Cover illustration for 'Muzungu'.

Jeroen Janssen is a Belgian comics artist, best known for his graphic novels which often have Rwanda as a subject. He won critical acclaim with 'Muzungu, Sluipend Gif in Rwanda' (1997), a semi-autobiographical account about his life in Rwanda until the 1994 genocide forced him and his family to flee. Together with scriptwriter Pieter van Oudheusden he made several graphic novels, of which the 'Bakamé' (2003) trilogy is the best known. These stories are based on the African folkloric character Bakamé. Many of Janssen's comics are a mix between a travel report and sketch books. He has also shown interest in other countries, such as Ecuador ('Guaranda', 2015) and his own fatherland with 'Doel' (2013) and 'Er Wonen Nog Mensen / Tekenen van Leven in Doel' (2018) about the Flemish village Doel which was threatened with demolition for a long time. The author has won several awards over the years and his comics have been translated in English as well as French.

Early life
Jeroen Janssen was born in 1963 in Ghent. Between 1981 and 1985 he studied free graphics at the Sint-Lucas School of Arts in Ghent. Among his graphic influences are Edmond Baudoin, Cosey, Johan De Moor, Loustal, José Muñoz, Joe Sacco, Carlos Sampayo, Jean-Philippe Stassen, Jacques Tardi and Chris Ware. After graduation, Janssen helped psychiatric patients and worked several other jobs as, respectively, a chauffeur, gardener, publicity man in a fodder company and mailman. In 1990 his wife went to work in Rwanda and Janssen went along with her. 

comic art by Jeroen Janssen

Life in Rwanda
In 1990 the couple moved to Nyundo, Rwanda, where Janssen worked as a teacher in the local art school. To him this was a job more to his preference.  The couple had two children together there, a son and a daughter. Janssen was overwhelmed with the local culture and splendor of nature. It inspired him to make many sketches, which evolved into his first comics, though he didn't publish anything yet. Unfortunately the country succombed into civil war when their daughter was two months old. On 6 April 1994 unknown assailants shot down the presidential plane, killing Rwandese president Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundese president Cyprien Ntayamira inside. Centuries-old tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi population were now fed by extremist propaganda, each blaming the other side. Between 500.000 and 1 million people were murdered in one of the worst genocides of all time. As foreigners, Janssen and his family weren't safe from violence either. They hid below the sink of their home, because it was the only place where they were safe from bullets. The next morning they fled to the neighbouring country Congo and took the first plane to Belgium.

Muzungu
Back in his fatherland Janssen worked as job coach and eventually his current occupation as part-time library assistent in Evergem. He was also active as a volunteer for the Red Cross and Oxfam Wereldwinkel. Still, he couldn't forget his traumatic experience. Luckily he had been able to take his artwork with him and decided to work everything out into a graphic novel: 'Muzungu - Sluipend Gif' (Wonderland, 1997), a socially conscious comic book about his experiences in Rwanda. The word "muzungu" means "white man". The first chapter was drawn when he still lived in the country and deals with the gap between rich land owners and poor farmers. The second chapter discusses the horrors he witnessed during the genocide and was made after his return to Belgium. Janssen used a fictional protagonist and narrative, but otherwise many events in the book are autobiographical. 'Muzungu' met with critical acclaim and won the VSB award at the Stripdagen festival in Haarlem, the Netherlands. It increased his notability and led to more publications of shorter comics in magazines like Beeldstorm, Stripburger, Incognito, Kerozene, XXI, Parcifal, Ink, Orsai and Zone 5300.


'Bakamé'.

Collaboration with Pieter van Oudheusden & the Bakamé trilogy
When Janssen travelled to Haarlem to pick up his VSB award he chatted with jury member Pieter van Oudheusden. Van Oudheusden was a novelist and translator who occasionally wrote scripts for comics. They decided to collaborate. Their first effort, 'Een Nachtegaal In De Stad' (Wonderland, 2000), follows four people on a hot summer night in the city. 'Klaarlichte Nacht' (Wonderland, 2001) is a collection of four erotic short stories. The duo won most acclaim with their trilogy about African folklore character Bakamé the hare. Bakamé is a trickster character comparable to similar animal tales in other continents. He inspired Joel Chandler Harris' 'Br'er Rabbit' in the United States (later made into a popular Disney character as well). Van Oudheusden and Janssen also saw similarities with the Flemish medieval poem about Reynaert the fox. The authors took several pre-existing stories about Bakamé and molded them in the graphic novel 'Bakamé' (Oogachtend, 2003), where the sly rodent torments the mayor of the real-life Rwandese village Buruseri.


'De Grote Toveraar'

In 2007 Janssen made his first return to Rwanda in 13 years. He revisited his old friends, pupils and locals and made photographs and drawings which found their way in his next graphic novel 'De Grote Toveraar: De Kruisweg van Mpyisi' (Oogachtend, 2007), which is a partial sequel to 'Bakamé'. Written by Van Oudheusden, the story centers around Mpyisi, a hyena struck by a series of bad luck. Bakamé has stolen his car motor and put it inside an aeroplane which carried the national football team. When the plane crashes down the entire country is angry with Mpsiyi. The only way to get out of this mess is visiting Bwana Kero, a legendary magician who might be able to help him. In 2010 'De Wraak van Bakamé' was published, which compiled 'Bakamé' and 'De Grote Tovenaar' and added a new Bakamé story, originally prepublished in Stripgids and Ink. 'De Wraak van Bakamé' was also translated in French. It was never the authors' intention to turn Bakamé into a trilogy and most of the stories are one-shots with no real continuity. But in the end the three available books are often dubbed 'the Bakamé trilogy' in the press, because they all have Bakamé as a central character. Sadly, the fruitful collaboration with Van Oudheusden came to an end when he passed away from a brain tumor in 2013. Yet Janssen has announced he's adapting an unfinished script by Van Oudheusden about composer Franz Schubert, which will be released in 2019. 


