Comic Creator Jacques Van Melkebeke

Jacques Van Melkebeke

Jacques Alexander, George Jacquet, J.-P. Kime

(12 December 1904 - 8 June 1983, Belgium)   Belgium

Jacques  Van Melkebeke

Baron de Crac by Jacques van Melkebeke
'Le Baron de Crac'.

Jacques van Melkebeke was a Belgian painter, journalist, art critic, comic writer and comic author. Despite the fact that he is generally presented as the "man in the shadows" of European comics, he was one of the founding fathers of Tintin magazine, and has worked with all of its original authors. The most famous of these was Hergé, for whom he co-scripted some 1940s 'Tintin' stories. He also scripted stories for Edgar P. Jacobs' 'Blake and Mortimer', Jacques Laudy's 'Hassan et Kaddour' and Paul Cuvelier's 'Corentin'. The main reason for his anonimity was his conviction for collaborating with pro-Nazi magazines like Le Soir and Le Nouveau Journal during World War II.

Early life
Jacques Alexander van Melkebeke was born in 1904 into a modest Brussels family. His parents divorced when he was very young, and he grew up with his mother and her parents in the Marolles quarter amidst the brothels and bars. His grandparents ran the cabaret Chez Jacques, but showed no interest in their grandson. Young Jacques found refuge from his childhood misery in literature and films. He was especially fond of classic writers like Charles Baudelaire, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens and Alexandre Dumas.

A close friend of Jacques Laudy and Edgar Pierre Jacobs since their days at the Brussels Academy, Van Melkebeke spent most of his early years trying to hit his stride as a painter. A student of the conservative painter Alfred Bastien, he painted portraits, animals and seascapes, but never achieved the fame and glory he desired. The artist blamed his working class background, but his later career choices also put a lasting mark on his legacy. His marriage to the daughter of a fallen military officer raised him on the social scale, and Van Melkebeke was able to exhibit his work. At a 1938 exposition in the Brussels Palace of Fine Arts, his dreamlike paintings received positive reviews. He also attracted negative press, when some of his erotic drawings were removed from an exposition for "obscenity". 

'Le Gargantua de Rabelais', a comic strip adaptation of Rabelais' 'Gargantua'. 

Le Soir Volé
In 1940, the Nazis occupied Belgium during World War II, forcing Jacques van Melkebeke into another direction. To make a living, he went to work for the daily newspaper Le Soir, which was under Nazi supervision and therefore nicknamed "Le Soir Volé" ("The Stolen Le Soir"). From 20 June 1940 on, Van Melkebeke was the responsible editor of the paper's children's page, which he signed with "Friend Jacques". The same month, he additionally created twelve episodes of the text comic strip 'Les Nouvelles Aventures du Baron de Crac' (inspired by the Rudolph Raspe's novel 'The Adventures of Baron Munchausen'). It was followed by text strip adaptations of Rabelais' 'The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel' ('Le Gargantua de Rabelais, Adapté Pour Les Enfants', 1940) and Grimm's fairy tales ('Hans le Rude', based on 'Hans, My Hedgehog', October 1940). The baron returned in May 1942, after serialization of the 'Tintin' episode 'The Shooting Star' ended. Later on, Van Melkebeke was also responsible for the paper's movie section, and illustrated Marcel Dehaye's theater column.

Tintin personally introduced the return of Van Melkebeke's 'Baron de Crac' in the episode of 'The Shooting Star' (Le Soir, May 1940).

Le Soir-Jeunesse
On 17 October 1940, Le Soir received a new chief editor, Raymond De Becker, who decided to upscale the children's page and turn it into a weekly supplement: Le Soir-Jeunesse. Hergé was attracted as editor-in-chief, while "Friend Jacques" continued to write the editorials and Paul Jamin illustrated the text stories and puzzles. Le Soir-Jeunesse ran for a year until a paper shortage ended its run on 23 September 1941. The supplement counted eight pages, with Hergé's 'Tintin' and gag comic 'Quick & Flupke' as the most important series. Van Melkebeke provided the illustrations for a text comic adaptation of a tale by Horace van Offel, 'Le Mousquetaire Sans Vergogne'. On 23 September 1941, paper shortage forced Le Soir-Jeunesse to close down. At this occasion, the comics in Le Soir-Jeunesse moved to the pages of Le Soir itself. 

