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 of it all officially the truth") have become fondly remembered catchphrases among 'Nero' fans.

Marc Sleen was one of the most prominent post-World War II Flemish comic artists, best known for his humorous newspaper comic 'Nero' (1947-2002). Working in the same tradition as Willy Vandersteen's equally long-running folksy family comic 'Suske en Wiske', 'Nero' was a newspaper mainstay for more than half a century. The two-haired waffle-eating globetrotter gathered a large circle of eccentric friends and relatives, among them his genius son Adhemar, the pipe-smoking and domineering Madam Pheip, her French-speaking husband Meneer Pheip and psychotic wannabe pirate Abraham Tuizentfloot. 'Nero' is praised for its inventive, unpredictable and often zany plotlines. The comedy ranges from anarchic nonsense to witty political satire. A former caricaturist, Sleen enjoyed giving real-life politicians cameos and referencing current affairs. Above all, he adored the animal world. His stories often feature exotic creatures. Also an enthusiastic safari tourist, Sleen made several nature documentaries for Flemish public television. Producing two strips of 'Nero' a day during a period of 45 years and without any notable assistance, the artist received a spot in the Guinness Book of Records for "Longest running cartoon strip by a single artist". Although his record has since been broken, Sleen's feat is still remarkable. During the first 18 years, he made several other gag comics on top of his daily 'Nero' feature. Among them were children's gag series like 'Piet Fluwijn en Bolleke' (1944-1965), 'De Lustige Kapoentjes' (1950-1965) and 'Fonske' (1951-1960), as well as series for adult readers, like 'Pollopof' (1945-1952), 'Doris Dobbel' (1950-1965), 'Oktaaf Keunink' (1952-1965) and his annual coverage of the Tour de France in daily one-panel cartoons (1947-1964). By working individually for nearly half a century, Sleen managed to maintain a strong, personal vision and style, which left a lasting influence on Flemish and Dutch humor comics.

Uit het Leven van een Caricaturist, by Marc Sleen, 1944
Illustration for Ons Volk, 17 December 1944, describing Sleen's supposed life. 

Early life
Marcel Honoré Nestor Neels was born in 1922 in Gentbrugge, Belgium, a district of the city Ghent, but spent the first 16 years of his life in another city in the same province, Sint-Niklaas. His father was a former businessman who owned a café and fixed watches in his spare time. From a young age, Marc Neels was fascinated with animals. He frequently visited the Antwerp Zoo and traced animal pictures from encyclopedias. As a boy scout, he enjoyed being outdoors, learning many skills that would come in handy in adulthood when he became a regular safari tourist. Neels also loved making caricatures. Throughout his life, he had an interest in figurative painting, particularly the work of Sandro Botticelli, Giotto, Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel The Elder, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Honoré Daumier, 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. Landuyt eventually became one of his personal friends. In the field of comics, Sleen ranked among his main inspirations E.C. Segar, Al Capp, Eugeen Hermans (Pink), Alain Saint-Ogan, Erich Ohser, Rudolph Dirks, Floyd Gottfredson, Hergé, André Franquin and Willy Vandersteen, as well as the 'Pa Pinkelman' strip by Godfried Bomans and Carol Voges. Later in his career, he expressed admiration for Dik Browne, Paul Jamin and Jean-Claude Servais. At the age of 14, Marc Neels attended the Art Academy of Sint-Niklaas, and later studied art at the Sint-Lucas School of Arts in Ghent. However, the outbreak of World War II prevented him from graduating.

War years 
During World War II, Marc Neels' older brother joined the resistance. In order to arrest him, the Nazis held 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, also known as 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, from where they eventually managed to escape. In September 1944, Belgium was liberated from the Nazi oppressor. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Marc Neels had nightmares from this ordeal for the rest of his life.

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

Political cartoons and caricatures
On 5 October 1944, Neels found work as a political caricaturist for De Standaard, a Catholic newspaper that went through several complicated transitions in the following years, due to a two-year publication ban imposed on the original newspaper because of its wartime appearance under Nazi supervision. In November 1944, De Standaard was renamed to De Nieuwe Standaard, published by a separate firm called De Gids N.V. In 1945, this publisher also launched the illustrated weekly Ons Volk and its children's supplement Ons Volkske, to which Marc Sleen contributed as well. After 1947, the original De Standaard resumed publication, and reclaimed their original titles. Marc Sleen's homebase De Nieuwe Standaard now was called De Nieuwe Gids, Ons Volk continued as Overal, while Ons Volkske was renamed to 't Kapoentje. In the early 1950s, the publisher of the Catholic newspaper Het Volk acquired all assets of De Gids N.V., after which Marc Sleen became the house cartoonist of this newspaper. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Sleen's caricatures and illustrations additionally appeared in De Nieuwe Standaard's sister newspaper Het Nieuwsblad (becoming Het Vrije Volksblad in 1947), the women's weekly Penelope, the poetry monthly De Spiegel, De Nieuwe Standaard's weekend supplement De Spectator and the Sunday supplement of Het Volk, Ons Zondagsblad.

True to his paper's ideology, many of Marc Sleen's cartoons during this period supported the Christian-Democratic party CVP and criticized the socialist party SP and Communism. In 1952, Sleen also made a CVP propaganda comic for the municipal elections in Sint-Niklaas. Later in his career, Sleen expressed regret that his political cartoons were so one-sided. In the post-war period, cartoonists were in high demand. Many wartime magazines had been disbanded and their contributors jailed or banned. The few magazines and papers that still hit the market during the chaotic post-war period were still reorganizing themselves. To compensate for a lack of photographs, for instance, they made use of illustrations, infographics and cartoons. Marc Neels was also one of the courtroom sketch artists following the trials against Nazi collaborators in Mechelen and Brussels. Originally, Neels signed his serious work - portraits of celebrities of the day - with his real name and his comical work with "Sleen", turning the letters of his last name around. Gradually, he began signing all his work as "Sleen". He continued to combine making political cartoons with comics until 1955, when he decided to focus on comics exclusively.

Early comics
On 30 October 1944, Marc Sleen's first comic strip, a titleless four-panel gag, was printed in De Standaard. More strips followed in the other magazines and newspapers that Marc Sleen worked for. His first adventure series was 'De Avonturen van Neus' (1944-1945), which ran from 24 December 1944 until 4 March 1945 in the weekly Ons Volk. Between 11 March and 22 April 1945, 'De Neus' was continued in that magazine's children's supplement Ons Volkske. The story follows a big-nosed man who travels to outer space by air balloon, where he discovers a land in the skies. 'De Avonturen van Neus' was a text comic, with narration printed underneath the images. Ons Volkske also ran two one-shot gag comics by Sleen, 'Polleke' (18 March 1945), about a mischievous quiffed boy, and 'Bamboula en Bumpo' (8 April 1945), about two black Africans. A year later, Sleen made a slightly longer-lived gag series, this time for the newspaper Het Nieuwsblad. Again starring a naughty boy, 'Krollewietje' ran for five episodes between 1 September and 13 October 1946. On 14 July and 4 August 1949, two of those gags were reprinted in the children's magazine 't Kapoentje. Between 31 July and 23 October 1948, a mix between 'De Avonturen van Neus' and 'Krollewietje', titled 'De Lotgevallen van Neuske', appeared in De Volksmacht, the weekly of the Christian worker's movement in Flanders. The title character looked exactly like Krollewietje, while the plot of this one-shot adventure was recycled from 'De Avonturen van Neus'.

