Judi, by Karel Verschuere
De Avonturen Van Judi 2 - 'Het Wrekende Vuur'.

Karel Verschuere was a mid-20th century Flemish comics artist. Self-taught, he was one of the first artists working in the studio of Willy Vandersteen, who was his main taskmaster between 1952 and 1968. He worked almost exclusively on Vandersteen's realistically drawn comics, such as 'Bessy',  'De Rode Ridder', 'Karl May', 'Biggles' and 'Tijl Uilenspiegel'. Verschuere drew and plotted many stories personally. As illustrator of Leopold Vermeiren's series of chivalry novels 'De Rode Ridder' he suggested to Vandersteen to adapt it into a comics series. Verschuere also came up with the idea of adding a strong caveman to Vandersteen's signature series 'Suske en Wiske', which became the main cast member Jerom. How much creative input Verschuere had on Vandersteen's series is still a matter of debate. Yet nobody denies he was a fine draftsman. Vandersteen respected him well enough to give him a share of the profits and credits under the shared anagram "Wirel". Later the two had a fall-out and Verschuere started a solo career. None of his western comics ('Tom Berry', 'Jimmy Carter und Adlerfeder', 'Sam D. Howard', 'Filip Hechtel') really caught on, mostly because his own assistants (all former Vandersteen employees) soon left him. He and Vandersteen both accused each other of bad employment, with Verschuere even blaming his old boss for deliberately boycotting his solo career. Their falling out is still shrouded with mystery and contradictive testimonials. Posthumously Verschuere was also accused of plagiarism. Karel Verschuere remains remembered as one of Vandersteen's most talented but equally controversial artists.

Early life and career
Verschuere was born in 1924 in Borgerhout. During World War II, he was sent to the Eastern front and fought alongside the Nazis in Russia. After the war he was imprisoned for four years due to collaboration and treason. In the early 1950s, he began his own advertising firm with Herman Geerts, called Gevers. Verschuere could draw very well, despite not having any academic or professional experience. He had a good sense of anatomy and perspective. He inherited this talent from his father. Verschuere's major graphic influence was Alex Raymond's 'Flash Gordon' and he adored other realistic comics too. Using the pen name "Lerak", he made his debut from 1952 on with a couple of realistic stories in the children's supplement of newspaper Het Volk, Ons Volkske. 'Boeren Voorwaarts', 'Strijd om Land' and 'Voor Outer en Heerd' were based on the late 18th-century Flemish peasant's uprising against the French: "De Boerenkrijg". In addition, he made illustrations for Kleine Zondagsvriend and the seasonal books of Nonkel Fons at Averbode.

Judi/Rudi
In 1952 Verschuere was hired by Willy Vandersteen, who recognized his talent. He started off inking many of his series, before taking over most of the maestro's realistically drawn comics series. Vandersteen helped Verschuere imitate his style, but in terms of realistic drawing Verschuere surpassed him. His first own series under Vandersteen's name was 'Judi' (1952-1956), which ran in Ons Volkske between 23 October 1952 and 11 March 1954. It told events from the Old Testament from the viewpoint of a 14-year old boy named Judi. The stories were published in book format by Catholic publishing house Sheed & Ward, with ecclesiastical approval from Leo Suenens, who was then auxiliary bishop of Mechelen and later became cardinal of Belgium (1961-1979). 'Judi' was a clear attempt to make wholesome and moralizing Christian comics to appeal to moral guardians. However, most young readers didn't enjoy its dry, serious tone and even among Catholic teachers and preachers it was criticized for its liberal and often sensational approach of the Bible. In total only six stories were ever made. The first three installments were mostly pencilled by Vandersteen and inked by Verschuere, while Verschuere made the fourth album, 'De Zwervers' (1956), all by himself. When the stories were reprinted in the Ohee series in the 1960s, Verschuere made one final story with the character, who was renamed 'Rudi': 'Het Beloofde Land' (1968). The final two stories weren't even prepublished: they appeared straight in book format. 


'Fort Oranje' (1992 reprint in Kuifje magazine).

