comic art by Pirana
Book cover of 'Kenia', 1989. 

Pirana was a Belgian comic artist and cartoonist, active from 1966 until 2020, best known for his signature character 'Mevrouw Dallemans' and his torture cellar cartoons. He was the house cartoonist of newspaper Het Volk, as well as Panorama (later P-Magazine). He drew in a simple, roguish style, with an emphasis on raw, shocking comedy. Blunt sex & violence jokes, as well as a love for Africa, were recurring themes. It made him controversial, but the productive artist was nevertheless widely translated during his heydays. Pirana additionally thought up the concept behind Hec Leemans' 'Circus Maximus' (1977). He also drew a celebrity comic based on Belgian acrobat 'John Massis' (1984) and was active as a stand-up comedy writer. Last but not least, Pirana broke the world record for longest cartoon 8 times. 

Early life
He was born in 1947 in Zele, East Flanders, as Leon van de Velde. His father was a former professional cyclist who became a bicycle repairman afterwards. When this enterprise failed, he became a mason and eventually a floorer. Van de Velde's mother had her own bar. Inspired by Marc Sleen, the boy wanted to become a comic artist. At age 15 he drew a three panel gag using Sleen's character Bolleke, published in a 1962 issue of the Flemish comic magazine 't Kapoentje. While Van de Velde's mother was supportive of her son's artistic ambitions, his father wasn't. Each time when little Leon was doodling instead of making his homework, he snatched his drawings away and threw them into the stove. Van de Velde tried studying at the academy, but failed in his first year. He wrote Sleen a letter for personal advice. While the spiritual father of 'Nero' did write back, he coldly informed the teenager that other jobs earned much better. This encouraged Van de Velde's father to force his son to follow in his footsteps. Van de Velde felt highly discouraged and studying a profession he didn't like didn't help matters much. He graduated as a floorer, and in decorative arts at the Academy of Dendermonde. One of his fellow students there was future cartoonist Hector Leemans. Later influences on Van de Velde's work were the French cartoonist Jean-Marc Reiser and the Americans S. Clay Wilson, Virgil Partch and Don Martin. He later also expressed admiration for Belgian cartoonist MAT (Matthias Philips). 

Comic by Pirana
'Mevrouw Dallemans'. She tortures a man who is nevertheless glad that he already planned to go to the doctor anyway "because of a cold." 

In 1966, during his military service, Van De Velde published his first drawings in the soldier's magazine Marsj! He also met Hugoké and visited him in his studio. Hugoké had a significant impact on Van De Velde's career. He advised the young artist to work under a pseudonym, so Pirana named himself after the vicious fish of the same name. He picked the name because he read a lot about the Amazone forest in those days. Hugoké also wrote an article about Pirana in Het Nieuwsblad, where he called him "the revelation of black comedy". In 1967 Pirana was hired by the newspaper Het Volk to become their house cartoonist. At the advice of Dutch cartoonist EFBE (Frans de Boer), Pirana started sending copies of his drawings all across the world, which proved to be a very lucrative tactic. Soon he published not only in Flemish magazines such as 't Pallieterke, Het Volk, De Voorpost, De Zwijger and Panorama (later P-Magazine), but also in Penthouse and The Star and was read in countries such as France, Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Yugoslavia and the USA. It allowed him to reduce his work as floorer to just accepting commissions and spend more time creating cartoons. Pirana illustrated weekly articles by Jo Van Damme in Panorama/De Post. After meeting notorious provocateur Jan Bucquoy, he got the opportunity to publish in his underground magazine Spetters (1981-1982), which allowed him to be more sexually explicit in his work. Pirana's work also appeared in Bucquoy's even more outrageous magazine Dol/ Belge (1990-1991).