The most obscure comic series in Sleen's oeuvre is the one-shot 'De Wondere Avonturen van Pietje Palink', about which little is known, not even when or where it was published. When the cartoonist was asked about it in 2003, he couldn't remember anything about this particular comic. In Luc De Rore's book 'Retrospectieve Marc Sleen' (Kunsthal St. Pietersabdij, 2003), possible running dates are suggested between 28 April 1949 and 27 April 1950, during which the feature presumably ran in 't Kapoentje. However, no copies from that period have survived, so 'Pietje Palink' still remains a mystery. The few episodes that have survived reveal that much of the plot mirrored that of the 'Nero' story 'Het Vredesoffensief van Nero', which ran around the same time. Decades later, most of Sleen's shorter-lived comics from the late 1940s were compiled by publisher Peter Bonte in the books 'Marc Sleen in Ons Volkske, Jaargang 1945' (2014), 'Marc Sleen in Ons Volk, 1944-1947' (2016), 'Marc Sleen in De Spectator, 1945-1950' (2018), 'Marc Sleen in Overal en Zondagsvriend, 1947-1950' (2018), 'Marc Sleen in Ons Zondagsblad, 1950-1952' (2020) and 'Marc Sleen in Ons Zondagsblad, 1953-1956' (2021).

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

Piet Fluwijn en Bolleke
On 24 December 1944, Sleen's first durable comic series, 'Piet Fluwijn', was launched in Ons Volk. On that same day, the magazine also debuted Sleen's 'Neus' serial. Piet Fluwijn is a bald-headed man with a long black mustache and glasses. He is well-meaning, but usually finds himself in embarrassing situations. The character is often compared to Casper Milquetoast from H.T. Webster's American comic strip 'Timid Soul'. Milquetoast also happened to be a bald, bespectacled man with a droopy (but white) mustache, and has a similar sounding name in Dutch translation: Frederik Fluweel. However, Sleen always called this a coincidence and pointed to the father in Erich Ohser's gag comic 'Vater und Sohn' as his real inspiration. This German comic also motivated him to give Fluwijn a son, Bolleke, who debuted on 27 December 1945, one year after Fluwijn's first appearance in print. Bolleke is a typical kid in the sense that he can both be adorably innocent and incredibly sneaky. Although the series was retitled 'Piet Fluwijn en Bolleke' (1945-1974), most episodes focus on Bolleke. The charming gag comic ran in Ons Volk for a couple of years, before moving to its children's supplement Ons Volkske. On 3 April 1947, Ons Volkske continued under the new name 't Kapoentje, which eventually became the children's supplement of the newspaper Het Volk. For decades, the 'Bolleke' strip appeared on the final page of each issue. The series ran in French as 'Miche et Celestin Radis' in 't Kapoentje's French-language edition Le Petit Luron, a supplement of the Walloon magazine Samedi.

In the early 1960s, the 'Bolleke' gags were inked and sometimes penciled by Sleen's assistant Hurey. On 14 April 1965, Sleen left the newspaper Het Volk and joined the competing newspaper De Standaard. Since he owned the rights to the characters, Piet Fluwijn and Bolleke received a new home in De Standaard's youth supplement Pats. However, their names were still owned by Het Volk, so all new episodes, now scripted by Carl Ley (pseudonym of children's writer Karel Verleyen) and drawn by Hurey and his own assistants Jean-Pol and Leo Loedts, had to remain titleless. This also meant these new gags couldn't be collected in album format. The final episode of 'Bolleke' was published in 1974.

Kapoentje, cover by Marc SleenKapoentje, cover by Marc Sleen
'Stropke en Flopke' in 't Kapoentje (respectively 23 June and 3 March 1949).

Tom & Tony (Stropke & Flopke)
On 10 June 1945, Sleen published another gag comic in Ons Volkske, about two boys, 'Tom and Tony' (1945-1946). Tom, the tall blond one, and Tony, the short black-haired one, were inspired by Alain Saint-Ogan's 'Zig et Puce'. Starting 10 June 1945, their gags evolved into an adventure serial, running until 28 March 1946. A week later, they traveled to the USA for their next adventure, returning back home on 24 October 1946. That same day, a new adventure started, but Tom's name was changed into Stropke and Tony's to Flopke. Stropke and Flopke lasted six more adventures. On 3 April 1947, the duo's adventures moved to 't Kapoentje, the continuation of Ons Volkske. Between 22 July 1950 and 27 December 1952, a spin-off comic, 'Stropke', ran in the weekly De Volksmacht. Yet despite the similar title, this feature actually centered around the black-haired kid, not the blond one. Apparently, Marc Sleen had their names mixed up. 

For the magazines Penelope and Ons Volk (which changed its name to Overal on 6 April 1947), Sleen made the pantomime gag comic, 'Pollopof'. It stars a dumb, self-important, chubby mustached man resembling Oliver Hardy. The difference is that Hardy wears a tie, while Pollopof has a bow tie. On 12 August 1948, 'Pollopof' moved to the family weekly De Zondagsvriend, where it ran until January 1950. Between 22 April 1950 and his final appearance on 12 October 1952, the character bumbled along in another Sunday paper, Ons Zondagsblad.

Polopoff by Marc Sleen

De Lustige Kapoentjes
Before the war, Ons Volkske had been the children's supplement of the weekly Ons Volk. It was relaunched after the war, and eventually it appeared independently. When in 1947, the original De Standaard reclaimed the brand names of both Ons Volk and Ons Volkske, the latter continued under the new title 't Kapoentje. On 11 October 1951, 't Kapoentje became the children's supplement of the newspaper Het Volk. Between 3 April 1947 and 14 April 1965, Marc Sleen served as 't Kapoentje's editor. Many of the comics in 't Kapoentje were made by Sleen himself, but there was also room for other Flemish comic artists, like Buth, Rik Clément and Jef Nys.

The flagship of the post-war Ons Volkske was 'De Vrolijke Bengels' (1946-1952), a humor comic by Willy Vandersteen about four naughty children, a self-important police officer, a cake-baking older woman and a villainous young adult. The popular series remained in Ons Volkske's pages after the 3 April 1947 name change to 't Kapoentje. However, on 6 November 1947, Willy Vandersteen left the magazine to join De Standaard's own rebooted version of Ons Volkske, taking 'De Vrolijke Bengels' with him. Now without a mascot, 't Kapoentje launched a replacement comic, 'De Lustige Kapoentjes' ("The Joyful Rascals"), drawn by Bob De Moor. This ran for two years until in late 1949, De Moor also left, in his case to join Tintin magazine.

