Spirou, by Rob-Vel
Spirou (1940)

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. He also created Spirou's faithful pet squirrel, Spip, who is still part of the ongoing series. Rob-Vel is somewhat of a forgotten artist today. He only drew the series for four years (1938-1942) and, despite a long and productive career, was never able to duplicate his former success. Even worse, the many artists who continued the comic since have all overshadowed him. Still, Rob-Vel's achievements should not be taken lightly. With 'Spirou' he created the longest-running Belgian comics series ever, which is still in syndication today. Also in publication to this day is Spirou, the oldest Belgian comics magazine ever, for whom he created their mascot. Last but not least, the man who was so important for Belgian comics history was actually a Frenchman! In that regard Rob-Vel laid the foundations for the Franco-Belgian comics phenomenon. Under his pen name Bozz, Velter was the creator of the pantomime strip 'Monsieur Subito', which ran in several regional papers from the 1940s through the 1960s.

M. Subito by Bozz
M. Subito

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 first appeared on a weekly base in Le Petit Parisien in 1935 or 1936. 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.

Toto by Rob-Vel
Toto (April 1938)

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. Rob-Vel wasn't the first comics artist to create a comic strip about a bell-hop, though. Richard F. Outcault had a short-lived series named 'Buddy Tucker' (1898) almost 40 years earlier, which also featured a character with the same profession, though it is unlikely that Rob-Vel was aware of this comic strip's existence.

In addition to the title comic, Rob-Vel also made illustrations for Spirou magazine, as well as the comic series about the sailors 'Bibor et Tribar' (1938-1939) and the gag strip 'Babouche' (1938). Because of the workload, he was again aided by his wife, and also by close family friend Luc Lafnet.

Spirou et La Puce, by Rob-Vel
Spirou et La Puce (1943)

In the books 'Spirou par Rob-Vel L'Intégrale 1938-1943' and 'La Véritable Histoire de Spirou: 1937-1946', which 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.

Spirou by Rob-Vel
Introduction of Spip

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 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, by Rob-Vel
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 artist and publisher.

During the war, Rob-Vel still worked for the magazine Pierrot, for which he produced several stories, such as 'L'Homme au gant', 'Le Père Purée', 'Ce Pauvre Plouk' (1941-1942), 'Un Ténor a Disparu', 'Le Secret de Kornaki' and 'Le Collier du Bouddha', while also continuing 'Bibor et Tribar'. 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, which continued to distribute his pantomime 'M. Subito' strip from 1949 to 1969. The 8,597 strips most notably ran in the Brussels newspaper Le Soir. With his aburd and slightly British humor, the little man with his glasses and bowler hat was also a star in regional papers like Nord Matin. The journalist Hubert Claisse also turned the strip into a theatre piece, which was performed during six weeks in a Reims theatre. Shorterlived syndicated comic strips by Bozz were about the boyscout 'Jean-Loup' in an agricultural paper in the late 1940s. His Pierrot strip 'Ce Pauvre Plouk' later also appeared in a supplement of the Belgian newspaper La Dernière Heure (1956-1958).

Monsieur Subito, by Rob-Vel
Monsieur Subito

Velter 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), 'Polydore et Zanzibar', 'La Famille Souriceau' and 'Sibémol', 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 also made hundreds of illustrations for postcards, biscuit boxes, etc.

Babouche et Babouchette, by Bozz
Babouche et Babouchette

He revived 'Ce Pauvre Plouck' in Récréation and La Dernière Heure in 1956. Between 1971 and 1974, he created new adventures with André Daix's 'Le Professeur Nimbus' character for Opera Mundi. After new strips had been created by Léon d'Enden during the 1950s and 1960s, several artists continued the feature until 1991, starting with Rob-Vel in 1971. They all signed the strip with "J. Darthel", a collective name created by syndicate owner Paul Winkler for Daix's successors during the 1970s and 1980s, also including Claude Seignolle, a certain Lefort and Pierre Le Goff. Velter 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.

