Belgian comic books are like Belgian culture distilled to ink and paper. They visualize the Belgian way of thinking and the country’s view on foreign countries throughout history. If you want to get to know Belgian culture though comic book entertainment, these are the classic must-reads that are well loved within the country, and sometimes celebrated abroad.
The protagonists are a boy and a girl named Suske and Wiske, or Bob and Bobette (Spike and Suzy in the UK and Willy and Wanda in the US). They’re close like brother and sister, though they’re not actually siblings. They live under the care of their tall and mothering aunt, Sidonia. Lambik and Jerommeke, or Lambic and Jerôme, are friends of the family who join them on their adventures. Lambik is a bald man who likes to brag and is often the butt of jokes. Jerommeke is an inhumanly strong man who speaks in short sentences. They’re named Ambrose and Jethro in English, and Jerommeke is also known as Jerom or Wilbur.
Almost every comic book has an alliteration in its title, and a joke somewhere about how skinny Sidonia is (these comics started out in a very different time). The comic books take place in Belgium, exploring local folklore, or in far and exotic corners of the world. The main characters also often use the time machine of the brilliant professor Barabas to have adventures in the past and the future.
The creator, Willy Vandersteen, used his childhood in Antwerp as an inspiration. This is obvious in the first editions, where the characters all live in his old neighborhood. Willy Vandersteen also took his characters with him on his travels to other countries. He was involved with the production of the Suske en Wiske comics until the 60’s, after which he retired and left it into the hands of the studio he created. And speaking of Willy Vandersteen’s comics…
The title literally translates to ‘The Red Knight.’ These comics are about a knight named Johan and his adventures in medieval Europe. Though he sometimes travels to faraway destinations, such as Iraq, China and Japan. He takes part in many famous events and battles, such as the Battle of the Golden Spurs (1302), and was a part of the Knights of the Round Table (chronology is not very important in these comics). Johan the Red Knight doesn’t seem to have any bad qualities — he’s noble, kind and chivalrous in all his comics.
The Rode Ridder is a product of Studio Vandersteen. The comic series has been under the care of many different authors. Vandersteen wrote and drew the first comics, but then left the writing to Karel Biddeloo. After the death of Karel Biddeloo, Claus Scholz made the comics with Martin Lodewijk, who was later replaced by Marc Legendre. The Red Knight comics have never really reached Wallonia, but are immensely popular in Flanders.
An article about famous Belgian comics that does not include The Adventures of Tintin is yet to be written. These beloved comics are about a young reporter and his little dog Snowy, or Milou as he’s called in the original comics. In Flanders, Tintin’s sidekick is called Bobbie.
The Adventures of Tintin are well-known abroad and have many adaptations, such as the movie by Steven Spielberg, plus the animation series in the 90’s.
It’s unfortunate that the comic books series also include some publications that are, well, racist. Hergé had a very biased view of the world outside Europe, not unlike the rest of Europe at the time. Only the comics that take place in China are well-written, influenced by Hergé’s friend Zhang Chongren. Besides introducing Hergé to Chinese calligraphy, which heavily influenced Hergé’s art style, he was also the inspiration for the character Chang Chong-Cheng.
Hergé also oversaw the production of several other comics, including Blake and Mortimer and a comic about a poor, lonesome cowboy.
Luke can shoot faster than his own shadow and wanders around the United States, helping out those in need. He often acts as a bodyguard, or is asked to track down bandits – who are usually a caricature version of the Dalton Brothers. Luke is always accompanied by his loyal and very intelligent horse, Jolly Jumper. His sidekicks sometimes include an incredibly dumb dog named Rantanplan.
The Lucky Luke comics started in 1946 and were drawn and written by Maurice De Bevere, known by his pen name Morris. For a while, Morris had help from René Goscinny, known for his comics The Adventures of Asterix. Since Morris passed away in 2001, the comics are drawn by Achde.
Lucky Luke is a homage to the old Wild West, and many historical figures are present in Luke’s adventures. Usually there’s a page at the end of each comic that explains what really happened. The comic books don’t shy away from parodying the Wild West, though, heavily using cowboy clichés and stereotypes from the United States.
The comic book series had several adaptations, including a live-action in 1991.
Popular in both Flanders and Wallonia, Spirou and Fantasio certainly deserve their fame in Belgium. Like Tintin, they are journalists who travel across the globe with a sidekick – a squirrel named Spip – and get involved in the stories they investigate. They are also friends with an eccentric inventor, who is also the count of a fictional Belgian village named Champignac.
Spirou, or Robbedoes in Flanders, started out as an elevator lift operator in a fancy hotel. Though the character quickly changed into an adventurous journalist, he kept his original uniform. Fantasio, or Kwabbernoot, is a more down-to-earth character, who also provides comic relief.
The comic is made by a collaboration of writers and artists, including Franquin, Fournier, Cauvin and Jijé. Franquin is also known for creating another famous character, named Gaston Lagaffe.
Gaston Lagaffe, whose last name translates to ‘the blunder,’ is a clumsy and lazy office worker in his late teens. He works at the Journal de Spirou – a real magazine. In Flanders, he’s known as Guust Flater.
He shows up at work in his slippers, causes strange accidents and keeps several pets – including a cat and a seagull – in his office. He also somehow manages to prevent important papers from being signed, by angering businessman De Mesmaeker. It’s a mystery why he hasn’t been fired yet, especially as most of the comics are about his efforts to sleep instead of sorting the mail.