'Klaarlichte nacht'.

Other graphic novels about Rwanda
In 2004 Janssen illustrated 'Imigani' (2004), a group of Rwandese sayings, calligraphed by his wife Els Schneiders. In the early 2010s Hilde Baele and Janssen worked together to make 'L' Histoire d'un Truc Bizarre', an educational book to stimulate condom use among Rwandese youth. The project unfortunately was rejected because the Ministry of National Education in Rwanda and the U.S. financers took offense about certain tiny details, including a small stain on the boy's pants and the fact that the kid's buttocks were slightly exposed in one drawing. They also objected against a scene where a store owner dozes off and the fact that the child protagonists were a Hutu and a Tutsi, "clearly recognizable by their clothing", even though Janssen just drew two black kids without any other intentions. In the end Baele illustrated the book herself, but Janssen and Baele did create two other picture stories. One of them was a little book, 'Ese Teta Ntiyumvira?', which Janssen called "a very bland children's book", but was nevertheless published on a massive scale throughout the country. In April 2015 Janssen and Baele worked together to tell the life story of Jérôme Sebasoni, a Rwandese man who was a guerrilla warrior in the past, fighting against Mobutu and Kabila's troops. Sebasoni once met Ché Guevara too. Their report appeared in issue #43 of Stripgids (fall 2015).

Een Nachtegaal in de Stad, by Jeroen Janssen
'Een Nachtegaal in de Stad'.

In 2014 Janssen returned to Rwanda again. He made a special graphic report which was prepublished in two issues of Humo (April 2014). Much of his research would inspire his next two graphic novels 'Guaranda' (2015) and 'Abadaringi' (2016). Both are travel reports inspired by Joe Sacco's similar graphic novels about his voyages to Bosnia and Palestina. Compared with Sacco Janssen's graphic novels are more observatory in nature, focusing on the local people rather than himself. He received support from the Flemish Literature Fund and the Pascal Decroos Fund. 'Guaranda' reflects Janssen's voyage to Guaranda, Ecuador, where he travelled at the commission of Evergem's city council, since Guaranda is their sister city. 'Abadaringi' deals with his life as a teacher in Nyundo, Rwanda. He talked with former pupils about the impact the 1994 genocide had on their lives. Some still lived in Rwanda, others had moved to Europe and the U.S. Some people were notably tarnished by the events and a minor few took a strong dislike of Janssen. Many of his travel report comics have appeared in magazines like Knack and De Morgen, and on the news websites Apache.be and Mo*.


Fragment of a comics report about Doel, published on Apache.be on 20 July 2018.

Doel
Janssen also showed compassion for his fellow countrymen with two graphic novels about Doel, a village which has been threatened with demolition for more than half a century. In the 1960s the Antwerp city council had plans to expand their harbour and dispossess the citizens of Doel. This led to a lot of protest and political turmoil. Many people showed solidarity with Doel. The novel 'Terug naar Oosterdonk', written by Guido van Meir (who also wrote the comic book 'Pest in 't Paleis', 1983, illustrated by Jan Bosschaert) was inspired by it and adapted into a TV series 'Terug naar Oosterdonk' (1997) by Frank van Passel. Documentary maker Manu Riche made the 2015 film 'Oratorium zonder Doel'. Over the decades many people left the village, which effectively became a ghost town and a haven for squatters. Only fairly recently, in 2018, it was decided to save Doel as it is.

As a former refugee Janssen could relate to the villagers of Doel. He often visited the place to make sketches, which he didn't redraw afterwards, so he could keep the atmosphere intact. At home everything was scanned and cut-and-paste in new combinations. Starting off with a short comic published in the French magazine XXI, Janssen eventually made 'Doel' (2013). The book is a reflection of his conversations with local people. Sketches, some in black-and-white, others in colour, are alternated with comics and written conversations. 'Doel' won praise by Flemish novelist and columnist Jeroen Olyslaegers and was sold out in a few months. In 2018 Janssen created a new book about the topic: 'Er Wonen Nog Mensen - Tekenen Van Leven In Doel' (2018). He was inspired by the juridical decision to make Doel a living area again, which oddly enough had the opposite effect. The same people who'd fought to stay in the village for years suddenly moved out one by one. Janssen wanted to make his graphic novel about this paradox.


Graphic journalism for the Spring 2017 issue of Stripgids.

Other projects
On 11 July 2011 Pieter De Poortere designed a comics mural in the Rue Euler, Paris, featuring characters created by Janssen, Judith Vanistendael, Olivier Schrauwen, Randall Casaer and Brecht Evens, to promote Flemish comic strips. This was the first of its kind in France. Janssen also provides the coloring of 'Hippo & Zeno', a comic strip by Klaas Verplancke. Since he moved to Ghent he plays in the orchestra 'De Ledebirds', a social artistic project. 

Recognition
'Muzungu' (1997) won the VSB award at the Stripdagen Haarlem. 'Guaranda' (2015) and 'Abadaringi' (2016) each received the Prix de l'´Écriture at the Festival of Clermont-Ferrand. Nicknamed "Belgium's slowest journalist", Jeroen Janssen won the Bronzen Adhemar, the most prestigious Flemish comics prize, in 2018.

www.bakame.be

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