Belgium has quite a rich culture of comic strips, or just ‘strips’ as they are called in Dutch, or ‘Bandes Dessinées’ or ‘BD’ in French. The popularity has been dwindling a bit since the advent of the Internet but in the eighties they were one of the main sources of entertainment for both children and adults. Luckily, their popularity has started to grow again in recent years.
Some day when I was eight years old, I decided to start drawing comics myself. I am not sure what was the inspiration, but the date on my first comic says it was created on Wednesday September 3, 1986, which means on the third day of my third school year. I can vaguely remember playing similar adventures on the playground of the school as the one which is featured in the first comic. Maybe I just wanted to write down my imaginations.
So, it was the evening of September 3, 1986, and I was sitting before an empty piece of paper. The first thing I needed to decide on, were the characters. Drawing humans in a more complex form than the typical ‘potato-heads’ that eight-year-old children typically draw appeared to be very hard. I didn't care much about the exact appearance of the characters, the problem was being able to create enough distinct ones. All humans I could draw were identical up to the addition of a beard, moustache or glasses (which gives eight possible combinations), so I went for a different solution.
I created a kind of parallel universe in which animals existed that all are as large and smart as humans, walk on their hind legs, and live together (mostly) peacefully. Of course I couldn't draw detailed animals either, but I could draw sufficient amounts of different stylized animals to provide enough characters, and I could vary their colours to create even more diversity. Don't ask me why, but I chose a rat as the main character. Finding a name for this character proved even harder, so eventually I settled for my last name, but without the ‘h’. Hence, Tomas the Rat (or Tomas de Rat in Dutch) was born.
In the first story, called “Rumoer in het Dierenbos” (“Tumult in the Animal Forest”), Tomas had just become the leader of the ‘Animal Forest’. This has almost nothing to do with the animal forest Belgian and Dutch TV viewers might be familiar with. It was actually an entire city, built inside an enormous forest. All animals lived in houses, had cars, some boats, and others even jet planes. In this first story, the animal forest was the only place in which these humanoid animals lived. The rest of the planet was occupied by humans. The first deed of the new AF leader was to taunt the humans, the actual reason for this is both missing from the story and my memory, but my guess is that they were tired of being confined to the forest.
The animals dug tunnels under houses, destroyed a school (coincidence?) and stole fruit from gardens. This angered the humans to such a degree that they launched a large-scale attack on the forest, maybe a war is a more appropriate word. The war was mostly fought in the air, since collecting fighter jets and bombers appeared to be a favourite pastime of many animals. Because Tomas realized that the humans outnumbered the animals by far and would only continue until the forest was destroyed, he decided to trick the humans into believing that the forest was lost. He blew up a large dam which caused the entire forest to flood. This worked, as there was nothing left for the humans to bomb. After they left, the animals repaired the dam and waited for the water to recede. The damage from the water was far less than having the entire forest bombed to destruction. Eventually everything was fine in the forest again, and the animals partied all night long.
Even at the age of eight I already thought it would be nice to know when exactly I made these comics, so I noted it down. This first comic was started on September 3rd and finished on December 29th, 1986. The sad thing is that one day after it had been lying in the car for a while, it got stuck between the hinge of the trunk and got wet during a rain shower. Because it was coloured entirely with markers, all the pages had half turned into a messy blend of colours. So my very first comic is half destroyed. The cover shown above is a semi-remake I did a while after, only the rightmost part of the picture is original.
The second comic still assumed the same context as the first one. After it was finished, I seemed to have enough of the limited universe, so I made some changes for the upcoming comics. In the ‘updated’ universe, the world the animals lived in was a kind of copy of Earth, but with (nearly) no humans, and some minor changes. The idea for the comic “The Spaceship” was even to let the animals travel to our Earth by some spacial anomaly, to discover that they lived in a parallel universe (a rather Star Trek-like scenario, but I had only seen a few TOS episodes at that time). This new world gave far more freedom, as I didn't need to consider or draw any humans anymore. I still let the possibility of humans in this world open, they would just be like one of the humanoid species.
Tomas' role in this new universe was unclear to say the least. Actually it depended mostly on the ‘series’ (see below). In some comics he was a mostly ordinary guy, in others he was king of some country and in another he became mayor of New York City.