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

On 16 February 1950, Sleen took over 'De Lustige Kapoentjes', redesigning and renaming the titular characters. The boys were now called Fonske (the blond one), Oskar (the short one with the large cap) and Lange So (tall with the dumbo ears and the beret). The girl of the group was renamed Bikini. The chubby police officer was originally introduced as Champetter Vanmeel, but throughout the series, he is usually simply referred to as "De Champetter" (in Walloon dialect, a village policeman is called "garde champêtre", which became "champetter" in Flemish slang). The older woman whose cakes are constantly stolen became Moeder Stans, while the young thief was renamed Flurk. Just like the previous versions by Vandersteen and De Moor, many episodes revolve around pranks and counter-pranks. The series also ran in 't Kapoentje's Walloon counterpart Le Petit Luron as 'Les Petits Lurons'.

Sleen's take on 'De Lustige Kapoentjes' is generally considered the most iconic. First of all, since he drew the feature for more than 15 years, longer than any of his predecessors or successors. But he also added his personal touch. The comedy is remarkably anarchic. The hoodlum Flurk is a mean juvenile delinquent, and many of the Kapoentjes' pranks are quite sadistic. Their young readers loved it and as they grew older, Sleen's 'De Lustige Kapoentjes' received an additional flavor as a nostalgic time capsule of a more innocent era, when children could still have fun playing outside. In the early 1960s, Hurey inked and sometimes penciled 'De Lustige Kapoentjes', just like he did with Sleen's 'Bolleke' gags. When on 14 April 1965 Sleen left 't Kapoentje to join newspaper De Standaard, the rights to the title 'De Lustige Kapoentjes' remained with newspaper Het Volk. In 't Kapoentje, the feature continued with completely different characters, drawn by respectively Jef Nys (1965-1967), Hurey (1967-1976), Kabou (1976-1985) and Jo (1985-1989). In 2011, 'De Lustige Kapoentjes' was rebooted by Tom Bouden, with a different scriptwriter for each gag. Confusingly enough, starting on 14 April 1965, Sleen's original Kapoentje characters reappeared in De Standaard's juvenile supplement Pats, but couldn't make use of the original title. Just like 'Piet Fluwijn en Bolleke', the feature continued to appear without a title until 1974, in this later period drawn by Sleen's assistants Hurey and Jean-Pol. These same legal issues also kept the new episodes from appearing in album collections.

Joke Poke/Fonske
For Ons Zondagsblad, the Sunday supplement of newspaper Het Volk, Sleen created the gag comic 'Joke Poke' (1950-1951), about a boy with a crew cut. After running there from 6 May until 17 June 1950, the feature moved to 't Kapoentje, where it ran from 6 July 1950 until 21 June 1951. Between April 1951 and October 1960, Sleen created his last new children's comic, 'Fonske' (1951-1960). The gag comic appeared in the monthly boy scout magazine Doorbraak, issued by the Catholic Worker's Youth movement (K.A.J.). The title character was basically Fonske from 'De Lustige Kapoentjes', but with black hair instead of blonde. Together with his bespectacled best friend Frans, Fonske often faces off against a mean Flurk-like youngster named Sooi.

 Tour de France cartoon by Marc Sleen
'Tour de France' cartoon, 1962, depicting cyclists Federico Bahamontes, Robert Cazala and Tom Simpson. 

De Ronde van Frankrijk
Sleen's first genuine comic aimed at an adult readership was also his only sports feature, 'De Ronde van Frankrijk' ("Tour de France", 1947-1964). Starting on 29 June 1947, he visualized every daily tournament of the annual cycling event Tour de France in a humorous one-panel gag cartoon. The series ran in the newspapers Het Vrije Volksblad, De Nieuwe Gids and Het Nieuws Van Den Dag. Between 1950 and 1964, 'De Ronde van Frankrijk' appeared exclusively in Het Volk. From 1956 on, it also ran in French in the Walloon newspaper La Cité, under the title 'Tour de France'. Each episode summarizes the noteworthy events of that specific tour day. Proverbial situations are depicted literally. In his cartoons, Sleen makes use of caricatures of the cyclists, trainers and Tour manager Jacques Goddet. He pokes fun at their names, physical features, ethnicities and makes referential comedy about the towns and cities the contestants pass by. The entire feature is peppered with petulant Belgian comedy and lovely nonsense. A running gag is the despair over the fact that the Belgian national team never wins, despite their pre-war Tour victories.

For the first edition, Sleen followed the event live, traveling along through France with the journalists from the paper's sports section. For the next Tours, he preferred to stay at home and follow the event on the radio instead. In total, he covered 17 Tours. While it only occupied his work schedule for three weeks a year, it was a stressful period. After all, Sleen couldn't plan episodes beforehand, nor put things on hold for a few days. He had to follow all the events live, draw his cartoons in between and could only finish it after the winner had been announced. Sometimes he already drew the winner's body so he could just fill in the head afterwards. As soon as his drawing was done, a delivery boy picked it up, so it could appear in the newpaper's evening edition. The next day, the drawing also appeared in the morning edition. Much to Sleen's frustration, his delivery boy was paid better than him. In 1992, all episodes were compiled into the book 'De Grote Rondes van Marc Sleen' (Reinaert, Het Volk, 1992). Only a few episodes from the 1949 Tour were lost and could not be retrieved. In hindsight, it is a pity that Sleen discontinued his Tour comic only five editions away from the post-war victories of Belgian cycling champion Eddy Merckx (1969-1974).

Sleen's 'Tour de France' comics were such an original and popular concept, that other newspapers had their cartoonists copy the idea. Sleen's colleague Buth created Tour de France-themed cartoons for Het Volk and Het Nieuwsblad. Rival newspaper De Standaard ran a similar but short-lived feature, 'Draaien, Altijd Maar Draaien' (1948-1949), illustrated by Willy Vandersteen. In 1952, De Gazet van Antwerpen serialized a daily Tour comic by Ray Goossens, while in the late 1950s, Morris covered the Tour in daily comics for Het Laatste Nieuws. After Sleen terminated his 'Tour de France' comics in Het Volk in 1965, other cartoonists made similar cartoons in Het Vrije Volksblad and Het Volk until 1982. The same happened in other papers, like the Gazet van Antwerpen, for which Erik Vandemeulebroucke made daily Tour cartoons throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

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

Gag comics for an adult readership
Sleen's best-known adult comic series were 'Doris Dobbel' and 'Oktaaf Keunink'. The first ran between 8 April 1950 and 4 February 1965 in the Flemish independent proprietors' magazine De Middenstand and its Dutch sister magazine Stuwing. The title character Dobbel is a beer-bellied and not-too-bright butcher. In most episodes, he interacts with his clients and nagging wife. Often, Sleen pitched Doris against his next-door rival butcher, Jan Janssens. The equally jealous Doris and Jan go through great lengths to prank and sabotage each other's businesses. Butcher Janssens' physical looks were modeled after Sleen's good friend, the journalist Jan De Spot. Probably because of the similar name, the 'Doris Dobbel' comic strip has sometimes been accused of ripping off Rik Clément's 'Dees Dubbel' series, but this plagiarism claim holds no water. Clément's series debuted five years after Sleen's creation and is a straightforward humorous adventure strip, rather than a gag series.