Nimbus by J. Darthel
Nimbus

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. Rob-Vel's work was largely forgotten, until it came back to the public attention in 2013. In that year, Éditions Dupuis released a large volume re-edition of Rob-Vel's original 'Spirou' stories, 'Spirou par Rob-Vel - L'Intégrale 1938-1943'. It was accompanied by an extensive background dossier by Christelle and Bertrand Pissavy-Yvernault. The two historians further chronicled Rob-Vel's run on 'Spirou' in the first volume of their series 'La Véritable Histoire de Spirou, 1937-1946' (2013), which provides extensive background information about the history of Spirou magazine and the publishing house Dupuis.

Rob-Vel's most famous creation 'Spirou' far outlived its spiritual father. Over the decades the main series has been continued by Jijé (1943-1946), André Franquin (1946-1969), Jean-Claude Fournier (1969-1980), Raoul Cauvin and Nic Broca (1980-1983), Tome and Janry (1982-1998), Morvan and Munuera (2004-2007) and Yoann and Vehlmann (since 2010). Numerous characters have been added by his successors, the drawing style and even the general tone of the series have occasionally been changed. Jean-David Morvan and Hiroyuki Ooshima created a manga-like version named 'Spirou Manga' (2006), for instance. In 2006 a special one-shot collection in which authors could have their own take on the character was launched as well. Of all the contributors, the installments by Émile Bravo ('Le Journal d'un ingénu', 2008) and Olivier Schwartz and Yann ('Le Groom Vert-de-gris', 2009, and 'La Femme-léopard', 2014) most notably returned to Rob-Vel's initial bellboy concept and a World War II setting. Another special one-shot was 'Il s'appelait Ptirou' (Dupuis, 2017) by Laurent Verron and Yves Sente, which depicted the fictionalized life of the bellboy who inspired Velter to create 'Spirou' in the first place. Throughout all these transformations and interpretations, the spirit of the young bellboy has remained unaltered. As the mascot of his eponymous magazine Spirou too continues to sell well in the francophone world, despite the fact that the Dutch-language version Robbedoes ceased to be in 2005.

'Spirou' remains a global succes, with translations in Dutch, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Swedish, Serbian, Croatian and even Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese. So far the English translations have been scarce, despite attempts to launch it there as well. 'Spirou' has been adapted into a marionette play by André Moons and Jean Doisy (1940s), radio plays (1961-1963), video games and a 2018 live-action film by Alexandre Coffre. Michel Gauthier adapted the comic strip into an animated TV series (1992-1995). Another animated TV series was created in 2006 by Daniel Duda. Rob-Vel lived long enough to see his character become and remain a best-seller. He even observed its various spin-offs, such as André Franquin's 'Gaston Lagaffe' (1957-1991) which originally had Fantasio as Gaston's boss. Franquin's 'Le Petit Noël' (1957) and 'Marsupilami' (1987) both revolved around side characters who debuted in the series. A special case is Tome and Janry's 'Le Petit Spirou' (1987), a junior version of Spirou though not in a juvenile sense, but with naughty jokes and sexual innuendo which appeal to older readers as well. To younger generations it has almost become as famous as the original franchise. Naturally parody couldn't stay behind, with F'murr's 'Spirella, Mangeuse d'Écureuils' (1988), Mikaëlof and Sergueï's 'Pirates!' (1999) and Fred Neidhardt's 'Spouri et Fantaziz' (2010-2011) and 'Spoireau et Fantaspèrge' (2015) by Sti.

In 1991 Spirou, Fantasio and Spip received their own statue in the Avenue du Général Michel in Charleroi. Since 2003 Spirou and Spip both have a statue in Middelkerke, as part of the local Comics Route. The same city also has a mural (2016) depicting the characters, which was designed by Hanco Kolk. In Brussels Spirou, Fantasio and Spip decorate a mural in the Rue Notre Dame des Grâces/Onze-Lieve-Vrouw van Gratiestraat as part of the Brussels' Comic Book Route. The mural was based on a design by Yoann and created in 2014. Another mural, based on a drawing by Olivier Schwartz, can be viewed in the Elsenesteenweg 227A in Elsene.

Spirou, by Rob-Vel

'Une Spirou de Rob-Vel' by Stéphane Alexandre at Inedispirou.com

Series and books by Robert Velter in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:

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