De Ark van Nero by Marc Sleen
'De Ark van Nero' (1952-1953). The Antwerp slang phrases uttered by the two Chinese people: 'Da kunde ga nie begraape' ('You can't understand that') and ''t Is pertankt officieel de worhaad.' ('It's despite it all officially the truth") have become fondly remembered catchphrases with 'Nero' fans. 

Marc Sleen was one of most prominent Flemish comic artists from the post-World War II period. He is best known for his comic series 'Nero' (1947-2002), which landed him a place in the 1992 edition of the 'Guinness Book of Records' for being the longest continuous comic strip in existence drawn by one single artist. Sleen drew 'Nero' from 1947 until 1992, producing two strips a day for a staggering 45 years without any notable assistance. Despite the fact that his record was later broken his achievement is all the more amazing considering the fact that between 1947 and 1965 he also had several other gag comics series in publication, among them 'Piet Fluwijn en Bolleke', 'Pollopof', 'Stropke en Flopke', 'Tom en Tony', 'De Lustige Kapoentjes', 'Doris Dobbel', 'Oktaaf Keunink', and last but not least his annual coverage of the Tour de France contest in daily one-panel cartoons. This feat alone would solidify Sleen as a comics legend. But his work is also praised in its own right. By working individually for nearly half a century Sleen managed to maintain a strong, personal vision. His comics are hailed for their inventive and unpredictable stories, nonsensical comedy, political satire, love for the animal world and, above all, their folksy warmth.

Uit het Leven van een Caricaturist, by Marc Sleen, 1944
Illustration for Ons Volk, 1944, describing Sleen's supposed life. 

Early life
Marcel Honoré Nestor Neels was born in Gentbrugge in 1922, but spent the first 16 years of his life in Sint-Niklaas. His father was a former business man who owned a café and fixed watches in his spare time. Neels was fascinated by animals from a young age. He frequently visited the Antwerp Zoo and traced animal pictures from encyclopedias. The boy also loved caricaturing. Throughout his entire life he had an interest in figurative painting, particularly Sandro Botticelli, Giotto, Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel The Elder, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cézanne and James Ensor, but also artists from his own century, such as Jules De Bruycker, Rik Wouters, Gustaaf De Smet, Gustaaf Van De Woestijne, Henri Evenepoel, Constant Permeke, Amadeo Modigliani, Henri Matisse, Alfred Ost and Octave Landuyt, the latter who'd become a personal friend. In the field of comics he underwent influences from E.C. SegarEugeen Hermans, Frans Piët, Alain Saint-Ogan, Erich Ohser, Rudolph Dirks, Floyd Gottfredson, Hergé, André Franquin and Willy Vandersteen. At the age of 14 he attended the Art Academy of Sint-Niklaas and later studied at St. Lucas. Unfortunately World War II broke out, which prevented Neels from ever graduating.

De Avonturen van Neus by Marc Sleen
'De Avonturen van Neus'.

War years 
During the Nazi occupation, Neels' older brother joined the resistance. In order to arrest him the Nazis kept Marc and his younger brother hostage. Despite being tortured and eventually put in a death cell they never betrayed their sibling. Each day one of Neels' cell mates was shot. By the time he and his brother could be next it was 6 June 1944, or D-Day. As the Allied forces started reconquering Western Europe, his prison guards panicked and transported all their prisoners to a POW camp in Leopoldsburg. They all managed to escape soon afterwards and Belgium was liberated in September 1944. Nevertheless Neels suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and nightmares for the rest of his life.

Debut as a caricaturist
On 5 October 1944 Neels found work as a political caricaturist for the Catholic newspaper De Standaard (renamed De Nieuwe Standaard in November 1946 and eventually De Nieuwe Gids between 12 April 1947 and 1950). True to his paper's ideology many of his cartoons during this period supported the christian-democratic party CVP and criticized the socialist party SP and Communism. Sleen later expressed regret that his work was so one-sided in those early years. He not only drew cartoons about current events, though, but also went to the collaboration trials in Mechelen and Brussels as a courtroom sketch artist. Many of his illustrations and caricatures appeared in magazines like Overal, Ons Volk, Penelope and Spectator. Sleen was lucky that cartoonists were in high demand. Many wartime magazines were disbanded because the contributors were jailed. The few magazines and papers that were allowed to continue were still reorganizing themselves. As such there was a huge lack of photographs, which needed to be compensated with illustrations. Originally he signed his serious art under his own name, while signing his caricatures and comics with "Marc Sleen", turning around the letters of his family name. Gradually he signed all his work under this pseudonym. Sleen remained active as a political cartoonist until 1955, after which he focused exclusively on his comics. 

Piet Fluwijn en Bolleke
'Piet Fluwijn en Bolleke'. Gag #699. ('t Kapoentje nr. 25, 21 June 1961).

Early one-shot comics
On 30 October 1944 Sleen drew his first comic strip, a titleless four-panel gag comic, which appeared in De Standaard. On 24 December 1944 Ons Volk published his first adventure comic, 'De Avonturen van Neus' (1944-1945), which ran until 4 March 1945 and was then republished in the children's magazine Ons Volkske between 11 March and 22 April 1945. 'De Avonturen van Neus' was Sleen's first adventure story, though still followed the text comic format, with story and dialogue appearing underneath the images. Neus, like his name implies, is a big-nosed man. He is taken away by an air balloon all the way up in space where he discovers a land in the skies. Two other one-shot gag comics by Sleen appeared in Ons Volkske, a children's supplement of the newspaper Ons Volk, namely 'Polleke' (18 March 1945) about a mischievous quiffed boy, and 'Bamboula en Bumpo' (8 April 1945)  about two black Africans. Both only lasted one episode. 

