Mike Hermans or simply Maaik is a talented Belgian architect and now full-time cartoonist and creator of the humorous world of Arch.Maaik: a cartoon strip about the life of an architect and the things that cross his path. The Pompomist had the honor of interviewing the cartoonist himself. (He offered to shorten his answers and I said no. I’m glad he didn’t…)
The Pompomist: When did Arch.Maaik first get started?
Mike: The strip started four years ago. A friend of mine organized an annual indoor soccer tournament for architecture offices in Antwerp. He asked me to do some cartoons for its website. At that time I was already an editorial cartoonist for a few Belgian newspapers and magazines.
So I created two characters: soccer playing architects. The first one named bOb (written like this: small “b”, large “O” [zero] and small “b”) and the other named Richard. bOb and Richard were based on two Belgian architects. bOb was named after the architect appointed by the government to create and lead a global Belgian architecture policy. Richard was named after and based upon the principal of the architecture school in Antwerp. I wanted my main characters to be a tall slim one and a short fat one and to be completely different but complementary.
Basically, at that time, it was no real strip, just two architects playing soccer while commenting on architecture. A few weeks after the tournament, the school asked me to draw strips about the workshop themes during “The Antwerp Design Seminars”, an annual week full of architecture workshops with international lecturers and students. There was a small exhibition of my strips at the end of the week. The response of students and lecturers was overwhelming. It was then that I realized that I could do more with it. Before that it was never my intention to create a comic-strip on architecture. I considered it as a one time thing. But after hearing all those people being so enthusiastic, it got me thinking.
At the same time I was doing a comic-strip called “Broken Feather”. It was about Indians and was published for two years in three Belgian newspapers. I’ve always been fascinated by American comic-strips like Calvin and Hobbes, Peanuts, Hägar, Beetle Bailey and I always dreamed of drawing one too. That’s why I’ve created “Broken Feather” in the first place.
I’ve submitted it to all the major syndicates in the US. In my portfolio I also included some other work, like “bOb”. After 8 weeks and a lot of rejection letters I got an answer from Jay Kennedy, the editor-in-chief of King Features Syndicate (sadly he died a few years ago in a diving accident; he was an icon in the business). He liked my work. First he asked me if I would like to sell my scenarios of Broken Feather. They already had two Indian comic-strips, Redeye and Tumbleweeds. I refused. I wanted my own strip. He was also interested in “bOb”. He liked the idea of a comic-strip about an architect. He asked me to send more strips, so I did. For four months I worked on the strip under his supervision. Then he said I was with the last three out of 6000 submissions to get a contract. Finally he said my work was still too much focused on the architecture world and they had to sell it to a larger audience. That’s when I started focusing on the architecture world.
First, I contacted all the major architecture book publishers. They all liked the strip, but they said they don’t publish strips, despite all my efforts to convince them that it’s all about architecture and that we had the same reader audience. The editor of MIT-press told me that I had to create an underground interest for the strip first. That’s when I started publishing the strip on the internet.
After four years, the strip has now more than 10,000 subscribers from 90 countries and still growing. We decided to publish our books ourselves, until I find a publisher to take over.
About the name of the strip: I’ve changed it to “arch.Maaik” after the workshops. People kept seeing it as a parody on the real bOb and Richard and that was not my intention. I wanted to take it further, to open up the discussion on architecture.
TP: At what age did you start drawing?
Mike: You are going to be surprised. I never really started drawing before I was nineteen and started architecture school. Strangely I never got in touch with “art” before. I didn’t come from a creative family. It was all sports. My father was a basketball player (top level in Belgium when he was young). I played too from the age of six. But I got too many injuries at the age of nineteen and started focusing on architecture. A whole new world opened up to me. Suddenly I was sucked into architecture, and I kind of liked it. Not the conceptual architecture mumbo-jumbo but the creative part: drawing, inking, making models, gluing, cutting cardboard… It was fun and later on I would get paid for it. I was also very fond of the concept of a drawing table. When I sat down behind it (or standing) I felt safe (I still do). It’s like sitting behind a steering wheel in a car. You feel you’re in control (Later I had to discover that an architect is far from in control). I always regretted the computer took over from the drawing table. I’m a bit sentimental about that. I use it too, but I hold on to the drawing table, as well as Archibald. It’s the place where it all starts… at least for me.
In addition I have a little fetish for all kinds of drawing materials like pencils, brushes, paint, rulers, erasers, papers, cardboard etc… Our house is filled with pots of them all over the place.
I work from behind my own drawing table. I created my own little space with all kind of little things surrounding me that make me feel good.
TP: How did you get started in cartooning?
Mike: When I graduated, a friend of mine I kind of grew up with came over for dinner. She brought her boyfriend along who was at the time an editor-in-chief of a local Antwerp newspaper. After a few drinks he brought up the subject of cartooning and he said they were looking for a cartoonist. I, who probably had a few drinks too much, said: “I can do that!” Although I did a few cartoons in architecture school to illustrate my student projects, I had no experience whatsoever with cartooning. But somehow he believed me when I said I could do it and we agreed to a testing period of a few months. I sent him (by fax) daily cartoons after work. I struggled three to four hours to draw a single cartoon. In that same period I also went to see a few other professional cartoonists for some advice. After a month or two he called me to say he wanted to start publishing my cartoons. I couldn’t believe it. If it wasn’t for him, I would never have become a cartoonist.
