Senne en Sanne - 'Rebecca R' (2005).

Marc Verhaegen is a Belgian animator, illustrator and comic artist, best-known for his run as lead artist of Willy Vandersteen's 'Suske en Wiske' comic and his subsequent educational comic books for Eureducation. While working in the Belgian animation industry during the late 1970s and 1980s, he had his start as a comic creator with the underground comic 'Fil Marver' (1981-1982) and as penciler of full-length adventure stories starring Thijs Wilms and Wil Raymakers' ox character 'Boes' ('Ox Tales' in English, 1987-1988). In 1988, Verhaegen joined Studio Vandersteen as assistant for Paul Geerts on the 'Suske en Wiske' comic, operating as the "de facto" main artist of the series between 1996 and 2005, although this role was only made official in 2002. Having a unique but polarizing run on the series, Verhaegen's 'Suske en Wiske' stories gained notability for their eccentric and controversial plotlines and comedy. His eventual 2004 discharge of the studio came with widespread media attention, in which Verhaegen was very vocal in his criticism against his former taskmasters. In the years that followed, Verhaegen created his own educational children's comic series 'Senne en Sanne' (2005- ) and ventured with writer Jan Kragt into making historical-biographical comic books under the Eureducation imprint. In his comics, Verhaegen shows his social engagement about real-life issues such as racism, pollution and human trafficking. With his odd, but instantly recognizable style, his stories are full with wacky characters, anthropomorphic animals, inside jokes and pop music references, making the artist one of comics' legendary oddballs. Later in life, Verhaegen gained even more notability with the release of his graphic novel 'Het Beest Is Los' (2022), in which he details the early stages of his career, including his introduction to Studio Vandersteen. Even though the names are changed and the characters fictionalized, it becomes clear how the author thinks about his former colleagues.

Fil Marver in Spetters #5 (1981).

Early life and career
Marc Verhaegen was born in 1957 in Mortsel, a town outside Antwerp. Growing up with a father suffering from manic depression, young Marc sought escapism in comics and music. As a child, he admired Willy Vandersteen, André Franquin, Jef Nys, Pom and the historical-educational biographical comics published in Tintin and Spirou magazines. One story in particular, about Mahatma Gandhi, made a huge impression on him (presumably the 1959 comic for Tintin by Fernand Cheneval and Yves Duval, later reprinted). As a young adult, Verhaegen was attracted to underground comix and alternative comics, citing Jean Giraud, Willem, Georges Wolinski, Jean-Marc Reiser, Kamagurka, Herr Seele and Robert Crumb as strong influences. Later in life, he also expressed admiration for André Juillard and Patrick Gothias, authors of the historical series 'Les Sept Vies de L'Épervier'.

While attending a high school at Sint-Stanislascollege in Kontich, Verhaegen drew comics and cartoons for the school magazine Stani. Between 1974 and 1978, he studied Graphic Design and Plastic Arts at the St. Lucas Institute in Schaarbeek, taking Animation as an elective and graduating with honors. Starting in November 1976, Verhaegen's 40-page comic story 'De Ongewenste' ("The Unwanted") ran in black-and-white in the monthly scouting magazine Condacum. In 2007, the story was colorized and released in book format by De Gouwe Greep.

'Cycloman' (Spetters #5, 1981).

Fil Marver and other underground comix
When one of his St. Lucas teachers showed him underground comix by Dutch cartoonist Willem, Verhaegen was inspired to create more biting, alternative comics himself. The student found an outlet in the adult magazine Spetters, The publisher Jan Bucquoy was a provocative anarchist, who allowed his writers and artists to go very far in their subject matter. While Verhaegen later commented that Bucquoy "still owed him money", he also enjoyed the creative freedom Spetters gave him. As a recurring character, Verhaegen came up with Fil Marver, who was in many ways an alter ego of the artist. A spiky-haired punk who frequently breaks the law, Fil could do and say things that Verhaegen didn't dare. Fil Marver's adventures are drawn in a gritty, black-and-white style, inspired by Robert Crumb. Writing the plots together with his friend Eric Leeraar, Verhaegen assumed the pen name "Marver" (sometimes "Stan Marver"), a contraction of the first three letters of his first and last name. After serialization in 1981 and 1982 in Spetters, the 'Fil Marver' stories were collected in the comic albums 'De Ongrijpbare Fil Marver' (Shark, 1982), 'The One and Only Fil Marver' (Zinjé, 1985) and 'Blikschade' (Zinjé, 1987).

Another early comic creation by Verhaegen was 'Cycloman' (1981-1983), whose adventures appeared in Spetters and were then serialized in newspaper De Morgen and published in book format by Lever. The plot, again made together with Eric Leeraar, stars a man who loves cycling so much, that he uses figurines of cyclists to play sports journalist in his own house. His neighbors believe these reports to be real, with dire consequences. Some of Marver's comics also ran in the short-lived 1986-1987 magazine Uitverkocht, published by Loempia. In 1986, Uitgeverij Zinjé published the adult comic book 'Vicky', written by former journalist Monika Lo Cascio and drawn by Verhaegen under his Marver signature. Over the course of the 1980s, Verhaegen finetuned his drawing skills, while his humor became less raunchy.

