Robot 6

Cartoonist’s WWII secret revealed

Vandersteen's work for collaborationist publications

Willy Vandersteen’s family set out to clear his name, but they ended up doing just the opposite.

Wim at the Forbidden Planet blog has the story: Vandersteen was a popular Belgian cartoonist who created the popular comic Suske en Wiske (also known as Bob et Bobette), which ran in the Belgian Journal de Tintin and its Dutch equivalent, Kuifje. Born in Antwerp in 1913, he took up cartooning around 1939 and got his first newspaper strip, in the paper De Dag, 1941. His career gathered momentum during the war, and Suske en Wiske was first published in 1945. His work continued to be popular until his death in 1990.

Although Vandersteen was a well loved cartoonist, rumors have long circulated that during the German occupation of Belgium, he did illustrations for books and magazines that were sympathetic to the occupation and had overtones of anti-Semitism. The drawings, which were signed with an alias, were done in a style similar to Vandersteen’s, but throughout his life, the artist denied any connection with it. Finally, to put the rumors at rest, Vandersteen’s family and his publisher, Standaard Uitgeverij, hired a group of independent historians to research the question.

What they found was the opposite of what they expected: After looking at records unearthed in post-war collaboration trials, the historians determined that Vandersteen did indeed do the drawings. His family was dismayed. This early work seems to be out of characters; In both his life and his subsequent work, Vandersteen promoted tolerance and justice, and during the war, perhaps at the same time he was working for collaborationist publications, he drew anti-German, pro-Resistance cartoons.

There’s a book in the works, naturally, that may shed some light on Vandersteen’s dual personality, although it’s entirely possible that in very difficult times, he took the gig for the money and didn’t feel good about it. It’s not unusual for freelancers to compartmentalize their work, serving two clients at once with differing points of view. But given this particular client, it’s not surprising that Vandersteen tried to take the secret to his grave.

(See the Willy Vandersteen article at Lambiek.net for more about the cartoonist.)

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3 Comments

Not to say it was the best thing to do, but ya know, occupation generally means you don’t have much of a choice. It’s either do it, or go to the camps, or worse.
Film maker GW Pabst in Germany was aparently in much the same situation, and used his skills to hide anti-nazi messages in some of the movies he was forced to make; but some people never forgave him,

I think JRC was right. If you’re occuppied by the enemy, they control the jobs. He probably didn’t have a choice in the matter.
If I remember right, Herge (the creator of TIntin) also did some work for the occupation forces, but his stuff was pretty benign and he appologied for it afterwards.

Just to clarify a historical point: Vandersteen wasn’t working for German occupiers, but for Belgian collaborators. With the exception of Poland, which really was under total occupation, most of what we think of as Nazi occupied Europe was run by locals who were either opportunistic and apolitical or openly sympathetic with at least some of the goals of the Third Reich. There were already pro-fascist parties and publications in Belgium before the war broke out and Belgium contributed Brigades to the Waffen SS (which let me remind you, was an entirely volunteer organization.)

It’s highly unlikely that Vandersteen had no choice in the matter; there were still apolitical gigs for a cartoonist to take. If he passed on the job, another cartoonist would have taken the gig, so there was no need to threaten him, As to whether this signifies some ideological sympathies, or simply the need for a paid gig, we’ll have to let the historians piece together the evidence.

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