Graphic Novel: Parade, a Magazine for the Frankfurt Book Fair

An occasional magazine for the Frankfurt Book Fair, Parade is compiled and produced live by a select group of Flemish and Dutch cartoonists at the fair itself. The editorial team is led by Dutch artist and illustrator Joost Swarte, whose work appears in The New Yorker and who is something of an eminence grise of Dutch comics, and Randall Casaer from Flanders. This choice of editors is far from arbitrary.

© Stephan Vanfleteren
Frankfurter Buchmesse
Guest of Honour 2016

Graphic Novel: Parade, a Magazine for the Frankfurt Book Fair

Parade, a Magazine for the Frankfurt Book Fair

By Toon Horsten

1. Joost Swarte and Randall Casaer, editors-in-chief

In 1914, when the First World War broke out in all its ferocity and the small kingdom of Belgium became its main theatre of action, hundreds of thousands of Belgians fled the country. A large number of them ended up in the neutral Netherlands, which would stay out of the war for four years. The Flemish grandparents of the Dutch artist and illustrator Joost Swarte were among the many who crossed the border at Antwerp by bicycle. Swarte’s grandfather soon found work as a musician, and when the war was over four years later, the couple decided to stay. Their Antwerp-born daughter, Swarte’s mother, grew up in the Netherlands.

The family kept in close contact with their relatives in Flanders. Visiting them as a boy, Joost Swarte discovered Willy Vandersteen’s comics (especially Suske en Wiske (Spike and Suzy), which was hugely popular in Flanders), and read compilation albums of the weekly magazines Kuifje (Tintin) and Robbedoes (Spirou). He was struck by how different these comics were from the ones he knew from home. ‘At the time, the only Dutch comics we had were by Marten Toonder and Hans Kresse, and even those were actually illustrated books: narrative prose accompanied by illustrations. Completely different from comics that read like a film, like the Belgian ones,’ he says.

Hergé’s work made a particularly deep impression on young Swarte. ‘I must have been about nine years old when my mother brought back ‘The Crab with the Golden Claws’ by Hergé from a visit to her Flemish relatives. I knew Tintin as a character, but had never read a whole Tintin album. It made a huge impression on me, I was simply bowled over. From then on, many more Hergé books came into my life as I discovered that my friends had other albums, and I had soon read them all. Later, when I was studying industrial design, Hergé faded into the background as I became increasingly interested in the underground press of the time, especially American publications like ZAP Comics, with Robert Crumb. Instead of working as an industrial designer, I started making comics, which I felt gave me so much more freedom to express myself. I was making real underground comics at the time, but somehow or other I never felt they came to life the way Tintin albums did. Of course I also read comic books by Morris (Lucky Luke), Willy Vandersteen (Suske en Wiske) and Franquin (Guust Flater (Gaston)), Robbedoes en Kwabbernoot (Spirou and Fantasio)), but only the Tintin stories really came alive for me. I gradually found my own style by combining the complete freedom of underground comics with the craftsmanship of Hergé and other artists of his generation.’

It is precisely this niche between classic comics and underground, as well as his roots in both Flemish and Dutch comic strip culture, that give Swarte his unique perspective on the Flemish-Dutch comic tradition. In addition, he has always been a keen observer of everything going on in the world of comics. His close involvement with the foundation of magazines, festivals and publishing houses is no coincidence.

Flemish artist Randall Casaer is from a younger generation than Swarte. Like him, he also plays a pivotal role, albeit in a completely different way. A creative jack-of-all-trades, Casaer is active in a variety of fields, art forms and media - comics being just one of them. He writes plays, satire and poetry, makes illustrations, drawings, cartoons and even music. His return to his childhood passion with the beautiful graphic novel Slaapkoppen (Sleepyheads) was influenced by different factors. One of them was his wish to publish a large project under his own name before the age of forty, another his renewed interest in the genre. ‘There was a wind of change blowing through the comics world’, he said in a 2007 interview. ‘Authors like Joann Sfar, Chris Ware, Christophe Blain and Blutch proved that comics were capable of addressing adult themes - the serious graphic novel was on the rise, reaching a broader audience than just comic fans. It reminded me that I had once wanted to become a comic artist, too. Today, you can really tell a story in a comic.’ Since the publication of Slaapkoppen, he has been considered one of the most important representatives of New Flemish Comics, though he said in the same interview that he failed to see much resemblance between the different artists in this group, ‘with the exception of a strong personality.’