Vicky, by Marver (Marc Verhaegen)

Animation career
After graduation from St. Lucas, Verhaegen began his professional career as a freelancer in the field of animation. Between 1978 and 1984, he worked extensively for the PEN Film studios in Ghent, collaborating on the animated children's series 'Jonas en de Wonderwinkel' (1979), based on a comic series by GoT and broadcast on the Flemish public TV channel BRT (nowadays VRT). Veteran animation director Raoul Servais also contributed to this production. For the same TV channel, Verhaegen worked on animated segments for the educational TV show 'Magelaan' and the puppet series 'Liegebeest' (1983-1987). PEN Film also produced the first Flemish feature-length animated film, 'Jan Zonder Vrees' ('John the Fearless', 1984), directed by Dirk De Paepe and Jef Cassiers. Verhaegen was one of the lead animators, along with Nicole van Goethem and Børge Ring. The screenplay was based on Constant De Kinder's classic children's novel 'Jan Zonder Vrees', about a brave medieval strongman. In earlier decades, the folkloric character had already inspired several comic strip adaptations, among others by Roderyck, Jan Waterschoot, Willem Dolphyn and Joke. Unfortunately, the film didn't earn its money back at the box office, leading up to PEN's bankruptcy. However, the picture has remained popular in TV reruns.

For the Belgian studio B.A.C. (Belgisch Animatiefilm Centrum), Verhaegen worked on the animated shorts 'Het Landhuis' (1982) by Josette Janssens, and 'Handgemeen' by Walter Hermans. He also contributed to 'Eva' (1981), a short animated by cartoonist hugOKÉ. Verhaegen was additionally active for the Graphics and Animation studios run by Wouter Dierickx, the brother of comic artist Evert Dierickx. Among his colleagues there were the future comic artists Charel Cambré, Peter Quirijnen, Geert Van Asbroeck and Walter van Gasse. For about a half year in 1988, Verhaegen taught animation at the Sint-Lukas School of Arts in Brussels.

Besides Belgian productions, Verhaegen also contributed to foreign animation projects. He worked on animated shorts for the Dutch version of Jim Henson's 'Sesame Street' on NOS television, and co-animated the opening credits of the hidden camera show 'Bananasplit' on Veronica. In 1985, Verhaegen provided lay-outs for the animated TV project 'Ys La Magnifique', a French-Canadian co-production by the Bélokapi Studio, inspired by a folkloric story from the French Brittany region (Bretagne). The designs were provided by Règis Loisel. Budget problems eventually axed the project. The animated science fiction series 'Les Mondes Engloutis' ('Spartacus and the Sun Beneath the Sea', 1985-1987), created by Nina Wolmark and scripted by Dominique David, proved a more successful project. Verhaegen worked on this show alongside other notable cartoonist animators such as Édith, Kisler, Cromwell, Ralph, Gilles Gonnort, Joe Ruffner, Karim, Arthur Qwak, Riff Reb's and the brothers Gaëtan and Paul Brizzi. Broadcast on the French channel Antenne 2, 'Les Mondes Engloutis' was also adapted into a 1985-1986 comic series, published by Casterman and created by an anonymous creator.

Commercial illustrations and comics
In addition to his daytime job in animation, Verhaegen also earned his bread in the mid-1980s as a commercial illustrator. Through agencies like Johnson & Johnson, he worked on advertising campaigns for the fashion bureau Fashion Fashion, Janssen Pharmaceutica and Chaudfontaine mineral water. In the mid-1980s, Verhaegen assisted on Guido Staes' illustrated children's books based on Ray Goossens' children's TV show 'Plons de Gekke Kikker' ('Splash, The Crazy Frog', 1983-1991). Verhaegen also created Amadee, the fluffy green mascot of the commercial TV station VTM. For Marck Meul's Studio Koala, he worked on advertising artwork, for instance featuring Peyo's 'The Smurfs'. Together with scriptwriter Marck Meul, he also developed the concepts for several comic projects, including one involving the Dutch children's puppet TV series 'De Fabeltjeskrant', but none of them saw print.

Boes - 'Een Harde Noot' (1988).

One of the most notable Studio Koala projects was a series of full-length comic stories with 'Boes', an anthropomorphic farmer ox originating from a Dutch comic strip by writer Thijs Wilms and artist Wil Raymakers. After appearing in several Dutch newspapers throughout the 1980s, the series was adapted into a 1988-1991 animated children's TV series, produced by Telecable Benelux B.V., Cosmos Studio and Saban Entertainment. In English-language countries, the show ran under the title 'Ox Tales'.

To cash in on its popularity, Standaard Uitgeverij assigned Marck Meul's Studio Koala to create full-length adventure comics with the character. Verhaegen was assigned as the lead artist, while the production team also included Verhaegen's friend Geert Van Asbroeck, Eduard De Rop and Anita Schauwvlieghe, as well as the colorists Emmy van Looveren and Hannelore Vantieghem.

Since the original newspaper strip consisted of pantomime visual gags involving all sorts of animals with no specific plot or secondary cast, the 'Boes' universe was expanded for the TV show. Besides more consistent storylines, the cartoons also featured prominent secondary characters, including Dolly the tortoise (Jack in English), Saffie the dog (Sammy) and Shampoo the gorilla (Gaylord). These characters were given larger roles in the comic books as well. In the full-length Studio Koala stories, Verhaegen's zany humor splashes off the pages. In total, three 'Boes' stories were produced by Marck Meul and his team: 'Een Harde Noot' (1988), 'Een Nieuw Erf' (1988) and 'De Schaapscheerder' (1989).