TP: Where do your ideas for cartoons come from?
Mike: You know, that’s probably the most commonly asked question to cartoonists. First, I think it’s important to look at things differently than most people do. Look at things from different perspectives, thinking like a child helps too. I read a lot too, but in a visual kind of way. When I read or people talk to me I paste images with the content. I’m always looking and thinking to bring things that have nothing in common in relation to each another. Cartooning is experimenting with words and images until something funny comes out of it. There is no real formula for drawing cartoons.
TP: What obstacles, if any, have you encountered along the way?
Mike: Rejection, rejection and rejection and then much more rejections. The writing and drawing is not the hardest part, at least not after years of practicing, but getting your work published is really, really hard…. especially in the beginning. Once you’re getting more and more references it becomes a little easier.
Another obstacle is that because the strip is about an architect people think it’s only interesting for architects to read the strip. Well it’s not.
People live in a material environment they seem to take for granted. They live in a house, in a city but they don’t think about what they’re living in. People need to be more conscious about their environment. That’s one of the goals of the strip.
TP: What was the hardest technique for you to learn as a cartoonist?
Mike: Drawing with as few lines as possible to express the message or gag. In the beginning I wanted to show people that I could draw (Not that I actually could). But a cartoon is not the medium to show this. A cartoon requires a minimum of drawing. It was very difficult although I had two major advantages: The first is that I just came out of an education as an architect where minimalism was preached. The second is that I don’t have the patience to draw for a long time. Also when I have an idea and I start drawing it, another idea pops up and then another and so on. When I’m drawing I’m always with my mind with an another idea. To me, cartooning is about expressing small ideas, feelings and expressions.
TP: What cartoonist has inspired you the most?
Mike: Definitely Bill Watterson from Calvin and Hobbes. I discovered his work when I was in the US visiting my sister-in-law and her husband in Gallitzin, PA. They have all the collection books of Calvin and Hobbes (Me too now).
I’m also a big fan of Mutts. Patrick McDonnell can capture the simplicity and complexity of life at the same time in a few lines.
Other comic-strips that have influenced me are Dilbert (although I think it’s far too rational), Peanuts, Hägar the Horrible, Beetle Bailey and Garfield.
To me, a comic-strip combines criticism with a good feeling. It has to open up the minds and the hearts of its readers.
TP: What equipment and materials do you use?
Mike: For the last year I’ve been working with a WACOM 21 inch tablet. It’s a computer screen on which you can draw. It saves me a lot of time. (About 3 to 4 hours a day). Before that I drew on Bristol paper 300 grams with a reddish pen and ink. It was very time consuming. I still draw or sketch on paper but more for fun or for presents.
TP: What’s your favorite part of being a cartoonist?
Mike: I can do whatever I want, whenever I want as long as I respect my deadlines. When it’s nice outside, I go for a walk or play basketball or go shopping. When it’s rainy I draw or go to the gym when everybody else is working. I work at home so I can also sleep as long as I want. That’s very important to me because I love sleeping. I need a minimum of 9 hours sleep a day. Sometimes I take an additional 2-3 hour nap in the afternoon.
Another important thing: I have a lot of criticism on society and I can tell what I think to millions of people and I’m getting paid for it. Isn’t that just great?
Also I get to be with my wife all day. I know most people hate the thought of being with their wife all day, but not me. I love my wife. We’re best friends for life and we do everything together. Eva (that’s her name) helps me with the strip and I help her with her creative stuff: children books and ceramics. We live in harmony at home along with our animal friend Sammy (a red-haired cat).
TP: How do you promote your work?
Mike: Through the internet, my books, media partnerships, sponsorships…. whatever it takes to get Archibald out there. To give you an idea: 80% of my time goes to promotion, sales, contracts, meetings, phone calls, e-mails, prospecting (I also work as a daily editorial cartoonist for a few Belgian newspapers). I only draw 3 to 4 hours a day. Although it may seem we only have fun and don’t work, we actually do work about 12 to 14 hours a day. But it doesn’t feel like work. Work includes also writing scenarios in my head while driving to the gym. I can do physical work and write scenarios at the same time. Even in my sleep: I can dream and say to myself in my dream: “remember this when you wake up and write it down”. It’s fun to be able to work while sleeping.
TP: Which do you like best: being a cartoonist or an architect and why?
Mike: With Archibald I have found the ability to do both, but to be honest I like being a cartoonist better because of the freedom and because architects have way too much responsibility these days. Also I earn more money as a cartoonist than as an architect. Cartoonists are also more treated as artists than architects. When I draw a cartoon, nobody has the right to change it. Architects on the other hand are full-time frustrated because their designs are mutilated by clients, contractors, developers and governments.
TP: What final advice would you give to a young aspiring cartoonist?
Mike: Never give up your dream to become a cartoonist. Always follow your heart. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are a bad cartoonist. Use positive criticism to improve yourself. Take your time to learn. Read a lot, watch a lot of TV (I like that part) and be yourself. Draw your own humor. When someone says you’re not funny, it’s their right. As long as you think it’s funny or you like it. Draw cartoons for yourself instead of others.
Cartooning is discovering the world and yourself. It’s a tough journey, but I wouldn’t do it differently.