Nino by Dirk Stallaert
Nino - De Prinses van Manhattan (Lombard, 1992)

Dirk Stallaert is often nicknamed "The chameleon of comics", even though he personally grew tired of that title. He is able to draw in many different styles, from realistic to comical. Sometimes he digresses between the two, unable to choose. His drawings show great dynamics and energy. Each panel is full with detail. His best known original creations are the adventure series 'Nino' (1989-1995), scripted by Hec Leemans, and the whodunit comic 'Pakkeman en Poulet' (2006-2010), written by Erik Meynen. He has also worked on several comic series with Belgian comedian Urbanus, most notably 'Mieleke Melleke Mol' (since 2003) and 'Plankgas en Plastronneke' (since 2004). Yet due to Stallaert's ability to mimick very specific graphic styles he is far better known as an assistant for other artists, like Jean-Pol ('Kramikske', 'Sammy'), Marc Sleen ('Nero'), Merho ('Kiekeboe') and Luc Morjeau of Studio Vandersteen ('Suske en Wiske').

Ridder Digest, by Dirk Stallaert
Ridder Digest

Dirk Stallaert was born in 1955 in Brussels. He grew up reading many classic Belgian comics and ranks Hergé, Willy Vandersteen, Marc Sleen, Edgar P. Jacobs, Bob De Moor, André Franquin, Jef Nys and Pom among his main influences, along with the Dutch artist Carol Voges. From an early age Stallaert showed extraordinary skill in imitating other artists' styles. As a child he made exact copies of money bills, complete with a watermark made from lemon juice. He left these forgeries on the street and actually managed to fool unsuspecting passers-by into thinking they were real. After finishing school he had several odd jobs, including bus driver and civil servant at a ministry. During this period Stallaert had little interest in drawing and was more passionate about music. But he eventually picked up the pencil again in 1975, when he published his first cartoons in Knack. The same magazine also published his first comic strip 'Ridder Digest' (1981-1982), a humoristic series about a medieval knight strongly inspired by Godfried Bomans and Carol Voges' newspaper comic 'De Avonturen van Pa Pinkelman'. 'Ridder Digest' mostly appeared in short stories, but at the request of Knack's chief-editor Karel Anthierens, Stallaert also made one longer story. In 1990 the series was also published in Vlaamse Filmpjes as 'Ridder Parsiflagie en de Diefstal van de Vierkante Tafel'. The scriptwriter was credited as Archibald Clumzy, a pseudonym for Patrick Bernauw. In 1977 Stallaert also published cartoons in the magazine Kuifje (Tintin).

Waspman by Dirk Stallaert

When journalistic "enfant terrible" Johan Anthierens founded his own satirical magazine De Zwijger in 1982, Stallaert published the American superhero spoof 'Waspman' (1983) in its pages. A year later Stallaert drew and wrote 'Dionies d'Oldenboom' (1984), a parody of educational comics. The storyline pitched an absurdly good character, Dionies, against an absurdly evil antagonist, Salami Segers (whose name was a pun on Flemish singer Salim Seghers). When the comic appeared in album format, Marc Sleen wrote the introduction. From 1982 to 1992 Stallaert assisted Jean-Pol on the comic series about baker's assistant 'Kramikske'.


De Strangers

In 1984 Stallaert and Patrick Vermeir considered making a celebrity comic about popular Dutch comedian André van Duin, but there already had been no less than two comics about Van Duin, respectively drawn by Fred Julsing and another one by Toon van Driel. Eventually they settled on a comic book about the Antwerp comedy musicians De Strangers (1985), which was prepublished by Gazet van Antwerpen. Stallaert's first adventure comic, 'Kitty' (1986-1991), was prepublished in the same newspaper and also scripted by Patrick Vermeir. It followed the adventures of a young pig-tailed girl, Kitty, and her robot friend Chips. In 1991 Stallaert drew another celebrity comic for Dag Allemaal, this one based on Flemish singer Eddy Wally. The one-shot comic 'De Knetterdolle Duivenkeet' (1985-1987) appeared in a pigeon-fancier magazine and was only collected in album format in 2003.

