comic art by Berend Vonk
Comic art by Berend Vonk. 

Berend Vonk is a Dutch cartoonist, illustrator, musician and fine artist, operating under the "Studio Vonk" banner. His illustrations and political cartoons appear in mainstream media like Trouw, Algemeen Dagblad, and VPRO Gids, while his more personal comic stories run in alternative publications like Zone 5300. Even though his comics were collected in only a handful of albums - 'Pastorale 83' (1982), 'In De Val, Jeanette' (1995), 'Avonturen, Avonturen' (2008) and 'De Familie Die Te Veel Wist' (2023) - Vonk stands as a remarkable Dutch comic creator, who cleverly mixes political satire with alienating absurdism. He also participates in collective projects with other artists from the Limburg province, resulting in anthologies like 'Grenzenloos' (2017) and 'Bevrijd' (2019).

Family background
Berend Jan Vonk was born in 1962 in Ubachsberg, a town in southern Limburg. He is one of six children of Jan Vonk, a graphic designer working for the State Mines, and writer/fine artist Trees Ruijs (1925-2016). Vonk's mother had spent her childhood in the Dutch Indies (Indonesia), and was interned in one of the Japanese camps during World War II. To her children, Trees Ruijs was always very open about her wartime experiences. The horrific things she witnessed and underwent during this period were also regular subjects of her art, especially in a series of 23 paintings under the title 'Terugblik Op De "Jappentijd"' ("Looking Back on the Jap Period") and her book 'Het Uitgeleende Kind' ("The Lent Child"). When she died in 2016, the Vonk siblings transformed her house into the Trees Ruijs Huijs museum. Berend Vonk is the chairman of the foundation, his eldest sister Maaike Vonk - herself a portrait painter - operates as its secretary.

Berend Vonk's comic about his mother's wartime experiences in a Japanese interncamp, printed in the anthology 'Bevrijd' (2019).

Coming from an artistic family, Berend Vonk began drawing his own comic stories at a young age. He developed his trademark drawing style,  characterized by spontaneity, lack of pretentions and focus on emotions. In a 1997 interview with Stripschrift magazine (#301), Vonk said he was highly allergic to realistically drawn comics. Instead he preferred the more spontaneous characterizations in the humor comics by Marc Sleen and Willy Vandersteen and the mix of semi-realism and caricature in the work of Jacques Tardi and Carlos Sampayo. In terms of political cartooning, he takes inspiration from iconic early 20th-century cartoonists like Albert Hahn and Tjerk Bottema. After publishing his first drawings in his school paper, Berend Vonk's work was featured in the comic book 'Jong Talent 79', a selection of young comic talent published by Het Stripschap.

Between 1980 and 1985, Vonk had his classical art education in monumental design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Maastricht. The school was very formal and traditional, but Vonk later reflected that he was happy to have gained some proper knowledge of art instead of being let loose at one of the more free-spirited modern art schools. In his spare time, he freaked out by creating his own idiosyncratic comic strips, which he never dared to show at school. Upon his graduation in the mid-1980s, Berend Vonk focused on painting fine art, but gradually his work expanded to comics, illustrations, cartoons, murals, etchings, woodcuts, silkscreens and sidewalk chalk drawings.

'Pastorale 83' (1982).

First steps as a cartoonist
As a student, Berend Vonk developed himself into a politically oriented cartoonist. His early years were characterized by contributions to left-wing fanzines and other publications, while being involved in protests against nuclear power plants and other forms of activism. His work appeared in often subversive magazines like De Gekkenkrant, De Vrije Socialist, De Tribune, Wij Eisen Geluk and Lekker Fris. For the Amsterdam squatter's magazine Bluf, he made a comic strip called 'De Klomp des Doods', about a squatter and his punk girlfriend who discover dangerous state secrets. Vonk's activism was also evident in his comic book debut, 'Pastorale 83' (Beeldspraak, 1982), a Cold War-flavored political satire. In one of his later autobiographical comic stories, 'Bezoek van de BVD' (collected in the 2008 book 'Avonturen, Avonturen'), Vonk described he was at one point visited by officers from the National Security Service, who tried to recruit him as a spy. Still, it remains the question how much of this annecdote is true. Vonk's comic stories and cartoons are often based on his own life or actual politics, but then take a surreal twist.