Pirana was the house cartoonist of Het Volk and Panorama (later P-Magazine) for many years. Inspired by the French magazine Hara-Kiri (nowadays Charlie Hebdo), he indulged in vicious black and low-brow comedy. When he debuted, such explicitness was still unheard of in the Flemish press. Many of his cartoons have a sadistic and bawdy streak. His earliest work often takes place in torture cellars and were collected in 'Folterkamer' (1976) and 'Vrouwen, Folteringen en Andere Bezienswaardigheden' (1983). The latter title also appeared in French as 'Femmes, Tortures et Saloperies' and in German as 'Frauen, Folter und Ferkeleien'. . Later cartoons feature offensive stereotypical depictions of women and black people. Pirana wasn't fond of caricaturing, nor making political cartoons, because in his opinion politicians are more flattered than offended by their graphic depictions. In terms of taboos he drew the line at comedy at the expense of handicapped and terminally ill people, a subject he didn't consider funny. 

Mevrouw Dallemans
No character personifies Pirana's style better than Mevrouw Dallemans. Dallemans is a heavily built middle-aged woman who enjoys annoying, torturing or killing men, children and animals and always with a huge grin. She evolved from a mere background character to the star of her own gag comic. When 'Mevrouw Dallemans' ran in Jan Bucquoy's magazine Dol, she was deliberately renamed 'Mevrouw Dollemans', as a pun.  As the cartoonist's only recurring character, it's not surprising that most of Pirana's comic books are titled after her. Four titles were published during Pirana's lifetime: 'Waf!' (1990), 'Olé!' (1991), 'De Zwarte Ridder' (1995), all by De Schaar, and 'Ondersteboven' (Bonte, 2018).

Cartoon by Pirana
'Koning Hammurabi van Babylon'. One of Pirana's typical "torture cellar" cartoons. The man moans, whereupon the executioner asks him: "Aaaaugh - WHO?". The victim then replies: "Aaaugh, SIR!" 

Gag writing
In 1969, Pirana collaborated with Hec Leemans to create a gag comic about an incompetent circus boss. Pirana came up with the concept and wrote the first 30 episodes, but it took until 1977 before Leemans revived the project under the title 'Circus Maximus' for the Dutch comic magazine Eppo. Pirana also wrote gags for stand-up or cabaret shows by Ivan Heylen, Jan Bucquoy and Jacques Vermeire.

Between May 1981 and February 1982, Pirana's first adventure comic, 'Livingsteen', was serialized in Jan Bucquoy's magazine Spetters. It was inspired by Dr. David Livingstone's historic explorations and Jef Geeraerts' controversial literary cyclus 'Gangreen' (1968-1972), about the novelist's years and sexual adventures in Congo. In 1987 Pirana visited central Africa for the first time. Just like Marc Sleen he became an enthusiastic safari tourist. Many of Pirana's comic books were inspired by his love for Africa, including 'Livingsteen' (1982), 'Zwarte Liefde' (also translated in French as 'L' Amour Noir', 1985), 'Oeganda' (1988), 'Kenia' (1989), 'Neushoorns' (1992) and ''Frika' (2018). In 2014, Pirana published a book about his travel experiences called 'Afrika Dingens - Amusement van de Onderste Plank!'. It was his first real novel, even though he did put in a few personal illustrations here and there. 

John Massis celebrity comic
Pirana also collaborated with Belgian acrobat and visual artist John Massis, who was a personal friend of his. In 1984 he drew a celebrity comic book about him, published by Dageraad. After Massis tragically committed suicide in 1988, Pirana attended his funeral. 

Cartoon by Pirana.

