Willebrord Jan Frans Maria Vandersteen was born in one of the poorer areas of the Belgian city of Antwerp in 1913. His father was a sculptor and ornament-maker and little "Willy", who had always been fascinated by drawing and sculpting, started out working in his father's studio. At the same time, he took evening classes at the Fine Art Academy of Antwerp. Later he worked in construction as an ornament maker, but when the World Exposition of 1930 signaled a new era in architecture introducing the sober lines of concrete, Willy Vandersteen had to look out for another job.
De Avonturen van Simbat
He became a window-designer for Antwerp's Innovation warehouse. It was there in 1939 that he was first introduced to comics, when his boss handed him an American fashion magazine which featured a fascinating article on 'Comics in your Life'. After that, Willy Vandersteen was determined: he wanted to make comics.
Willy Vandersteen got married to his wife Paula in 1937, and soon had to provide for a family in the barren conditions of the second World War. Nonetheless, he submitted his drawings to the newspaper De Dag, which carried the Wednesday supplement Wonderland, which was mainly filled with American comics like George Herriman's 'Krazy Kat' and Floyd Gottfredson's 'Mickey Mouse'. The editors were happy to publish a comic by a Belgian artist and on March 26, 1941, Vandersteen's first comic, 'De Lollige Avonturen van Pudifar' (about a cat that looked a lot like Krazy Kat), appeared in print for the first time. 'Pudifar' was succeeded by 'Barabitje', another gag strip about a cat. Vandersteen also introduced the caveman 'Tor' in Wonderland. He signed his work "Wil" and started on a long and productive career in comics.
For several years, there was a debate if it was Vandersteen who illustrated anti-semitic cartoons under the pen name Kaproen during World War II. Kaproen illustrated the 1942 booklet 'Zóó zag Brussel de Dietsche Militanten', written by Bert Peleman under the pseudonym Ulenspiegel. Kaproen was furthermore the cartoonist of several cartoons about 'Bart de Brigademan' in Volk en Staat. Research by the Vandersteen family in 2010 proved that Kaproen was indeed a pseudonym for Vandersteen. However, Vandersteen has also made several anti-nazi cartoons under the title 'Dappere Jan' with his Wil signature in 1943.
Willy Vandersteen also worked for the comic magazine Bravo, where he drew 'Simbat de Zeeroover', about a pirate who bore a great resemblance to the later Lambik character. Then 'Thor de Holbewoner', a new version of 'Tor', and 'Lancelot' followed. In 1943, his first album was published by Ons Volk, called 'Piwo, het Houten Paard'. Two other 'Piwo' albums followed in 1944 and 1946. In addition, he made illustrations and the gag strip 'Bert de Lustige Trekker' in the children's magazine De Rakker, as well as the strip 'Peerke Sorgloos' in the Antwerp weekly De Illustratie. Vandersteen furthermore made realistic stories like 'Het verzonken rijk', 'De eerste maanraket' and 'De staalblauwen Boeddha' for Ons Volkske and Overal in the second half of the 1940s.
Vandersteen had survived the War by working very hard and producing several comics. In the last year of the war, he came up with a comic about a brother and sister, which he called 'Suske en Wiske'. When it appeared in the newspaper De Nieuwe Standaard on March 30, 1945, he was disappointed to see that the editor had renamed the strip 'Rikki en Wiske'. The comic became a success nonetheless.
In the second adventure, 'Op het Eiland Amoras', Rikki was no longer featured. Wiske and her aunt Sidonia met the boy Suske, who replaced Rikki as Wiske's faithful sidekick. (In English, the strip has been published as 'Spike and Suzy'). With the creation of new characters like Lambik and Jerom, the comic soon became so popular, that editors of different newspapers almost literally fought over the right to publish the strip, much to Vandersteen's amazement.
Suske en Wiske - De Gezanten van Mars (Kuifje, 1955)
In 1949, Vandersteen's work first appeared in the magazine Tintin. He started out with some gags of 'Lambik', but from 1950, longer adventure stories of 'Suske en Wiske' ('Bob et Bobette') appeared. The international fame of Vandersteen's comic was established. However, due to Hergé's interference, Vandersteen's typical Flemish comic had to be restyled in the "ligne claire" (Clair Line) of all other artists in the magazine. In addition to the 'Suske en Wiske' stories, Vandersteen also created the gag strip ''t Prinske' ('Altesse Riri', 1953-1959) and the epic 'Tijl Uilenspiegel' ('Thyl Ulenspiegel', 1951-1953) for the magazine.