Piet Fluwijn en Bolleke
Sleen's first durable comics series, 'Piet Fluwijn', was launched on 24 December 1944 in Ons Volk. Piet Fluwijn is a bald-headed man with a long black moustache and glasses. He is well-meaning but usually gets involved in embarrassing situations. The character has sometimes been compared with Casper Milquetoast of H.T. Webster's comic strip 'Timid Soul', who also happened to be a bald, bespectacled man with a droopy (yet white) moustache and whose name in Dutch, 'Frederik Fluweel', sounded quite similar. Sleen has always cited this as a coincidence, but did name the father in Erich Ohser's 'Vater und Sohn' as a main inspiration. In fact, it motivated him to give Fluwijn a son, Bolleke, who made his debut one year later on 27 December 1945. Bolleke is an obese boy who wears a tie and a baret. He is a typical kid in the sense that he can be innocent, but sneaky at the same time. Even though the series was soon retitled as 'Piet Fluwijn en Bolleke' (1945-1965) most episodes focus more on him than his father. The charming gag comic ran in Ons Volk for a few years, before moving to their children's supplement Ons Volkske. De Standaard - who also issued a magazine titled Ons Volkske before the war - sued over copyright infringement. So on 3 April 1947 Ons Volk changed its name to Overal, while their children's supplement was retitled 't Kapoentje. 'Bolleke' traditionally appeared on each final page. The series ran in 't Kapoentje until 14 April 1965. Their French-language counterpart Le Petit Luron, a supplement of the Walloon magazine Samedi, also published 'Piet Fluwijn & Bolleke' as 'Miche et Celestin Radis'. 

Kapoentje, cover by Marc SleenKapoentje, cover by Marc Sleen
'Stropke en Flopke' in 't Kapoentje (1949).

Tom & Tony
Ons Volkske also introduced two boys, 'Tom & Tony' (1945-1946), who debuted as a gag comic on 10 June 1945, before becoming a serialized adventure series on 1 July of that same year. Tom, the tall blond one, and Tony, the short black-haired one, concluded this story on 28 March 1946. A week later they travelled to the United States in an adventure that lasted until 24 October 1946. After that date the series was terminated. 

Pollopof
On 13 January 1946 Sleen created a pantomime gag comic, 'Pollopof' (1946-1952), about a man who looks like Oliver Hardy. His gags appeared in Penelope and Ons Volk, until the latter magazine changed its name to Overal on 6 April 1947. On 12 August 1948 'Pollopof' was moved to De Zondagsvriend, where it ran until January 1950. He made a final comeback in Ons Zondagsblad, where Pollopof kept bumbling along between 22 April 1950 and 12 October 1952. 

Krollewietje
Sleen created another gag comic about a mischievous boy for Het Nieuwsblad, titled 'Krollewietje'. Krollewietje was bald, except for one curl on his head. Five episodes were published between 1 September and 13 October 1946. Two gags were later reprinted in 't Kapoentje on 14 July and 4 August 1949. 

Stropke & Flopke
On 24 October 1946 Ons Volkske published another children's adventure comic by Sleen about two boys: 'Stropke en Flopke'. From 3 April 1947 on the series was moved to 't Kapoentje. They were basically Tom & Tony again, but with different names. The tall blond one was now called Stropke, while Flopke was the short kid with black hair. Still, their series lasted much longer: six adventures in total, with Stropke even enjoying a spin-off adventures series, 'Stropke', in De Volksmacht between 22 July 1950 and 27 December 1952. Yet despite the title it oddly enough it centered around the black-haired kid and not the blond one. Apparently Sleen got their names mixed up. 

Neuske
Speaking of recycled characters, on 24 July 1948 Sleen created 'De Lotgevallen van Neuske' for De Volksmacht. The title character looked exactly like his earlier creation Krollewietje, but his name and the plot of his one-shot adventure were essentially borrowed from his earlier comic 'De Avonturen van Neus' (1945-1946). 

Pietje Palink
The most obscure comics series in Sleen's oeuvre is the one-shot 'De Wondere Avonturen van Pietje Palink', about whom little is known, not even exact dates or where it was published? Even when Sleen himself was asked about it in 2003, he couldn't remember anything about it.  In Luc De Rore's book 'Retrospectieve Marc Sleen' (Kunsthal St. Pietersabdij, 2003) possible dates are suggested between 28 April 1949 and 27 April 1950 and presumably the series ran in 't Kapoentje. However, no copies from that period have survived, so it remains a mystery. The few episodes which survived show that much of the plot mirrored that of the 'Nero' story 'Het Vredesoffensief van Nero', which ran around the same time. 

In 2018 Sleen's shorter-lived comics from this period have been made available in the compilation books 'Marc Sleen in Ons Volkske. Jaargang 1945', 'Marc Sleen in Ons Volk, 1944-1947', 'Marc Sleen in De Spectator, 1945-1950', 'Marc Sleen in Overal en Zondagsvriend, 1947-1950', all published by publishing company Bonte. 

