Tintin, Asterix, Guust Flater and the unforgettable Olivier B. Bommel: household names that bring back fond memories to many a Dutch person over a certain age. Rudi de Vries applied the business theory of co-evolution to the development of the comic culture. Publishers and comics have developed synchronously throughout the decades, and each has had a powerful influence on the other. Ambitious, often idealistic, cartoonists and comic strip fans have set up their own small publishing houses, remarkably forcing larger, commercial publishers to adapt in order to survive. De Vries will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 29 November.
Before the Second World War, most comics came from America. Dutch comic strips were a by-product, usually printed in a small corner of the daily newspaper. The end of the war saw an influx of more independent cartoons and comic strips. This had an adverse effect on the comics themselves, which were actively suppressed both here and in Belgium and France. De Vries: ‘They were thought to encourage barbarism: comics were often violent and this was considered detrimental to children’s spiritual development. In the Netherlands, the Ministry of Education even issued an official decree discouraging people from reading comics. France went even further by banning American comics like Prince Valiant and Tarzan.’
This development played right into the hands of several Belgian publishers. Hergé’s exciting but wholesome adventures of Tintin were originally published in a refined Catholic magazine, and soon found their way to France and the Netherlands. The ‘big nose’ style favoured by Dupuis, publisher of the Robbedoes comic strips, became very popular, inspiring Goscinny and Uderzo, the creators of Asterix. De Vries: ‘The fierce rivalry that developed between the Belgian publishers only served to stimulate production.’ Cartoonists like Hergé (Tintin), Morris (Lucky Luke), Peyo (Smurfs) and Franquin (Guust Flater or Gaston) grasped this opportunity to exercise their influence on the development of comic culture.
Unlike his Belgian colleagues, the Dutch cartoonist Marten Toonder chose not to use the speech bubbles that had blown over from America. His studio continued to print passages of text underneath the drawings. ‘This is partly why the Bommel comic strip achieved literary status. At one point, the actual drawings were shrunk to such an extent that the comic strips could be published in the form of literary paperbacks’, says De Vries.
By the sixties, comics were all the rage in the Netherlands. Comic albums gradually became more popular, while comic magazines were losing ground. Over the past decade, interest in traditional comics has been declining. De Vries: ‘Children read fewer comics these days and adult comic fans tend to choose a specific niche. Young, ambitious cartoonists and comic fans are responding by setting up their own small publishing houses, totally geared towards a particular niche such as Sci Fi, fantasy, historical or erotic comic strips. The larger publishers are having to adapt or pull out of the market. Here in the Netherlands, Sanoma is the only large publisher left.’
In France and Belgium, comics are part of the cultural heritage and have become an important export product. In fact in Japan, strip culture is big business. De Vries sees the literary comic or ‘graphic novel’ as a new niche, which appears to be gaining ground in the Netherlands and even qualifies for grants. ‘The comic world is traditionally a male preserve, but we are now seeing more women in this particular niche. Barbara Stok is a good example. Cartoonists sometimes draw for literary albums in their spare time. Jean-Marc van Tol, who draws the Fokke & Sukke comic strips, has set up a small publishing house to provide opportunities for budding cartoonists.’
The Dutch comic culture is lagging behind the rest of the world. The swift rise of comics in Belgium and France can be traced back to historical developments. Back then, Dutch publishers were happy with translations of foreign comic strips. De Vries: ‘There are other reasons for Dutch comics failing to thrive, but they are more difficult to pinpoint. I think it has something to do with our Calvinistic outlook on life.’
Rudi de Vries (The Hague, 1961) studied Art and Arts Policy in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Groningen. He carried out his PhD research in the Global Economics & Management Department of the Faculty of Economics and Business, where he works as a lecturer and researcher. He also gives lectures in the Arts, Culture and Media programme in the Faculty of Arts. His supervisors are Prof. A.R. Sorge and Prof. A. van Witteloostuijn. His thesis is entitled: ‘Comics and co-evolutions. A study of the dynamics in the niche of comics publishers in the Low Countries.’ This is the first thesis about comic strips to be written by a Dutch student.
Rudi de Vries: r.w.de.vries rug.nl, tel. +31 (0)50 363 38 43.
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