The method I used for making these comics was quite unorthodox, as I would only discover years later. Normal comics are created from scripts and sketches, and drawn on large panels (often A3 size) which are downscaled for printing, the final print is often a 50% downscale of the real drawings. I had no script, no sketches and drew my comics on pages half the size of regular comic pages! I first created a booklet by folding some A4 papers together (so the comics were approx. A5 size) and stapling them. I directly drew in this booklet, even directly in ink for the first comics. Later on, I would first draw with a pencil, allowing to correct things while inking, or (rarely) erase parts and start over. The only traces of a script were a few general ideas in my head, so the story was created on-the-fly. I would keep on using this method — or lack thereof — for all the comics to come. The consequences were obvious: although I have started working on more than 20 comics, only five (+ one made by my brother) of them would ever reach a state which could be called ‘finished’. Without a decent script, it often proved hard to continue many of the comics. There were too many possibilities, and it often seemed more tempting to start a new story than to finish an existing one.
In the first comics, there were five bands, or rows, per page. This already resulted in quite small boxes to draw in, but it was OK. Things got worse when I decided to move to six and even seven rows per page. Remember, these were about the size of an A5, so the boxes were often just 2.5cm tall, barely an inch. There was no spacing between the boxes and rows, just a line. When I was young, I had the idea that one should try to cram as much information on a single page as possible. Now I know better of course. Some of the later comics were drawn on A4 paper, but still with seven rows.
The following two images show the evolution in drawing style. The first image is from “Het Rare Woestijnding” (The Strange Desert Thing), the second from “Het Verborgen Plan” (The Hidden Map). The latter was one of the last comics I worked on, here's the transition between inked and pencil drawings. I cannot tell how many years are between these two examples but as you can see, while the old comic consists of completely flat 2D-views, the new one uses variable-sized panels and all kinds of perspective views. This required me to draw Tomas in perspective, which was kind of weird since I was used to always draw him in the same kind of side view. By the way, if you cannot read anything from the first image, it is not because it is in a language you do not know. It is simply because my handwriting was atrocious at that time.
The proliferation of new stories led to an absurd scheme in which the comics were ordered. There was the normal series, starting with “Tumult in the Animal Forest”, with the orange cover. Before I even had two finished comics in this series, I already had titles and ideas for 15 new ones. But sometimes I came up with ideas that were too cool to wait for until they would fit in the normal series, so I created the “Extra series” for that. This is where it starts to get absurd. Go get a cup of coffee, you'll need it. The first comic I made for this extra series was started after I almost finished the second comic of the normal series. But I would only draw one page until I started working on a second comic in the Extra Series. This number 2 extra was “De Ijzeren Vogel” (“The Iron Bird”), and it did get finished, unlike the first Extra, which I continued to work on after number 2 was finished, but never got far.
But it gets better: I came up with another cool idea which really didn't fit in the series, nor the Extra series. The solution of course was to create another series, called the “Series nor Extra Series”. Yes, it's like having a ‘regular nor diet’ soda, but that didn't matter when I was nine. The first comic in this SnES (not to be confused with a certain game console) was “De Geheime Drugshandel” (“The Secret Drug Trade”). You may be worried about a nine-year old knowing what drugs are, but it sure was a nice ingredient for a totally insane story, and also the longest finished Tomas story (22 pages of seven rows). Plus, it included “A demonstration of what happens when the artist goes insane!” And by the way, I have never touched any significant amount of drugs in my entire life, unless you consider alcohol a drug. The second SnES comic was “The Red Crystal”, of which two totally different versions were attempted but never finished.
This was not the end of the numbering madness. I enjoyed the movie ‘Ghostbusters’ to such a degree that I wanted to make yet another special comic outside of all the other series, inspired by the movie. Luckily it didn't get farther than one page before I realized that it would be nothing more than a blatant rip-off. I also created a booklet which was to contain two separate stories, and because this didn't fit with any of the other series, it was yet another breed of Tomas comic.
My brother, who often accused me of simulating things he did, couldn't resist starting to draw his own comics, so I could finally accuse him of simulating me. Moreover, to avoid the same problems I had with starting, he simply took my own main character (with as only difference that he re-added the ‘h’ to ‘Thomas’), which led to another series of T(h)omas comics, although only one of them ever got finished. Finally, we teamed together at some point to create yet another type of Tomas comic (“The X-7 Satellite”), which was made from an actual script with sketches. These were provided by my brother, and I did most of the final drawing. This story never finished either, even the script was never finished (most likely because it had turned slightly insane).
So if we make the bill, we end up with a total of seven different types of Tomas series. Many years later I realized that there was no need at all for all this insanity. If I just ordered all the comics more or less in the order they were created, I had one single series which made sense, within the limits of the quite disjunct stories.
Tomas was not the only comic hero I created. I created two more, one was a kind of Indiana Jones-clone, named “John Andersons” (doesn't that just reek of the struggle for finding a good character name?) He was human: by that time my drawing style had evolved enough to generate a sufficient amount of variations on the potato heads. This character's only comic never got far.
