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', 'Octaaf 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 got his first drawing experience by tracing 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 Eugeen 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 Two 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' brother joined the resistance. In order to arrest him the Nazis kept Marc and his second 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. As luck would have it D-Day happened and the panicking Germans transported all their prisoners to a POW camp in Leopoldsburg. They all managed to escape soon afterwards, but Neels suffered from post-traumatic nightmares for the rest of his life.

Debut as a caricaturist
In 1944 Neels found work as a political caricaturist for the Catholic newspaper De Standaard, later renamed De Nieuwe Standaard and eventually De Nieuwe Gids. He also worked as a sketch artist during the trials against war time collaborators in Mechelen and Brussels. Originally he signed his serious illustrations 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.

Piet Fluwijn en Bolleke
'Piet Fluwijn en Bolleke'.

Piet Fluwijn en Bolleke
In November 1944 Sleen drew his first short-lived comic strip: a four-panel gag comic named 'Mimi'. On 24 December 1944 he published his first adventure comic, 'De Avonturen van Neus' in Ons Volk. This was a text comic, with the story and dialogue written directly below the illustrations. It featured the adventures of a big-nosed man taken away to a land in the skies by an air balloon. In the same issue, on the same day, a more durable character made his debut: 'Piet Fluwijn'. This was a gag series centering around a bald-headed man with glasses and a long black moustache. A year later, on 27 December 1945, Fluwijn received a son named Bolleke and the series was renamed 'Piet Fluwijn en Bolleke' (1945-1965). This charming gag comic was published in Ons Volk and later its children's supplement Ons Volkske, before moving to another children's magazine, 't Kapoentje, in 1947. It was also published in French as 'Miche et Celestin Radis' in Le Petit Luron, the children's supplement of the Walloon magazine Samedi. Piet Fluwijn 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 always said this was just a coincidence and named Erich Ohser's 'Vater und Sohn' his main inspiration.

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

Pollopof and other late 1940s, early 1950s comics
Several other short-lived comics followed in Ons Volkske, such as the gag series 'Polleke' (1945), 'Bamboula en Bumpo' (1945) and 'Krollewietje' (1946) , while De Volksmacht ran the adventure text comic 'Neuske' (1948) and 't Zondagsblad the gag comic 'Joke-Poke' (1950-1951). The most durable titles from this time period proved to be 'Tom & Tony' (1945-1946), published in Ons Volkske, and 'Stropke en Flopke' (1946-1950), published in Ons Volkske and later 't Kapoentje. Both were adventure comics about two young boys. While Tom and Tony only experienced two long stories, Stropke and Flopke had six adventures in total, with Stropke even enjoying a spin-off series between 1950 and 1952. Another early hit was the pantomime comic 'Pollopof' (1946-1952) about an Oliver Hardy lookalike. His gags appeared in Overal until 1948, and afterwards in De Zondagsvriend for another four years. 

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
On 3 April 1947 the newspaper Het Volk launched its own children's supplement 't Kapoentje. Sleen became its chief editor and also supplied many of its comics series, though there was also space for other Flemish artists, as well as foreign translations. One of the flagships was 'De Vrolijke Bengels' by Willy Vandersteen, a gag comic about four naughty children, a self-important police officer and a villainous young adult. The feature was popular and the characters quickly became the magazine's mascots. Seven months later Vandersteen left for Ons Volkske, taking the series with him. Since 't Kapoentje now lacked their mascots, Bob De Moor drew a replacement comic about the same concept, 'De Lustige Kapoentjes', but by the end of 1949 he also joined a different magazine, in his case Tintin. Sleen took over the series in January 1950 and once again redesigned and renamed the titular characters. The children were now named Fonske, Oskar, Lange So and Bikini, the police officer "De Champetter" and the young hoodlum Flurk. Highly popular at the time, the series was also published in French in Le Petit Luron as 'Les Joyeux Lurons'. Sleen would continue 'De Lustige Kapoentjes' until 1965. The anarchic comedy made it stand out above all the previous and later incarnations of the franchise. Sleen unknowingly created a nostalgic time capsule of a more innocent era, when children could still have fun playing freely outside.

Around the same time he also created the gag comic 'Fonske' (1951-1960) for the children's boy scouts magazine Doorbraak.

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

De Ronde van Frankrijk
Apart from children's comics Sleen also drew for adults. In July 1947 he chronicled the entire edition of the annual cycling event Tour de France. Each tournament was summarized in a humorous drawing, caricaturing the cyclists and notable events. 'De Ronde van Frankrijk' (1947-1964) continued for 18 years in Het Volk as well as Het Vrije Volksblad. While only occupying his work schedule for three weeks a year it was still always a stressful period, because he 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 sent it to his office before the end of the evening so it could appear in the morning edition. 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 & Octaaf Keunink
Another comic aimed at an adult audience was 'Doris Dobbel' (1950-1965), which appeared in De Middenstand. It centered around a beer-bellied and not-too bright butcher, Doris, and his rival, Jan Janssens. The series 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. As if Sleen didn't have enough to do already he also drew the gag comic 'Octaaf Keunink' (1952-1965), published in Ons Zondagsblad from 16 November 1952 to 4 April 1965. Adult readers loved the antics of Octaaf, an old man who enjoys playing cards in the bar at night, if only his domineering wife Beva would let him. The series also appeared in French under the name 'Octave Blaireau'. On top of all this work Sleen also provided illustrations for Overal, Spectator, Penelope and numerous books. And, of course, he also had a daily comic strip, 'Nero', which would become his signature series...

