Het geheim van Matsuoka by Marc Sleen
Het geheim van Matsuoka (1947)

Marc Sleen is one of most prominent Flemish comic artists from the post-World War II period. He is best known for his long running comic series 'Nero', a clever mix of typical Flemish nonsense and current events. Sleen was born as Marc Neels in Gentbrugge, and grew up in Sint-Niklaas, where he attended the local Art Academy from age 14. Young Marc Sleen showed an early talent for drawing, and was an active member of the local scouts group. The Sleen family returned to Gentbrugge in 1938, and Marc fled to the French Limoges area with his scouts when the German invaded Belgium. Sleen was eventually arrested and tortured by the Sicherheitspolizei in 1944 because of his brother's activities in the resistence.

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

He narrowly survived and spent the final months of the German occupation with a baker in Ghent. Sleen started his career drawing caricatures and political cartoons in the Catholic newspaper De Standaard in 1944. The paper was later renamed De Nieuwe Standaard and eventually De Nieuwe Gids. Inspired by contemporary comic artists like Willy Vandersteen and Bob de Moor, Marc Sleen also started an impressive production of comics. In December 1944, his first comic, 'De Avonturen van Neus', about a man with a very big nose, was published in the weekly magazine Ons Volk, and continued in the children's supplement Ons Volkske from March, 1945. It was followed by 'De Avonturen van Tom en Tony' (1945), 'Piet Fluwijn en Bolleke' (1945), 'De Avonturen van Stropke en Flopke'(1946) and 'Pollopof' (1946), that all started in Ons Volk and were later continued in other magazines, such as Ons Volkske, 't Kapoentje and Ons Zondagsblad.

Tour de France cartoon by Marc Sleen
Tour de France cartoon from 1950

In the following years, Marc Sleen made numerous illustrations, caricatures and comics for these Belgian newspapers and magazines and others, such as De Spectator, Ons Zondagsblad, De Nieuwe Gids and De Nieuwe Standaard. Especially the cartoons he made about the Tour de France between 1947 and 1964 are well-known. Marc Sleen took part in the Belgian Salons of Flemish Humor from 1952 until 1963.

Uit het Leven van een Caricaturist, by Marc Sleen, 1944
Illustration for Ons Volk, 1944

In 1950, Sleen's most famous character appeared in print for the first time in De Nieuwe Gids: 'De Avonturen van Nero en zijn Hoed' - although the likeness of Nero was already present in three stories dating from 1947, 'De Avonturen van Detectief Van Zwam'. This comic was additionally published in Het Nieuws van den Dag between 1948 and 1950 and from 1951 on, the series was officially called 'De Avonturen van Nero & Co' and published in Het Volk after the disappearance of De Nieuwe Gids. The strip was more absurd than the competing Vandersteen strip 'Suske & Wiske', and although it featured many winks to current affairs, the cheaply published black & white books were widely sold.

Nero in 1950
Nero in 1950

By 1950, Marc Sleen was the editor of 't Kapoentje, Het Volk's children's supplement. He developed a new version of the title comic, called 'De Lustige Kapoentjes', a strip about a gang of youngsters that served as a follow-up with 'De Vrolijke Bengels' by Willy Vandersteen. The comic became one of Flander's most popular children's comics, and has known many variations following Sleen's departure from Het Volk in 1965. Sleen also resumed his earlier comic 'Piet Fluwijn en Bolleke' in 't Kapoentje.

Nero by Marc Sleen
Nero - De Zesde Kabouter (1977)

Marc Sleen took his increasingly popular 'Nero' strip from newspaper Het Volk to publisher De Standaard, who offered book publications with color printing, a dream come true for comic artists of that time. Marc Neels found himself in several licensing fights over his other characters and their names. For instance, when he withdrew 'De Lustige Kapoentjes' from the paper 't Kapoentje, a legal fight ensued: the paper gained rights over the name, and Sleen over the characters. This resulted in the strange situation that Hurey drew new stories with Sleen's old characters for Pats, while Jef Nys and later Jean-Pol and Karel Boumans drew 'De Lustige Kapoentjes' with new characters for 't Kapoentje.

comic art by Marc Sleen
Marc Sleen's farewell drawing from 31 December 2002

Marc Sleen has single-handedly written and drawn almost 200 albums of 'Nero', although in the last ten years with assistence from Dirk Stallaert. Sleen retired from his character in 2002, after 55 years, with the story 'Zilveren Tranen'. Nero and the other characters in the series, such as Madam Pheip, Abraham Tuizentfloot, Petoetje and Petatje, the genius Adhemar, Jan Spier and Kapitein Oliepul have firmly established themselves in Belgian comic history. To escape from his daily deadlines, Sleen embarked on annual safaris through Africa for a period of 35 years. He has written books about his safari's and also made a couple of TV documentaries called 'Allemaal Beestjes' for the BRT.

80 years Sleen, by Marc Sleen
Drawing for the occasion of the 80th Nero album

Marc Sleen did not limit himself to 'Nero', but created many more memorable comic characters. He created new (silent) comic strips like the gag strips 'Doris Dobbel' in De Middenstand (1950-67) and 'Octaaf Keunink' for Ons Zondagsblad (1952-65), but also 'Joke Poke' (1950-51), 'Stropke' (1950-52) and 'Fonske' (1951-60). Besides this, he also found time to make drawings for advertisements and the Belgian broadcasting company BRT.

Marc Sleen 'Nero' comic in De Standaard, 31 Dec. 2002

In 1997, when Nero turned 50, the Belgian Center of Comics dedicated an important exhibition to Sleen's most popular character, and its author was knighted by the Belgian King Albert II. Note that both King Boudewijn and King Albert II of Belgium learned the Dutch language by reading 'Nero'. Two books about Nero were printed at the same time: '50 Jaar Nero' by Y. Kerremans and Pascal Lefèvre, and 'De Politieke Memoires van Nero' by L. Demedts and Sleen himself - both at publisher De Standaard. King Albert opened the official Marc Sleen Museum in the Zandstraat in Brussels, the same building were the offices of De Nieuwe Gids were located when the first 'Nero' was drawn. 

In Sleen's work, influences can be traced of Eugeen Hermans, Hergé, Elzie Segar and Willy Vandersteen, while Sleen himself has inspired authors like Willy Linthout, Urbanus, Kamagurka, Jean-Pol, Luc Cromheecke, Hec Leemans, Marc Legendre, Dirk Stallaert and Erik Meynen in Belgium, and Martin Lodewijk, René Windig and Eddie De Jong in the Netherlands.

Marc Sleen and friends

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


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