Kitty by Dirk Stallaert
De Avonturen van Kitty - Het plan Carton

In 1989 Stallaert and Hec Leemans created the long-running comic strip 'Nino' (1989-1995), which was prepublished in the magazine Tintin. Set in the United States during the 1930s, the plot revolves around a young orphan boy named Nino. His only friends in this cold and heartless environment are Claudia del Ponte Vecchio, a rich heiress, and Mr. McCab, a Scottish taxi driver who acts as a father figure to him. Stallaert drew everything in a rich and detailed "ligne claire" ("clear line") style. The artwork evokes the era of the Great Depression magnificently, from the skyscrapers in Manhattan to Ku Klux Klan gatherings in the South. Colourful characters like the rough but caring Mr. McCab and pompous gangster Ennio Macaroni showed Stallaert's talent for creating believable personalities. 'Nino' was in many ways Stallaert's first masterpiece, which caught the attention and respect of Belgian comics critics. It was also translated in several languages, including French, Portuguese and Turkish. Nevertheless only three albums were published, mainly because Stallaert had already too much time on his hands assisting Marc Sleen with his comic series 'Nero'.

Nino - De Grote Draak by Dirk Stallaert
Nino - De Grote Draak

Marc Sleen, one of the grandmasters of Belgian comics, had put an ad in the newspapers looking for a possible successor for his long-running comics series 'Nero'. Between 1947 and 1992 he had drawn every daily episode of 'Nero' without any assistance, a feat that even landed him a spot in the Guiness Book of Records. While Sleen still enjoyed 'Nero', his eyes had become too weak to continue the series on his own. Out of all the applications he felt Stallaert was the best choice. From the album 'Barbarijse Vijgen' (1992) on Stallaert drew every 'Nero' story. He captured the masters' style perfectly, but still there was a notable art shift. Sleen had always drawn in a loose, caricatural style with little time or concern for technically complicated or consistent artwork. When Stallaert took over, 'Nero' received a more graphically advanced look with versatile lay-outs, close-ups and dynamic use of perspective. Every background was drawn to the tiniest detail. Characters had anatomically correct proportions, particularly attractive women such as Nero's guardian angel, Angèle. Purists complained, but Sleen kept the spirit of 'Nero' alive by still writing the scripts. He also defended Stallaert against critics and proudly claimed that his comic never looked so perfect before. Since 'Nero' was such a nonsensical strip Stallaert had lots of fun with exaggerating situations and drawing literal visualisations of word play. He even designed a new cast member, the no-nonsense police officer Gaston. In 2001 he also made a contribution to the crossover album 'Het Geheim van de Kousenband' (2001), an adventure starring Nero and company, as well as Merho's 'De Kiekeboes', Hec Leemans' 'F.C. De Kampioenen', Karel Biddeloo's 'De Rode Ridder', Marc Legendre's 'Biebel', Paul Geerts' 'Suske en Wiske' and Urbanus and Willy Linthout's 'Urbanus'.


Bompanero

Still, Stallaert felt Sleen was very demanding. Since 'Nero' was such a personal work, it was difficult to come up with stories of his own that matched the maestro's imagination. Therefore Stallaert decided to quit the series in 2002, after one full decade and 42 albums. Sleen retired 'Nero' altogether and announced no new albums would be created. Yet Stallaert remained on board to draw official publicity art with Sleen's characters. In 2005 he drew a two-page 'Nero' story for Merho's one-shot album 'Bij Fanny op Schoot' where Fanny Kiekeboe from the series 'De Kiekeboes' interviews comics characters from different franchises. Whenever old albums by Sleen were re-released, Stallaert also designed new front covers. In 2017 he also redrew an entire rare 'Nero' album which had never been officially published before, except for a 1979 one-time special issue of the Dutch comics magazine Stripschrift. This comic strip, 'De Avonturen van Nero en Co' aka 'De Geschiedenis van Sleenovia', was created in 1965 when Sleen moved from the newspaper Het Volk to De Standaard, where Willy Vandersteen's series were published. Even though Sleen was still under contract with Het Volk and not allowed to make another story for another three months, De Standaard expected him to publish a 'Nero' story in their paper at the same time too. To help him out Vandersteen and Karel Verschuere made their own 'Nero' story by tracing and cut-and-pasting images from older 'Nero' albums. The plot was written by Gaston Durnez. After only five episodes Het Volk sued and the comic strip was suddenly drastically redrawn to make Sleen's characters look completely different, with Nero in particular wearing a black bag over his head. Halfway the story, Het Volk dropped their case and the story was allowed to continue with Sleen's original style intact. Because of legal issues this unique collage comic remains unavailable, but Stallaert's 2017 version redrew it entirely in Sleen's style.