The other one is something special. The character is Aziz, and it was ripped directly from the David Lean movie “A Passage to India” which I saw on April 3rd, 1988. Moreover, the first comic (“De Rare Grotten”, or “The Strange Caves”) was heavily inspired by this movie, even though I had major problems understanding it because it was on the BBC without Dutch subtitles. My knowledge of the English language was not quite developed at the age of 10, therefore I mostly guessed what had happened in the film.
You may wonder why a little kid would want to make a comic from a movie he only understood half, and pick one of its secondary characters as a hero. Well, I wish I could tell. The only explanation that I have is that I was somehow enchanted by that movie's style and atmosphere, to such a degree that I had to make a comic from it. For Ghostbusters it was understandable, because that movie was funny and I understood every bit of it, but this movie was very different. I haven't seen it ever since, it would probably be a weird experience. I also wonder how much of the comic matches with it. Of course I added a lot of fantasies and extended the story to fill the 40-page (!) booklet, but I believe the core of the story is mostly maintained. This was also the smallest finished comic I ever made, by the way. It only measures 155×108mm, and every page has — exceptionally — four rows. Only the unfinished second SnES Tomas comic had the same format. I started another Aziz comic which was loosely inspired by scenes from other movies, but although it got quite far, it too succumbed to the Dead-End of Doom like many other comics.
When looking at the back flap of most of the comics, one finds a whopping amount of album titles. An example can be seen on the back flap of “The Iron Bird”. The listing would be slightly different on each comic. The first step in starting a new comic was always to draw the cover art, and fill the back flap with the newest list of planned album titles. I did have quite concrete ideas about the story for many of these titles, but some titles just sounded cool.
I won't repeat the complete average listing here, only the most important titles (i.e. those that were started or somehow interesting). Titles with an asterisk (*) after them are finished comics, titles with a plus (+) are unfinished comics containing at least one page.
This was one booklet with two stories in it: De Dubbelganger+ (The Double) and De Geheimzinnige Goudmijn+ (The Mysterious Gold Mine). The first story was pretty original and complex: a bum discovers that he looks exactly like a famous movie star, kidnaps him, and takes his place. But, Tomas' arch enemy also wants this star's money and threatens him, unknowing that the star is not who he seems. Tomas decides to help, but does not know either he is helping the fake movie star. The unfinished comic ends at this point, but it offered many interesting ways to continue.
The second story was about some weird hidden gold mine, but there's only a vague idea and two finished pages of Tomas discovering the entrance to the mine.
Somehow it is tempting to put all the comics online, so all the work I did back then was not just for my own entertainment (after all, what's more fun than reading comics made by a nine-to-twelve-year-old?) But scanning all the comics is way too much work, especially because I wouldn't be able to resist scanning at a high resolution so as to have a proper archive, and cleaning up the scans to an insane degree. Especially the first comic would require a huge amount of restoration work. Therefore I have limited myself to scanning “The Iron Bird” (De Ijzeren Vogel).
This was the second “Extra Series” comic, but in the logical order it just follows after “The Four Magic Flowers in the Mirror”. Why did I choose this comic to put online? Well, there are several reasons. For starters, it is finished. It's black-and-white, making it easier to scan. And it is also one of the most interesting Tomas comics, because although the dates say that it was made between October 2, 1987 and June 2, 1988, it took a whole lot longer to completely finish. It would take several years until I found the time to ink the pencil sketches from the last pages, making this one of the last Tomas comics I worked on. The result is that it shows the evolution of my drawing style over the years. Last but not least, it is also my personal favorite. Although the story was originally intended to be about the ‘iron bird’ aeroplane, it quickly drifted away to a cat-and-mouse (or better: rat-and-hamster) game between our hero and his brand new arch enemy. The story ended up being slightly more complex and serious than most of the other comics.
You can read the entire comic, including comments, here. The comic itself might not be that interesting, but you might enjoy what the author has to say about it 20 years after making it. I might have slipped some social commentary in the remarks, oops.
So why did I stop drawing these comics? Well, the answer is simple: some day when I was twelve years old, my dad bought a computer. I initially hated those things with their black screens and arcane white command prompt, but that computer was a Mac, and it gradually won my heart because it was actually fun to work with. HyperCard played a key role in this. My interests gradually shifted towards doing all kinds of computer-related stuff, and although I did keep on working on the comics for years, the computer eventually consumed all my interest.
If you want to start drawing comics yourself, there are a few lessons you can learn from my experiences:
Do I plan to resume drawing comics? As a matter of fact, I have wanted to start over many times. Possibly with an ‘upgraded’ Tomas main character, or with something completely different. And of course, with a vastly upgraded drawing style and storyline. But the main problem is finding time to do it.