After a few years, Sleen made Doris Dobbel try out different professions, albeit all within the realm of an independent proprietor. Between September 1959 and May 1963, Sleen's assistant Hurey inked some 'Doris Dobbel' gags, and penciled episodes in the final years too. When in 1965 Sleen quit 'Doris Dobbel', Hurey continued the series on his own until February 1967.

'Oktaaf Keunink'.

Oktaaf Keunink
'Oktaaf Keunink' (16 November 1952 - 4 April 1965) was a Sunday gag comic, appearing in Het Volk's weekly supplement Ons Zondagsblad. The main character, Oktaaf (sometimes spelled "Octaaf"), is an old, pipe-smoking man who is bossed around by his domineering wife Beva. Many gags revolve around their arguments and fights. A running joke is that Octaaf invents various ploys to escape his wife's wrath and go out playing cards with his fellow bar-hopping mates. In this sense, the series is similar to Sleen's 'Doris Dobbel' feature. Oktaaf's neighbor Balk is even modeled after Sleen's friend Jan De Spot, as was the neighbor in 'Doris Dobbel'. The series also appeared in French under the name 'Octave Blaireau'.

Pen Contra Poen & Co
For the readers of the union magazine Ons Recht, Sleen drew 56 office humor gag cartoons of 'Pen Contra Poen & Co' (1954-1958).

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

Sleen's most celebrated and longest-running comic strip was 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 overnight sensation. Every Flemish paper now wanted a daily comic of its own, if not by Vandersteen then by somebody else. On 1 July 1947, Willy Vandersteen left De Nieuwe Gids to continue 'Suske en Wiske' in De Standaard instead. Astoundingly, more than 25,000 readers terminated their subscription to buy De Standaard from then on. The editors of De Nieuwe Gids quickly needed a replacement comic strip. Originally, Sleen asked the journalist Gaston Durnez to write a script for him, but in the end, he used very little of Durnez' plot. One of Durnez' few remaining ideas was the protagonist, a heroic detective named Detectief Van Zwam. Van Zwam is presented as brilliant in his profession, almost at Sherlock Holmes levels. In the first episode of 'De Avonturen van Detectief van Zwam' ("The Adventures of Detective Van Zwam"), published on 2 October 1947, he investigates a series of mysterious kidnappings. His trail leads him to an underground base, where a Japanese mad scientist called Matsuoka poisons people with mind-altering beer. It turns his victims into lunatics who think they are historical figures. One of them is Jef Pedal, a tall, pointy-nosed man who is obsessed with using a hammer, fancying himself a medieval lord called "Jan with the Hammer". The other is an dumb, bald, chubby twit, who thinks he is Emperor Nero. By the end of the story, both regain their sanity and become close friends. In the next nine stories, Van Zwam, Jef Pedal and Nero often go on adventures together. Strangely enough, everyone keeps calling the Nero character Nero, even though his real name is Schoonpaard. The laurel leaves behind his ears are a reminder from his original delusion that he was a Roman emperor.

Originally, Nero served as the comic relief to the more level-headed Van Zwam and Jef Pedal. He is a dumb, vain and short-tempered fool. Nevertheless, he has occasional moments of brilliance and is overall a good-natured "bon vivant". After drinking from an enchanted river in 'De Man Met Het Gouden Hoofd' (1950), he grew his two trademark antenna-like hairs on his bald head. At this point, most narratives revolved around him, rather than Van Zwam. So in 1950, the series was retitled to 'Nero', while Van Zwam was relegated to the role of side character. Jef Pedal made fewer and fewer appearances, until by 1958 he almost completely vanished from the series. In his new role as anti-hero, Nero became far lazier. Many stories start off with him lying on his sofa, preferring to stay at home, rather than go on an adventure. As the plaque next to his doorbell reads, his only "job" is being a "newspaper appearance". Only a treasure hunt or a friend in danger might get him off his couch.

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

Within a short time, 'Nero' proved a worthy competitor to Willy Vandersteen's 'Suske en Wiske'. A year after its 1947 debut, 'Nero' also ran in Het Nieuws van den Dag. In 1950, Het Volk bought the series away so it could exclusively appear in their pages instead. Just like when Vandersteen left De Nieuwe Gids for De Standaard, several readers quickly followed Marc Sleen to his new homebase, Het Volk. During the 1950s and 1960s, 'Nero' and 'Suske en Wiske' became the best-selling Flemish comics. Even though 'Nero' 's sales diminished from the mid-1970s on, both series are still often named in the same breath. They share many comparisons. Both have a family friendly tone, despite not centering on a traditional family. Each feature colorful characters, ironic comedy and absurd, cartoony gags. Stories are set in recognizable Flemish locations. Nero's personality is similar to Lambik, the comic relief of the 'Suske en Wiske' strip. Both are dumb, balding, pot-bellied Flemings who often get carried away by their vices. At the same time, they easily win readers' sympathy for these exact same reasons. 'Nero' and 'Suske en Wiske' both started out as dialect-driven comics with occasional winks to current affairs. But while 'Suske en Wiske' was eventually streamlined into a more timeless, apolitical, studio product, 'Nero' remained quite topical. Marc Sleen kept referencing the news of the day, and maintained his very personal touch. Another major difference is the moralistic, idealistic tone of 'Suske en Wiske', compared with the zany, anarchic and sometimes black comedy of 'Nero'. Arguments among Flemish comic fans about which of the two comics was "better" were once just as heated as the debates about The Beatles versus The Rolling Stones.

The first 53 'Nero' stories were collected by N.V. Drukkerij Het Volk in black-and-white albums. They sold well, also because of their bargain price. The book's paper notoriously smelled of fresh printer's ink, giving them a special flavor to fans. The author himself always credited the appeal of his black-and-white stories over his color ones to readers' nostalgia. In Wallony, 'Nero' was serialized as 'Néron' in the French-language newspaper La Cité.

Nero lives together with his wife, Bea, who is generally 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 and Cambridge and dismisses anything illogical as being "scientifically impossible". Sometimes his inventions 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 adventures together, where her domineering personality provides a hilarious contrast to his short temper. In 'Moea Papoea' (1950-1951), she adopts a black Papuan New Guinean teenage boy, Petoetje. Both Madam Pheip and Petoetje are interesting characters, particularly within the era they were created in. Madam Pheip is a strong, sassy and independent woman who knows how to take charge in problematic situations. In 'De Zwarte Voeten' (1951), she gets married, but she still runs the household. Her husband, Philemon Pheip, AKA "Meneer Pheip", even takes 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), it is revealed that he became a genius from eating so much chicory. Following Blackske in Pink's 'Suske en Blackske' (1932) and Cirage in Jijé's 'Blondin et Cirage' (1939-1942, 1951-1963), Petoetje was the third main black character to appear in a Belgian comic series.