Another recurring theme are the ridiculous inventions he makes, which cause disasters. He’s always surprised at the outcome, sometimes even angry, shouting M’enfin! The reactions of his co-workers range from humorous to furious. Accept for miss Jeanne, or Jannie in Dutch, who has a crush on Gaston. In the earlier comics, Gaston’s boss was Fantasio, one of the main characters of Spirou et Fantasio. He is later replaced by the unfortunate Leon Prunelle, known as Pruimpit in Flanders.
This character has nothing in common with Jerommeke from Suske en Wiske, though their names look alike. The Jommeke comics are well-known in Flanders, but never got a foothold in Wallonia.
Jommeke is a Flemish boy who has adventures with his talking parrot, Flipke. Despite only being 11 years old, he gets involved in curious adventures, often through his absentminded friend professor Gobelijn. Jommeke’s friends also include Filiberke, an odd but kind boy, and Rozemieke and Annemieke, two twin girls who are often referred to as the ‘Miekes.’ All Jommeke’s friends have their own sidekicks, Filiberke has a black poodle named Pekkie and the Miekes own a pet chimpansee. Though they often get in trouble, the four children are never truly in danger and villains often change their mind, helping them instead of doing any harm.
The Adventures of Nero bring us back to Antwerp. Speaking with a heavy accent and eating waffles at the end of each comic, the characters couldn’t be any more Flemish. The main character is a man named Nero, immediately recognizable by his few remaining hairs, bow-tie, big nose and little leaves that stick out behind his ears.
Marc Sleen drew and wrote these comics by himself until 1992. He then took Dirk Stallaert aboard for the artwork, until the production stopped in 2002. Nero is called one of The Big 3 of Flemish comics – next to Suske en Wiske and Jommeke. Mark Sleen originally drew comics about a detective named Van Zwam, but quickly changed him into supporting cast in Nero.
The main character is kind-hearted yet lazy, and often has adventure trust upon him instead of actively pursuing it. Nero is unemployed, yet somehow manages to always find money – at some point even owning a castle. He loves the great outdoors, but will often prefer to just read newspapers on his sofa. His wife is a typical 50’s housewife and his son, Ademhar, is a genius who became a professor despite still being a child.
His strange band of friends include Madam Pheip, a pipe-smoking woman, her upper class husband and their children. He also befriended an incredibly strong man called Jan Spier, whose name literally translates to Jan Muscle, and a pirate named Abraham Tuizenfloot. The comic books also often depict real life events and Belgian celebrities and politicians.
Urbanus is the artists name of Urbain Servranckx, a Belgian artist, singer and comedian. He also writes comic books with a main character who is largely based on himself – not only does the character look alike, he lives in the exact same rural village. The comic book series The Adventures of Urbanus are drawn by Willy Linthout. Though never having reached Wallonia, the comic books are quite popular in the Netherlands.
Urbanus – the character – is a mischievous boy who, despite his age, sports a fully grown beard. He lives in a little house with his devout mother and alcoholic father. His sidekicks are an intelligent, talking fly and a strange, talking dog who wears slippers. All the characters in these comic books speak in a Flemish dialect.
Satirical, with a pinch of absurdity and a lot of dark humor, Urbanus is not your average comic book. But it’s the low-brow, sometimes vulgar, storyline that truly mark The Adventures of Urbanus as different.
Chances are you’ve heard of the Smurfs. These forest-dwelling creatures were invented by Pierre Culliford, better known by his pen name Peyo. The word Schtroumpf was made up during a dinner with Franquin. When Peyo couldn’t remember the word for salt, he asked Franquin to pass him the ‘schtroumpf,’ starting a series of jokes between the two artists.
The blue, funny creatures were introduced in another comic book series, called Johan et Pirlouit. One of the main characters stumbles across a smurf in the forest and is confused by his frequent use of the word ‘schtroumpf’. The smurfs quickly became the heroes of their own comics, with a growing number of smurf characters. The series also had an animation adaptation in the 80’s and a live action movie in 2011.
These characters include the Smurfette, papa smurf, grouchy smurf, lazy smurf… and many more. They live in a cute little village with mushroom houses, that’s magically protected. Human beings can’t find it, unless being led there by a smurf.
Their nemesis, a wizard named Gargamel, is determined to get them. When his plans are foiled, he often screams that he’ll get them eventually, even if it’s the last thing he’ll do. What he plans to achieve by catching smurfs is not clear. Sometimes he wants to turn them into gold, other times he’s dead-set on eating them.
The stories mainly deal with the smurf’s day to day life – eating, having fun and escaping from Gargamel’s clutches. Their adventures are a smurf to read. So what are you smurfing for?
Belgium has more comic book artists per square kilometers than anywhere else in the world. It’s impossible to feature all of those wonderful stories in just one article. From the beautifully drawn Thorgal to the pun-loving Kiekeboe, there are many more Belgian comic books to discover. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg – what about the popular Boule et Bill or the Japanese Yoko Tsuno? Or the smart air stewardess Natacha? And you can’t forget about them more recent works, like Boerke or Kabouter Wesley, which translates to ‘Gnome Wesley.’
You could spend years just catching up with the world of speech bubbles and thick, black lines. But if you just want to get acquainted, these 10 listed classics are sure to do the trick. And you’ll know, like all the Belgians, how the costume of a lift operator looks and how Nero throws a waffle party after every adventure.