Polopoff by Marc Sleen

De Lustige Kapoentjes
The newspaper Ons Volk ran a children's supplement titled Ons Volkske between 1946 and 1947. The main feature was 'De Vrolijke Bengels' by Willy Vandersteen, a gag comic about four naughty children, a self-important police officer, a cake-baking older woman and a villainous young adult. The series was popular, but in 1947 De Standaard sued Ons Volk and Ons Volkske, because their titles were their legal copyright. Before World War II they had already used them for magazines and now that the war was over Ons Volk had used them for brand recognition, unaware that they were trademarked. On 3 April 1947 Ons Volk therefore retitled itself as Overal, while the children's magazine was baptized into 't Kapoentje. Marc Sleen became chief editor of the latter publication, while 'De Vrolijke Bengels' continued its popular run on every front page. However, on 6 November 1947 Vandersteen left to join the rebooted version of Ons Volkske, this time published by De Standaard. As he took 'De Vrolijke Bengels' with him 't Kapoentje now lacked their mascots. Bob De Moor drew a replacement comic about the same concept, 'De Lustige Kapoentjes' (1947-1949), which als ran in 't Kapoentje's French-language counterpart Le Petit Luron as 'Les Joyeux Lurons'. Unfortunately De Moor left too at the end of 1949, in his case to join Tintin.

On 9 February 1950 a new version of 'De Lustige Kapoentjes' (1950-1965) was announced, drawn by Sleen, with the first episode kicking off on 16 February of that year. Sleen had redesigned and renamed the titular characters. The boys were now called Fonske (the blond one), Oskar (the short one with the large cap) and Lange So (the tall one with the dumbo ears and the baret). The girl of the group was renamed Bikini. The obese police officer was originally introduced as Champetter Vanmeel, but throughout the series he is usually simply referred to as "De Champetter" (a village policeman is called "garde champêtre" in Walloon dialect, which became "champetter" in Flemish dialect). The older woman whose cakes were often stolen became Moeder Stans, while the young hoodlum who usually stole them was renamed Flurk. Just like the previous versions many episodes revolve around pranks and counter-pranks. Yet Sleen's version is generally considered the most iconic. He drew it for more than 15 years, even when 't Kapoentje became a supplement of newspaper Het Volk on 11 October 1951. No other cartoonist before or since drew it for such a long time. Sleen added his own personal touch as well. The comedy is remarkably more anarchic than his predecessors and successors. Flurk is so mean that he is basically a juvenile delinquent, while the Kapoentjes' pranks are often quite sadistic. Young readers loved it, though, and adult readers today appreciate it as a nostalgic time capsule of a more innocent era, when children could still freely have fun playing outside. 

Joke Poke
For Ons Zondagsblad Sleen created 'Joke Poke' (1950-1951), a gag comic about a boy with a crew cut. It ran there from 6 May until 17 June 1950, after which it moved to 't Kapoentje from 6 July 1950 until 21 June 1951. 

Fonske
Between April 1951 and October 1960 Sleen created his final children's comics series, 'Fonske' (1951-1960). The gag comic appeared in the monthly boy scout magazine Doorbraak, issued by the Katholieke Arbeiders Jeugd (K.A.J.). The title character was basically Fonske from 'De Lustige Kapoentjes', but with black hair instead of blonde. He and his best friend, Frans, who wears glasses, often face off against a mean Flurk-like youngster named Sooi. 

De Lustige Kapoentjes by Marc Sleen
'De Lustige Kapoentjes'.

De Ronde van Frankrijk
While Sleen enjoyed making children's comics he was always more of an adult cartoonist. He made several comics series specifically for this demographic, even though they were read by just as many children. The first feature in this field was 'De Ronde van Frankrijk' (1947-1964), a chronicle of the annual cycling event Tour de France. From 29 June 1947 on, every daily tournament was summarized in a humorous one-panel gag cartoon. Sleen caricatured all cyclists, trainers and the Tour manager Jacques Goddet. All noteworthy events were visualized or turned into witty puns. During the first edition Sleen travelled along with the sports crew of the papers Het Vrije Volksblad, De Nieuwe Gids and Het Nieuws Van De Dag, in which the series was published. All next 17 Tours he preferred to stay home and follow the events on the radio instead.  A quite original concept, many readers enjoyed Sleen's illustrated sports column. Rival newspaper De Standaard even ran a similar but short-lived feature, 'Draaien, Altijd Maar Draaien' (1948-1949), illustrated by Willy Vandersteen. From 12 July 1950 on 'De Ronde van Frankrijk' appeared exclusively in Het Volk until the final edition covered by the author in 1964. While only occupying his work schedule for three weeks a year it was still always a stressful period, because Sleen could not plan it beforehand or put it on hold for a few days. He had to wait until the winner of that day was announced, then finish the drawing and give it to a newspaper delivery boy who sent it to his office, so it could be printed in the evening sports' edition, distributed all over the region. The next day it also appeared in the paper itself. In 1992 all episodes were compiled into the book 'De Grote Rondes van Marc Sleen' (Reinaert, Het Volk, 1992). 

Tour de France cartoon by Marc Sleen
'Tour de France' cartoon.

Doris Dobbel
Another comic aimed at an adult audience was 'Doris Dobbel' (8 April 1950- 4 February 1965), which appeared in the independent proprietors' magazine De Middenstand. From 1959 on the series also appeared in Stuwing, their sister magazine distributed in the Netherlands. The title character is a beer-bellied and not-too-bright butcher. Most gags featured him interacting with his wife and their clients until Sleen got the masterstroke of pitching him against a rival butcher, Jan Janssens, who also happens to be his neighbour. Janssens was an inside joke, as the character caricatured Sleen's good friend and journalist Jan De Spot. 'Doris Dobbel' has sometimes been accused of ripping off Rik Clément's series 'Dees Dubbel', but this claim holds no water. Clément's series debuted five years after Sleen's creation and is a straight adventure strip, rather than a gag series.