Suske en Wiske, by Marc Verhaegen
Suske en Wiske #276 - 'In De Ban Van De Milt' (2002).

Studio Vandersteen
As early as 1981, Verhaegen had applied for a job at Studio Vandersteen, at the time the leading comic studio in Flanders. In the post-World War II decades, founder Willy Vandersteen and his team had launched countless comic series, which ran in several Belgian, Dutch and German newspapers and magazines. At the time, Verhaegen's portfolio mainly contained underground comix like 'Fil Marver'. He was told that they clashed too much with the studio's child-friendly house style. While he was offered to work for the studio's subdivision that produced full monthly stories of the western comic 'Bessy' for the German market, Verhaegen declined.

By 1988, Verhaegen's comics eventually did catch the attention of Studio Vandersteen. Through regular studio scriptwriter Marck Meul, he was assigned to draw an advertising comic starring Vandersteen's signature characters 'Suske en Wiske' ('Spike and Suzy'). As a promotional gift, the bank Kredietbank wanted to reprint the classic 1952 'Suske en Wiske' story 'De Schat van Beersel', but then accompanied by a short introduction comic to advertise their brand. Verhaegen drew this prologue starring Suske, Wiske, Lambik and the Kredietbank mascots Kaabee the squirrel and K-Bit the robot. He mimicked Vandersteen's 1950s style so well, that 'Suske en Wiske' lead artist Paul Geerts offered him a job with Studio Vandersteen.

During the first half year, Verhaegen combined his freelance work at Studio Vandersteen with a part-time job teaching animation at the Sint-Lukas School of Arts in Brussels. After that, he became a staff artist at Studio Vandersteen, predominantly focused on the 'Suske en Wiske' comic. In 2004, he also drew episodes for the reboot of the spin-off gag comic 'De Grappen van Lambik' (1948-1963), starring secondary character Lambik.

Suske en Wiske #235 - 'De Krakende Carcas' (1992). 

Joining the 'Suske en Wiske' production
In January 1989, Verhaegen officially started his work on 'Suske en Wiske'. At first, he had to develop Paul Geerts' rough sketches into finished pencil drawings, beginning his work with strip 179 of the episode 'De Speelgoedspiegel'. Early on, however, the young man already contributed ideas for jokes and plotlines. The episode 'De Kleurenkladder' (1989-1990), for instance, features a near-sighted villain who was modelled after one of Verhaegen's friends, an early example of the artist's knack for inside jokes.

Overall, the studio had a heavy workload. Every year, four new 'Suske en Wiske' stories were serialized in newspapers and afterwards released in album format by Standaard Uitgeverij. One additional story was produced for the TV weekly TV Express. Outside of the regular series, there were also exclusive 'Suske en Wiske' stories produced for advertising purposes and for annual holiday books. For the 1989 holiday book, Verhaegen wrote and drew his earliest self-created 'Suske en Wiske' episode, the short story 'Bosspel'. The ecologically-themed plot features Lambik being educated by forest animals on protecting the environment. For subsequent holiday books, Verhaegen wrote and drew 'Knokken in Knossos' (1990), 'Spruiten voor Sprotje' (1991), 'De Peezige Peekah' (1992) and 'De Galapagosgassen' (1993). Some shorter 'Suske en Wiske' stories by Verhaegen - 'De Mysterieuze Cirkel', 'Elektro-Aliens', 'Opvoedingsplan B1', 'Operatie Woestijn' and 'De Pijnloze Tandarts' - were serialized in the mid-1990s in the weekly Suske en Wiske Weekblad and later collected in the 1999 holiday book. In 1992, Verhaegen took over writing and drawing the 'Suske en Wiske' TV Express stories, so that Paul Geerts could focus on the main newspaper serials. His first story for this magazine was 'De Krakende Carcas' (1992), based on a medieval legend about the French city Carcassonne.

The first full-length story in the regular 'Suske en Wiske' series co-written and fully drawn by Verhaegen was 'De Goalgetter' (1990), in which Suske becomes a football champion. The comic was made in the light of the upcoming World Championship Association Football. After that, Verhaegen contributed more frequently on the scriptwriting of the main series, albeit still under supervision of Paul Geerts.

Suske en Wiske by Marc Verhaegen
Restyled Suske and Wiske in 'De Ongelooflijke Thomas' (album #270, 2000).

Collaboration with Paul Geerts
By the time Verhaegen became an employee of Studio Vandersteen, founder Willy Vandersteen was already in ill health. His signature comic 'Suske en Wiske' had been written and drawn by his successor Paul Geerts since 1972. In 1990, Vandersteen passed away. In his will, he stipulated strict guidelines for the continuation of the 'Suske en Wiske' series. His direct successor Paul Geerts always had an outmost respect for Vandersteen, a man he considered his mentor. Under his run, 'Suske en Wiske' remained true to Vandersteen's spirit and hallmarks. Already in the early years of Geerts' collaboration with Verhaegen, this led to creative differences. As a former animator and underground comic creator, he had a different background than most of his studio colleagues. Wanting to be more than just an anonymous factory artist, he was eager on innovation and desired to make unpredictable stories. Some of his suggestions were accepted. As Verhaegen felt that Suske was a bland character, he was allowed to make him more assertive. Paul Geerts also kept some of his assistant's wacky jokes in the stories. But at times, Verhaegen's humor went off track and he had to be whistled back. For instance, a page with morbid humor in the 1993 episode 'De Slimme Slapjanus', had to be redrawn. Longtime readers also noticed the change in style and were not always happy. These events motivated Geerts to temper Verhaegen bit and keep the final say over his scripts.