Pakkeman en Poulet by Dirk Stallaert
Pakkeman & Poulet solve a case in the Belgian Comic Strip Center in Brussels

In 2002 Stallaert worked with scriptwriter Erik Meynen on two short comic stories for UNIZO, the Flemish "Union of Self-Employed Entrepreneurs": 'De Mysterieuze Klant' (2002) and 'De Neuzen van Sniezo' (2003). When asked by newspaper De Standaard to make a comic strip about typical Belgian phenomena in the essay 'België Blootgelegd' ('Belgium Exposed', 2002), Meynen and Stallaert made the story 'De Laatste Friet' about the French fries store of Jan Spier, a character from Marc Sleen's series 'Nero'. The section was collected in book format in the following year. The two detectives in this strip proved to be such fun characters that they became the stars in a monthly riddle comic, published in the civil servant magazine Fedra from May 2006 until December 2010. While the characters were originally called 'Pakkeman & Trouveur' (as a pun on the Flemish singing couple Schatteman & Couvreur), their names were changed in Fedra to 'Pakkeman & Poulet' (as "poulet" is French slang for cop). Fedra was published both in Dutch and French. The comic featured hidden cameos of comic artists (such as Willy Vandersteen and Morris), while one episode was even created completely in Willy Vandersteen's style. Stallaert and Meynen made a new episode featuring their detectives with Marc Sleen's inspector Van Zwam for the November 2016 issue of Brabant Strip Magazine.

Suske en Wiske - De Zappende Ziel
De Zappende Ziel

From 2003 to 2006 Stallaert assisted Merho on his series 'De Kiekeboes', kicking off with the album 'Mona, de Musical' (2003). While he did a fine job imitating Merho's style, some side characters still looked notably different. Merho didn't mind though, but Stallaert still had the feeling he couldn't get them in his fingers. Since 'De Kiekeboes' debuted when he was already an adult, he was less familiar with the style. As such he eventually took an offer to join Studio Vandersteen, since he at least grew up with 'Suske en Wiske'. As assistant of lead 'Suske en Wiske' artist Luc Morjeau, he was mainly involved in the short stories for the Dutch magazine Troskompas. Stallaert was lead artist on a couple of albums in the regular series, such as 'De watersater' (2010) and 'De zappende ziel' (2011), both with backgrounds by Peter Quirijnen. In 2005 he also drew new installments of 'De Grappen van Lambik', a spin-off gag series by Willy Vandersteen originally drawn between 1954 and 1963.

Mieleke Melleke Mol by Dirk Stallaert
Mieleke Melleke Mol #4 (Standaard, 2007)

Stallaert also collaborated with the Flemish comedian Urbanus. Since his humoristic style is very nonsensical and inspired by Sleen's comics, Stallaert was the perfect man to illustrate Urbanus' crazy scripts. Together they made two children's gag comics, 'Mieleke Melleke Mol' (since 2003) and 'Plankgas en Plastronneke' (since 2004). 'Mieleke Melleke Mol' aims at kids who just learn to read. Its title is a reference to the Melkbrigade ("Milk Brigade"), a 1960s media campaign to motivate children to drink more milk which had the slogan: "Milke Melke Mol! Karwitsel Karditsel Kardol". Here the names refer to the three titular characters. Mieleke is a little boy, Melleke a little girl and Mol a cute mole who performs funny background comedy. The children and their pet live with their aunt, Tante Tulp. As her name implies she carries a tullip in a flower pot on her behind. All gags are written in easy language and feature charming - if somewhat unusual - punchlines.