Oktaaf Keunink
As if Sleen didn't have enough to do already he also drew the gag comic 'Oktaaf Keunink' (1952-1965), published in Ons Zondagsblad from 16 November 1952 to 4 April 1965. Adult readers loved the antics of Oktaaf (sometimes spelled as 'Octaaf'), an old man who enjoys playing cards in the bar at night, if only his domineering wife Beva would let him. Much like 'Doris Dobbel' Oktaaf was frequently seen quarreling with his neighbour, Balk, again a caricature of Sleen's friend Jan De Spot. The series also appeared in French under the name 'Octave Blaireau'. 

Pen Contra Poen & Co
For the company magazine Ons Recht Sleen furthermore drew the one-panel gag cartoon series 'Pen Contra Poen & Co' (1954-1958), which were all gags related to life at the office. 

Oktaaf Keunink by Marc Sleen
'Oktaaf Keunink'. Published in Ons Zondagsblad, 25 September 1955.

Nero
Sleen's longest-running comic strip is, of course, his signature series: 'Nero'. Between 1945 and 1947 Willy Vandersteen's daily newspaper comic 'Suske en Wiske' ran in De Nieuwe Gids and became an over-nite sensation. Every Flemish paper now wanted a daily comic of their own, if not by Vandersteen then somebody else. Unfortunately, he left De Nieuwe Gids on 1 July 1947 to publish 'Suske en Wiske' in De Standaard instead. More than 25.000 (!) readers terminated their subscription to buy De Standaard from now on. As such the editors of De Nieuwe Gids needed a replacement comic strip fast. They asked Sleen to create a daily humoristic adventure comic, which debuted on 2 October 1947 in their paper as 'De Avonturen van Detectief Van Zwam'. It originally centered around a genius detective, Van Zwam, but halfway the story he met another character who would soon take his place as the protagonist. While investigating an underground hallway Van Zwam meets a lunatic who believes he is Roman emperor Nero, after drinking mind-altering beer. In the end he regains his sanity. The former madman becomes Van Zwam's assistant, though everyone still calls him "Nero" for unexplained reasons. Much like Lambik in 'Suske en Wiske' (with whom he is often compared) Nero is a slightly dumb, vain, short-tempered fool, who nevertheless is a bon vivant with a heart of gold. However, he is far more lazy. Many stories start off with him lying in his sofa, preferring to stay at home, rather than go on adventure. He has no job, other than being a "newspaper appearance", as his doorbell reads. Nero also has a tendency to visit Sleen and complain whenever a narrative isn't to his liking. 

Readers liked the character so much that the next nine 'Van Zwam' stories centered around Nero. By 1948 Het Nieuws van den Dag also ran the series. In 1950 Het Volk bought the series away from De Nieuwe Gids. Under the new name 'De Avonturen van Nero' Nero effectively became the series' main character. Many readers instantly subscribed to 'Het Volk' to follow his adventures. A clear sign that 'Nero' had now become 'Suske en Wiske' 's main rival, as the original intention was. Both series share several similarities, including the family friendly tone, colourful characters, ostensibly Flemish setting and nonsensical, ironic comedy. Yet 'Nero' also has its own unique flavour, including a much larger cast...

Het Geheim van Matsuoka by Marc Sleen
Introduction of Nero in 'Het Geheim van Matsuoka' (1947).

Characters
Nero lives together with his wife, Bea, who is nevertheless simply referred to as 'Madam Nero'. In 'De Zoon van Nero' (1959-1960) their genius baby son Adhemar is born. His intellect is so high that he was able to talk and walk from birth. Adhemar teaches both at Oxford as well as Cambridge and dismisses anything illogical as being "scientifically impossible". His inventions occasionally set plots in motion, such as his numerous space rockets. The closest friends of the Nero family are the Pheips, with whom they nevertheless bicker a lot. Madam Pheip, who made her debut in 'De Hoed van Geeraard de Duivel (1950), is a bossy, pipe-smoking woman. She and Nero often go on adventure together, where her domineering personality often provides a hilarious contrast with his short temper. In 'Moea Papoea' (1950-1951) she adopts a black teenage boy from Papua New Guinea: Petoetje. Both her as well as Petoetje are quite interesting characters, considering the era they were created in. Madam Pheip is a very strong, sassy and independent woman who always knows how to take charge in any problematic situation. In 'De Zwarte Voeten' (1951) she gets married, but she still wears the pants in her household. Her husband, Philemon Pheip, aka Meneer Pheip, even carries her last name instead of the other way round. Petoetje is notable for being an intelligent black boy in a time when most other comics had a predominantly white cast. In 'De X-Bom' (1955) he is even revealed to be a genius from eating so much chicory. After Cirage in Jijé's 'Blondin et Cirage' (1939-1942, 1951-1963) he was the first main black character in a Belgian comics series. Meneer Pheip is another colourful character. He is the rich, but self-important major of Moerbeke-Waas and therefore speaks both Dutch and French, but both equally mangled. Much comedy comes from the way he literally translates Dutch expressions into French and mixes both languages together. In 'De Ring van Petatje' (1953) the Pheips adopt another child, the young orphan girl Petatje. The family eventually have a child of their own, Clo-Clo in 'De Groene Gravin' (1975-1976). The boy shares his father's walrus moustache, despite only being a toddler. An obnoxious cry-baby and spoiled brat, he is nevertheless the most normal child in the series. He still has wonder for the world around him. 