Juck et Jimbo
Van Melkebeke continued to work as an editor for Le Soir, after the discontinuation of its youth supplement. In January-February 1943, he illustrated the comic strip 'Juck et Jimbo Explorent l'Histoire' ("Juck and Jimbo Explore History"), which appeared in the interlude between the 'Tintin' episodes 'Le Secret de la Licorne' ('The Secret of the Unicorn') and 'Le Trésor de Rackham le Rouge' ('Red Rackham's Treasure'). 'Juck et Jimbo' was created with writer Paul Kinnet (pen name of Paul Maury) under the joint signature J.-P. Kime. The comic had an educational purpose, teaching young readers about history.

Cover for Le Soir Jeunesse by Jacques van MelkebekeCover for Le Soir Jeunesse by Jacques van Melkebeke
Cover illustrations for Le Soir Jeunesse, respectively 28 November 1940 and 30 January 1942.

Assistance to Hergé
Hergé got along well with the erudite Van Melkebeke, and the two intensified their collaboration. They notably wrote two Tintin plays together, 'Tintin aux Indes: Le Mystère du Diamant Bleu' ('Tintin in India - the Mystery of the Blue Diamond', April 1941) and 'Monsieur Boullock à Disparu' ('Mr Boullock's Disappearance', December 1941 - January 1942). Paul Riga directed the pieces, both performed at the Théâtre Royal des Galeries Saint-Hubert in Brussels.

Together with Hergé, Van Melkebeke also co-plotted Tintin stories which appeared during the war, including 'L'Étoile Mystérieuse' ('The Shooting Star', 1941-1942), 'Le Secret de la Licorne' ('The Secret of the Unicorn', 1942-1943), 'Le Trésor de Rackham le Rouge' ('Red Rackhams' Treasure', 1943) and 'Les 7 Boules de Cristal' ('The Seven Crystal Balls', 1943-1946). Being a fan of science fiction literature, Van Melkebeke is believed to have introduced more fantastic elements in the series, among them the meteorite in 'The Shooting Star'. The concept for Tintin's moon voyage is also attributed to Van Melkebeke discussing Jules Verne's novel 'Voyage to the Moon' with Hergé. In April 1941, Van Melkebeke also introduced his friend Edgar P. Jacobs to Hergé, who would become his assistant, colorist and co-scriptwriter from 1944 until 1947. Hergé illustrated the cover of Van Melkebeke's book with childhood memories: 'Imageries Bruxelloises' (1943). 

'Le Mousquetaire sans Vergogne'.

Le Faux Soir
On 9 November 1943, a Belgian resistance group managed to sabotage the delivery of that day's edition of Le Soir and distribute several copies of a fake edition to various stores in Brussels. It looked like a real issue of Le Soir, but was in fact a carefully crafted parody, full with ridiculous articles which mocked the war situation and the Nazis. People who bought an issue of Le Soir that day were pleasantly surprised and amused by this clever hoax. The makers had even included a parody of Van Melkebeke's comic strip 'Les Aventures de Baron de Crac'. In this version the baron is a caricature of Hitler, overpowered by a Russian bear in the tundra. He manages to flee but runs right into the arms of a giant British bulldog. This comic was attributed to "Jacques van Melckebeké", but the real artist remained anonymous. The names of the Belgian resistance group who made this fake Le Soir (known as "Le Faux Soir") are known, but not who made what. 

'Juck et Jimbo'.

In 1943, Van Melkebeke was discharged from Le Soir, because he wrote mostly about cultural subjects, which made him allegedly "of no political value" for the Nazi propaganda press. Until 1944, he wrote about the same topics for Le Nouveau Journal, the leading pro-Nazi newspaper in francophone Belgium. As an art critic, he wasn't very diplomatic or restrained, treating many modern-day Belgian painters with contempt, including René Magritte. Van Melkebeke wrote actual Nazi propaganda in various pro-Nazi magazines, including the weekly Hommes au Travail, praising the great German cities. In July 1944, he justified a Nazi trial against ten Resistance members, describing the condemned activists as dangerous bandits.

