Gerben Valkema is one of the most prominent contemporary Dutch comic artists. As one of the original members of Studio Jan Kruis, he spent the first eight years of his career producing comic pages and related artwork for the family comic 'Jan, Jans en de Kinderen' (1999-2007) for the women's weekly Libelle. Together with the studio's writer Eric Hercules he then developed his newspaper comic about a precocious little girl called Elsje (Lizzy, in English). Launched in 2007, Elsje quickly turned into one of the most recognizable Dutch comic characters created in the 21st century, appearing in about 15 regional newspapers, comic magazine Eppo and publications abroad. Around the same time, Valkema began working for the educational publishing house Zwijsen and their children's magazines for beginning readers, first creating 'Tommie' for Roetsj and then the long-running funny animal comic 'Kik' for Maan Roos Vis. Inspired by both Franco-Belgian comics and American newspaper strips, Valkema can adapt to several drawing styles. He has drawn Disney characters for the Dutch Donald Duck weekly (since 2005), Marten Toonder's iconic creations in 'Heer Bommel en de i-padden' (2012) and Willy Vandersteen's 'Suske en Wiske' for the stand-alone episode 'Cromimi' (2017).

Early life and career
Gerben Valkema was born in 1980 in Ulrum, a village in the northern province Groningen. As a child, he was already captivated by drawing. His grandfather worked for a printing company, and regularly brought along large sheets of paper for young Gerben to fill with drawings. Classic Franco-Belgian humor comics were the main inspiration for his first try-out comics, published in his high school newspaper. Another future comic talent who appeared in this paper was Dimitri Jansma. Valkema later collected these early stories in two homemade comic booklets, titled 'Grappen & Grollen' (1996-1997). Between 1996 and 1998, the teenage cartoonist also submitted stories to Impuls, a Groningen-based small press magazine edited by Reinder Dijkhuis and Kilian Hekhuis, as well as Sven van der Hart's De Stripper, a fanzine for amateur cartoonists. In 1997, Valkema enrolled at the Minerva Art Academy in Groningen, but left after the first year. He then tried his luck at the Kampen Art Academy, but didn't feel at ease with the  academy's focus on artistry instead of technical skills.

'Jan, Jans en de Kinderen' page by Gerben Valkema (2006).

Studio Jan Kruis
Valkema's side job in the Groningen comic shop Modern Papier proved life-changing. One day, when veteran comic artist Jan Kruis came by for a signing session, shop owner Pick Fokkens urged Valkema to show him his drawings. Impressed, Kruis asked the young cartoonist to become his apprentice. Since he was about to retire, Kruis sold the rights of his weekly family comic 'Jan, Jans en de Kinderen' to the VNU group, publisher of the women's weekly Libelle. A drawing studio was set up at the magazine's editorial offices, where production continued of this iconic family comic, created by Kruis back in 1970. Comic virtuoso Daan Jippes was hired to guide the transition period and develop a studio house style. On 3 May 1999, Valkema's employment with Studio Jan Kruis took off, marking the start of his professional career. As his tutors, both Jan Kruis and Daan Jippes have been instrumental in the development of Valkema's craft. His artwork also reveals influences from the so-called "School of Marcinelle", the art style associated with the Belgian Spirou magazine. Both André Franquin and Janry are important inspirations, as are American newspaper cartoonists like Walt Kelly.