Tijl Uilenspiegel
For the comics magazines Tintin (Dutch-language version: Kuifje) and Ons Volk Vandersteen created the historical adventure comic 'Tijl Uilenspiegel', loosely based on Charles de Coster's eponymous 1861 novel (originally co-illustrated by Félicien Rops). Set in the 16th century, the original novel depicts Tijl as a trickster who frequently fools people, including priests. He eventually becomes "the spirit of Flanders" when he uses his wits to fight the Spanish oppressors. In his adaptation Vandersteen left out all scenes that were too adult or anti-religious and focused primarily on Uilenspiegel's resistance fighting. He condensed many chapters, added his own imagination and took many cues from artwork by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 'Tijl Uilenspiegel' remains a highlight in Vandersteen's oeuvre. The first story, 'Opstand der Geuzen', ran in Tintin between 26 September 1951 and 24 December 1952. The second and final story, 'Fort Oranje', ran between 7 January and 9 December 1953 and brought Tijl and his friends to New Amsterdam in pre-colonial America. This album was almost completely drawn by Verschuere. Other artists who occasionally assisted were Bob de Moor and Tibet.

Bessy, by Karel Verschuere
Bessy - 'De Spookhengst' (1954).

Bessy 
Inspired by the popularity of 'Lassie' Vandersteen and Verschuere created a more succesful blend of adventure and didactics: 'Bessy'. Vandersteen asked MGM for permission to create a comic strip around Lassie and even bought a collie dog. However, they insisted on exact adaptations, so in the end he just came up with his own series. Just like Lassie Bessy is a female collie, but all action is set in the Far West. Bessy and her owner Andy travel the prairie with occasional educational intermezzos. Whenever the duo encounters an animal or a plant, captions give readers a small biology lesson. 'Bessy' took off in La Libre Belgique on 24 December 1952, before making its Dutch-language debut in the weekly Ons Volk (17 December 1953) and from 1959 on in the newspapers Het Belang van Limburg and De Gazet van Antwerpen. One story, 'De Gevangene van de Witchinoks', also ran in De Standaard. In the Netherlands, 'Bessy' appeared in the Catholic weekly Katholieke Illustratie (1955-1966), while De Telegraaf published two stories, 'De Strijdbijl' en 'De Verdwaalden', between 1960 and 1961. Verschuere experimented with lay-out and panels to give the images more dramatic power. His swift pencil put more movement in his characters. As a matter of research he often worked with real weapons, miniature models and toy trains from his personal collection. His contributions made 'Bessy' very popular among Belgian readers. 

However, the series knew its biggest success in Germany, where Bastei Verlag published the stories in the youth magazine Pony between October 1958 and August 1960, after which the series ran in the magazine Felix. From 15 February 1965 on the production rose. New stories were churned out every month (!) and by the 58th album even every week (!!). In the end about 992 'Bessy' titles appeared exclusively on the German market. Some were never translated to Dutch or French (and vice versa). Twenty titles were instantly released as books without prepublication. Vandersteen was forced to hire new assistants and even created a whole separate unit. He gave Verschuere co-credit, albeit not under his full name, but as part of a collective pseudonym: Wirel ("Wi" for Willy, "Rel" for Karel). His assistant also received 20 percent (!) payment of the royalties. No other Studio Vandersteen employee had received such benefits. Not even any of other assistants who industriously worked on 'Bessy' over the decades: Frans Anthonis, Jeff Broeckx, Chris Callebaut, Eduard De Rop, Eric De Rop, Guy Derrie, Edgard Gastmans, Eugeen Goossens, Peter KoekenWalter Laureysens, Michel Mahy, Jan Moens, Jacky Pals, Jean Bosco SafariFrank Sels , Marcel Steurbaut, Christian Vandendriessche, Patrick van Lierde, Ron van Riet, Jos Vanspauwen, Jean Veyt, Jos Verreycken, Robert Wuyts, nor the scriptwriters Jacques Bakker, Daniël Jansens and Hugo Renaerts. While the profits of 'Bessy' were high, it must be said that some of these hundreds of German stories were reprints. Others were shameless rehashings of other western comics by Vandersteen, such as 'Karl May'. The studio often recycled these stories panel by panel, changed the hero's face with Andy's and drew Bessy in the backgrounds. Everything was so rushed-out that the drawings became sloppier. On 12 January 1984, long after Verschuere's departure, 'Bessy' was discontinued in La Libre Belgique. Bastei terminated their contract too a year later, feeling they didn't get their money's worth. Not all complaints were about the graphic quality: in some case they asked to tone the violence down. Scriptwriter Marck Meul and artist Jeff Broeckx tried rebooting the series as 'Bessy, Natuurkommando' (1985-1992), in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund. The modernized version featured Andy and Bessy with two new characters, a young woman named Aneka and a little boy, Kid. The setting was changed to the present, with the characters becoming wild-life preservers. Some stories appeared in De Stipkrant, the children's supplement of the newspaper De Standaard. Bastei Verlag published it as 'Bessy - Rettung für die bredrohten Tiere'. 'Bessy Natuurkommando' managed to lengthen the series even after Vandersteen's death, but it eventually was discontinued in 1992. 