Over the course of the 1990s, the creative dynamics between Paul Geerts and Verhaegen were turned around. During an absence when Paul Geerts was recovering from brain tumor surgery, the publisher gave Verhaegen much creative freedom. Since Willy Vandersteen's death, publisher Standaard was the owner of the studio, while the rights of the series were safeguarded by the Vandersteen heirs. In the second half of the 1990s, comic sales went downhill, and Standaard Uitgeverij strove for modernization to keep the series alive. By the time Geerts returned to the studio, he was gradually put on the sidelines, as his stories were deemed "too old-fashioned". By now, Verhaegen wrote and drew most of the new stories, with Geerts having less say in them. To appeal more to younger readers, the publishers wanted a restyling of the Suske and Wiske characters. In 'Lilli Natal' (2000) and 'De Koeiencommissie' (2001), Wiske had swapped her trademark white dress for a crop top and mini skirt, while Suske appeared in baggy trousers. Fan backlash was huge, and after a couple of episodes, Wiske's white dress returned, only now with shorter sleeves.

Suske en Wiske #268 - 'De Koeiencommissie' (2000). The pig, Dick Zweyn, is a metaphor for Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene. Dehaene was a corpulent man, who tended to dismiss journalists' questions about potential crises with the motto: "Problems ought to be solved once they occur." The cow, Magda Koevoet, refers to politician Magda Aelvoet. 

Political references
Besides the visual restyling, the 'Suske en Wiske' series underwent some other notable changes during the Verhaegen-Geerts era. For instance, several stories had a more political tone. During Willy Vandersteen's early years in the 1940s and 1950s, the stories made occasional subtle winks to the news of the day, but otherwise remained enjoyable in their own right. Commercially minded, Vandersteen eventually dropped such references, because it made the stories too dated after a couple of years. During the 1990s, the 'Suske en Wiske' series regularly gained media attention for its direct references to current affairs, happening in both Paul Geerts and Marc Verhaegen stories. The later Paul Geerts-scripted episodes 'De Rebelse Reinaert' (1998) and 'Het Enge Eiland' (1999) were, respectively, inspired by the widely publicized escape of child-molester and serial killer Marc Dutroux and the fear for the millennium bug. Verhaegen in turn used the real-life crisis about the Belgian river town Doel as the main subject for his 1999 episode 'Het Verdronken Land'. Ever since 1965, Doel has been threatened with demolition, because of the expansion of the Antwerp harbor. In his comic story, Verhaegen took a strong stance by sympathizing with the Doel villagers, even demonizing real-life harbor municipal officer Leo Delwaide in the role of the evil businessman Leo Terzijde, who wants the town to be "destroyed". By far the most politicized 'Suske en Wiske' story from this period was 'De Koeiencommissie' (2001), in which animals establish their own political parties to demand rights. The story is a hodgepodge of references to late 1990s Belgian current affairs, including the activities of the animal welfare groups GAIA and ALF, as well as the 1999 chicken food dioxin poisoning scandal. Real-life politicians are spoofed with pun-based names. The 2001 episode 'De Europummel' dealt with the shift to the monetary unit euro.

In general, these types of stories met with mixed reactions. Some readers felt such direct political commentary was out of place in a children's series, others considered the satirical elements too simplistic to offer any real commentary. Almost outdated by the time the stories appeared in book format, the references made these stories almost incomprehensible to children, non-Belgians and later readers. Interviewed by Steven De Foer in Het Nieuwsblad (17 May 2002), Verhaegen himself admitted that he wouldn't use this type of political humor anymore, because they "really didn't interest young readers." 

Suske en Wiske #238 - 'De Slimme Slapjanus' (1993).

Lead artist of 'Suske en Wiske'
On 1 June 2002, Paul Geerts retired, and Verhaegen was officially appointed as his successor. By then, Verhaegen wrote all scripts on his own, while he received assistance for the finished pencils, backgrounds and inking from Walter Van Gasse, Peter Quirijnen and Eric de Rop. While Verhaegen generally took sole control over the scriptwriting, the EU-themed episode 'De Europummel' (2001) was written in collaboration with political cartoonist Erik Meynen. In 2003, Peter van Gucht joined the studio as additional writer.

From 2002 on, Verhaegen had almost full creative control over the 'Suske en Wiske' series, which more and more bore his personal stamp. For instance, his fondness for loony characters with bizarre mannerisms and speech patterns. An example is the mad scientist in 'De Slimme Slapjanus' (1993), who is obsessed with chocolat. In 'De Pottenproever' (1993), the character Mane Gort mixes various proverbs and sayings together. Some of these weird side characters have a tendency to randomly start singing and dancing, quoting famous pop lyrics. In 'De Gevangene van Prisonov' (2002), a pianist falls from the sky and recites Bob Dylan's 'Hurricane'. In some cases, established cast members act out of character. In 'De Stervende Ster' (1994), professor Barabas suddenly pulls odd pranks on his friends, a trait he never exhibited before. Other recurring plot elements in Verhaegen stories are talking animals. Either anthropomorphic animals appear, or human characters are changed into animals.