Meneer Pheip is another colorful character in the series. He is the rich, but self-important mayor of Moerbeke-Waas who speaks both Dutch and French, although mangled. Much comedy is derived from how he literally translates Dutch expressions into French and mixes both languages up. In 'De Ring van Petatje' (1953), the Pheips adopt another child, the young orphan girl Petatje. Much like Nero and his wife, the Pheips eventually give birth to a son of their own: Clo-Clo. In 'De Groene Gravin' (1975-1976), Clo-Clo makes his debut. Although he is only a toddler, he shares his father's walrus mustache. But despite this premature facial hair, he is still the most normal child in the series. Clo-Clo is naïve and while he can be an obnoxious spoiled brat and cry-baby, he still has an adorable wonder for the world around him, in sharp contrast with the adults and Adhemar's more rational view of life.

In 'De Hoed van Geeraard de Duivel' (1950), Nero first meets the fries salesman Jan Spier. Spier is remarkably strong and quite popular with the ladies. He is often compared to Jerom, the strongman from Willy Vandersteen's 'Suske en Wiske', though Spier debuted three years earlier. Spier gave Marc Sleen an easy excuse to draw caricatures of famous people lining up at his friterie. Starting with the episode 'De Groene Chinees' (1954), the tipsy old sea captain Kapitein Oliepul made regular appearances. He often sails Nero and his friends to exotic locations or picks them up when they are lost at sea or on deserted islands. His ship, His Majesty Pull, is a small tugboat with a disproportionately large chimney.

De bom van boema by Marc Sleen
Nero - 'De Dolle Vloot' (1976).

Another naval friend of Nero, though often a nuisance, is the loony, long-bearded dwarf Abraham Tuizentfloot. Debuting in 'De Granaatslikker' (1957), Tuizentfloot claims to be a pirate. Although he talks, dresses and fights like one, he can't swim. His ship is only seen once in the series (in the album 'De Dolle Vloot', 1976) and most of the time, he prefers to dwell on land. Easily agitated, Tuizentfloot attacks people with his saber, yelling his trademark catchphrase: "Ten... aha... aanval!" ("A.. aha...ttack!"), followed by wild fight scenes and people's clothes being torn off. Sleen once said about him: "At the time, Tuizentfloot was quite a unique creation. Nowadays, you see dozens of far wackier people in the streets." The character also polarized readers. Some hate his violent, aggressive behavior, others adore his anarchism. In the Netherlands, Tuizentfloot was Sleen's most popular character - so much so, that when in 1989 Dutch artist Peter Pontiac drew a map of the Lambiek comic store with the heads of several iconic comic characters, he drew Tuizentfloot rather than Nero.

'Nero' also has its fair share of recurring villains, not only the previously mentioned Japanese diabolical genius Matsuoka, but also the Russian mad scientist Ratsjenko, the Maltese maffiosi Ricardo and the demon Geeraard de Duivel, who wants Nero to sell him his soul. Even the Grim Reaper has stalked Nero, despite the fact that our hero became immortal after drinking a life elixir in 'De Nerobloemen' (1978).

Mature style
In interviews, Marc Sleen often claimed he had no specific age demographic in mind when creating his 'Nero' comics. His stories feature notable mature imagery like decapitations, political allusions, smoking children, anarchic violence and occasional sexual innuendo. In 1993, the Belgian comic artist Hec Leemans said that Sleen already made "a kind of underground comix two decades before it became a cultural phenomenon." Likewise, 'Nero' is a strange mixture between the world of adults and children. Many characters in the series are essentially manchildren, like Nero, Meneer Pheip and Tuizentfloot. They are not very bright and easily lose control over their emotions. Yet the children in 'Nero' are oddly very mature for their age. Adhemar and Petoetje are child geniuses, while Clo-Clo's full-grown mustache gives him the looks of an adult. As Sleen once observed: "The children in 'Nero' are also smarter than the adults."

De Egmont planeet by Marc Sleen
Nero - 'De Planeet Egmont' (1978). From left to right in line are 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 sheik.

Political satire
While creating 'Nero' stories, Marc Sleen's roots as a political cartoonist were never far behind. He essentially remained a caricaturist who made comics. Many of his human and animal characters are designed according to simple, easily recognizable but witty stereotypes, typical for editorial cartoonists. Sleen also made frequent references to national and international politics. 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 the Egyptian president Nasser in 'De Brief aan Nasser' (1963), while in 'De Gouden Hemelkijker' (1991), Nero kicks Saddam Hussein in his rear. In 'De Man van Europa' (1990), everyone who visits the Koningsplein in Brussels and looks at the sky literally loses their 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. Sometimes, Sleen even modified the plot halfway through a story. In 'De IJzeren Kolonel' (1956), a British colonel asks Nero to join him in liberating the then occupied Suez channel. While Sleen made the story, the Hungarian Uprising broke out. In a subplot, he made the children Petoetje and Petatje travel to Egypt, but pass through Hungary first. 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 is a jolly old sport and even calls him "Jef", not even thinking of protocol. The tale ends with Stalin and U.S. President Truman joining Nero at his dinner table and happily drinking and singing until early dawn.

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

Much of the zany narratives and political satire in 'Nero' were inspired by the Dutch newspaper comic 'Pa Pinkelman' (1945-1952) by Godfried Bomans and Carol Voges. The political nods in 'Nero' were enjoyable to newspaper readers, but were instantly dated by the time the stories were published in book format. Since they were so intertwined with the plot, Sleen never altered the content. Reading the series chronologically offers a veritable time capsule of most major events that happened between 1947 and 2002. Stories reference the Cold War, Vietnam War, the 1973 oil crisis, Provos, hippies, feminists, terrorists, the 1980s nuclear missile protests, the Brabant Killers among other topics. Reprints of classic 'Nero' stories add explanations and some historical context for these events and topics in the penultimate pages. Since Sleen's political satire was all in good fun, he seldom encountered problems. A notable exception occurred when he mocked Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in 'De Wensring' (1975). Sleen's editors reminded him that Amin was still considered "a friend of the Belgian government". Not planning to change the entire story, Sleen simply drew a beard and mustache on Amin's face to make him "unrecognizable". In later stories, Amin had already fallen from grace with the West and Sleen could then satirize him as he pleased. Sleen also gave cameos to media celebrities such as The Beatles ('De Paarse Futen', 1966-1967), Paul Newman ('Ivan De Verschrikkelijke', 1972) Frank Zappa ('Het Beest Zonder Naam', 1985), and to friends and colleagues, like Willy Vandersteen in 'De Totentrekkers' (1971-1972).

Absurd, self-reflexive comedy
'Nero' is known for its many extremely daft and unpredictable comic narratives. In 'De Granaatslikker' (1957), Nero swallows a hand grenade, while in 'Het Lachvirus' (1973) he and his friends are contaminated by a virus that makes everybody laugh uncontrollably. In 'De Man Zonder Gezicht' (1974), Nero meets a man with no eyes, nose or mouth. 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. He sticks it back into place with glue, but bandits still manage to steal it and request a ransom.