Shortly after the start, Studio Jan Kruis was reinforced by Peter Nuyten and Rob Phielix; the latter becoming studio chief when Daan Jippes left. In the following years, Michiel van de Vijver and Maarten Gerritsen also joined, making the studio a breeding ground for new talent. Initially, Valkema's tasks were typical assistant chores: cutting paper, copying, drawing panel borders, etc. His first regular assignment was drawing 'Hoi Pipeloi', a spin-off picture story for toddlers' magazine Bobo, starring the comic's kid characters Catootje and Jeroentje and the family pets. Originally drawn by Daan Jippes alone, the feature's second year was made by Valkema under supervision of Daan Jippes. After that, Valkema did the third and fourth year on his own in close collaboration with the external writer Eric Hercules. After a while, Gerben Valkema was one of the main pencilers and inkers of the weekly 'Jan, Jans en de Kinderen' ('Jack, Jacky and the Juniors') page too. To safeguard the housestyle, he also inked the character heads in Rob Phielix's pages. Valkema remained a staff artist with Studio Jan Kruis until the studio closed down in 2007.

Gerben Valkema's 2009 Disney spoof of the record cover of 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'.

Disney art
Right after leaving Studio Jan Kruis at the Libelle offices, Valkema moved a couple of floors down, where the Donald Duck weekly had its art studio. He had drawn his first covers for the Dutch Disney weekly in 2005, but between 2007 and 2010 he became a more frequent contributor. Working in the studio alongside Michel Nadorp, Wilma van den Bosch and Viktor Venema, Valkema provided many cover illustrations for both the weekly and the monthly Donald Duck Extra magazine. He also made spread illustrations for the mail section and several of the 2007 centerspread poster drawings. His most notable contributions were done for the glossy magazine DONALD in 2009-2010: "Disneyfied" record cover recreations of the classic Beatles albums 'Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band', 'Abbey Road' and 'Revolver', as well as Simon & Garfunkel's 'Bridge over Troubled Water'. After 2010, his Disney work became more sporadic, until in 2019 he replaced Kees de Boer as the regular illustrator of Donald Duck's joke page.

Early freelance (solo) projects
Since the early 2000s, Gerben Valkema worked on a couple of side projects. In 2000 and 2001, he succeeded Paul Hoogma as the artist of the children's comic 'Luuk en Lotte' for pre-school magazine Okki, scripted by Frank Jonker. Incidental comics were 'Corduroy' (2004), made in collaboration with Jan-Dirk Barreveld for MYX magazine, and 'Papieren Herinnering' (2005), a short story published in Razzafrazz #5. In 2005, he also illustrated the promotional picture picture story 'De Jonge God' for VSM natural health products. In addition to his Disney work, Valkema was asked by the Scandinavian publishing house Egmont to make cover illustrations for their 'Bamse' and 'Tom & Jerry' publications. Together with Maarten Janssens, he drew some strips of the superhero parody 'Beterman', created and written by Frans Hasselaar. It was their submission to the 2006 comic contest of Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool, but it didn't make it past the preliminary rounds. More successful was Valkema's own newspaper strip, 'Elsje', which he launched with scriptwriter Eric Hercules in 2007.

Elsje. Translation: "And then they wonder why the sea level rises!"

During his 'Jan, Jans en de Kinderen' days, Valkema became close friends with Eric Hercules, one of the studio's external scriptwriters. During a 2005 holiday weekend in Belgium, Valkema showed Hercules his sketchbook, containing a drawing of a cute little girl with her dog. The idea arose to create a newspaper comic with the character. Within no time, several sample strips were created. Over the course of 2006, newspaper publishers were approached until the authors caught the interest of both Wegener and HDC Media. On Monday, 5 February 2007, 'Elsje' debuted in all the regional newspapers belonging to the two publishing groups, with HDC's Noordhollands Dagblad having the widest circulation. About a year later, the northern newspaper Dagblad van het Noorden ran the strip as well, followed seven years later by Leeuwarder Courant. Eventually, 'Elsje' appeared in over 15 Dutch newspapers, making it the most widely distributed newspaper comic in the Netherlands. The strip also appears in translation in German ('Elske'), Swedish ('Elsa'), Norwegian ('Elsie'), Danish ('Elsie'), French (as 'Elyse' in Super Pif), Spanish, Catalan (both 'Elsita') and English' (as 'Lizzy').

