It is already a European bestseller: The Last Swordfish, part 28 of the Blake and Mortimer comic series. France in particular is fond of these originally Belgian comic book heroes. The first edition there counts no fewer than 440,000 copies. The comic is in stores from today.
That is good news for the Dutch Teun Berserik and Peter van Dongen, who The Last Swordfish signed. The Netherlands and Belgium together account for a first printing of 20,000 copies.
Edgar P. Jacobs, the spiritual father of Blake and Mortimer, has been dead for decades. Yet new adventures of the duo regularly appear. The series has been taken over by other cartoonists and screenwriters. Storyline, sets and the era (mid last century) are unchanged. So there is still smoking, there are hardly any women in it and the language (“By Jove!”) is also dated.
Exactly 75 years ago this month, the first adventure appeared in the weekly magazine Tintin. Blake is a captain of the British Secret Service. Professor Mortimer is his inseparable friend. Together they take on their nemesis Olrik, the personification of evil, in almost every adventure. Plots, explosions, clatter of weapons, chases, scientists maddened – world saviors Blake and Mortimer are busy.
Nieuwsuur visited the Dutch artists of Blake and Mortimer and saw that they have a different working method than other duos who draw:
The Dutch draw a successful strip Blake and Mortimer
“Jacobs was a perfectionist. The stories are well thought out, the drawings finished in great detail. He really strove to weave a dose of mystery and secrecy into his albums, but not in an over the top way. He was a master in achieving balance between suspense and plot, such that it remained suspenseful to the very end”. That says Peter Van Hooydonck, who works as a comics expert for the auction house Bernaerts in Antwerp. On December 5, antiquarian Blake and Mortimer albums by Jacobs will go under the hammer. Estimated revenue per comic book: 250 euros.
Madness at the signing session
The Last Swordfish is already the third album that Berserik and van Dongen have signed for the French publisher. Peter van Dongen: “During a signing session in France, Teun and I were stormed by the audience afterwards. Five hundred people took the stage after the interview we gave in an abbey. A madness that you do not find in the Netherlands”.
“The special thing about our collaboration is that Teun and I each make our own pages. So not as with a duo it is often the case that one does the characters and the other does the sets. We each do 31 pages. That is something that is considered impossible in France, both by the press and by other artists. They don’t see the differences. Still in the pencil phase. But no longer in the ink phase.”
Berserik and van Dongen spend a year drawing an album. Of course they do this in the style of their predecessor Jacobs. Do they see their work as creating or as recreation? Peter van Dongen: “Both. The characters are not ours, but Jacobs’s. And the story was written by a screenwriter. But we have to bring that scenario to life. As a draftsman you can take over the scenario – sometimes it is not right. Then as a draftsman you have to come up with solutions in order to be able to solve the puzzle.”
Comic series such as Asterix and Lucky Luke, of which new work is still being released, usually move with the times. The Lucky Luke who always had a butt in his mouth no longer exists. In today’s smoke-free cowboy, the cigarette has been replaced by a straw. Last year, the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement was evident in Lucky Luke. And in the brand new Asterix album Asterix and the Griffin is a big nod to feminism. But a modernization of Blake and Mortimer seems out of the question.
Comics expert Peter Van Hooydonck: “You have to have a lot of patience and struggle through many pages to find women. You will not find a woman that matters in Blake and Mortimer. It is a man’s world, the world of Edgar P. Jacobs. Still. That’s what the creators of the current stories have had to respect. They couldn’t let their imaginations run wild in the stories. Some conditions had to be fulfilled. And I think the absence of female protagonists was one of them “It certainly didn’t affect the tenseness of the stories, quite the contrary. They are boys’ books in the first place. You have to see it in its time. Just after the Second World War, girls had very different interests than boys. They were, also on school, separate worlds. Now it’s all unthinkable.”
Nostalgia: no women
No women in Blake and Mortimer, artist Peter van Dongen understands that this raises questions. “I admit: it’s a bit strange when you see comics from the 50s and you only see men in the lead. But after the death of Jacobs, the French publisher decided to recreate the era of Blake and Mortimer in the years ‘ 40 and 50. For reasons of nostalgia.
In the days of Jacobs, women in comics were thought not to be good for the delicate souls of boys. Women were rare at all in comics like Tintin. That is slowly changing now. The current screenwriters who took over from Jacobs sometimes give women supporting roles. Note: supporting roles. So the start is here. When I am in France to sign Blake and Mortimer I very occasionally see a woman standing in line. It turns out that they rarely buy the book for themselves, but almost always for their husband, son or father.”