Pop music references and fan cameo in 'De Verdwenen Verteller' (Suske en Wiske #277, 2002).

Transforming the series
In a way, Verhaegen shared his sense for out-of-the-box absurdism with Willy Vandersteen in his early years. Verhaegen felt that an artist's personality and interests should be reflected in his work, which in his case included absurd comedy, pop music and inside jokes. Some characters in his stories are directly based on friends, colleagues or relatives. Sometimes, he even gave specific fans considerable roles, like 'Suske en Wiske' collectors Jack C. Moonen and Ralph Dikmans. To the average reader, these appearances could come across as random and even incomprehensible, as they frequently interrupted the main storyline. His tendency for inside jokes led to criticism that Verhaegen appeared to only entertain himself and his friends.

A notable case in point is 'De Verdwenen Verteller' (2002), an album Verhaegen made as a tribute to Paul Geerts, who was about to retire. While the story was intended as Verhaegen's personal homage to his mentor, it has been criticized for being a big inside joke. Most of the regular 'Suske en Wiske' cast members are barely present in the story, which in the end is more about Verhaegen himself than Geerts. The plot features Paul Geerts being kidnapped by the Black Madam witch, who forces him to work together with two annoying children, Rikske and Dirkske. These three characters were clear metaphors for Vandersteen's daughter and heir Leen, scriptwriter Erik Meynen and comic artist Dirk Stallaert, who had all clashed with Verhaegen at one point. As such, the comic character of Paul Geerts is basically a metaphor for Verhaegen himself. Nowadays, 'De Verdwenen Verteller' leaves an especially bitter taste, given that Geerts and Verhaegen had a serious fall-out in the following years. In a reaction to the story, Dirk Stallaert said that he didn't mind being ridiculed, especially since some of the "references" to his character didn't make much sense to him. But he did feel it was a bad idea of Verhaegen to expose all his personal frustrations in a comic strip aimed at the general public.

Suske en Wiske #280 - 'De Kus Van Odfella' (2003).

Verhaegen also experimented with the format. Past 'Suske en Wiske' albums were self-contained stories. But in less than two years, he made two trilogies with a continuous storyline, the first consisted of 'De Fleurige Floriade' (2001), 'Heilig Bloed' (2001-2001) and 'In De Ban van De Milt' (2002), and the other contained the albums 'De Laatste Vloek' (2002-2003), 'De Kus van Odfella' (2003) and 'De Gevangene van Prisonov' (2003). As a fan service, Verhaegen brought back retired characters from the series, most notably Wiske's brother Rikki in 'De Gevangene van Prisonov'. As this character hadn't been seen since the 1946 debut of the series, Verhaegen provided a back story to explain his disappearance during all those years. In addition, Verhaegen created new recurring cast members. In 'De Stervende Ster' (1992), he introduced the sensation-crazy journalist Pol Ampers, directly based on real-life reporter Paul Jambers. In 'De Averechtse Aap' (1994), the mad German scientist Herr Frick and his robot assistant Otto made their debut. Frick was based on the character Herr Flick from the British sitcom '’Allo ’Allo'. And in 'Heilig Bloed', a mysterious woman named Odfella became a prominent character. To some readers, it felt as if Suske and Wiske increasingly became secondary characters in their own series. Especially the 'Odfella' trilogy made Vandersteen's daughter Leen state: "This has nothing to do with 'Suske en Wiske' anymore."

A true "enfant terrible", Verhaegen tested how far he could go with his storylines. In Vandersteen's will it was stated that sex, drugs, religion and racism were taboo topics. The series' creator also insisted that his characters weren't allowed to grow older and the characters Lambik and aunt Sidonia should never marry. However, within a few years since his passing, the series already started to derive from Vandersteens wishes. In 'De Stervende Ster' (1994), Aunt Sidonia lights a cigar, although she is later revealed to be an imposter. In 'De Stugge Stuyvesant' (2001), one character smokes a joint and Lambik and Jerom arrest a heroin dealer. In 'De Ongelooflijke Thomas' (2000-2001), the cast travels to the then-distant year 2020, where Lambik and Sidonia are not only married, but also have a son. By now demented seniors, they spend their days in a retirement home. In the end, the past is altered, so that these events will never occur. Nevertheless, long-time fans didn't react well to this story. It felt as if Verhaegen was deliberately trolling his audience and violating Vandersteen's will. However, interviewed by Koen Maas in De Perfecte Podcast (March 2021), Verhaegen claimed that he never knew what Vandersteen's will exactly said, except for a few excerpts. Still, Vandersteen's will was widely published in many books and press articles at the time. For somebody who continued 'Suske en Wiske' for several years, it seems unlikely that he was never fully briefed about these matters. Given how many scenes were direct violations, it cannot be dismissed as mere coincidence.

Surreal humor in 'Spruiten voor Sprotje' (1991).