On 1 September 1944, the Allied Forces liberated Belgium, forcing all the Nazi publications to close down, while their journalists and writers were arrested. Van Melkebeke was no exception. He spent a couple of months in detention awaiting the trial against Le Nouveau Journal, which took off in October 1946. His 1944 justification of a Nazi trial was held against him. Eventually, Van Melkebeke was sentenced to four years' imprisonment and a fine of 50,000 Belgian Francs (about 1200 euros). He tried to go into hiding, but was arrested in December 1947, serving prison time until October 1949. Despite being released again, he could only resume his work as a journalist under pseudonyms like George Jacquet and Jacques Alexander, while he was also forbidden to exhibit his paintings for a period of 10 years. 

Tintin magazine
While Van Melkebeke was blacklisted because of his Nazi collaborations, Hergé (who was blacklisted too) launched Tintin magazine in September 1946. The two men constructed the dummy issue, and designed the magazine's header. Van Melkebeke was also named editor-in-chief. But publisher Raymond Leblanc, a resistance hero, took his precautions and sent the subversive editor away before the Belgian state security service could raid the offices in December 1946. He replaced him with one of his friends, lawyer André Fernez. 

Cover illustrated for Tintin #8 (20 February 1947) by Jacques van Melkebeke, but signed with "Edg. Jacobs".

Anonymous scriptwriting
Hergé, who kept firm artistic control over Tintin magazine, continued to let Van Melkebeke earn some money by regularly requesting his assistance, both before and after his prison time. Together with Bernard Heuvelmans, Van Melkebeke was responsible for the original concept of the legendary Moon cycle from 'The Adventures of Tintin'. However, only a couple of the scientific gags from their original draft made it into the final diptych. Van Melkebeke also helped Hergé with the training of new assistants, such as Guy Dessicy and Arthur Van Noeyen. For Tintin magazine, he additionally did uncredited writing jobs, explaining why so many of his contributions can only be traced based on speculation or later, second-hand testimonies. According to Jacques Martin, Van Melkebeke helped E.P. Jacobs with the plots for the 'Blake & Mortimer' stories of the 1940s and 1950s, including 'Le Secret de l'Espadon' (1946), 'Le Mystère de la Grande Pyramide' (1950) and 'La Marque Jaune' (1956). Jacobs has always disputed Van Melkebeke's involvement in his series, but it is certain that his friend stood model for one the series' protagonists, Philip Mortimer. Van Melkebeke also wrote the first two stories of 'Hassan et Kaddour' for Jacques Laudy and cooperated on the first two 'Corentin' stories by Paul Cuvelier.

Fall-out with Hergé
In his biography 'Hergé, Son of Tintin' (2002), Benoît Peeters described Van Melkebeke as a laidback and cultivated man, with a large knowledge of art and literature. He was a convinced atheist and during one short period in his life a freemason, with a liberal approach to life. His wife Ginette was originally his model, with whom he had explosive relationship since 1935. They openly cheated on each other, and quarreled a lot in public, during which Ginette often criticized her husband's past and ruined career. In the early 1950s, Hergé and his wife, Germaine Kieckens, started distancing himself from Melkebeke, eventually breaking all ties. Since Hergé had managed to clear his wartime reputation, it would've been very harmful to his public image if he kept associating himself with somebody who had served jail time as a Nazi propagandist. But Van Melkebeke's unconventional marriage and staunch atheism were also frowned upon in the devoutly Catholic Belgium of the mid-20th century, not in the least by Hergé's wife. At the time, Germaine was in therapy with a psychic, Bertje Jagueneau, who helped her recover after a car accident. Jagueneau manipulated her, especially after Hergé's depressions and marital troubles took toll on her own marriage. The psychic claimed that she experienced "bad vibes" coming from a painting by Van Melkebeke depicting Hergé. Germaine was very gullible to believe this "theory", rather acknowledge explanations found in their own strained marriage.