In Parade, Swarte and Casaer want to showcase beautiful, surprising, innovative and exciting work by Flemish and Dutch comic artists.

2. Plenty of news from the West: Flemish and Dutch comics since 2000

Traditionally, Dutch and Flemish comic strip cultures have had as many differences as similarities, though they have evolved along increasingly similar lines since the turn of the millennium. While long-running comic series with an unchanging cast of characters still exist, they are struggling. Most of those comics, once invented to appear as gag strips or series in newspapers and magazines, now face the same problems as the traditional print media they are published in. For more than half a century, annual compilation albums of such comic strips were one of the main sources of entertainment for Flemish and Dutch youth, printed in editions of over 400,000 copies. Today, comics have become integrated into a far broader entertainment context, competing with films, games, animations, the Internet, social media, etc.

In addition, a culture of artistic comic books has emerged in the past fifteen years that is targeted chiefly at an adult audience and no longer ruled by the limitations characterising publications in newspapers or magazines. The stories often have a closed ending and they vary widely in length and the techniques used by the artist. Which is not to say alternative comics for an adult audience didn’t exist before that. In the 70s, twenty issues of the Dutch magazine Tante Leny presenteert! (Aunt Leny Presents!) appeared, featuring work by Joost Swarte, Marc Smeets, Aart Clerckx, the Flemish cartoonist Ever Meulen and, later, Peter Pontiac. Around the same time in Flanders, the Antwerp comic art collective Ercola published several issues of Spruit magazine, and artists like Swarte, Ever Meulen and the duo Kamagurka and Herr Seele had already been publishing internationally for years, in Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s Raw magazine among other places. Others, including Marvano (De Eeuwige Oorlog (The Forever War), Grand Prix, De Joodse brigade (The Jewish Brigade)), Paul Teng (De telescoop (The Telescope)) and Griffo (Giacomo C., S.O.S. Geluk (SOS Happiness), Golden Dogs) were already producing graphic novels for large French language publishers such as Dupuis, Dargaud and Casterman long before the genre reached the Dutch market. (And they still do, followed by Jan Bosschaert, who previously made a comic based on a scenario written by Jean Dufaux and currently works together with leading scriptwriter Zidrou, and the Ken Brothers, whose Apostata is a painted comic series about the Romans.)

Nevertheless, for so many artists to venture so far from the mainstream was a new phenomenon. To them, the serial comic strip was dead and buried -  the name of the game was no longer serialised comics in magazines, but graphic novels. The rising stars of Flemish comics include Judith Vanistendael (Toen David zijn stem verloor (When David Lost his Voice), De maagd en de neger (Dance by the Light of the Moon)), Brecht Evens (Panter (Panther), Ergens waar je niet wil zijn (The Wrong Place)), Ben Gijsemans (Hubert), Randall Casaer (Slaapkoppen) and the particularly inventive Olivier Schrauwen (Arsène Schrauwen, My Boy, Mowgli). Some have even been nominated for the Eisner Award in the USA and for the Prize for Best Album at the Angoulême International Comics Festival. Among them is Willy Linthout, whose folksy Urbanus comic (starring the singer and comedian of the same name) has been hugely popular in Belgium for decades, and who broke through internationally with Jaren van de olifant (Years of the Elephant), a graphic novel in which he tries to come to terms with the suicide of his only son.

Other Flemish artists making a name for themselves nationally and internationally include Stedho, Conz, Ephameron, Steve Michiels, Philip Paquet, Simon Spruyt, Wauter Mannaert, Jeroen Janssen, Joris Vermassen, Ephameron, Serge Baeken, Ivan Adriaensens, Michael Olbrechts, and the artist-cum-poet Wide Vercnocke. There is, as yet, a noticeable lack of female cartoonists, though the tide is turning. In recent years, graduates of the LUCA School of Arts in Brussels have included Charlotte Dumortier, Inne Haine, Shamisa Debroey and Delpine Frantzen, while Judith Vanistendael, Ephameron and Ilah currently constitute the all-female teaching staff of its practical Narrative Arts course.