Appearing in a time when the publisher demanded quick modernization and a new author pushed the boundaries with his personal taste, the Verhaegen-era 'Suske en Wiske' stories have deeply polarized readers. They derived so much from the series' overall style that many fans vocally expressed their dissatisfaction. A new generation of readers, however, felt he actually breathed fresh air in an old-fashioned franchise. His oddness was intriguing and the way he bit the hand that fed him daring. Verhaegen gained a small cult following, though at the time it seemed much bigger than it actually was. Verhaegen often claimed to receive "a lot of enthusiastic fanmail", but it was an open secret that he often joined in online discussions about 'Suske en Wiske', using pseudonyms like Alin Stankovich to defend his work. Either way, his stories were at least innovative, if still a very acquired taste.

The weird and iconoclastic stories aside, several of Verhaegen's 'Suske en Wiske' stories fit well within the series' familiar, conventional hallmarks. Stories like 'De Pottenproever', 'De Vonkende Vuurman', 'Prachtige Pjotr' and 'Verraad op de Veluwe' are inspired by folkloric tales. Others delve into environmental issues ('De Kernmonsters'), while other albums promote huge media events. 'Big Mother' (2001) cashed in on the popular reality TV show 'Big Brother', while 'De Blote Belg' (2001) ran parallel with a similarly titled TV game show, broadcast on TV1. Like his predecessors, Verhaegen also worked on advertising stories with the characters. 'De Fleurige Floriade' (2001) promoted the annual Floriade gardening expos in the Dutch Haarlemmermeer, while 'De Razende Rentmeester' (2004) highlighted the Dutch city Zoetermeer. 'De Ludieke Les' (2002) was made for Levenslijn, with profits going to help child patients with cancer.

Suske en Wiske #278 - 'De Kunstkraker' (2001), with references to Salvador Dalí

Discharge and aftermath
Overall, the self-willed Verhaegen didn't fit well within a studio system. He wanted to follow his own course and refused to compromise. In some interviews he denied this, in others he admitted that he considered himself an "artist", who had difficulty giving away control over his work. In the eyes of his employers and colleagues, he became uncontrollable. Interviewed for Het Nieuwsblad by Steven De Foer (17 May 2002), Verhaegen felt that longtime fans mostly complained out of nostalgia and people eventually get used to even the most radical changes. Unfortunately for Verhaegen, his most baffling stories received the most complaints. And in a time when 'Suske en Wiske' didn't sell as well as before, this doomed his days at the studio.

After finishing the 'Suske en Wiske' story 'De Formidabele Fantast', Verhaegen was officially fired on 25 February 2005. Following his departure, 'Suske en Wiske' was continued by scriptwriter Peter van Gucht and artist Luc Morjaeu, who brought the franchise back to its familiar, conventional roots. The publisher's official reason for Verhaegen's dismissal was that he was "unable to work in a team and give direction to other artists". Verhaegen, on the other hand, said he was "completely taken by surprise” and "never informed" that his work didn't please his taskmasters. He also claimed that they never discussed the matter with him, nor was given a chance to discuss his dismissal. However, this contradicts statements by Verhaegen in which he said that two of his scripts were rejected by the publisher and Vandersteen's heirs. He was strongly discouraged from making the 'Suske en Wiske' story 'Kaapse Kaalkoppen' (2004), which is set in South Africa. In some scenes the apartheid system is referenced and criticized, with the cast members meeting Nelson Mandela. The studio felt apartheid was not a suitable subject, since Willy Vandersteen's will stated that posthumous stories couldn't have racism as a topic. Verhaegen didn't understand the problem, since the plot condemns apartheid and the system itself had been abolished for over a decade. In the end, 'Kaapse Kaalkoppen' was published without much alterations. Verhaegen's final story, 'De Formidabele Fantast', briefly referenced the Holocaust in one of the final scenes, when a 19th-century Jewish man is warned for events in the next century. Verhaegen wanted to make the Holocaust a central theme in his next 'Suske en Wiske' story, which would contain scenes of Nazis molesting and killing people. This edgy plot was the final straw for the studio, and sped up the decision to end their collaboration with Verhaegen.

Appearance of Nelson Mandela in 'Kaapse Kaalkoppen' (Suske en Wiske #284, 2004).

Verhaegen's dismissal received a lot of media attention. Partially because Studio Vandersteen and Standaard Uitgeverij issued an official press statement, but also because Verhaegen expressed his frustrations in public. The Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland printed a revenge comic by him, in which Vandersteen's daughter Helena was depicted as a sow. He also made his rejected "Suske and Wiske during the Holocaust" script public. Verhaegen accused several of his colleagues, Vandersteen's heirs and the late Vandersteen himself of having far-right sympathies. In his opinion, this was the main reason why his anti-apartheid and anti-Holocaust stories were rejected. He also claimed that Vandersteen was the cartoonist "Kaproen", who had drawn anti-Semitic cartoons during World War II. This rumor had often been suggested, but never researched. Verhaegen sued Studio Vandersteen for "breach of loyalty and reason" and "slander", claiming he didn't agree with the way his dismissal had been mediatized before he had been informed about the decision. On 18 April 2006, the judge ruled in his favor and the studio had to pay him 7,500 euros. In 2010, Vandersteen's heirs decided to investigate the Kaproen affair, mostly because Verhaegen had brought a lot of unwanted attention to it. Much to their shock, historical research proved that Vandersteen had indeed been Kaproen all along.