Apart from these troubles, Hergé and Van Melkebeke also drifted apart as co-workers. Hergé had to maintain a high-quality reputation and thus raised the standards of his post-war 'Tintin' stories. He could be very harsh against his assistants and Van Melkebeke wasn't spared. One time, Hergé allegedly ripped an initial script by Van Melkebeke of  the upcoming story 'Tintin au Tibet' in two, marking the definitive end of their collaboration. In early 1954, Jacques Martin took Van Melkebeke's role as Hergé's sound board. The rise and fall of the friendship between Hergé and Jacques van Melkebeke was later also depicted in the comics biography 'Les Aventures d'Hergé' (1999) by Stanislas, Jean-Luc Fromental and José-Luis Bocquet.

'Keizer Karel V' (Ons Volkske).

Later comics work
While Hergé and Van Melkebeke drifted apart, Raymond Leblanc, publisher of Tintin magazine, opened more up to Van Melkebeke's work. He proposed to pay the fine that was imposed on Van Melkebeke after his prison sentence. In exchange, the artist drew a balloon comic, 'Les Farces de l'Empereur' ('Keizer Karel V', 1951-1952), for the Flemish comic magazine Ons Volkske and its French-language sister magazine Chez Nous. He also became the (anonymous) editor-in-chief of Chez Nous. It is speculated that an additional 'Hassan et Kaddour' story, 'Chasseurs de Chimères' (1960-1961), published in Tremplin wasn't drawn by Jacques Laudy, but in fact completely written and drawn by Van Melkebeke. 

Les Farces de l'Empereur by Jacques van Melkebeke
'Les Farces de l'Empereur' (Walloon version).

Commercial work
Between 1958 and 1983, Van Melkebeke acquired most of his commercial assignments through Max Kleiter and his International Feature Service agency (I.F.S.). These included the scripts for cinema advertising films for the Van Dam KH agency, and editing and scriptwriting work for the I.F.S. press productions. Besides writing and directing photo comics for the Flemish women's weeklies Libelle and Rosita, he also helped Jean-Pol with the scripts for his new comic series 'Bertje Kluizenaar' (1966) in Libelle and the syndicated 'Bi-Bip' strip (1967). In the second half of the 1960s, Van Melkebeke scripted stories for the pocket comics of Aventures et Voyages. Even though the content of those books was mostly of British origin, some stories were produced locally because of their hero's popularity. It is known that Van Melkebeke scripted stories with 'Puma Noir' ('Johnny Cougar'), 'Klip et Klop' ('The Wild Wonders') and 'Belinda' for the comic books Swing! and Safari.


As "Jacques Alexander", Van Melkebeke wrote the bestseller 'Les Énigmes de la Survivance' (Marabout, 1975), an esoteric book about death. Kleiter also assigned Van Melkebeke to make an erotic comic story to cash in on the success of Jean-Claude Forest's 'Barbarella' and Paul Cuvelier's 'Epoxy'. The awkward story about the half-naked 'Sérafine' in a strange fantasy world however failed to find a magazine serialization. It was allegedly published in book format by De Schorpioen in the early 1970s.

Painting career
Van Melkebeke had no problems with the anonimity of his comics work, since he deemed it an inferior art form. He still desired fame and praise for his paintings, but the never really broke through, despite successful exhibitions in Paris (1952) and Brussels (1957).

Death and legacy
Jacques Van Melkebeke passed away in 1983, coincidentally three months after Hergé's death. During his collaboration with Hergé, he received four cameos in 'Tintin' stories. He is the man with glasses in the first panel of the colorized version of 'Tintin in the Congo'. He can be seen in white bow tie, alongside Hergé and Edgar P. Jacobs, at the ballroom in 'King Ottokar's Sceptre', where Tintin is taken away by royal guards. In 'The Secret of the Unicorn', he is the man with glasses picking up a book at a flea market, when the Thompsons are arrested for accidentally taking somebody's suitcase with them. Van Melkebeke makes a final appearance in 'The Seven Crystal Balls', standing behind General Alcazar. 

Essays about Jacques van Melkebeke
For those interested in Jacques Van Melkebeke's life and career, comic historian Benoît Mouchart's essay 'À L'Ombre de la Ligne Claire' (2002) is highly recommended.

Jacques van Melkebeke
Jacques van Melkebeke.

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