In the following decades of productivity, Vandersteen befriended artists like Bob de Moor and Marc Sleen. He expanded his activities by creating various new series, and founded the Vandersteen studios in 1952, although Vandersteen had some assistance prior to this. None other than Maurice Tillieux assisted him on the realistic comics he made for Ons Volkske and Overal in the 1947-1949 period, and from 1949 to 1952 Vandersteen was aided by François-Joseph Herman. Several artists joined Studio Vanstersteen throughout the years, such as Paul Geerts, Karel Biddeloo (Bik), Karel Verschuere, Jeff Broeckx, Eugeen Goossens, Karel Boumans, Robert Merhottein and Edward de Rop. Most of the time, Vandersteen drew the first episodes of a series himself, and then handed it over to his assistants.
De Familie Snoek
Another popular creation of Vandersteen was the weekly newspaper strip 'De Familie Snoek' (1945), partially based on the family life of Vandersteen's publisher Wim Goderis. Vandersteen and his co-workers were also present in the magazine Ons Volkske, where they produced humorous series like 'De Vrolijke Bengels' (1946), 'Het Plezante Cirkus' (1954) and 'De Lustige Zwervers' (1958).
De Lustige Zwevers (Ons Volkske)
Apart from the humorous comics, Vandersteen also made a great number of more realistic comics, such as the series about the dog 'Bessy' (1952). Based on the success of 'Lassie', the 'Bessy' comic knew a large production for the German market in the 1970s. Vandersteen opened a special studio in Antwerp to look after the production, that employed artists like Karel Verschuere, Frank Sels, Edgar Gastmans, Jeff Broeckx, Jean Bosco Safari, Jacky Pals and Frans Anthonis. From 1953 to 1956, Vandersteen created four albums of the Biblical series 'Judi'.
't Prinske (Kuifje, 1954)
Another success was created with 'De Rode Ridder', a series based on the books by Leopold Vermeiren in 1959. In the 1960s, new series followed, such as the western 'Karl May' (1962), the aviation comic 'Biggles' (1965) and the Africa series 'Safari' (1969). In 1972, Vandersteen created a comic series based on the folk characters 'Robert en Bertrand', that originated from a 19th century play by Benjamin Antier and Fréderick Lémaître. It had been his lifelong dream to turn these vagabonds into comic characters. From 1962 to 1967, Vandersteen and his studios adapted the popular Flemish puppet play 'Pats' to a stop comic.
Het Plezante Circus (Ons Volkske)
Some of the side-characters of the 'Suske en Wiske' series got their own spin-off series. Vandersteen had already drawn some gag pages with 'Lambik' for Tintin, but from 1954 to 1963, he created about 350 gags with the character for De Bond. Jerom too received his own spin-off series in 1960 and became tremendously popular in Germany, where the character got its own monthly comic book, Wastl, published by Bastei Verlag. The 'Jerom' comic has had several incarnations. After ten stories in a "normal" setting, 'Jerom' became the golden stuntman in 1967, and finally in 1982, the series changed to 'De Wonderbare Reizen van Jerom'. In 1986, even Wiske's puppet 'Schanulleke' got its own gag strip, drawn by Eric de Rop and written by Patty Klein.
Robert en Bertrand
In 1974, a new series of the comic was launched, this time under the name 'Tits'. In 1985, Willy Vandersteen began his final comics series, 'De Geuzen'. He pencilled this series himself until his death in 1990. Willy Vandersteen is survived by his Studio and several of his comic series. While Vandersteen himself was influenced by the Belgian painter Pieter Breugel and comic artists like Hergé, Elzie Segar and Hal Foster, his own work has been an influence on nearly every Flemish comic that has come out after the Second World War. But especially Bob De Moor, Marc Sleen, Paul Geerts, Marc Verhaegen, Jan Bosschaert, Merho, Willy Linthout and Urbanus are indebted to Vandersteen, as are the Dutch artists Martin Lodewijk, René Windig and Eddie de Jong.
Evelien and Kees Kousemaker welcomed Willy Vandersteen, guest-of-honor at the 1968 opening of Lambiek. Vandersteen, creator of the comic strip character 'Lambik' (in Suske en Wiske), was gracious enough to inform us that we had his blessings, even though we misspelled the name... Lambiek. :-)
Spike and Suzy on the WWW
(in English, French and Dutch)