Other good friends of Nero are the aforementioned Van Zwam, the super strong French fries seller Jan Spier and tipsy sea captain Oliepul, who has frequently saved Nero when he was lost at sea. Another close friend- but often a nuisance at times - is the loony dwarf Abraham Tuizentfloot. Tuizentfloot debuted in 'De Granaatslikker' (1957). He has the beard and moustache of a pirate and both dresses and talks like one too. Yet he can't swim and his ship was only seen once in the series. Most of the time he prefers staying on land, attacking everybody with his sabre. While some readers shared Nero's annoyance over the character the mad pirate was nevertheless extremely popular in the Netherlands. So much in fact that when Dutch artist Peter Pontiac drew a map of the Lambiek store in 1989 with the heads of several iconic comics characters he drew Tuizentfloot rather than Nero's head.

Of course 'Nero' also has its fair share of recurring villains. Among them the Japanese diabolical genius Matsuoka, Russian mad scientist Ratsjenko, Maltese maffiosi Ricardo and Geeraard the Devil, who wants Nero to sell him his soul. Even the Grim Reaper has stalked Nero twice, despite the fact that he became immortal after drinking a life elixir in 'De Nerobloemen' (1978).

De bom van boema by Marc Sleen
'De Bom van Boema' (1983), featuring Nero and Abraham Tuizentfloot alongside a caricature of king Fahd of Saudi Arabia. The little man with the buckets of sand is Tjeef met de Kleppe, a character Sleen first introduced in 'De Draak van Halfzeven' (1959). 

Madcap style
As eccentric as these people may seem, they still don't hold a candle to all the bizarre lunatics and odd creatures in the series. Nero met mythological characters such as Pegasus, Neptune, Lady Fortune and Sinterklaas and his black donkey, who actually insists he's a horse. He also met his own id in the guise of a ghost in a high hat ('De Hoed van Geeraard de Duivel', 1950), two-headed extraterrestrials who seek different kinds of human livers ('De Zwarte Voeten', 1950), a tiny man selling buckets of sand for no reason ('De Draak van Halfzeven', 1959), a dwarf-sized bodyguard who uses bacon as ammo ('De Spekschieter', 1964), a man living in a tower at sea trying to pump the ocean dry ('De Blauwe Walvis', 1976) and underground human cephalopods who inject barefoot people with a serum that turns them into trees, so that they can consume the branches ('De Wortelschieters', 1956).

Nero's storylines are among the daftest and most unpredictable in comics history. Nero once swallowed a hand grenade which still had to ignite ('De Granaatslikker', 1957), while in 'Het Lachvirus' (1973) he and his friends were contaminated by a virus that causes everybody to laugh uncontrollaby. In 'De Man Zonder Gezicht' (1974) Nero travels to give a man with no eyes, nose or mouth a proper face. To cure him Adhemar needs the tears of a Mexican virgin, a sneeze of a tapir and Mao Zedong's autograph. Other plots are just plain silly nonsense, like 'Het Lodderhoofd' (1961), where Nero's head is shot off clean with a handgun and later stolen with a request for ransom.

Het Lodderhoofd by Marc Sleen
Nero - 'Het Lodderhoofd' (1961-1962).

Political satire, caricatures and references to actual events
Zany, anarchic comedy like this set 'Nero' apart from the more subdued and moralistic 'Suske en Wiske'. And while its rival chose for more timeless, apolitical comedy, Sleen enjoyed referencing real-life (inter)national politics. Sometimes he even modified the plot for it. In 'De IJzeren Kolonel' (1956) a British colonel asks Nero to join him in liberating the then occupied Suez channel. Halfway the story Petoetje and Petatje decide to travel to Egypt too, but through Eastern Europe, getting caught up in the Hungarian Uprising. Sleen also never missed a chance to include some celebrity caricatures. In 'De Hoed van Geeraard de Duivel' (1950) Nero encounters two rebels who want to overthrow the Indian government and look suspiciously like the Belgian socialist politicians Camille Huysmans and Paul-Henri Spaak. As part of a will Tuizentfloot has to deliver an important letter to Egyptian president Nasser in 'De Brief aan Nasser' (1963), while in 'De Gouden Hemelkijker' (1991) Nero kicks Saddam Hussein in his behind. In 'De Man van Europa' (1990) everyone who visits the Koningsplein in Brussels and looks at the sky literally loses his head. A diplomatic crisis occurs when several European heads of state, among them Margaret Thatcher and François Mitterrand, visit the location and all get decapitated. In perhaps the most adorable moment of the entire series Nero visits Joseph Stalin in 'Het Vredesoffensief van Nero' (1951-1952) to force him to drink a peace elixir. Nero treats the dictator as if he's a jolly old sport and even calls him "Jef", not even thinking of protocol. Near the end of the story Stalin and U.S. President Truman both join Nero at his dinner table and all happily drink and sing together until the early dawn.

Het Vredesoffensief van Nero
Nero meets Joseph Stalin in 'Het Vredesoffensief van Nero' (1951-1952).