'Der König Lebt', starring Elvis Presley (from: 'Avonturen, avonturen').

While 'Pastorale 83' gave Vonk some notability within the Dutch comics scene, his publications remained scarce and fragmented, for instance a couple of pages published in the comic magazines Titanic and Wordt Vervolgd. In the 1990s, Vonk appeared more regularly in the many indie magazines that arose during this period. His comics and cartoons were present in Bakkes, Posse, Gr'nn, Van Speijk and Incognito, and the cartoonist also participated in the latter magazine's chain comic 'Het Lieve Leven'. In 1994, he was a contributor to the very first issue of Zone 5300, a small press magazine from Rotterdam, initiated by Tonio van Vugt and Robert van der Kroft. To this day (2023), Zone 5300 has remained the regular homebase for Vonk's comic stories and three-panel gag strips.

'Betonnen Vriend'.

While his stories follow a pattern of bizarre twists and surreal sequences, he takes great effort in crafting structured plots to fluently present his strange mind twists to the reader. His stories are populated with tragicomic characters, all condemned to their own micro-world. In one story, Elvis is still alive and living with a landlady in Germany, in another the cartoonist gives a poetic account of Agneta, a giant woman walking around with a permanent green snot bubble. A recurring character is 'Betonnen Vriend' ("Concrete Friend"), a superhero in the form of a concrete building, who constantly sacrifices himself to save humanity. Graphically, Vonk experiments with different techniques and story lengths, sometimes using heavy crosshatching, sometimes outstanding colors. In addition to the previously mentioned titles, Berend Vonk has also contributed to De Bedenkelijk Kijkende Grondeekhoorn, a small press magazine initiated by Gummbah, Jeroen de Leijer and others.

'Wonder Ann', another superhero character by Berend Vonk.

A black-and-white collection with Vonk's early small press stories was published by Zet.El under the title 'In De Val, Jeanette' (1995). In 2008, Jean-Marc van Tol's imprint Catullus released 'Avonturen, Avonturen' (2008), Vonk's first full-color comic book. In March 2023, the Haarlem-publisher Sherpa inaugurated its new Zone 5300 imprint with the Vonk story collection 'De Familie Die Te Veel Wist' ("The Family That Knew Too Much"). Vonk's book appeared in tandem with the equally absurdist 'Op een Beetgare Eergisteren' by Charles Guthrie.

Cartoon about the demands for the Dutch practical education. "The bar must be raised again."

Besides comics, Berend Vonk also makes paintings as an outlet for his personal work, all in the same recognizable style. Most of his time is however dedicated to more financially rewarding activitities like producing cartoons and illustrations for both the Dutch mainstream press and specialized or corporate magazines. Since the 1990s, he makes a weekly cartoon for the newspaper Trouw, in which he comments on the political news with a typical Vonk twist. Among his other regular clients have been the newspapers Algemeen Dagblad, Het Financieele Dagblad and De Limburger, magazines like VPRO Gids and Filosofie Magazine, the student paper Ad Valvas and the specialized magazines Boekblad and De Journalist (including its successor Villamedia). For the benefit claimants' monthly MUG, Vonk made cartoons with absurd predictions of the paths that Dutch social security could take. They were collected in the 1998 cartoon book 'Eens'. He also regularly contributes to Ser-bulletin, the house organ of the Social and Economic Council and the Labor Foundation, as well as Binnenlands Bestuur, a news magazine aimed at the highly educated civil servant and administrator. In 2018, he made the illustrations for the novel 'Braga Doom' by Joris van Os.

Through Drawup, Vonk is for hire as a live cartoonist and visual minutes secretary during conferences and seminars for corporate and cultural organizations. He also does this work in a group, performing with Gady Mirtenbaum and Toon Hezemans as "De TekenkingZ". In commission of De Warande, a music venue in Turnhout, Vonk has designed posters for concerts by Ilse de Lange, Jonathan Richman and other acts.

Cartoon for Binnenlands Bestuur (July 2022), about all the crises facing the Dutch government. Prime Minster Mark Rutte sighs: "Remind me, when does the off-season start?"