Even years later, Verhaegen remained spiteful about the whole affair. He took his unused 'Suske en Wiske' story about the Holocaust and recycled it for his own new comic series, 'Senne en Sanne'. In 2022, he brought out the first installment of his semi-autobiographical graphic novel, 'Het Beest Is Los', which partially deals with his past at the studio. Some of the scenes have been interpreted as a personal revenge, although Verhaegen claimed that "most of it is fiction". In the end, the animosity between Verhaegen and his former colleagues made him the most controversial artist in the history of 'Suske en Wiske'. Whatever went wrong during Verhaegen's run on the series may always remain a matter of opinion. Certain is that Verhaegen wasn't solely responsible for the declining sales of 'Suske en Wiske' in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Although a polarizing artist, there is still a fanbase for the 'Suske en Wiske' stories he created. The oddest ones make him stand out among the dozens of other, more conventional 'Suske en Wiske' contributors. So much in fact, that he is still a much talked about personality, even years after he left the studio.


Suske en Wiske Weekblad
During his time at Studio Vandersteen, Verhaegen additionally received the chance to publish some of his own creations in Standaard Uitgeverij's weekly magazine Suske en Wiske Weekblad. His adventure series 'Calpako' (1996, 1998) starred a young, cap-wearing teenager, Josh, and his best friend Wiona, a Native American girl. Two stories were made, 'Wiona' (1996) and 'De Timucuabronnen' (1998). Under the pseudonym Xao Pi, Verhaegen also created the short-lived gag comic 'Ted en Fred' (1997), starring a short-sized chain smoker (Ted) and his tall and bald friend Fred. Most of their gags feature self-reflexive comedy. The characters are followed by an eraser who will destroy them if they fail to be funny.

'Ted en Fred'.

Senne en Sanne
During his final year as artist of the 'Suske en Wiske' series at Studio Vandersteen, Verhaegen wanted to make a story set during World War II, with the Holocaust as major theme. This idea was instantly rejected by the studio. When Verhaegen was fired in 2005, he launched his own comic series, 'Senne and Sanne', so he could use his rejected script. Naturally he had to alter a few elements, but otherwise its roots as a 'Suske en Wiske' story are still visible. The main characters are a young boy, Senne, and a girl, Sanne. Much like Wiske, Sanne has a doll, though in her case not a rag doll, but a toy rabbit named Krolik (the Russian word for "rabbit"). In their first story, 'Rebecca R.' (2005), the characters are sent to 1942, where they witness the persecution of Jewish people during the Holocaust. Verhaegen continued his message of tolerance and condemnation of racism and violence in the follow-up, 'Cordoba' (2006). In this story, he directly references three recent instances of violent, fatal incidents in Brussels and Antwerp. First of all, the murder of Joe van Holsbeeck (2006), a teenager stabbed to death by two Polish teens for not giving them his mp3 player. Secondly, the murder of Guido Demoor (2006), a man beaten to death during a streetcar ride by a group of teens of Moroccan descent. And thirdly, the murder of three people by Hans van Themsche (2006), a racist teenager who sympathized with the political party Vlaams Belang and neo-Nazism. A third story, 'Loverboys' (2007), was inspired by the exploitation of underage girls as prostitutes by teenage pimps, the so-called "loverboys". The story was made in collaboration with Payoke, the Antwerp non-profit organization who helps victims of sex trafficking.

Senne en Sanne, by Marc Verhaegen
Senne en Sanne - 'Cordoba' (2006). The two Polish teens attacking a boy to steal his MP3 player are a reference to the 2006 real-life murder of teenager Joe Van Holsbeeck, who died in similar circumstances. 

The fourth 'Senne and Sanne' story, 'Kroniek van de Gitaar' (2018), has a more frivolous topic, namely the history of the guitar. The story, scripted by Paul Reichenbach, focuses on legendary guitarists from the world of jazz, blues and rock and was made for the non-profit organization Strips en Kennis. With 'Tsjernobyl' (2020), Verhaegen returned to the more socially conscious themes of his series. In this tale, Senne and Sanne are educated about the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. One short story, 'Het Speelgoedmuseum' (2007), was not included in the regular series, but drawn exclusively for the Toy Museum in Mechelen in celebration of its 20th anniversary. 'Senne and Sanne' was serialized in the weekly children's paper Kidsweek and the newspapers Gazet van Antwerpen and Het Belang van Limburg. The albums were published under the Mezzanine imprint of Ballon Media.

Michiel de Ruyter by Marc Verhaegen
'Het Geheim van Michiel de Ruyter' (2007).

On 28 October 2005, Verhaegen joined scriptwriter Jan Kragt in establishing the EurEducation Foundation, that specializes in promoting European history and culture to young readers. Through high quality graphic novels, the foundation aimed at informing and giving food for thought to youngsters. Verhaegen illustrated graphic novels about the lives of 17th-century Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter ('Het Geheim van Michiel De Ruyter', 2007) and painter Vincent van Gogh ('Vincent Van Gogh. De Worsteling van Kunstenaar, 2011'). Other historical topics touched by Kragt and Verhaegen through EurEducation were the Dutch East-Indonesian Company ('De Vliegende Hollander: het VOC Complot', 2008), Antwerp during World War II ('Oorlogswonden', also known as 'V-Bommen op Antwerpen', 2008) and the Dutch colony New Amsterdam ('De Strijd om New York', 2009). Kragt and Verhaegen's story 'Strijd Tegen Het Water' (2011) provided a historical overview on how people in the Low Countries have tried to prevent floods.