'Elsje'. Translation: "Doctor, I sometimes have contrary tempers and real extreme thoughts." - "Completely normal in the development of your puberty brain. Just give in to these thoughts." - "Really?" - "Uh..." - "Thank you!". 

With her curly hair and trademark red shirt, Elsje appears sweet and innocent. But looks can deceive, as the sturdy girl has a mind of her own. She is self-confident, impulsive and, at times, a little vixen. Living in an average Dutch countryside town (originally intended as the Wadden isle Texel), she thinks she understands life, even though her views are clouded by childhood naivety. Through her unknowing perception of the world, the authors comment on topical events like the multicultural society, climate change or terrorism. Tagging along in Elsje's endeavours are her dog Puppie, the docile and gullible boy Gaitjan and Nadia, a white girl who wears a burka because of solar allergy. In later episodes, Nadia is replaced by climate refugee Mauri and the stuck-up AnnaLiese. Adult characters with authority are never seen in full. Elsje's parents only appear from the back, her psychiatrist is merely a beard and a pipe sticking out of a large chair, and her unstable teacher is mainly an offscreen voice, or seen crying from behind a toilet door. Since 2009, Elsje and her friends are also present in the comic magazine Eppo, appearing in longer stories or one-page gags with more fantasy or over-the-top elements. In later years, the daily strips sometimes have ongoing narratives, for instance the summer episodes in which Elsje joins secret agent Dakota Jansen on secret missions of national interest. Those storyline dailies are later combined for publication in Eppo. Since 2013, additional 'Elsje' episodes have appeared in Scouting Magazine.

Fantasy episode of 'Elsje' for Eppo magazine.

Between 2007 and 2009, Hercules and Valkema self-published the first three book collections with daily strips under the Texel-based imprint Complot. By the time 'Elsje' became a staple in Eppo magazine too, publisher Rob van Bavel and his Uitgeverij L took over the book series. The daily strips were originally collected in square-formatted books, while the Eppo episodes were released as traditional European comic albums. After a while, the dailies books switched to the portrait format too. Special 'Elsje' books have appeared in the Brabant and Groningen dialect. In a time where comics are not as commercially viable as they used to be, 'Elsje' is a notable exception. Even though she was created in the 21st century, she is already one of the most recognizable Dutch comic characters. She has served as mascot for comic events and has appeared on merchandize too. To celebrate her 10th anniversary in 2017, a limited edition 'Elsje' figurine was made by the sculptor Anders Ehrenborg.

Kik by Gerben Valkema
'Kik'. Translation: "Fish! Fish! Jar! Jar! Window! Window! Wrong!".

Kijk en Lees
Shortly before the launch of 'Elsje', Gerben Valkema began a collaboration with the educational publishing house Zwijsen. Still signing with "Gurby", his first creation was the little boy 'Tommie' (2006), whose unlucky adventures appeared as gags and comic strips in the children's magazine Roetsj. Subsequently, Valkema created the playful frog 'Kik' and his funny animal friends for the back page of the children's magazine Maan Roos Vis. The magazine aims at children in "Group 3" of the Dutch primary school system (First Grade to Americans), so the texts follow the progression of beginning readers according to the Dutch AVI learning method. Simultaneously, Valkema's former Studio Jan Kruis colleague Michiel van de Vijver launched his 'Joep' comic in Roetsj, a magazine for children in "Group 4" (Second Grade).

In 2012, Valkema and Van de Vijver joined forces to launch "Kijk en Lees" ("Look and Read"), a collection of comic books for beginning readers, all labelled according to AVI reading levels. Starting out with collecting Valkema's 'Kik' and Van de Vijver's 'Joep' in book format, the series later added other features too, mostly Van de Vijver collaborations with fellow Studio Jan Kruis alumni. These include 'Geheim Agent G.Ruwel' by Michiel van de Vijver, 'Bruno de Bever' by Van de Vijver and Maarten Gerritsen and 'Aap en Aap' by Van de Vijver and Rob Phielix. In 2017, translations of 'Mon Ami Grompf' by the French artist Nob were also included in the collection. Published through Michiel van de Vijver's Nijmegen-based Plan A imprint, the 'Kijk en Lees' series was well-received within Dutch educational circles. For their efforts, Valkema and Van de Vijver were awarded the 2015 National Literacy Prize ("Nationale Alfabetiseringsprijs") by a professional jury from Stichting Lezen & Schrijven ("Read & Write Foundation").

