The early stories were still somewhat childish and awkward at times, but gradually the series evolved into a more mature and contemporary style. Fanny - the most popular character - is a sexy, free-spirited and assertive young woman who has had many boyfriends over the years. One of her best friends, Tomboy, is a mulatto prostitute.
Afgelast wegens ziekte (1991)
Kiekeboe's neighbour, Leon Van Der Neffe, is a snobbish racist who went through a divorce in the album 'En In Kwade Dagen' (2007). Kiekeboe's boss, Mr. Van De Kasseien, is a corrupt business executive who frequently commits adultery. Recurring villain Timotheus Triangl went through a sex change in 'Zeg Het Met Bloemen' (1993) and adapted her new name Timothea as a result. Other storylines have dealt with topics such as computer technology, white-collar crime, striptease bars, homosexuality and hormone doping. 'De Kiekeboes' is also infamous for its use of word play and other puns.
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.
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, while in 'Hoe Meer Kijkers' (1997), a TV-like rating system is used to see which scenes hold the readers' interest. 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 1950s comic book, 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.
Merho also 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. '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.
'De Kiekeboes' was the final Flemish comic strip to conquer the market without being based on a popular media franchise or celebrity. 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). By the early 1990s 'De Kiekeboes' had risen from a cult strip to one of the best-selling comics series in Flanders. Until 1990, the albums were published by the N.V. Hoste. After that date, they moved to Standaard Uitgeverij. Between 1993 and 2003, 'De Kiekeboes' was prepublished in Suske en Wiske Weekblad. Starting in 2004, the strip is published in Het Belang van Limburg and Gazet van Antwerpen.
By appealing to both children as well as adults 'De Kiekeboes' even eclipsed Willy Vandersteen's 'Suske en Wiske' in terms of local popularity, which explains why Merho is often called Vandersteen's successor. Despite attempts to translate the series in English ('Jo & Co'), French ('Fanny & Cie', 'Les Marteaux') and German ('Die Kuckucks') it never caught on outside in Flanders, yet enjoys cult success in the Netherlands. Two film adaptations, 'Het Witte Bloed' (1992) and 'Misstoestanden' (2000), also flopped. The latter in particular was disowned by Merho who felt that the writers disobeyed his creative suggestions. He expressed his frustrations and hatred in two albums: 'Misstoestanden' (2000) and 'De Simstones' (2000). More succesful was the stage adaptation of 'Baas Boven Baas' in 2007. Walls dedicated to the characters can be found in Antwerp, Zoersel and Hasselt.
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. 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.
In 2013, a series of interviews with Merho, conducted by Toon Horsten, were published under the title 'Zwart op wit'. This work is the closest Merho ever came to writing an autobiography.
Drawing of Merho by Marc Sleen, after Merho had won the "Bronzen Adhemar" in 1983