With scriptwriter Dirk Biddeloo (brother of comic artist Karel Biddeloo), Verhaegen made 'De Dolle Avonturen van Camille Paulus' (2008), loosely based on the life of Belgian lawyer, politician and cycling enthusiast Camille Paulus. Between 2009 and 2011, three of Verhaegen's EurEducation books also appeared in English: 'Battle of New York' (2009), 'Vincent Van Gogh, An Artist's Struggle' (2011) and 'Battle Against The Water' (2011). Verhaegen's regular inker for the EurEducation productions was Jos Vanspauwen. Since 2012, new EurEducation titles have been made by Jan Kragt in collaboration with artists like Steve Van Bael, Thomas Du Caju and Franky Drappier.

Other educational comics
At the commission of the NAVB-CNAC, Verhaegen drew two comic books about safety procedures regarding construction buildings, which in 2014-2015 were made available in Dutch as well as French: 'Pol Pallet & Benny Beton' (or 'Pol Palette & Benoît Béton') and 'Val Niet Uit De Lucht' (or 'Ne Tombez Pas de Haut').

'Het Beest Is Los' (2022), with a vengeful depiction of Verhaegen's former mentor and taskmaster Paul Geerts. 

Het Beest Is Los
In 2022, Verhaegen self-published the first part of his semi-autobiographical novel 'Het Beest Is Los' (Stripken, 2022). The story is presented in a black-and-white pencil style, instead of the artist's usual ink and color work. The book follows a young comic artist, Flor Goedleven, in finding a job in the animation industry and then at the studio of Jef Kalk, the "famous creator" of the comic series 'Inke and Pinke'. At first, Flor enjoys his occupation, but soon clashes with his colleagues. Apart from his troubles at work, he also has to cope with his wife, who suffers from manic depression. It all becomes a quest for his own identity. Several of the typical Verhaegen traits are present in the story, including a transformation of the main character into a wild beast, and an odd sequence in which the fictional comic creator is attacked by his own characters.

A year before its publication, Verhaegen had already announced this novel as a way to cope with troubles from his past. What most readers really looked forward to was Verhaegen's implication that he would also deal with his controversial past at Studio Vandersteen. However, those who were eager for juicy gossip, had to figure out for themselves where truth ends and fiction begins. Verhaegen made clear that the book isn't an autobiographical account. Certain events and anecdotes are based on personal experience, but he deliberately used different names and changed some details. In an official press interview, Verhaegen said that this gave him more creative freedom and the ability to add different layers to his story. Still, many people from Studio Vandersteen and the publishing company Standaard Uitgeverij are easily recognizable, despite their different names. Jef Kalk is Willy Vandersteen, Hup Hop is Paul Geerts and Willem Dick is Standaard director Dirk Willemse. Kalk is depicted as a whoremonger, Hop as a jealous man and Dick as an arrogant know-it-all. Even though Geert De Weyer, comic reviewer for De Morgen, described the novel as "anything but subtle", Verhaegen still denied that the book was a personal settlement. Though he did feel that it was Geerts' problem "if he felt offended", since he "had criticized him online in the past too". Still this first installment mainly tackled Verhaegen's time working for animation studios. His Studio Vandersteen period shall form the inspiration for the second volume.

'Het Beest Is Los' (2022).

Graphic contributions
Verhaegen contributed to 'Zinloos Geweld. Tekeningen des Tijds' (Oogachtend, 2008), a collective book making a statement against senseless violence. In 2009, he drew a comic for 'Brussel in Beeldekes', a publication of the Flemish Comics Guild with stories by different authors about the history of Brussels. Verhaegen paid homage to Flemish comic legend Jef Nys in 'Jommekes Bij De Vleet' (2010) and to Pom in 'Avontuur in de 21ste Eeuw' (Nouga, 2010) and 'Op 't Spoor van Pom' ('t Mannekensblad, 2011). Verhaegen also transformed the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen's song 'Thunder Road' into a 2013 comic story, published by Strips & Kennis. On 24 April 2022, a street art wall in Merksem was revealed, designed by Verhaegen, Jeff Broeckx, Walter Laureysens, Erwin Sels and Rik Willemen. 'Potlood' (2009) is a collection of previously published work by Verhaegen, some scripted by Ivan Claeys, Jan Kragt and Verhaegen.

For his first 'Senne en Sanne' book, Verhaegen received the 2008 Egeltjesprijs, an award handed out by the junior department of the Christian-democratic party CD&V in his hometown Merksem for "making the history of World War II accessible to youngsters".

Board member and personal life
In September 2006, Verhaegen launched his own blog. Between 2006 and 2009, he was head of the board for comic authors in the Vlaamse Auteursvereniging (Foundation for Flemish Authors), and between 2007 and 2009, on the board of the Vlaamse Onafhankelijke Stripgilde ("Flemish Independent Comics Guild"). Since 2012, he is actively involved as chairman and treasurer in Strips en Kennis, a non-profit organization that arranges lectures, workshops and book signings in schools, libraries and other public places, with the aim of introducing adults and youngsters to other cultures, minority groups and certain periods in history.

Marc Verhaegen is in a relationship with illustrator Vivi Weyers.

Oorlogswonden by Marc VerhaegenVincent van Gogh by Marc Verhaegen
Covers for two EurEducation books by Marc Verhaegen.

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