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

Marc Sleen once compared his comics to The Marx Brothers, of whom he was a great fan. Many of his characters are odd eccentrics or lunatics. Nero has met mythological characters such as Pegasus, Neptune, Lady Fortune and seasonal character Sinterklaas and his black donkey, who insists he is a horse. Nero encountered his other self in the guise of a ghost in a high hat ('De Hoed van Geeraard de Duivel', 1950). He met 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). Sleen was amazed how many madmen inhabit his series, right from the very first episode. One of them, Abraham Tuizentfloot, even became a permanent cast member. Sleen attributed all this mad humor to his own recurring feeling of going insane over his daily deadlines.

Another staple of 'Nero' is the self-reflexive comedy. During the holiday seasons, Nero and company often interrupted the story to bring newspaper readers their New Year's wishes. Characters often complain to their cartoonist Sleen about how a story is evolving and especially when they fall victim to it. Sometimes they even beat Sleen up 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". Sleen sometimes gave himself even more self-deprecating cameos. In 'De Zweefbonbons' (1978-1979), Sleen notices Clo-Clo drowning in a river and tries to save him, but knocks himself unconscious against a rock. Nero then has to save the kid and his spiritual creator as well. Afterwards, Sleen thanks him, but Nero answers: "I had to, otherwise I wouldn't appear in tomorrow's paper." In a nightmare sequence of 'De Terugkeer van Geeraard de Duivel' (1983), Nero dreams he is in Hell, where he resides among Hitler, Stalin and Khomeini, but also Sleen, who mutters: "Some people have their personal Hell on Earth." However, the comic artist also used his series for more uplifting inside jokes. Book shelves often feature books by Sleen's favorite authors, like T.S. Eliot, while street names, "Wanted" posters or random cameos refer to personal friends or well-known comic scholars like Danny De Laet, Jan De Smet, Hans Matla and Patrick Van Gompel. Sleen also enjoyed citing inspirational philosophical quotes. One such example happens in 'De Groene Gravin' (1975), where the butler (a caricature of Sleen) calls himself stupid and Nero advises him: "Never talk bad about yourself, others will do it for you."

De P.P. Safari by Marc Sleen
Marc Sleen, vast asleep, next to his safari guide Gordon Harvey, in 'De P.P. Safari' (1979-1980).

Love for animals
Sleen was a huge nature lover. He adored animals, and had a particular interest in birds. In interviews, he claimed that if if he hadn't been a comic artist, he would have been an ornithologist instead. From 1962 until 1993, he visited Africa on an annual basis, which gave him a well-deserved break from his stressful and lonely job as a cartoonist. Thanks to his permanent Scottish safari guide, Gordon Harvey (1908-1992), Sleen was able to avoid the familiar tourist traps. In 1971 he also traveled to India for a TV documentary by the Flemish public TV channel BRT (nowadays VRT). From 1974 on, he also made animal documentary series for them, with footage shot in Africa. Much of the footage was used for the series 'Allemaal Beestjes' and also printed in eight photo books, titled 'De Safari's van Marc Sleen'. In the mid-1970s, chocolate company Côte d'Or released an educational vinyl record about elephants, 'Histoire et Images des Eléphants/De Olifant in Woord en Beeld'. The A-side was narrated in French by Edgar Kesteloot, while Sleen narrated the B-side in Dutch. 

His TV appearances made Sleen more recognizable to general audiences and he was frequently invited to lectures and exhibitions. His expertise in fauna inspired many stories in which Nero and company meet exotic animals, which was always a golden opportunity for Nero's genius son Adhemar to explain some trivia about them, including their Latin names. Many of the animals Nero brings home with him from his trips are later donated to the Antwerp Zoo. Starting in the 1970s, 'Nero' became increasingly more critical of animal cruelty, pollution and game hunting. A recurring plotline brings Nero to some faraway jungle or deserted island, where either he, a local hermit or a talking animal enjoy the tranquility of nature, far away from "so-called civilization." Sleen advocated the same viewpoints in interviews. In 1982, he established his own safari club, 'Marc Sleen Safari Club', and in 1984 he became a member of the World Wildlife Fund.

Nero - 'Zwoele Charlotte' (1973).

Working methods
For a staggering 45 years straight, Sleen wrote and drew almost all his 'Nero' comics by himself. He had only two notable assistants, both active for only a short period of time. In 1961, he hired Hurey to fill in for him while he went on a rare three month-vacation. During this period, Hurey only redrew the three oldest albums, 'Het Geheim van Matsuoka' (1947), 'Het B-Gevaar' (1948) and 'Het Zeespook' (1948). The redrawn version of 'Het B-Gevaar' ran in the papers during Sleen's absence. No other 'Nero' stories were ever redrawn again. In fact, when Hurey left Het Volk in 1967, their professional and personal friendship came to and end. It seems that Sleen considered Hurey as his successor, but now that he left for another paper under an exclusivity contract, these plans fell through. For six months in 1988, Francis Bertrand shortly assisted on the background art of 'Nero', but couldn't mimic Sleen's style. Only when Dirk Stallaert came on board in 1992, Sleen could finally sit back and focus on the scripts.

For the majority of his career, Sleen had carried on alone, working in this dedicated way for almost half a century. Whenever he planned a vacation, he had to draw out several weeks of material beforehand, so 'Nero' could continue during his absence. Even when struck with fever, he conscientiously kept drawing. These working circumstances also explain his simple, yet efficient drawings. His comics have a classic lay-out, without overly detailed backgrounds or complicated perspectives. Sleen often made up his narratives as he went along, following only a loose plot thread. To save time, he sometimes recycled designs. For instance, Doris Dobbel and Oktaaf Keunink's neighbor both look like his good friend Jan De Spot, while Madam Nero is the identical twin of Moeder Stans from 'De Lustige Kapoentjes'. The quick production tempo also resulted in occasional "off model" drawings, continuity errors and abrupt endings.

Still, fans have always accepted these shortcomings as part of the series' charm. It added to its sheer unpredictability and was the surest sign of Sleen's personal touch. His graphic and narrative talent shouldn't be underestimated. He was a master in creating character and atmosphere with only a few carefully chosen lines and hatchings. His characters have distinct personalities and are instantly "readable". He was a highly skilled caricaturist, and his animals were drawn with the greatest admiration. And Sleen was very skilled in conveying horror - from the haunted castle in 'Het Rattenkasteel' (1948) to his memorable depictions of nightmares, witches, ghosts, demons and Hell.