Plankgas en Plastronneke
Plankgas & Plastronneke

'Plankgas en Plastronneke' aims at older children and therefore features more absurd and naughty comedy. Plankgas is a tall, buck-toothed boy with a red quiff and an artificial leg, while Plastronneke is a short, obese, bespectacled and asthmatic kid with a large tie ("plastron" is a Flemish corruption of the French word "plastron" for tie). Plastronneke can be understood as a self-caricature of Urbanus, who also suffered from asthma as a child. The series owes its spirit to classic Belgian children's gag comics like Hergé's 'Quick en Flupke', Willy Vandersteen's 'De Vrolijke Bengels' and Marc Sleen's 'Piet Fluwijn en Bolleke' and 'De Lustige Kapoentjes'. Just like these predecessors all action take place in a quiet Flemish village where bratty children interact with a meddling police officer. Yet 'Plankgas en Plastronneke' has a far wilder and more surreal tone, with lots of black comedy. While Plankgas en Plastronneke are already quite odd characters their friends are equally eccentric. There's the constantly sad-eyed Renaat, the spikey-haired bully Steve Stoemp (who was inspired by Franquin's 'Spirou' character Pinnekeshaar), dreadlocked Arabian Rashid, the goofy C.M. who wears a mustard pot on his head and toddler Stanislas whose spirit is possessed by the Devil. Other bizarre villagers are the mean police officer Winston, sassy black policewoman Black Pudding and an unnamed bushy-haired mayor and a preachy Roman-Catholic pastor. 'Plankgas en Plastronneke' was originally published in the Saturday supplement XL of the newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws.

Mieleke Melleke Mol by Dirk Stallaert

Originally 'Mieleke Melleke Mol' and 'Plankgas en Plastronneke' were published as separate series. To give them a publicity boost they received a children's show in 2009 named 'Urbanus Vertelt' (2009) on the Flemish commercial TV channel VTM, where Urbanus read gags from the comics to young viewers. The show was intercut with music videos promoting the characters. Tying in with the TV series, new albums featured Urbanus' face more prominently on the cover. They collected both 'Plankgas en Plastronneke' and 'Mieleke Melleke Mol' in the same books under the new collective title 'Urbanus Vertelt'. From the seventh album on both series were separated again from one another, with each volume devoted to one of them, but still under the title 'Urbanus Vertelt'. In 2012 Urbanus also hired Stallaert to continue drawing his satirical comics series 'De Geverniste Vernepelingskes', after his original artist Jan Bosschaert quit after illustrating it for 14 years. Stallaert did this for only a brief while, before passing the pencil to Steven Dupré.


Self-portrait for the cover of Stripschrift #401 (2009), featuring several of his characters

In 2010 Dirk Stallaert was one of many artists who made a contribution to the album 'Jommekes Bij De Vleet' (2010), which paid homage to Jef Nys. The same year he and many artists also drew a page for 'Avontuur in de 21e eeuw' by Tom Bouden, a tribute to Pom's 'Piet Pienter and Bert Bibber'. This was followed by another collective homage to Pom: 'Op het Spoor van Pom' (2011), for which Stallaert made yet another graphic contribution. Naturally he was also present in 'Marc Sleen. Een uitgave van de Bronzen Adhemar Stichting' (1993) and 'Marc Sleen 90. Liber Amicorum' (2012), both homages to Marc Sleen. In 2016 Stallaert also drew the cover of a reissue of the Bob De Moor album 'Het Geheim van Vulcania' in the 'Nonkel Zigomar en Snoe & Snolleke' series. In previous years Bob's son, Johan De Moor, had always created covers for reissues of his father's series.

Dirk Stallaert remains a comics artist much in demand. Thanks to his impressive resumé he can actually choose which assignments he wants do do. He, for instance, refused an offer to continue 'Blake and Mortimer' (originally created by Edgar P. Jacobs), as well as 'Sammy' (originally created by Berck and Cauvin). Stallaert has also frequently won awards. In 1995 he received the Bronzen Adhemar: the most prestigious Flemish comics prize. In 2006 he received the Gouden Potlood ("Golden Pencil") during the annual Comics Festival of Middelkerke and was the first recipient of the Sabam Award for comics in 2015. He has two assistants of his own, namely the inkers Jeroen Bullaert and Jos Vanspauwen. Stallaert's brother, Bart Stallaert, is also active as a graphic artist and gives workshops drawing comics and cartoons.


Dirk Stallaert in 2009 (Photo by Michel Nadorp)

www.dirkstallaert.be

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