Since Sleen's political satire was usually all in good fun he seldom encountered problems. But when he mocked Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in 'De Wensring' (1975) his editors reminded him that Amin was still considered "a friend of the Belgian government". Not planning to change the entire story Sleen simply scribbled a beard and moustache on Amin's face to make him "unrecognizable". In later stories Amin had already fallen from grace with the West and Sleen could thus satirize him as he pleased. The political references in 'Nero' were enjoyable to newspaper readers, but of course rapidly dated by the time they were published in album format. Yet, since they were so intertwined with the plot they were kept intact. The most recent reprints have therefore added explanations and some historical context on the penultimate pages. Reading all the 'Nero' albums chronologically provides a veritable time capsule of most major events between 1947 and 2002. Several stories reference the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the 1973 oil crisis, Provos, hippies, feminists, terrorists, the 1980s nuclear missile protests... Sleen also gave media celebrities such as The Beatles ('De Paarse Futen', 1966-1967), Paul Newman ('Ivan De Verschrikkelijke', 1972) and Frank Zappa ('Het Beest Zonder Naam', 1985) cameos, as well as friends and colleagues, like Willy Vandersteen in 'De Totentrekkers' (1971-1972). Sleen didn't spare himself either. His characters frequently visit him to complain about the way a story is evolving and especially when they are victim of it. Sometimes they even get physical or - like in 'De Gouden Patatten' (1984) - go on strike. But the author's crying wife usually informs them that "her husband is on safari again".

De Egmont planeet by Marc Sleen
Nero - 'De Planeet Egmont' (1978). From left to right one recognizes Japanese emperor Hirohito, French president Giscard d'Estaing, Zaïrese dictator Mobutu, Belgian Minister of Finance Willy De Clercq, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada and an Arab oil sheikh.

Love for animals
Safari was one of Sleen's favorite pastimes. From 1962 on he visited Africa on an annual basis, published eight photo books about the local wild life and also filmed footage for the nature documentary series 'Allemaal Beestjes', broadcast on the Flemish public TV channel BRT. His love for fauna inspired many stories where Nero and company meet exotic animals, which was always a golden opportunity for Adhemar to explain some trivia about them, including their Latin names! Out of concern for their well-being Sleen became a member of the World Wildlife Fund in 1984.

Style and working methods
Traveling to Africa was also a well-deserved break from a stressy and lonely job. By lack of assistance Sleen had to think up and draw everything alone. Whenever he planned a vacation he had to draw an extra story beforehand, between all his other comics work, so that his series could continue to appear in his absence. Even when struck by fever he conscientiously kept drawing. For 45 years straight Sleen almost never had an assistant. In 1961 he hired Hurey to fill in for him while he went on a rare three month vacation, but all Hurey did was redraw the three oldest albums 'Het Geheim van Matsuoka' (1947), 'Het B-Gevaar' (1948) and 'Het Zeespook' (1948) for a reprint in the newspapers. Francis Bertrand assisted on the background art for a short while, but that's about it. These working circumstances also explain his simple, but efficient drawings. His comics had a very classic lay-out, without overly detailed backgrounds or complicated perspectives. Stories were often made up as he went along, following only a very loose plot thread. Everything had to be done so quickly that characters were sometimes drawn "off-model" and stories were brimful with rampant continuity errors, not to mention abrupt endings now and then. To save time some characters resembled one another. Doris Dobbel's neighbour Janssens, for instance, had the same look as Oktaaf Keunink's neighbour Balk (both caricatures of Sleen's good friend Jan De Spot), while Madam Nero was the identical twin of Moeder Stans in 'De Lustige Kapoentjes'.

De P.P. Safari by Marc Sleen
The artist himself makes an appearance, vast asleep, in 'De P.P. Safari' (1979-1980).

Yet fans have always tolerated these shortcomings as part of the series' charm. It added to its sheer unpredictability and were the surest sign of Sleen's personal touch. One can only feel admiration for his dedication to continue working in this way, and that for more than half a century! His graphic and narrative talent shouldn't be underestimated either. Sleen had no time for technically complicated drawings, but was a master in creating character and atmosphere with only a few lines and hatchings. His characters are instantly "readable" and have very distinct personalities. This aspect makes his caricatures and animal paintings such a marvel to look at. He was especially gifted in creating a horror atmosphere, as the haunted rat's castle in 'Het Rattenkasteel' (1948) and his memorable depictions of witches, ghosts, demons and Hell prove. All throughout the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s 'Nero' albums sold well, also because of their cheap prize. The first 53 'Nero' stories were published in black-and-white and are often considered to be Sleen's best. The paper notoriously still smelt after fresh printer's ink, which gives them a nostalgic flavor to fans. 

Doris Dobbel by Marc Sleen
'Doris Dobbel' (Gag published in De Middenstand, 25 March 1961).

Move from 'Het Volk' to 'De Standaard'
In 1965 Sleen dropped all of his series, except for 'Nero'. Some were discontinued immediately, like 'Oktaaf Keunink' and 'Doris Dobbel'. Others, like 'De Ronde van Frankrijk', for instance, kept going under the pen of new cartoonists in Het Vrije Volksblad and Het Volk until 1982. 'Piet Fluwijn en Bolleke' was removed from 't Kapoentje and appeared in Pats, the children's supplement of De Standaard, where new episodes were drawn by Hurey and Jean-Pol until 1974. The same happened with 'De Lustige Kapoentjes', though since 't Kapoentje had licensed the title the series could not appear under that name, nor ever be published in album format. Both new versions were drawn by Hurey and later Jean-Pol. At the same time 'De Lustige Kapoentjes' continued to appear in 't Kapoentje under its old title, but featured completely different characters. This specific version was drawn by Jef Nys (1965-1966), Hurey (1966-1976), Kabou (1976-1985) and Jo (1985-1989). In 2011 'De Lustige Kapoentjes' was rebooted by Tom Bouden, with a different script writer for each gag.

Het rattenkasteel by Marc Sleen
'Het Rattenkasteel' (1948).