De Rode Ridder, by Karel Verschuere
De Rode Ridder - 'De Zilveren Adelaar'.

De Rode Ridder
On 5 November 1959 Vandersteen started a comic strip adaptation of Leopold Vermeiren's popular series of novels about Johan, a noble red knight: 'De Rode Ridder'. They had been prepublished as short stories in De Kleine Zondagsvriend, a Sunday juvenile supplement in the newspaper De Gazet van Antwerpen. A pseudonymous artist named "Jan de Simpele"  was the original illustrator, later followed by Paul Ausloos and then Verschuere. Vandersteen always had a soft spot for historical adventure stories and since Verschuere worked for his studio too it seemed to be an easy deal. However, De Zuidnederlandse Uitgeverij owned the rights. Antoon Sap, publisher at NV Standaard Boekhandel, solved the problem by simply signing  Vermeiren under their contract. The novelist greenlighted the comic strip adaptation, but preferred his name to be left off the credits, because he also worked as a school inspector. For the same reason his occasional scriptwriting for Jef Nys 'Jommeke' also stayed anonymous. Vermeiren only gave permission to use Johan, none of his other characters. As a result the novels and comic strip take place in a different universe. The only similarity between the two, other than the name and title hero, was that Vermeiren changed his protagonist's black hair colour into blonde on the book covers so he'd resemble Johan from the comics more. 

The first 'De Rode Ridder' comic strip was prepublished in De Standaard. The early stories betrayed the influence (and occasional artwork) of Hal Foster 's 'Prince Valiant'. Johan is a lonely knight roaming through woods and fields, fighting for justice. Later he becomes a Knight of the Round Table and served under King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. The story 'King Arthur' (1964) introduced Merlin the wizard, who'd remain a regular cast member  afterwards. The first story, 'Het Gebroken Zwaard' (1959), was mostly written and illustrated by Vandersteen's studio employees based on a small synopsis he left behind before he embarked on a long voyage to South East Asia. The maestro wrote and drew the second story, 'De Gouden Sporen' (1960), completely on his own. Afterwards he took a seat back and concentrated on album cover design and script writing while his assistants did most of the artwork. His son Bob Vandersteen drew backgrounds for the first three 'Rode Ridder' stories. Verschuere, Eduard De Rop and Frank Sels worked on the albums throughout most of the 1960s. This also explains why there was no real focus. Some stories take place in different era of the Middle Ages, often centuries apart from one another! Sometimes the tone is realistic, while other times Johan meets dragons, witches, fairies, gnomes and wizards. The knight travels through Continental Europe, but his horse occasionally brings him as far as Scandinavia, Iraq, Cambodia, Korea, China or Japan. Since the studio employees had to work on other series too and rush everything out for publication, occasional sloppy work was unavoidable. Off-model drawings, mistakes in spelling, continuity, proportion or perspective were rampant. The infamous album 'De Zwarte Roos' (1968) has often been cited as the worst executed 'Rode Ridder' story.

