Robert Velter, who went by the pen names Rob-Vel and Bozz, is best known as the creator of the famous bellboy 'Spirou' for the magazine of the same name. As such he holds historical signficance as the spiritual father of one of the most iconic Belgian comics characters of all time, as well as the man who gave the oldest, still-running and most succesful Belgian comics magazine their mascot. He also created Spirou's faithful pet squirrel Spip, who is still part of the official franchise. Ironically, the man who was so important to Belgian comics history, was actually born and raised in France! Furthermore, he only worked on 'Spirou' for four years (1938-1942), after which the series was continued by Jijé, the first of many artists who would over the decades. While Rob-Vel still had a long and productive career afterwards, none of his other series ever reached the same amount of fame or success.
Velter was born in Paris in 1909. Like his famous creation, he also began his career working in a hotel. He was employed by the Ritz Charlton in London at age 16. He subsequently was a waiter and steward on ships like the Majestic and the Île-de-France. Since he had lived in London with his father since the age of 10, he also served as a translator on board of the ship. It was during these transatlantic trips that he made caricatures of the passengers and adorned menu cards and announcement posters with drawings that were crowded with bellboys.
One of these voyages brought him into contact with the American comics artist Martin Branner. Branner taught Velter the comics profession by taking him as his assistant on 'Winnie Winkle' in his New York studio in 1934. Velter returned to France in 1936, where he created his first comic character for the Opera Mundi agency, which was strangely enough called 'Tintin'. The strip was a predecessor to Velter's long-running gag strip 'M. Subito', which appeared in Le Petit Parisien. Velter signed it with Bozz, as an hommage to Charles Dickens' writers pseudonym. He also translated the American comic strips that were published in the newspaper of the Excelsior press group.
In 1937, he developed the title comic of Le Journal de Toto in cooperation his wife Blanche Dumoulin, who wrote most of the comic stories drawn by Velter, who by now signed with Rob-Vel. In that same year, he was approached by the Belgian publisher Dupuis from Marcinelle to develop the title hero for a new children's magazine. Velter returned to his earlier bellboy scribbles and created 'Spirou', whom literally came to life from a painter's canvas on the front page of the first issue on 21 April 1938. In addition to the title comic, Rob-Vel also made illustrations for the magazine, as well as the comic series about the sailors 'Bibor et Tribar' and the gag strip 'Babouche'. Because of the workload, he was again aided by his wife, and also by close family friend Luc Lafnet.
In the books 'Spirou par Rob-Vel L'Intégrale 1938-1943' and 'La Véritable Histoire de Spirou: 1937-1946', that were published by Dupuis on the occasion of the magazine's 75th anniversary, another theory about Spirou's origin was suggested. The authors revealed that Velter was often busy with his weekly 'Toto' and 'Subito' strips, as well as his translation work. Therefore it could have been quite possible that he handed over this "commission" from Dupuis to an assistant. A not so regular method in Europe at the time, but not unlikely since Velter himself had worked for Branner in the States a couple of years earlier. According to their research the very first 'Spirou' page may have been drawn by Luc Lafnet, rather than Rob-Vel. Adding to the mystery was the use of the "Davine" signature in other comics. Until recently this signature was generally attributed to Blanche Dumoulin, but apparently Lafnet also used it frequently until his sudden death in September 1939.
Velter and his helpers started out with independent one-page gags, that often embodied elements of Belgian folklore and current affairs. He eventually turned to longer stories, and during one of these adventures, Spirou found his loyal companion Spip, the squirrel. Note that "Spirou" is Walloon dialect for squirrel, so the choice for this animal was probably no coincidence. When World War II broke out and Velter was mobilized and eventually imprisoned, his wife (who signed with Davine) continued 'Spirou' with the aid of several ghost artists, including J. van Straelen (Lafnet had passed away in September 1939).
Bibor et Tribar
However, it became increasingly difficult to send the pages from Paris to Marcinelle, and by October 1940 the running story was finished by local artist Jijé, who continued the strip until March 1941. After that date, Velter had returned to Paris and was able to resume his work. In December 1942 Jijé took over the pencil again, this time permanently, because postal problems made it too difficult for Velter to continue. Another problem was the publication ban of the magazine, which caused a final rupture between the artist and the publisher.
Toto in Mexico (Bravo, 1948)
During the war, Rob-Vel still worked for the magazine Pierrot, for which he produced several stories, such as 'Ce Pauvre Plouck', as well as the 'Bibor et Tribar' series. He also worked for André Rigal's animation studios. After the war, Velter created many other comics, but none of them ever reached the same level of success as Spirou with the general public. He continued to work for the Opera Mundi agency, that continued to distribute his textless 'M. Subito' strip from 1949 to 1969. He also made hundreds of illustrations for postcards, biscuit boxes, etc.
Babouche et Babouchette
He returned to a revamped version of Pierrot, where he continued 'Bibor et Tribar' (1947-51), 'Le Père Pictou' (1948) and 'Les Tribulations du Chien Petto' (1949), among other creations. Velter was also present in Le Journal de Bébé-Poucet with 'Bizouk et Pélik' (1947), in Bravo! with stories like 'Toto au Mexique' and 'Mic Mac aux États-Unis' (1947-49) and in Lisette with 'Babouche et Babouchette' (1947-1953).
He revived 'Ce Pauvre Plouck' in Récréation and La Dernière Heure in 1956. In 1971, he assumed the pseudonym Darthel and created new adventures with André Daix's 'Nimbus' character for Opera Mundi. He returned to Spirou one final time in 1970 with a special anniversary story written by Raoul Cauvin starring the character he had created back in 1938. After that, his work could be found in Confidences (1971) and Lectures Pour Tous (1974), but he hardly produced any new comics. He settled in Saint-Malo after the death of his wife in 1975. He regularly attended the local comics festivals until he passed away in 1991.