Move from Het Volk to De Standaard
On 14 April 1965, Marc Sleen left newspaper Het Volk in favor of De Standaard and its sister newspapers De Gentenaar and Het Nieuwsblad. He discontinued several of his long-running comic series or passed them on to other artists. This took a considerable workload off his back, so he could fully concentrate on his signature hit 'Nero'. The only problem was that De Standaard already expected the upcoming 'Nero' story in its pages, while Sleen was still under contract with Het Volk until 30 June. To bridge this three month-gap, a Studio Vandersteen artist, Eduard De Rop, made a unique parody of 'Nero', scripted by Gaston Durnez. The story, 'De Avonturen van Nero & Co', was partially drawn in the style of Studio Vandersteen, while much 'Nero' imagery was cut-and-pasted from Sleen's albums. The story was serialized in De Standaard, but after five episodes, Het Volk threatened to sue. For a few weeks, Sleen's characters were drastically remodeled and the title was removed from the strip. The legal battle over a comic strip between Het Volk and De Standaard was effectively the biggest in Flemish newspaper history and went on for two months. Meanwhile, the 'Nero' spoof, now retitled 'De Geschiedenis van Sleenovia', continued its publication. A judge ruled in Het Volk's favor, but De Standaard entered an appeal. At this point, some high-ranking Catholic clergymen stepped in and solved the matter amiably. Still, 'De Geschiedenis van Sleenovia' never had an official album release, except for a 1979 give-away edition with issue #25 of the comics news magazine CISO Stripgids. In 2017, publisher Peter Bonte finally released the story in book format, with a cover drawing by Dirk Stallaert. In 1995, 'Nero' was published in Het Volk again, while still appearing in De Standaard, Het Nieuwsblad, De Gentenaar and De Nieuwe Gids.

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

Nero during the color era (1965-2002)
Marc Sleen's move to De Standaard in 1965 was partially motivated by the fact that the 'Nero' albums would now be published in color. To appeal to a larger audience, the language switched from Flemish dialect to standard Dutch. Yet unlike Willy Vandersteen's 'Suske en Wiske' (who was now his colleague within the same paper), Sleen still occasionally used dialect phrases. After the 53th album, 'De Lowie Treize Kast' (1965), the next album, 'Het Bobobeeldje' was numbered volume 1. During the color era, 'Nero' underwent a few notable changes and additions. From the second new album on, 'Het Groene Vuur' (1965), almost every story ends with a gregarious waffle feast. Sleen made it a tradition loyal newspaper readers looked out for. Much like the changing of the seasons, after the conclusion of Nero's latest three-month serial, he and his friends would gather around to enjoy a delicious warm waffle. Many public events honoring Sleen and his work still combine the celebration with baking waffles for the visitors. To Sleen's fans in The Netherlands, it was also a fine expression of the Belgian reputation for bourgondien meals.

Spanish version of the 'Nero' album 'Het Bobobeeldje' and German version of 'Hoed Je Voor Kastar'. 

Throughout the color era, Sleen made a few attempts to reach a larger audience. Some stories were translated in English ('Nero', later 'Nibbs & Co'), French ('Néron'), German ('Nero') and Spanish ('Nerón'). Some albums in Flemish dialect were relettered in standard Dutch to be distributed in The Netherlands. A South African translation was once considered, but in the apartheid-torn country, potential publishers objected to the black main cast member Petoetje. In the end, the series was simply too Flemish to appeal outside the Belgian borders. Only in Wallonia and The Netherlands it enjoys some cult status. Since Sleen's stories satirized current affairs and politics, much of the jokes went right over foreign readers' heads. For the same reason, 'Nero' gradually lost its popularity with young readers from the mid-1970s on. Sleen tried to win them back with the introduction of the new child cast member Clo-Clo, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Pheip. His innocence and energy made him appealing to kids, while driving several plots forward.

Nevertheless, new cast members didn’t prevent 'Nero' from becoming a comic predominantly read and enjoyed by adults. Sleen refused to commercialize his characters. They were never adapted into films or TV series and only used on a limited amount of merchandising products. His only "commercial" album, 'De Jinkaboems' (1976), was made for a noble cause, UNICEF. In several interviews, Sleen said that he knew very well that if he used his strongman character Jan Spier more often, he could probably triple his book sales. But he refused to turn him into a deus ex machina. Even the one character he did use for this role, captain Oliepul, was cast sparingly. 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.

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

Longevity record
Working single handedly for more than 45 years without hardly any assistance, Sleen entered the Guinness Book of Records in 1992. His record for "Longest running cartoon strip by a single artist" has been broken a few times, bringing him behind Charles M. Schulz's daily 'Peanuts' strip (1950-2000, 49 years), 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). In addition to other newspaper cartoonists who matched his achievement, Sleen's 'Nero' appeared with not one, but two strips a day. On top of that, he had nearly ten other gag comics running during the first 18 years of 'Nero'.

Dirk Stallaert as assistant (1992-2002)
In 1992, after drawing almost 200 albums, Sleen's eyes became too weak to continue. He hired an assistant, Dirk Stallaert, who took over the artwork, starting with the 'Nero' album 'Barbarijse Vijgen' (1992). His graphically more advanced and detailed drawings caused a notable style shift. Purists complained, but Sleen kept the spirit of the series alive by still writing the stories. During this decade, even a new cast member was added in the story 'Het Achtste Wereldwonder' (1996): a chubby, no-nonsense police officer called Gaston. Thanks to Stallaert's help, 'Nero' could continue its seemingly never-ending run. In 1997, the series celebrated its 50th anniversary. However, around this time, newspaper editors considered canceling 'Nero', since it was no longer the success it was before. Thanks to a petition by loyal fans, 'Nero' was saved for five more years. Yet in 2002, Sleen personally decided to retire his classic comic after 55 years of continuous publication and 216 individual titles. He announced that no new albums would be created, with 'Zilveren Tranen' (2002) being the final title.

In the following years, Stallaert remained on board as Sleen's official artist for publicity causes. For every new event, publication or reprint, he provided new artwork with Sleen's characters. After Marc Sleen's death in 2016, three official homage albums to 'Nero' came out. In 2017, Kim Duchateau received the honor of making a completely new 'Nero' story, 'De Zeven Vloeken' (2017), drawn in his own, personal style. It was serialized in Knack magazine. Three years later, Willy Linthout wrote another new 'Nero' story, 'De Toet van Tut' (2020), illustrated by Luc Cromheecke and again printed in Knack. 'De Hemeltergers' (2022), scripted by Kim Duchateau and drawn by Dirk Stallaert has been announced as the final 'Nero' homage album.

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

Graphic contributions
Sleen illustrated two Tour de France interview books by journalist Jan Cornand, 'Humor en Tragiek uit de Tour' and 'Figuren uit de Tour' (both published by Het Volk, 1958). He made caricatures of film stars for the book '60 Jaar Film' (De Garve, 1961) and of Flemish TV stars for the 1962 book 'TV Album 62', which had a foreword by Gaston Durnez. Sleen livened up weatherman Armand Pien's book 'Zwaarbewolkt Met Opklaringen' (1963), since he was a personal friend. The comic legend also designed the cover of Jef Burm's comedy records 'De Weerman' (1961), 'Links Afslaan' (1961), 'Metteko' (1961), 'Sportlui' (1961) and 'Allo Sjoe' (1966). In 1980, Sleen was one of many Belgian comic 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 in celebration of the 150th anniversary of Belgium as a country.