But through it all Vandersteen's storytelling talent shined through. The adventures were captivating, suspenseful and overall epic. It helped 'De Rode Ridder' become a bestseller. Vermeiren's original novels also sold better as a result, even though the comic strip adaptation completely overshadowed them. Between 1969 and 2004 Karel Biddeloo took over 'De Rode Ridder' and transformed it into a pure sword & sorcery, with sly eroticism. After Biddeloos's death, Dutch comics artist Martin Lodewijk, of 'Agent 327' fame, became the series' new writer while Claus Scholz provided illustration work. In 2012 Marc Legendre became co-writer. Since 2016 Italian artist Fabio Bono is the series' new illustrator. He took the opportunity to give the always clean-shaven Johan a stubble.

Karl May
In 1962 Vandersteen rediscovered Karl May's old cowboy novels about Old Shatterhand and Winnetou, which he so enjoyed as a boy. He wanted to adapt them into comic books and did so with assistance by Karel Verschuere, Frank Sels, Eduard De Rop, Eugeen Goossens and Karel Biddeloo. The first story wasn't prepublished, but the second one appeared in De Standaard from 10 December 1962 on. After 13 stories 'Karl May' was moved to the children's supplement magazine Pats, where new stories ran between 16 April 1965 and 6 December 1977. Some were drawn by Merho.

Suske en Wiske
Despite concentrating on realistic comics, Verschuere sometimes collaborated on the humoristic productions as well. He worked on the 'Suske en Wiske' story 'De Lachende Wolf' with Karel Boumans and, together with Vandersteen, made the story 'De Rammelende Rally' (1958), which was made for the Antwerp Tourist Federation. It was the first 'Suske en Wiske' comic book made specifically for an advertising company and was thus never prepublished elsewhere. Verschuere also claimed he was partially responsible for the creation of Jerom. When Vandersteen pondered with the idea of introducing an super strong, invincible man in 'Suske en Wiske', Verschuere suggested making him a caveman, inspired by V.T. Hamlin's similar prehistoric character 'Alley Oop'. The name "Jerom" was based on Jeroom Verten, a pseudonymous writer best known as the creator of the farcical plays (and later TV series) 'Slisse & César'. Verschueren also claimed to have thought up the gags in 'De Tamtamkloppers' (1953) and 'De Knokkersburcht' (1953) where Jerom runs faster than sound, while the text flies out of his speech balloon. 

Biggles, by Karel VerschuereBiggles, by Karel Verschuere

Fall-out with Vandersteen
Unfortunately, Verschuere and Vandersteen's collaboration soured in the mid 1960s. In 1964 Verschuere went through a divorce, which was problematic because his ex-wife was contractually entitled to have her part in his financial share. He therefore wanted Vandersteen to change his contract. All these complications put a strain on his work. Verschuere left the studio in 1964, returned in 1965, was fired again in 1966, unexpectedly rehired in 1968, only to be fired again one year later and this time forever. His most important work during this period was done for 'Bessy' and Vandersteen's new comics series 'Biggles'. 'Biggles' was based on W.E. Johns' popular aviation novels. These novels had been adapted into comic strips before by foreign artists like Pim van BoxselAlbert De VineRob Embleton, Ola Ericson, Gote Goransson, GuichaRoger Melliès, Maurice RondepierreAlfred Sindall and Mike Western, but as always Vandersteen managed to put his own spin on it. The series kicked off on 12 April 1965, mostly drawn by Verschuere and Biddeloo. Biddeloo eventually continued the series on his own until 19 January 1970. Between 1966 and 1967 Verschuere was assigned head of the 'Bessy' studio in Antwerp, who produced one new comic album a week for Bastei Verlag. After being fired and rehired in 1968 he drew ten new 'Bessy' stories for the Dutch-language market before leaving the studio for good.

Verschuere was severely depressed and disillusioned about his divorce. He no longer found the time, nor the energy to reach his weekly deadlines. It frustrated him that his name wasn't credited in full and that Vandersteen didn't mention him in interviews. In the past he was allowed draw pages in the comfort of his home. But as a supervisor of the 'Bessy' studio he was expected to drive all the way there to train the other employees. This really annoyed him after a while. He stopped caring about his work, preferring to play with his toy trains or just hang about. He missed more and more deadlines. Many of his drawings weren't even properly finished anymore. Naturally he and his co-workers didn't get along. They put pressure on Vandersteen to fire him, which eventually happened. 

Buffalo Bill - Der Rote Bison von Truckee Line, by Karel Verschuere
Buffalo Bill - 'Der Rote Bison von Truckee Line'.