Heer Bommel by Gerben Valkema
'Heer Bommel en de i-Padden'.

Tom Poes & Heer Bommel
Around 2010, the Toonder Compagnie was exploring the possibilities of creating new comics with 'Tom Poes en Heer Bommel', the iconic creations of Dutch comic author Marten Toonder (1912-2005). Prelimary talks were held with Eric Hercules and Daan Jippes and Valkema. In 2012, it was announced that in case of a revival of the original newspaper comic, Valkema would be the artist. So far, he has only drawn the special edition episode 'Tom Poes en de i-Padden' (NVB, 2012), written by Patty Klein at the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Dutch Association for Professionals in the Library, Information and Knowledge Sector (NVB). In that same year, Valkema was one of the participating artists of the collective recreation of the standout story 'Bommel en de Bovenbazen', serialized in NRC Handelsblad between 2 May through 21 September 2012. In subsequent years, new 'Tom Poes' balloon comics and children's books have been illustrated by Tim Artz and Henrieke Goorhuis, but it never came to a full-blown return of the classic black-and-white newspaper strip.

'Cromimi', special 'Suske en Wiske' episode by Gerben Valkema and Yann (2017).

Suske en Wiske
In 2016-2017, Gerben Valkema was part of "The Wolfpack", a creative team brought together by Standaard Uitgeverij to come up with new ideas for Willy Vandersteen's classic creations, following the success of the 'Suske en Wiske' spin-off 'Amoras'. The other members were storyrunner Johan De Smedt, film director Vincent Bal, comic colorist and animator Tom Metdepenningen and the Dutch/Flemish comic authors Bruno de Roover, Lectrr, Stedho, Romano Molenaar and Aimée de Jongh. Also in 2016, Valkema was one of six Dutch artists to draw a special 'Suske en Wiske' comic book for S.O.S. Children's Villages, based on a story by a Dutch celebrity. Valkema made the story 'De Grandioze Gitaar' with singer-songwriter Guus Meeuwis. The other artists involved were Eric Heuvel, Michiel de Jong, Hanco Kolk, Gerard Leever and Romano Molenaar. In the following year, the publisher launched a new series with unique and personal takes on the 'Suske en Wiske' franchise. Gerben Valkema and scriptwriter Yann were the first to have their go in this annual project, creating the album 'Cromimi' (2017), in which they returned to Jerom's prehistoric roots. In 2021, Valkema and Yann made their second 'Suske en Wiske' album, 'De Vroemvroem-club', a tribute to the classic 1951 episode 'De tuf-tuf-club'.

Label designs for Uiltje craft beer.

In addition to his comics, Gerben Valkema has made illustrations for children's literature. These include the books 'Jij Bent Nog Niet Jarig' (Zwijsen, 2012) by Chris Winsemius and 'Kids Factor' (Leopold, 2012) by Wieke van Oordt. He also provided artwork to three booklets with 'Woezel en Pip', the famous picture book characters created by the late Dutch actress Guusje Nederhorst. Among his other commercial clients are the Telecom Agency, Gasunie, the NOVAD advertising agency, the political party PvdA, Albert Heijn grocery stores, the ABN Amro bank, the Helicon Academy, Prorail, and the Lepra Foundation. His artwork has additionally appeared in Nickelodeon Magazine. Since 2015, Gerben Valkema designs the funny animal beer labels of the Haarlem-based Uiltje Brewing Company, most with a pop culture reference. An artbook with his work for the label was released in late 2022 by Uitgeverij L, 'Hops & Chaos - the art and craft of the Uiltje label'.