Despite periods of time living in the city of Amsterdam and the coastal town Noordwijk, Vonk and his family (a wife and four children) eventually returned to his Limburg roots and settled in Geulle, a town near Maastricht. In addition to illustrations for the regional newspaper De Limburger, Vonk also produces artwork for local events and companies. He has teamed up with other cartoonists from the region to do collective projects. Together with Marco Jeurissen, Jean Gouders, Gady Mirtenbaum and Toon Hezemans, he initiated the anthology 'Grenzenloos' (Tejohaas Productions, 2017), collecting forgotten stories and hidden histories from Limburg's border territory with Germany and Belgium. Vonk contributed a historical comic about a Limburg ferryman during World War I. The same collective then compiled 'Bevrijd' (Leon van Dorp, 2019), an anthology with true stories from before, during and after World War II. For this occasion, Vonk created a comic story based on his mother's wartime experiences. For the annual Dutch Mountain Film Festival in Heerlen, Vonk teamed up with graphic designer Roelant Meijer and festival director Toon Hezemans for the limited edition comic book 'De fatale reis van de Nevertought'. An illustrated captain's diary capturing the fatal trip of a sailboat heading for Franz Josef Land in 1898, the book was the first winner of the Small Press Award at the Haarlem Comic Festival 2022.

With other Limburg artists, Berend Vonk has taken part in thematical group expositions, for instance a 2014 show about saints in the Breda cultural café Het Hijgend Hert. Also in 2014, a solo overview exhibition with Vonk's work was held in the Signe Art Centre in Heerlen.

Panels from Vonk's contribution to the 'Grenzenloos' anthology (2017).

Other graphic contributions
In 1985, Berend Vonk was one of several graphic artists contributing to the anthology book 'Tegenaanval' (De Lijn, 1985). Initiated by Patty Klein, the book protested against the conviction of comic artist Wim Stevenhagen who refused to fulfill his military service. Vonk has regularly participated in collective projects initiated by Marcel Ruijters, Matthias Giessen or Vlerk, which includes contributions to the comic books 'Onverstaanbare Vertellingen' (1993), 'Fun & Games' (1994) and 'Nabije Ontmoetingen van de Vleermuisorde' (1994). In 2000, he adapted the Bertolt Brecht play 'Mother Courage and Her Children' for the anthology 'Strips Op de Planken, Papieren Drama's, Toneel met Balloons', edited by Joost Pollmann and Antoinette Reuten. In the same tradition, he gave a visual impression of the Bert Haanstra film 'Alleman' for the 2012 anthology book 'Film Fanfare' (De Bezige Bij/Oog & Blik). In 2010, Vonk was one of the contributing artists to GEERT, a parody glossy spoofing Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders.

Comic strip with self-portrait for Villamedia, about the cartoonist's reduced purchasing power.

Musical career
Simultaneously with his visual arts career, Berend Vonk has been performing and recording as a musician. Between 1987 and 2000, he was part of the five-man formation De Sufgerukte Wallies, doing vocals, guitar and melodica under the stage name "Liefdesspelonk Vonk". His younger brother, musicologist Bart Vonk (1964-2006), was also part of the band. With Berend Vonk also doing graphic design, the group released the albums 'Zebulon zal Wonen in het Licht' (1991) and 'Paterpiopriester' (1993), as well as a couple of cassettes. Describing their music as "galley slave rock", the group performed a mix of chanson, punk, tear-jerker, rock, country, blues and humpa, giving a similar surreal experience as reading Vonk's comics. In recent years, Vonk has assumed the stage name Lovecavern when singing with the three-piece rock formation De Schuldjongens, of which the debut LP 'Everyting You Hate Is On The Run' was released in 2018.

For this autonomous graphic work, Berend J. Vonk has received several awards, most notably the 1992 Ilse Frankenthal Prize for his woodcuts. In 1997, he was awarded the First Prize for Illustration by the city of Amsterdam. His comic story collection 'Avonturen, avonturen' received the award for "Best Literary Comic" during the 2009 Comic Festival held by Dutch comic appreciation society Het Stripschap.

Avonturen, Avonturen by Berend Vonk
From: 'De Familie Die Te Veel Wist'.

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