De Geschiedenis van Sleenovia
Sleen now left newspaper Het Volk and joined De Standaard, where he became subject of the biggest legal battle in Flemish newspaper comics history! While he had already discontinued 'Nero' at Het Volk he was technically still under contract for three months. As such he couldn't publish anything throughout that entire period. De Standaard, who had already announced the arrival of 'Nero' in their papers, therefore asked their home comics artist, Willy Vandersteen, to create a 'Nero' story of his own to fill in the gap. Gaston Durnez, a friend and colleague of Sleen, wrote the script. The story, 'De Avonturen van Nero en co', ran in De Standaard from 12 April until 30 June 1965 and was signed with 'Wirel', the common contamination used by Vandersteen and Karel Verschuere, though in reality it was largely drawn by Studio Vandersteen co-worker Eduard De Rop. The Vandersteen team cut images from old 'Nero' albums, pasted them in a completely new order and drew in additional characters and backgrounds themselves. After only four episodes, Het Volk sued. This had an effect on the story. Suddenly Nero's name was replaced by three dots, he received a black bag over his head and all Sleen characters were completely remodelled to look less like Sleen's creations. After a few weeks Het Volk won their case, but some high-ranking Catholic clergymen stepped in to solve this squabbling. In the end the comic strip was allowed to continue as intended. Still, the legal issues prevented an official album release. In 1979 a comic book version was released as a free gift with comics information magazine CISO Stripgids, issue #25, giving it the title it is nowadays referred to: 'De Geschiedenis van Sleenovia'. In 2017 an official comic book release came about, albeit not the original collage comic, but a version redrawn in Sleen's style by Dirk Stallaert.

Het Lachvirus by Marc Sleen
Nero - 'Het Lachvirus' (1973).

Nero in colour  (1965-2002)
After these legal issues Sleen continued 'Nero' in De Standaard, as well as De Gentenaar, Het Nieuwsblad and - from 1995 on - in Het Volk and De Nieuwe Gids too. Only two new characters were added to the main cast, the aforementioned Clo-Clo, who made his debut in 'De Groene Gravin' (1975), and Agent Gaston, an obese no-nonsense police officer who was introduced in 'Het Achtste Wereldwonder' (1996). Apart from appearing in colour now the language switched from Flemish dialect to standard Dutch (even though occasional dialect still seeped through). The series also received a trademark ending. From the second 'Nero' colour album on, 'Het Groene Vuur' (1965), almost every story ended with Nero and his friends enjoying a homely and gregarious waffle feast. It's for this reason that many public events honouring Sleen are often combined with people baking waffles for the visitors. 

Quintessential Belgian traditions like these ensured that 'Nero' always remained a national phenomenon. Attempts were made to translate it in English ('Nero', later 'Nibbs & Co'), French ('Néron'), German and Spanish, but only in Wallonia and the Netherlands does the series enjoy cult status. A South African translation of the series was once considered, but under the apartheid regime the publishers took objection to the black main cast member Petoetje. Another reason why 'Nero' never broke through outside Belgium was Sleen's stance against commercialization. His characters were only used on a few merchandising products. The only "commercial" album he ever made, 'De Jinkaboems' (1976), was made for a noble cause: UNICEF. By remaining true to his principles Sleen never got rich, but he at least maintained his creative independence. As such he could freely add his own personal pet peeves, like political caricatures, exotic animal species, philosophical quotes and inside jokes.

De Zesde Kabouter by Marc Sleen
End sequence from 'De Zesde Kabouter' (1977).

Longevity record
Working singlehandedly for more than 45 years without hardly any assistance, Sleen entered the Guinness Book of Records in 1992. As of 2019 Sleen's record has been broken a few times, bringing him behind Charles M. Schulz (1950-2000, 49 years, solo on the daily comic, assistants for the comic books), Frank Dickens' 'Bristow' (1961-2012, 51 years, solo), Ed Payne's 'Billy the Boy Artist' (1899-1955, 56 years, solo), Fred Lasswell ('Barney Google', 59 years, with assistants), Jim Russell ('The Potts', 62 years, solo) and Russell Johnson's 'Mr. Oswald' (1927-1989, 62 years, also solo but a monthly comic). Yet contrary to other newspaper cartoonists who matched his achievement he didn't just draw one strip a day, but two. The fact that he had nearly ten (!) other gag comics running during the first 18 years of 'Nero' should also not be forgotten. 

Dirk Stallaert (1992-2002)
In 1992, after drawing almost 200 albums singlehandedly, Sleen's eyes became too weak to continue. He hired an assistant, Dirk Stallaert, who took over the drawings from the album 'Barbarijse Vijgen' (1992) on. His graphically more advanced and detailed style caused a notable art shift. Purists complained, but the maestro himself kept the spirit of the series alive by still writing the scripts. As a result 'Nero' could continue its seemingly never-ending run and celebrate its 50th birthday in 1997. However, the series was no longer the bestseller it was three decades ago. As the franchise became more adult-oriented it gradually lost its popularity with children. By the time 'Nero' celebrated its semi-centennial newspaper editors considered cancelling the series. Thanks to a petition by loyal fans 'Nero' was saved for five more years, but in 2002 Sleen still decided to retire 'Nero' after 55 years of continuous publication. He announced that no new albums would be created, with 'Zilveren Tranen' (2002) being the final title. Yet Stallaert would remain on board to draw official publicity art with Sleen's characters. In 2017 Kim Duchateau received the honor of making a completely new 'Nero' story, 'De Zeven Vloeken' (2017), drawn in his own style. It was prepublished in Knack.

comic art by Marc Sleen
Drawing by Dirk Stallaert about Marc Sleen's farewell, published on 31 December 2002.