Solo career
Apart from working for Vandersteen, Verschuere sometimes worked independently too. He created the comic strip 'De Avonturen van Koen de Wilde' for Kleine Zondagsvriend in 1954, the albums 'Fra Antonio - Het Leven van St. Antonius van Padua' (about the life of Anthony the Great, 1961) and 'De Avonturen van Klavervier' (1963) , as well as two historical stories in the series 'Les Belles Histoires de l'Oncle Paul' in Spirou. 'Fra Antonio' was reprinted in Ohee in 1967. He'd hoped to become a full-time employee at Spirou, but this didn't happen. Verschuere always believed that Vandersteen might have had a secret hand in this. With Rik Dierckx as scriptwriter, Verschuere created the western comic 'Buffalo Bill' (1967) for publisher De Goudvink in Schelle in 1967. The series never caught on because it wasn't prepublished and just instantly appeared in book format. After four albums, he left the series, with two subsequent stories being illustrated by Perry Cotta.

Fra Antonio, by Karel Verschuere
'Fra Antonius' (Ohee, 1967).

Studio Verschuere
Verschuere tried to set his own rival studio, Studio Verschuere, and even convinced some of Vandersteen's employees, Eduard De Rop and Karel Boumans, to join him. He also hired Erik Vandemeulebroucke and Frans Anthonis. For the German publisher Erich Pabel they produced the humorous western series 'Tom Berry', as well as the realistic comic 'Die Abenteuer von Jimmy Carter und Adlerfeder' (which had nothing to do with the later US President Jimmy Carter, who wasn't widely known at that time). The latter comic was also published in the Flemish magazine De Post as 'Arendsklauw'. However, his co-workers left him after a disagreement over their payment and went back to Vandersteen. As a result, Verschuere had to cancel his contractual obligations to Pabel.

Afterwards, he drew the western series 'Sam D. Howard', which was published in Het Laatste Nieuws in 1972, followed by two 'Filip Hechtel' stories with Miguel (Marc Andries) for the weekly De Post. He eventually broke with the comics industry and went to work at the Rent-a-Car service of Peugeot and for Daniel Construction Company International. He only made one gag strip afterwards for Daniel Construction's staff magazine, named 'Pampers Baby'. Karel Verschuere died from cancer in 1980.

Tom Berry by Studio Verschuere
'Tom Berry' by Studio Verschuere.

Plagiarism
In the years since his passing Verschuere has become more controversial due to his tendency to plagiarize entire scenes from other comics, such as Hergé's 'Tintin', Edgar P. Jacobs' 'Blake and Mortimer', Victor Hubinon and Jean-Michel Charlier's 'Stanley' and 'Tiger Joe', H.G. Kresse's 'Eric de Noorman' and 'Matho Tonga', Harold Foster's 'Prince Valiant', Gustave Doré's bible illustrations and Jean Giraud's 'Blueberry'. Jan Smet, Ronald Grossey and Rob Møhlmann in particular have investigated this and uncovered many examples. During his lifetime Verschuere had already admitted in an interview with Jan Smet that he lacked Vandersteen's richness in ideas and often had to work under time pressure. Apart from that he had no pretenses over a medium he considered to be a "routine job (...) aimed at children". It must also be said that Vandersteen was no stranger to plagiarism himself. In 1981 Møhlmann had already confronted Vandersteen with an entire book worth of images and storylines he copied from Harold Foster and Alex Raymond. And while Verschuere's originality and creativity have been contested everyone agrees he was at least very talented from a technical viewpoint. His overall legacy is furthermore not as polarizing as that other controversial former Vandersteen employee, Marc Verhaegen.

Karel Verschuere has a cameo at the start of the 'Suske en Wiske' story 'De Klankentapper' (1961). He is the bespectacled man in black suit who tries to trick Jerom by pulling a chair away underneath him. He can also be seen in 'De Briesende Bruid' (1968-1969) outside the city hall when aunt Sidonia gets married, alongside other studio employees Eugeen Goossens and Lucienne van Deun.

Judi, by Karel Verschuere
De Avonturen Van Judi 1 - 'De Zondvloed '(1952).

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