Cartoonist Marten Toonder died today aged 93. Toonder was arguably the greatest European cartoonist ever - his Heer Bommel series ran in newspapers across the continent for nearly 45 years, and were re-run in some Swedish and Dutch newspapers well into the 1990s - more than a decade after Toonder retired.
Toonder stuck to the traditional format of a two-tier strip in which the top row consisted of panels without dialogue, and the bottom row contained prose captions, in a flowery, witty style. Due to Toonder's influence, this way of presenting comics still had adepts in the Netherlands long after it died out in other countries. (As an aside, Toonder influenced my own attempts at working in this format, in the Rogues of Clwyd-Rhan story "The Corby Tribe".)
Heer Bommel acquired literary status in the Netherlands, with all stories being reprinted in a novel-like format with the drawings reduced in comparison to the words. This is unfortunate because the art, done with the assistence of artists who themselves would go on to count among the Netherlands' finest cartoonists, such as Piet Wijn, Dick Matena, and Fred Julsing, is among the best ever made in comics. Each panel excelled in composition, line quality, liveliness and atmosphere.
Through Heer Bommel, Toonder expanded the Dutch language with words such as "Minkukel" meaning a dimwit and "Denkraam" ("Thought-frame") which were used satirically in the strips but gained currency as real expressions, separate from their fictional context.
And Bommel was only one of Toonder's comics. He and his studio came up with dozens of others, such as Koning Hollewijn, Kappie (based largely on the personality of Toonder's father, a sea captain), and one series I used to cut out of the newspaper as a kid, Panda. Panda had word balloons and was easier to read; it also featured art by Piet Wijn and stories by script-writing genius Lo Hartog van Banda. Many of the comics showcased Toonder's philosophical concerns, such as the encroachment of technology-driven society on the natural world. These concerns came to the foreground even more after the mid-1960s when Toonder, by then a wealthy man, moved to a mansion in Ireland.
The Toonder studios had always been involved in animation, and had even done some innovative work in the field, but it wasn't until 1983 that an animated feature film was made based on two Heer Bommel stories. Unfortunately, it didn't turn out as good as Toonder had hoped; the pacing and voice work wasn't up to the high standard of both the comic and earlier, shorter Bommel animations, and the foreground animation didn't always work with the backgrounds. (Toonder did approve of the realistic movement of the title character's checked coat, a feat that required attention to detail.)
Many in the audience, moreover, felt that the movie missed an edge. Over time, Mr. Bommel's facial expressions had got to resemble those of his creator more and more, and so viewers felt that the character could only have worked in animation if he'd also had Toonders voice, even though there was no reason to assume that Toonder could do voice work.
Toonder retired in 1986, but made several short-lived returns to the field as a writer. He wrote four volumes of memoirs before failing health and loneliness forced him to return to the Netherlands. Toonder was twice widowed; his first wife, cartoonist and children's book illustrator Phiny Dick, passed away in 1990, his second, composer Tera de Marez Oyens, in 1996. In recent years, Toonder, who was also pre-deceased by three of his four children, had got fed up with life. He died peacefully in his sleep.
Very little of Toonder's output can be seen online. In addition to the Lambiek biography, check out Pressibus.org for a rare online glimpse at Toonder's work.
Wikipedia entry on Marten Toonder, in Dutch.