Baron de Crac by Jacques van Melkebeke

Jacques van Melkebeke was a Belgian painter, journalist, art critic, comics writer and comics 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-German magazines like Le Soir and Le Nouveau Journal during World War II.

Early life
He was born in 1904 into a modest Brussels family as Jacques Alexandre van Melkebeke. 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.

Painter
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. Other press attention was of a more sensational nature, like when some of his erotic drawings were removed from an exposition.

Le Soir Volé
The outbreak of World War II forced Jacques van Melkebeke into another direction. To make a living, he went to work for the daily newspaper Le Soir, which was under German 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". He furthermore created twelve episodes of the text comic strip 'Les Nouvelles Aventures du Baron de Crac' (inspired by the novel 'The Fabulous Baron Munchausen') from June 1940 on. 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', October 1940). Later on, Van Melkebeke was also responsible for the paper's movie section, and he made the illustrations for Marcel Dehaye's theater column.

Le Soir-Jeunesse
The paper's new director Raymond De Becker decided to upscale the children's page and turn it into a weekly supplement. 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 appeared from 17 October 1940 until a paper shortage ended its run on 23 September 1941. The supplement counted eight pages and had as most important features Hergé's 'Tintin' and 'Quick et Flupke'. Jacques van Melkebeke provided the illustrations for a text comic adaptation of a tale by Horace van Offel, 'Le Mousquetaire sans Vergogne'.

Cover for Le Soir Jeunesse by Jacques van MelkebekeCover for Le Soir Jeunesse by Jacques van Melkebeke

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 a disparu' ('Mr Boullock's Disappearance', December 1941-January 1942). Paul Riga directed the pieces, which were both performed at the Théâtre Royal des Galeries Saint-Hubert in Brussels. Van Melkebeke was also Hergé's co-plotter for the 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). With his interest in science fiction literature by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, Jacques van Melkebeke is believed to have inspired the introduction of fantasy elements in the 'Tintin' stories. In turn, Hergé provided the cover design for Van Melkebeke's book with childhood memoires, 'Imageries Bruxelloises' (1943). In April 1941 Van Melkebeke furthermore introduced Hergé to his friend Edgar P. Jacobs, who would become the master's assistant for several years from 1944 on.


'Le Mousquetaire sans Vergogne'.

Collaboration
Jacques van Melkebeke continued to work as an editor for "Le Soir volé" after the discontinuation of its youth supplement. He was however discharged because he allegedly had no political value. The man indeed wrote mostly about cultural subjects. Later during the war, he wrote for more pro-Nazi  magazines, like the weekly Hommes au Travail, for which he penned odes to the great German cities. In 1943 and 1944, Van Melkebeke furthermore worked for Le Nouveau Journal, the leading pro-Nazi newspaper in francophone Belgium. Again he was mainly responsible for articles on culture and arts. As an art critic however, he possibly made even more enemies. Van Melkebeke wasn't very diplomatic or restrained in his criticism, and many modern-day Belgian painters were treated with contempt, including René Magritte. Shortly after the liberation, Van Melkebeke spent a couple of months in detention awaiting trial. He was one of the defendants in the trial against Le Nouveau Journal, which commenced in October 1946. In July 1944, he had written an article about a Nazi trial against ten Resistance members, justifying the Nazi court's actions and describing the condemned as dangerous bandits. This article would prove particularly problematic in his own post-war Nazi collaboration trial. He was eventually convicted to four years imprisonment and a fine of 50,000 Belgian Francs (about 1200 euros). But by then Van Melkebeke was already busy with another project...

Tintin magazine
Through his friend Hergé, Van Melkebeke became the first editor-in-chief of Tintin magazine, which was launched in September 1946. The two men constructed the dummy issue, and designed the magazine's header. His tenure didn't last long, since Van Melkebeke was blacklisted because of his activities during the war. Fearing for the future of his brand new magazine, publisher Raymond Leblanc sent the subversive editor away before the state security service could raid the offices in December 1946. Being wanted for his wartime "incivism", Van Melkebeke went underground, but was finally arrested in December 1947. He served prison time until October 1949, and was forbidden to exhibit his paintings during a period of ten years. Van Melkebeke could only resume his work as a journalist under pseudonyms like George Jacquet and Jacques Alexander.


Cover illustrated for Tintin #8 of 1947 by Jacques van Melkebeke, but signed with "Edg. Jacobs".

Anonymous scriptwriter
Leblanc quickly replaced Van Melkebeke as editor-in-chief by one of his friends, the lawyer André Fernez. Hergé, who kept firm artistic control over the magazine was far from happy with this decision. He continued to let his friend Van Melkebeke earn some money by regularly requesting his assistance, both before and after his prison time. Together with Bernard Heuvelmans, Jacques 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, he additionally did uncredited writing jobs. This also explains why many of his contributions are difficult to track down and usually 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. He also wrote the first two stories of 'Hassan et Kaddour' for Jacques Laudy and cooperated on the first two 'Corentin' stories by Paul Cuvelier.

Personal life
In his Hergé biography 'Hergé, Son of Tintin' (2002), Benoît Peeters describes Jacques van Melkebeke as a laidback and cultivated man, with a large knowledge of art and literature. He was a convinced atheist and at 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. At the time their unconventional marriage was considered highly "immoral", which was possibly one of the reasons for their rupture with Hergé and his wife in the early 1950s. In his unpublished memoires, Van Melkebeke blaimed a psychic called Bertje Jagueneau, who helped Hergé's first wife Germaine with her recovery after a car accident, for stirring up trouble between the two friends. Jagueneau claimed she felt "bad vibes" coming from Van Melkebeke's painting of Hergé, after which the Rémi family broke all ties with him. But there was more to it than that. Between 1944 and 1953 Hergé went through a depression and his own marital problems. He too barely escaped conviction for his own wartime associations, while Van Melkebeke had just spent two years in prison. Breaking with his wartime associates would seem a safe thing to do. Furthermore, Hergé occasionally was very harsh in his treatment of his co-workers. The master allegedly ripped an initial script by Van Melkebeke of 'Tintin au Tibet' in two, marking the definitive end of their collaboration. Jacques Martin took Van Melkebeke's role as Hergé's sounding board in early 1954. 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
Raymond Leblanc, on the other hand, grew to appreciate Van Melkebeke's work, and proposed to pay the sentence fine that was imposed on him. In exchange, Van Melkebeke made a balloon comic strip called 'Les Farces de l'Empereur' ('Keizer Karel V', 1951-1952) for Ons Volkske/Chez Nous. He also became the (anonymous) editor-in-chief of Chez Nous, the French counterpart of the newspaper Ons Volk. It is speculated that an additional 'Hassan et Kaddour' story called 'Chasseurs de Chimères', which appeared in Tremplin in 1960-1961, was solo work by Jacques van Melkebeke.

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

Commercial work
Between 1958 and 1983 Jacques 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, Jacques van Melkebeke helped Jean-Pol with the scripts for his new comics series 'Bertje Kluizenaar' in Libelle (1966) 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", he 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). He passed away in 1983.

Essays about Jacques van Melkebeke
Comics historian Benoît Mouchart wrote an essay about Jacques van Melkebeke, which was published under the title 'À L'Ombre de la Ligne Claire' in 2002.

Jacques van Melkebeke

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