Graphic contributions
On top of all his comics Sleen also provided illustrations and caricatures for magazines like Overal, Spectator, Penelope during the 1940s and 1950s. He illustrated journalist Jan Cornand's books 'Figuren Uit De Tour' (1958) and 'Humor en Tragiek Uit De Tour' (1958), featuring interviews with cyclists about the Tour de France. He made caricatures of film stars for the book '60 Jaar Film' (De Garve, 1961) and of Flemish TV stars for Gaston Durnez' book 'TV Album' (1962). He furthermore illustrated the cover of Jef Burm's comedy record 'Allo Sjoe' (1966).  In 1980 Sleen was one of many Belgian comics artists to make a graphic contribution to the book 'Il était une fois... les Belges'/'Er waren eens Belgen' (1980), a collection of columns and one-page comics, published at the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Belgium.

Recognition 
As one of the last surviving Belgian comics pioneers Sleen enjoyed the status of "grand old man" of his profession in the Low Countries. The 'Nero' album 'Het Lachvirus' won the 1974 Brussels Prix Saint-Michel for "Best Humor Story". In 1989, when the Belgian Comics Center in Brussels opened its doors, he became one of several Belgian comics pioneers to be part of the permanent exhibition. In 1993 the annual Bronzen Adhemar jury awarded him a golden rather than a bronze Adhemar statue. In 2005 Sleen ended at the 48th place in the Flemish version of the election of 'The Greatest Belgian', being one of only three comics artists to make that list. In 1997 he received the highest honour of his entire career when he was knighted by king Albert II. His Majesty was also present in 2009 when Sleen received his very own museum, the Marc Sleen Museum, located in the Zandstraat in Brussels, in front of the Belgian Center of Comics and situated in the former offices of De Nieuwe Gids. The king was a personal friend of Sleen, since he and his brother former king Baudouin/Boudewijn, both learned Dutch as a child by reading 'Nero'. Other notable celebrity fans of 'Nero' were novelist Hugo Claus and Prime Minister Théo Lefèvre. 

Brussels by Marc Sleen
Marc Sleen's depiction of Brussels (1958).

Death
Marc Sleen passed away on 6 November 2016 at the age of 93. His funeral was attended by journalist and comics expert Patrick Van Gompel, radio host Jan Hautekiet, politicians Noël Slangen, Tim Vandenput and Guy Vanhengel, cartoonists Hec Leemans, Luc CromheeckeJan Bosschaert, Jean-Pol, François Walthéry, Ever Meulen, GalWEgé and comedian Urbanus, who sang his 'Ode aan Marc Sleen' homage song for the spectators, while Dirk Stallaert played guitar. Music from the soundtrack of 'Out of Africa' closed the ceremony off, while people dressed up as Nero, Adhemar, Tuizentfloot, Jan Spier, Madam and Meneer Pheip paid their last symbolic respects to Sleen. After the funeral a huge waffle feast was organized. 

Legacy and influence
Marc Sleen is still a highly respected artist in Belgium. Flemish composer Elias Gistelinck wrote a classical piece, 'Three little compositions for Marc Sleen' (1995), dedicated to him. Nero has statues in Hoeilaart (1994) and Middelkerke (2000), while Adhemar has one in Turnhout (1991), Tuizentfloot in Wuustwezel (2000) and Meneer Pheip in Moerbeke-Waas (2012). The franchise inspired an opera (1984), a bas-relief in Sint-Niklaas (1988) and comic book walls in Brussels (1995, at the Place Saint-Géry/Sint-Goriksplein, as part of the Brussels' Comic Book Route), Antwerp (2014, in the Kloosterstraat) and Middelkerke (2017, in the Watervlietstraat, also part of the local Comic Book Route). The bi-annual Flemish comics prize "Bronzen Adhemar", established in 1977, was named and sculpted after Nero's genius son of the same name. His comics have inspired authors like Willy Linthout (whose debut comic, 'De Zeven van Zeveneken' (1982) was a parody of 'Nero'), Urbanus, Kamagurka, Jean-Pol, Luc Cromheecke, Hec Leemans, Marc Legendre, Dirk Stallaert, François Walthéry, Merho, Pirana, WEgéRaoul Cauvin, Kim Duchateau, Pieter De Poortere and Erik Meynen in Belgium, and Martin Lodewijk, Marq van BroekhovenAart ClerkxRené Windig and Eddie De Jong in the Netherlands.

Lambiek will always be grateful to Sleen for illustrating the letter "N" in our encylopedia book, 'Wordt Vervolgd - Stripleksikon der Lage Landen', published in 1979. 

Books about Marc Sleen
For people interested in Sleen's life and career Fernand Auwera and Jan Smet's 'Marc Sleen' (1985) is a must-read. Three books, 'Marc Sleen, een Uitgave van de Bronzen Adhemar Stichting' (1993), 'Marc Sleen 80. De enige echte' (2002) and 'Marc Sleen 90. Liber Amicorum' (2012) feature written and drawn homages by many Belgian and Dutch celebrities. '50 Jaar Nero' (1997) by Yves Kerremans and Pascal Lefèvre and 'De Politieke Memoires van Nero' (1997) by Lieven Demedts offer chronological analysis about the 'Nero' series. 

Marc Sleen and friends

Series and books by Marc Sleen in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:

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