Fan art
Throughout his career, Gerben Valkema has enjoyed working in a creative environment. After his days at Studio Jan Kruis and the Donald Duck offices, he frequented Daan Jippes' Studio Lijnlust in Bussum, until finding a spot closer to his Haarlem home in De Egelantier. Awaiting the building's fate, the rooms of this former hospital are rented out to creatives. Valkema shares an atelier with advertising illustrator Michiel Offerman, while the comic creators Alex van Koten and Robbert Damen are right next door. With his colleagues, he shares a passion for admiring and studying the styles and skills of the masters of European and North-American comic art. This results in graphical experiments or tributes, which Valkema posts on his social media channels. Notable was his spoof cover 'Asterix Niet Bij De Batavieren', which explains why René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo's famous Gauls Astérix and Obelix never visited the Netherlands: they were scared off by Elsje!

Spoof cover with Elsje, Asterix and Obelix (2013). 

Graphic contributions
To honor the artists he admires, Valkema regularly participates in collective homage projects. To congratulate Jan Kruis with the 2010 Marten Toonder Prize, Valkema and Hercules made a special 'Elsje' crossover with 'Jan, Jans en de Kinderen', published in the book 'Jan Kruis, Die Kan Tekenen'. For the special Eppo issue that celebrated the classic comic magazine Pep (#16 of 2013), Valkema and writer Alex van Koten made a brand new story with Fred Julsing's 'Wellington Wish'. Valkema made the cover illustrations for the 2014 Paul Rijperman reprints of Lo Hartog van Banda and Dick Matena's comic series 'De Argonautjes'. In 2017, Gerben contributed to 'Gefeliciflaterd!' (2017), a special Dutch album celebrating 50 years of André Franquin's 'Gaston Lagaffe'. That same year, Valkema was one of the artists making a short tribute story to Martin Lodewijk's 'Agent 327' in Eppo magazine. One year later, he honored Belgian 'Kiekeboes' artist Merho on his 70th birthday with a contribution to the collective book 'Hoor Je Het Ook Eens Van Een Ander' (2018) and in 2020, he participated in Eppo magazine's homage series to Don Lawrence and Martin Lodewijk's space saga 'Storm'.

Valkema was also one of the contributing artists to 'Mooi is dat' (2010) and 'Filmfanfare' (2012), two anthologies with comic interpretations of Dutch literary works and movies. In 2020 he joined 75 Dutch & Flemish comic artists to make a graphic contribution to the free collective comic book 'Striphelden versus Corona' (Oogachtend, Uitgeverij L, 2020). The book was intended to support comics stores who had to close their doors for two months during the lockdown at the height of the COVID-19 virus pandemic.

Gerben Valkema's 'Storm' homage.

During the 2011 Stripdagen comic festival, one of their 'Elsje' albums won Gerben Valkema and Eric Hercules the Stripschap Badge for "Best Youth Album". Two years later, Valkema and Van de Vijver were awarded the same prize for their 'Kijk en Lees' series. The album 'Elsje Maakt Geschiedenis' (2016), as well as the 'Suske en Wiske' special 'Cromimi' were also awarded with a Stripschap Badge. In 2015, Valkema not only received the National Literacy Prize, but also the Brabant Strip Sympathy Prize. The latter is awarded annually to an artist who is positively and actively commited to the comic world. In Gerben's case, the award was a silver-plate Elsje statue. The album 'Elsje Maakt Geschiedenis' won the 2016 Willy Vandersteen Prize, which came with a financial reward of 5,000 euro. In 2021, Valkema became the winner of the annual Stripschap Prize for his entire body of work.

Eric Hercules, Elsje and Gerben Valkema.



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