Willy Vandersteen: far more than just Spike and Suzy
What does Flanders' greatest cartoonist, Willy Vandersteen (1913-1990), have to do with the À l’Innovation department store in Brussels? Just that his rich and varied career happened to begin there.
Nonetheless, it was hardly looking promising. Nobody thought the little tyke would live – having been born two months prematurely – and he was lying in a cigar box to be taken to the churchyard. The story goes that he only began to cry in a small café while en route, although this is said to be untrue.
But either way, it was a stroke of luck for the Vandersteen family and for Flanders. The young Willy grew up in the working-class Seefhoek district of Antwerp, where his talent for drawing and story-telling first emerged. He used to enthral his chums with legends and knights' tales! And he would make lovely drawings of them on doorsteps and house fronts. He later enjoyed a classical schooling. Just like his father, he too learned the trade of the sculptor and the ornamentalist.
He began his career as a window dresser at the À l’Innovation in Brussels. In late 1940, he designed his very first cartoon figure, Kitty Inno, for the department store chain Entre Nous's staff magazine – a young blonde girl who worked there as a sales assistant. The comic strip The Adventures of Kitty Inno, generally consisting of two or four pictures with some text, alluded to typical situations at À l’Innovation at first, and later to the discomfort of the German occupation.
Willy Vandersteen's À l’Innovation period laid the foundations for his later success. The easy recognition and self-effacing humour of Kitty Inno can be found in the various creations – close to a hundred serials, gag strips and storyboards – that flew forth from his pen and pencil during his long career. Spike and Suzy is undoubtedly the top series of these. Generation after generation has been charmed by the exciting adventures that the colourful characters experience and the dangers they encounter, as well as the imagination, humour, crazy situations and magnificent scenery – all in just the right amounts. And current world events are never far away. It is the best-selling and longest-running comic in the Benelux, with over 200 million copies sold over time. Spike and Suzy developed from its predecessor The Adventures of Rikki and Suzy, which appeared in serial form in the newspaper De Nieuwe Standaard on 30 March 1945. In 1946, Standaard Boekhandel published the story as an album. Spike entered the scene on 19 December 1945 in The Isle of Amoras to replace Rikki, Suzy's elder brother who was sent out with ration coupons for shoes and never returned.
Willy Vandersteen's creative ability did not wane – quite the reverse. There were plenty more cartoon figures and series within him, the results of which included Bessy (1952), The Red Knight (1959), Jerom (1960), Pats (1962), Karl May (1963), Safari (1969), Robert and Bertrand (1972), Tits (1974) and The Beggars (1985), which ‘the man who taught his people to laugh’ continued to work on until shortly before his death.
Copyright Photo : GaHetNa(Nationaal Archief NL)/ Wikipedia