In the Netherlands, Peter Pontiac set out a new course with Kraut, a biographical graphic novel about his father’s war past. Many graphic autobiographies have followed since, drawn by Jean-Marc van Tol (Opkomst en ondergang van Fokke en Sukke (The Rise and Fall of Fokke and Sukke)), Gerrit de Jager (Door zonder familie (Carrying On without a Family)), Michiel van de Pol (Terug naar Johan (Back to John)), Floor de Goede (Flo), Gerard Leever (Gleevers dagboek (Gleever’s Diary)), Barbara Stok and Maaike Hartjes among others. Guido Van Driel (Om mekaar in Dokkum (For Each Other in Dokkum)), Peter Van Dongen (Rampokan), Floor de Goede (Dansen op de vulkaan (Dancing on the Volcano)), Mark Hendriks (Tibet) and Aimée de Jongh (De terugkeer van De wespendief (The Return of the Honey Buzzard)) have made highly acclaimed graphic novels, while Hanco Kolk proved his mettle with the at times absurd and astounding Meccano, and De man van nu (The Man of the Moment, in collaboration with Kim Duchateau). Tim Enthoven’s Binnenskamers (Indoors), the visually most striking graphic novel of recent years, is an exploration of an autistic perception of the world through graphic art and design.

Compared to their Flemish counterparts, Dutch cartoonist remarkably often combine literature and graphic art. In the past fifteen years, Dick Matena made graphic adaptations of many (unabridged!) literary classics by authors like Jan Wolkers, Willem Elsschot and Gerard Reve, while Milan Hulsing adapted Harry Mulisch’s De Aanslag (The Assault) and Nanne Meulendijks De wake (The Wake) by Ronald Giphart. Erik Kriek made beautiful graphic adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror stories before turning his hand to old murder ballads from the American South. The cartoonist Typex drew a graphic biography of Rembrandt and is currently working on a Andy Warhol book, Barbara Stok stuck to Vincent Van Gogh and Marcel Ruijters brought Hieronymus Bosch to life on the page. In Flanders, too, such projects seem to be on the rise. Luc Cromheecke, who has worked as a Spirou cartoonist for years, is to publish a graphic biography of the landscape painter Daubigny in October. Immediately after its publication, the Van Gogh Museum is dedicating an exhibition to the book at the Mesdag Collection in The Hague (which is operated by the Van Gogh Museum). Simon Spruyt is preparing a graphic biography of Rubens, based on a script by writer and Brueghel biographer Leen Huet.

Meanwhile, even traditional Flemish and Dutch comics seem to be reinventing themselves. Nix’s Kinky & Cosy, Pieter de Poortere’s Boerke and Mark Retera’s Dirkjan are all comic strips that appear in newspapers and magazines, but while they may look like traditional children’s comics, they clearly date from a post-Simpsons period. It is interesting to note that both Nix and Pieter de Poortere are working on animated versions of their comic strips as traditional comics increasingly step outside the boundaries of their own medium. Peter De Wit and Hanco Kolk created the daily gag strip S1ngle for a large number of Dutch and Flemish newspapers, but have already seen their characters and story lines turned into a sitcom. Publishers of traditional children’s comics are also looking beyond their own medium - though filmed or animated adaptations often prove too expensive - by producing spin-offs of series based on their best-known characters: Amoras presented an adult version of Suske en Wiske, J-Rom revamped the character Jerom from the same comic. And there is more to come.

Herr Seele and Kamagurka, who have worked for Flemish and Dutch mainstream media for decades, are still attracting the attention of international underground publishers with their absurdist comics. They have gained a following at home, too, as can be seen in the work of Steve Michiels, Jeroen de Leijer and Brecht Vandenbroucke among others.

And though making a living as a comic artist in the small Dutch comic market is not a foregone conclusion, the profession still attracts many young artists. But while in the past you either had to work at a studio to learn the craft from an old hand or make it on your own, art academies in Brussels (B), Ghent (B) and Zwolle (NL) now offer courses in comic art, which draw many international students. Special attention is also paid to the subject in other departments, such as animation, design and graphic design. The courses focus on the artistic vision and development of the students rather than the laws of the comic market.

3. Parade, a magazine bursting with fire and enthusiasm

A number of those people will assist Joost Swarte and Randall Casaer in making Parade magazine at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where it will be compiled, printed and distributed. Its limited edition of 500 copies makes it an instant collector’s item. The first issues of the magazine were made during the Erlangen Comics Salon in May - by a different staff, but with the same fire and enthusiasm. In Parade, comic strip culture comes full circle - today’s comic artists, no matter how divers their work, returning to the place where it all began: the magazine. Don’t miss a single issue!

Looking back on Internationaler Comic-Salon Erlangen