Pirana has always been a polarizing artist. His sexually explicit and graphically violent gags shocked mainstream audiences, while critics consider them to be too random, low-brow and repetitive. Unavoidably, he often caused angry reader's letters. Once the Belgian doctors organisation Orde van Geneesheren complained about a cartoon in which two gynaecologists play rugby with a foetus. P-Magazine chief editor Alain Grootaers was forced to step in and defend him. Another time, Pirana made a cartoon in which God and Allah brag about their genitals. He received death threats, including from somebody who wrote that the next letter would contain a bomb. Luckily, the outrage always blew over. Pirana also put his drawings on paper as quickly as possible. He often made them after his working hours, because his job as a floorer required intense concentration. Sitting tired behind his desk, the productive cartoonist therefore kept his artwork simple. Much of his dialogues were very rushed too, full with grammatical errors, dialect expressions or bewildering punchlines. Pirana admitted many of his cartoons weren't fit to stand the test of time. For the same reason he didn't want them to be archived either. But he was still proud that he managed to maintain a stable, succesful career, despite having to combine it with a very complicated, labor-intensive job. 

Pirana has sometimes been accused of sexism and racism. Mevrouw Dallemans is an aggressive manwife. Pirana's Africa-themed comics glorify all the stereotypes about the continent. Black tribeswomen with large floppy breasts and a huge sexual appetite are rampant. Still, it should be pointed out that Mevrouw Dallemans is a strong, independent woman. Men are always twits or helpless victims. And while the black people in his work may have a racially offensive look and behaviour, Pirana was by no means a racist. The cartoonist collected traditional African art, loved travelling to the continent and it's obvious that he found black women very attractive. 

Guinness Book of Records
In 1975, Pirana broke the world record for the longest cartoon of all time, previously held by his fellow countrymen Hugoké and Punt. In one hour and 48 minutes time, he drew one long cartoon on a 10 metre long scroll. He would break this record eight times more and bring it to 206 metres, after which his wife felt that he proved what he wanted to prove and should stay home more often.

Mevrouw Dallemans
Translation: "Still haven't bought a lawn mower, Mrs. Dallemans?" 

Graphic and literary contributions
Pirana made a graphic contribution to the book  'Gal: De Overspannen Jaren' (Epo/De Geus, 1996), which paid homage to cartoonist Gal (Gerard Alsteens). A personal note to Marc Sleen was published in the tribute book 'Marc Sleen 80.' (Standaard Uitgeverij, 2002), to celebrate Sleen's 80th birthday.  He livened up the pages of '10x3: 10 Jaar Belgische Bokssport' (2003), a collection of quotes and anecdotes about the Belgian boxing industry. He also wrote a thematic comic book about the Vier Heemskinderen ("The Four Sons of Aymon") folklore tradition, 'Ros Bajjort' (Gelegenheids Uitgaven Ros Beiaardcomité, 2010), drawn by Bram De Baere. 

Pirana often participated with the annual international cartoon festival of Knokke, where he won several awards. In 2014, he exhibited 10,000 of his erotic drawings in his hometown Zele. It was a huge success, despite the fact that there were only 1,000 of them. Several were caricatures of famous black female celebrities, which he had drawn in the nude. In 2016, he received demands for two extra exhibitions in Kruishoutem and even one in Kumasi, Ghana.

Final years, death, legacy and influence
Since 2012, Pirana was officially retired as a floorer, though he kept producing new cartoons for P-Magazine, cartoon collections and other publications. Active since 1966, he was one of the longest-running cartoonists in the Belgian press, second only to Gal (Gerard Alsteens). Leon van de Velde, AKA Pirana, passed away on 19 January 2020, choosing for euthanasia after suffering from cancer for a while. He was 72 years old. He was a major influence on cartoonists like MarecSteve and Kim Duchateau.

Books about Pirana
Pirana was interviewed in Roel Daenen's book 'Het Is Maar Om Te Lachen. Hoe Cartoonisten De Wereld Veranderen' (Polis, 2016), which collects interviews with Belgian cartoonists regarding censorship, in the light of the 2015 terrorist attacks at Charlie-Hebdo's headquarters. 

Livingsteen, by Pirana
 'Livingsteen'. Translation: "Let's hope this works!" Crowd: "Dada! Mussels! With fries?" .

Series and books by Pirana you can order today:


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