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 him "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.
Robert Merhottein was born in 1948 in Antwerp as the son of a collector for a gas company. He studied graphic arts at St. Lucas in Brussels. 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. He compensated for this missed career choice by staging his stories like a comedy script writer would, with all kinds of jokes that appeal to different audiences.
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 1976 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. Merho eventually left Studio Vandersteen in 1976, leaving 'Pats' to Peter Koeken.
Pats - Lieve Loempia
In 1973, Merho created his first version of his own character 'Kiekeboe' (the Dutch word for "Peekaboo"). 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. On 15 February 1977 the first 'Kiekeboe' story, 'De Wollebollen', appeared. The series centers around father Marcel Kiekeboe, his wife Charlotte and his two children: son Konstantinopel and teenage daughter Fanny. While firmly rooted in the Flemish family comics tradition it 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. Daughter Fanny, for instance, is a sexy, free-spirited, assertive young woman who has had many boyfriends over the years. She is also the most notorious example of the series' sly eroticism. Several albums have featured her in suggestive situations or near-nudity. It made her the most popular character of the franchise. One of Fanny's best friends, Tomboy, is a mulatto prostitute. Another main character with an active sex life is Kiekeboe's boss, Firmin Van De Kasseien, a corrupt business executive who frequently commits adultery. Other storylines have dealt with topics such as computer technology, white-collar crime, striptease bars, homosexuality and hormone doping.
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. She became a frequent labor force for Alain Provist, the head of an employment agency, who gave her the opportunity to work some 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 also became more interesting. 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. In 2010 'Kiekeboe' was retitled as 'De Kiekeboes' ('The Kiekeboes'). Merho felt the series had changed so remarkably over the years that the original title looked silly and infantile. He also felt that the old title was misleading, since the franchise actually revolves around the entire family rather than Kiekeboe alone.
Afgelast wegens ziekte (1991)
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 sour-pussed 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.
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 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), 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.
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. '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 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.
A spin-off trilogy called 'Fanny K.' was announced in late 2016. It is a thriller starring an older Fanny, and is created by comic artist Jean-Marc Krings and Dutch thriller novelist Toni Coppers.
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 2005 he was one of many artists who made a graphic contribution to the book '60 Jaar Suske en Wiske', which paid homage to Willy Vandersteen's series 'Suske en Wiske'. He also drew a homage to Marc Sleen in the book 'Marc Sleen 90. Liber Amicorum' (2012). 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