A self-taught artist, Karel Verschuere was one of the first artists working in the studio of Willy Vandersteen. Renowned for his realistic drawing style, he assisted his master with many of his more serious comics series, like 'Bessy', 'De Rode Ridder', 'Karl May', 'Biggles' and 'Tijl Uilenspiegel', eventually taking them over completely. A fine draftsman, Vandersteen respected him enough to give Verschuere a share of his profits and even credits (though only under a shared pseudonym). How much creative input and influence Verschuere had on these series is still a matter of debate. Verschuere drew and plotted many stories personally. He is credited with inspiring his master to create the character Jerom in 'Suske en Wiske' and to adapt Leopold Vermeiren's popular novel character 'De Rode Ridder' into a comic strip. Yet, at the same time, Verschuere has posthumously been accused of plagiarizing entire poses and scenes from other comics. This still, however, doesn't settle the shrouds of mystery around Verschuere's dismissal at Studio Vandersteen. Both men accused one another of bad employment. When Verschuere's solo career failed he further blamed his old boss of deliberately boycotting him. Karel Verschuere remains remembered as one of Vandersteen's most talented but equally controversial artists.
Verschuere was born in Borgerhout, in 1924. During World War II, he was sent to the Eastern front and fought alongside the nazis in Russia. After the war he was emprisoned for four years due to collaboration and treason. In the early 1950s, he began his own advertising firm with Herman Geerts, called Gevers. Verschuere eventually found employment with Studio Vandersteen in 1952, despite not having any academic or professional experience. Yet he could draw well, a talent he inherited from his father. Verschuere's major graphic influence was Alex Raymond's 'Flash Gordon' and he adored other realistic comics too. Vandersteen recognized his skills and educated him up to his level. Verschuere then took over part of his master's production, specializing in realistically drawn comics. This allowed Vandersteen to concentrate on what he was best at: humoristic comics. Verschuere became the main artist on the Biblical series 'Judi' (1952), which appeared in Ons Volkske. For the same magazine and around the same time, he illustrated 'Boeren Voorwaarts', 'Strijd om Land' and 'Voor Outer en Heerd', 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.
Verschuere co-created the western series 'Bessy' with Willy Vandersteen under the joint pseudonym of Wirel ("Wi" for Willy, "Rel" for Karel) in 1952. As one of Vandersteen's first co-workers, he was also one of the few to receive co-credits (albeit under a collective pseudonym) and even a percentage of the royalties. 'Bessy' first appeared in the daily newspaper La Libre Belgique, but later also in Ons Volk, Katholieke Illustratie and Gazet van Antwerpen. It was also Verschuere who suggested making a comic series with Leopold Vermeiren's character 'De Rode Ridder', of which Verschuere had illustrated text stories in Kleine Zondagsvriend. The series was launched in 1959, and Verschuere, accompanied by Eduard De Rop and Robert Vandersteen for some stories, was largely responsible for the artwork of the first fifteen albums, after which Frank Sels took over.
Verschuere also showed his skills in the co-creation of series like 'Karl May' (1962) and 'Biggles' (1965). He also drew the second and final album of the 'Tijl Uilenspiegel' series, 'Fort Oranje' for the magazine Tintin. 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'.
In 1965 he and Vandersteen made probably the strangest comic in their entire careers, 'De Avonturen van Nero en Co', better known as 'De Geschiedenis van Sleenovia'. This comic strip was created when Marc Sleen, creator of 'Nero', moved from the newspaper Het Volk to De Standaard, where Vandersteen's series were published. Even though Sleen was still under contract with Het Volk and not allowed to make another story for another three months, De Standaard expected him to publish a 'Nero' story in their paper at the same time too. To help him out Vandersteen and Verschuere made their own 'Nero' story by tracing and cut-and-pasting images from older 'Nero' albums. After only five episodes Het Volk sued and the comic strip was suddenly drastically redrawn to make Sleen's characters look completely different, with Nero in particular wearing a black bag over his head. Halfway the story, Het Volk dropped their case and the story was allowed to continue with Sleen's original style intact. Still, the legal issues have kept this unique collage comic unavailable today. It was only published in 1979, in a special issue of the Dutch comics information magazine Stripschrift. In 2014 Dirk Stallaert had started redrawing the entire album in Sleen's style.
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 'Het Leven van St. Antonius van Padua' (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.
Unfortunately, Verschuere and Vandersteen's collaboration soured in the mid 1960s. In 1964 Verschuere went through a divorce, which gave him less time and energy to finish his weekly deadlines. He also wanted Vandersteen to change his contract, since his ex-wife was contractually entitled to have her part of his financial share. He left the company, but returned in 1965 to make Vandersteen's comics series 'Biggles'. In 1966, he was assigned head of the 'Bessy' studio in Antwerp, that had to produce one story a week for the German publisher Bastei.
However, in 1967 Verschuere got fired again. According to Vandersteen he postponed his work too much, missing deadlines as a result. Verschuere on the other hand claimed he was basically fed up with driving to the studio every day instead of working at home as he was used to. He was assigned to educate new employees, but didn't get along with them. Eventually his pupils demanded Vandersteen to resign him. Apart from that Verschuere also felt his hard labor wasn't recognized by Vandersteen, seeing that none of his assistants were ever allowed to sign their work or be mentioned in public.
Buffalo Bill - Der Rote Bison von Truckee Line
He tried applying for a job at Spirou but in the end wasn't hired, something he believed Vandersteen had a secret hand in. Verschuere launched the western series 'Buffalo Bill' with scripts by Rik Dierckx for publisher De Goudvink in Schelle in 1967, but it flopped since it was immediately published in album format rather than in a magazine or a newspaper. After four albums, he left the series, with two subsequent stories being illustrated by Perry Cotta. Around this period, Verschuere also drew a comic about the life of Anthony the Great for Ohee ('Fra Antonius', 1967). In 1968, Vandersteen unexpectedly asked Verschuere to return to his studio. He worked on ten 'Bessy' adventures before once again leaving his task master, this time permanently.
Verschuere tried to set his own rival studio, Studio Verschuere, and even convinced some of Vandersteen's employees, Eduard De Rop, Karel Boumans and Erik Vandemeulebroucke, to join him. For the German publisher Erich Pabel they produced the humorous western series 'Tom Berry', as well as the realistic comic 'Die Abentteuer 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.
Tom Berry by Studio Verschuere
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 1982.
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.