Oktaaf Keunink by Marc Sleen
'Oktaaf Keunink'.

'Nero' came about thanks to the success of Willy Vandersteen's comic strip 'Suske en Wiske' in De Standaard. Many Flemish newspapers wanted a daily comic strip of their own, if not by Vandersteen, then somebody else. So, on 2 October 1947 'De Avonturen van Detective Van Zwam' made its debut in De Nieuwe Gids. It originally centered around a genius detective, Van Zwam, but halfway the story he meets a lunatic who believes he is Roman emperor Nero. The madman eventually regains his sanity, but was still referred to as 'Nero' by the others afterwards. Nero became Van Zwam's sidekick for the next nine stories, but by the time 'Moea Papoea' (1950) ran in the papers he was practically the new star. The series were consequently renamed after him. 'Nero' proved so popular that Het Nieuws Van Den Dag also started to run the comic from 1948 on.

Soon the series effectively became the main rival of 'Suske en Wiske', with whom it shared several similarities, yet also had its own unique flavour . Both comics have a family friendly tone and feature nonsensical comedy in an ostensibly Flemish setting. Just like Lambik Nero is an anti-hero with many vices. At times he can be greedy, narcissistic and incredibly naïve. Still, he is essentially generous and always motivated to do the right thing... even if it sometimes takes a while before his conscience sinks in. However, Nero is far more lazy than Lambik. He often prefers to stay at home, rather than go on adventure, and has no other job besides being a "newspaper appearance", as his doorbell reads.

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

'Nero' also has a larger main cast, full with colourful characters. Nero and his wife have a genius son, Adhemar, who teaches both at Oxford and Cambridge and invents numerous space rockets. His intellect is so high that he was able to talk from birth and sceptically dismisses anything illogical as being "scientifically impossible". The closest friends of the Neros are the Pheip family, with whom they nevertheless bicker a lot. Meneer Pheip is a vain, self-important mayor who speaks both Dutch and French, but equally mangled. He is dominated by his bossy pipe smoking wife, Madam Pheip, who knows how to take charge in any problematic situation. The Pheips have three children, two adopted and one of their own. Petoetje is a black teenage boy from Papua New Guinea, and shares the same age as the white orphan girl Petatje. Toddler Clo-Clo, who already shares his biological father's moustache, is an obnoxious cry-baby. 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 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 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. He and his friends were contaminated by a virus that causes everybody to laugh uncontrollaby ('Het Lachvirus', 1973), while Nero once swallowed a hand grenade that still had to ignite ('De Granaatslikker', 1957). 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 Octaaf 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. When Het Volk bought 'Nero' away in 1950 to publish it exclusively in their newspaper countless readers of De Nieuwe Gids and Het Nieuws Van Den Dag followed him along. And when Sleen joined De Standaard in 1965 he caused the biggest licensing fight in the history of Flemish newspaper comics!

Doris Dobbel by Marc Sleen
'Doris Dobbel' (1961).

Move from 'Het Volk' to 'De Standaard'
Sleen dropped all of his series, except for 'Nero'. Some were discontinued immediately, like 'Octaaf 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
Even 'Nero' was part of a complicated legal struggle. While Sleen was already working for De Standaard, he was technically still under contract with Het Volk for three months. This meant he couldn't publish anything for that entire period. He received help from an unexpected corner. Wirel, the joint signature of  Willy Vandersteen and Karel Verschuere, was credited with the creation of a 'Nero' story, which could fill in the gap in De Standaard during this three-month period. The story, 'De Avonturen van Nero en co.', better known under the fan nickname 'De Geschiedenis van Sleenovia' (1965), was written by Gaston Durnez and 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. The story continued, but Nero received a big black bag over his head and all of Sleen's characters were completely remodelled. A few episodes later tensions between the two papers were resolved and the story continued as intended. Still, the legal issues have kept this unique collage comic unavailable today. It was only published in 1979, in a special issue of the Dutch comics information magazine CISO Stripgids. In 2017 it was finally republished, albeit not in the original version, but 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 - back in Het Volk and De Nieuwe Gids for many more decades. Only two new characters were added to the main cast: Clo-Clo, who made his debut in 'De Groene Gravin' (1975), and Agent Gaston, a no-nonsense police officer who was introduced in 'Het Achtste Wereldwonder' (1996). Apart from appearing in colour now the language also 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. 

Quintessential Belgian traditions like these ensured that 'Nero' always remained a national phenomenon. Attempts were made to translate it in English, French, German and Spanish, but only in Wallonia and the Netherlands does 'Nero' 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. None of his characters were ever exploited in merchandising. 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. 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), 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.

The 'Nero' album 'Het Lachvirus' won the 1974 Brussels Prix Saint-Michel for "Best Humor Story". 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. 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. 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. Since Sleen is a jury member he technically couldn't win the award himself, but in 1993 he did receive an honorary golden 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. 

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

As one of the last surviving Belgian comics pioneers Sleen enjoyed the status of "grand old man" of his profession in the Low Countries. 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. 

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 Cromheecke,Jan Bosschaert, Jean-Pol, François Walthéry, Ever Meulen, Gal 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
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, Raoul 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 Lieven Demedts' 'De Politieke Memoires van Nero' (1997) 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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