In 1948, Sleen won the second place prize in a cartoon contest titled 'Het Dure Leven', organized by the Belgian government. The 'Nero' album 'Het Lachvirus' won the 1974 Brussels Prix Saint-Michel for "Best Humor Story". Sleen received the Gouden Potlood ("Golden Pencil") at the Casino of Middelkerke on 2 August 1997. That same year, the 'Nero' story 'De Roos van Sakhti' won the award for 'Best Dutch-language Comic Book' at the Comic Festival of Durbuy. In 2002, Sleen received the comic award Stripvos, from the Vlaamse Onafhankelijke Stripgilde (The Flemish Independent Comics' Guild).

As one of the last surviving Belgian comic pioneers, Sleen enjoyed the status of "grand old man" of his profession in the Low Countries. Since 1984, Sleen was a board member of the Belgian Comic Strip Center and when the museum opened its doors in Brussels five years later, he was one of a handful of Belgian comic pioneers whose work was part of the permanent exhibition. Since Sleen was a jury member of the annual Bronzen Adhemar Awards (named after his character Adhemar), he was technically unable to win the award himself. However, on 11 December 1993, he was given an honorary golden award instead of a bronze version.

On 13 November 1975, Sleen received the Gouden Kruis van Officier in de Brabantse Orde van Verdienste ("Golden Cross of Officer in the Brabant Order of Merit"). In 1981 he was honored with the Groot-Orde-Lint in de Orde van de Vos Reynaert ("Grand Order in the Order of Reynard the Fox") in Sint-Niklaas. He has also been declared a honorary citizen of the Belgian cities Hulshout (1981), Sint-Niklaas (28 May 1988), Durbuy (1992), Brussels (21 June 2005), Turnhout (2008) and Hoeilaart (4 June 2011) and of the Dutch town Sleen (1984).  In 2005, he appeared at 48th place in the Flemish version of the election of 'The Greatest Belgian', being one of only three comic artists to make that list. On 12 July 2016, he received the Ereteken van de Vlaamse Gemeenschap ("The Honorary Sign of the Flemish Community").

On 27 January 1989, Sleen was named a Knight in the Crown Order. A decade later, on 26 January 1999, he received the highest honor of his career when he was knighted by King Albert II. His Majesty was also present when Sleen received his very own museum on 18 June 2009: the Marc Sleen Museum, located in the Zandstraat in Brussels, situated in the former offices of the newspaper De Nieuwe Gids. The king was a personal friend of Sleen, since he and his brother, king Boudewijn/Baudouin, both learned Dutch as a child by reading 'Nero'. Other notable celebrity fans of 'Nero' were former Belgian king Leopold III, novelist Hugo Claus and Prime Minister Théo Lefèvre. On 31 January 2023, it was announced that the Marc Sleen Museum would close down, with part of its collection being integrated in the Belgian Comic Strip Center across the street. 

Brussels by Marc Sleen
Marc Sleen's depiction of Wiezekes Poort/Porte Louise in Brussels (1957).

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

Legacy and influence
Marc Sleen remains a highly respected artist in Belgium. Flemish composer Elias Gistelinck wrote a classical piece dedicated to him, 'Three Little Compositions for Marc Sleen' (1995). Nero has statues in Hoeilaart (inaugurated on 10 September 1994) and Middelkerke (1998), while Adhemar has one in Turnhout (inaugurated on 15 June 1991), Tuizentfloot in Wuustwezel (unveiled on 1 July 2000) and Meneer Pheip in Moerbeke-Waas (inaugurated on 24 August 2012). The 'Nero' franchise inspired an opera, 'Het Rattenkasteel' (premiere, 14 July 1984), a novel ('Terugkeer naar Het Rattenkasteel', written by Don Vitalski, 2022), a bas relief in Sint-Niklaas (22 April 2001) and comic book murals in Brussels (May 1995, Place Saint-Géry/Sint-Goriksplein, as part of the Brussels' Comic Book Route), Hasselt (9 August 1996), Antwerp (5 July 2014, Kloosterstraat), Middelkerke (21 August 2017, Watervlietstraat) and Hoeilaart (5 June 2022, Bakenbosstraat). The bi-annual Flemish comic prize Bronzen Adhemar ('The Bronze Adhemar'), established in 1977, was named and sculpted after Nero's genius son. The Belgian town Hoeilaart has a café named after Nero, where a special Nero beer is served. The Brussels comic book shop Het B-Gevaar was named after one of the 'Nero' albums.

In Belgium, Marc Sleen was an influence on Willy Linthout (whose 1982 debut comic 'De Zeven van Zeveneken' was a 'Nero' parody), Urbanus, Kamagurka, Jean-Pol, Luc Cromheecke, Hec Leemans, Marc Legendre, Dirk Stallaert, François Walthéry, Merho, Pirana, WEgé, Raoul Cauvin, Nix, Kim Duchateau, Pieter De Poortere, Hugo Matthysen and Erik Meynen. In the Netherlands, he ranks Martin Lodewijk, Marq van Broekhoven, Aart Clerkx, Berend Vonk and the duo Windig & De Jong among his admirers. An obscure Dutch collective named Schietvereniging Okido created a 1988 comic, 'Zef Bef', in which both Nero and Willy Vandersteen's Lambik have cameos. Since 2016, the town of Hoeilaart (where Sleen lived from 1955 until his death) organizes an annual waffle feast to keep Marc Sleen and his legacy alive.  

De Zesde Kabouter by Marc Sleen
A typical waffle feast ending from 'De Zesde Kabouter' (1977).

Books about Marc Sleen
For people interested in Sleen's life and career, Fernand Auwera and Jan Smet's 'Marc Sleen' (Standaard Uitgeverij, 1985) is a must-read. Three books, 'Marc Sleen, een Uitgave van de Bronzen Adhemar Stichting' (1993), 'Marc Sleen 80. De Enige Echte' (Standaard Uitgeverij, 2002) and 'Marc Sleen 90. Liber Amicorum' (Standaard Uitgeverij, 2012) feature written and drawn homages by many Belgian and Dutch celebrities. '50 Jaar Nero' (WpG Uitgevers België NV, 1997) by Yves Kerremans and Pascal Lefèvre, 'De Politieke Memoires van Nero' (WpG Uitgevers België NV, 1997) by Lieven Demedts and 'De Eeuw van Marc Sleen' (Davidsfonds, 2022) by Yves Kerremans and Noël Slangen offer chronological analysis about the 'Nero' series. 'Marc Sleen. De Interviews' (Davidsfonds, 2021) by Wouter Adriaensen, Yves Kerremans and Noël Slangen is an overview of all available interviews with Sleen throughout his long career.

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.

Marc Sleen and friends
Publicity photo of Marc Sleen, featured on the back cover of his color albums since the early 1990s. 

Series and books by Marc Sleen you can order today:


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