Tomas the Rat

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.

The History

Birth of the Rat

The very first panels
The very first boxes. The rightmost ones are reconstructed, due to the accident described below.

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.

Tumult in the Animal Forest

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.

Rumoer in het Dierenbos

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 Tomas universe

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, or lack thereof

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.

A part of ‘The Strange Desert Thing’
A part of ‘The Strange Desert Thing’. Tomas decides to take a vacation to Egypt, orders a private jet, and leaves the day after! I hope the wallpaper doesn't give you an epileptic seizure.
A part of ‘The Hidden Map’
A part of ‘The Hidden Map’. Tomas is pursued by a Japanese criminal in a taxi, but not for long. As usual in comics, the Asian guys have problems with the letter ‘r’.

Series nor Extra Series, and more

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.

The ‘Series nor Extra Series’ comic
The (in)famous ‘Series nor Extra Series’ comic. I obviously had not yet mastered perspective while drawing the cover.

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.

The cover from ‘The X-7 Satellite’.
The cover from ‘The X-7 Satellite’, a cooperation between my brother and me. The cover was made entirely by him, except the colour if I'm not mistaken. If you look hard enough, you can see the patchwork to correct a spelling error in “satelliet”.

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.

A part from ‘The Diamond Smuggle’.
A part from ‘The Diamond Smuggle’, a comic made by my brother. His handwriting was often even worse than mine.

Other characters

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.

Some of the first panels from ‘The Strange Caves’
Some of the first panels from ‘The Strange Caves’. The dark band at the left is adhesive tape, originally intended as a protection for the paper but eventually an obviously bad idea.

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.

Finished, unfinished and planned 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.

Main Series

  1. Rumoer in het Dierenbos* (Tumult in the Animal Forest): see above for description.
  2. De 4 Toverbloemen in de Spiegel* (The Four Magic Flowers in the Mirror): this comic starts out with Tomas buying an antique mirror at a public auction. The mirror contains four golden inlays of flowers, which prove to possess magic properties: when making a wish while rubbing them, the wish comes true. In this comic, Tomas' arch enemy ‘SNIK’ (SINK in Dutch) is introduced, and he steals the mirror. The funny thing is that during the rest of the comic, the magic flowers vanish into the background and the story only revolves around Tomas destroying SNIK's hideout, an abandoned factory. At the end of the comic, Tomas becomes invulnerable due to a potion he drinks. In retrospect it would have made more sense to attribute this to the magic flowers.
  3. De Aardbevingen+ (The Earthquakes): a pretty weird comic whose setting was heavily inspired by ‘Thundercats’, I even stole the logo. Tomas appears to have once been part of some kind of secret group which lives in a high-tech building in the middle of nowhere, and he decides to go back there. However, the building is threatened by enormous earthquakes which are caused by some kind of huge robotic snakes which have destabilized a nearby volcano. It's not surprising that this comic eventually went nowhere and never got finished, because even though on itself it might sound like a cool story, it didn't fit with the rest of the comics in any way.
  4. Het Ruimtetuig+ (The Space Ship): Tomas decides to build a huge space ship, which is able to stay in space during months. The story never got far, but the final idea was to send the animals to the counterpart of their parallel universe, by passing through some space anomaly. This means they would visit our very planet Earth.
  5. Het Rare Woestijnding+ (The Strange Desert Thing): this is one of the few unfinished comics that came real close to completion, but the organic way in which the story had evolved had made it really hard to find a suitable ending. The story starts with Tomas taking a vacation to Egypt, but of course all kinds of strange things happen. Tomas discovers some unknown species of talking bird, living inside one of the pyramids. This discovery on itself leads to a hidden chamber filled with a treasure. The story is inspired by quite a lot of existing comics and movies.
  6. Het Verborgen Plan+ (The Hidden Map): in Japan, a mysterious map is stolen from an old friend of Tomas'. He calls Tomas for help, and a long series of spectacular pursuits ensues where the map is retrieved and stolen back by the thieves multiple times. I can't remember anymore what the map would lead to, most likely yet another treasure. But since this is one of the last comics I worked on, I think I played with the idea of doing something more original.
  7. De Reis naar de Noordpool (The Journey to the North Pole): not much can be said about this one because only a few panels were made, except for the fact that I attempted to make this comic entirely on a computer. Mind that it was 1992 or so, so this was a totally doomed project producing only a few pixellated images.
  8. De Kamer der 7 Vuurrobijnen+ (The Chamber of the 7 Fire Rubies): yes indeed, comics 8 and 9 were never started. Originally number 10 was another title, “The Giant Floods”, but this one seemed cooler. This comic starts out almost identically to “The Strange Desert Thing” and also leads Tomas to a treasure inside the Gizeh pyramids, but this is only the start of the story. Yes, this comic was intended to be huge in all aspects: it was near-A4 size and would contain 50 pages with seven bands each, that is roughly the equivalent of two or three regular comics. I even got as far as 42 pages. Like many of my other comics, it borrowed from some movies and other comics: it contains for instance some obvious Indiana Jones rip-offs.
  9. De Vliegende Rat (The Flying Rat): this comic was never even started, but the peculiar thing about it, is that the title was purely inspired by a nice drawing I once found, of a rat on a flying carpet.
  10. Paniek in New York!+ (Panic in New York!): this story basically revolves around insane battles in New York City (the cover shows Manhattan seemingly covered in a million gallons of flaming napalm), with massive amounts of explosions and animals being dismembered. No kidding. It seems like I wanted to see what happened when one pours unlimited amounts of insanity into a comic. The obvious happened: I dumped it in the ‘cancelled’ bin after eight pages.
  11. Het Gouden Kantwerk+ (The Golden Lace): Yes, we're already at number 20 with only one started comic since 10. To be more exact, this one has number 20B. The ‘real’ number 20 was called “The White Bulldog”. The story never got far, but it revolved around the theft of an incredibly precious lace made of pure gold. This was an A4 size comic.
  12. De Tijdmachine (The Time Machine): never started, but I just mention it because due to my interest in time travel, I had to have a comic about it.
  13. De Aanval van de Mensen (The Attack of the Humans): also never started and I forgot the story, but it is a strange title which could have been the title of a B-movie in the parallel animal universe.
  14. De Betton-springstof (The Betton Explosive): never started either, but it was one of the most original ideas I had: someone invents an explosive which is based on simple concrete (‘beton’ is ‘concrete’ in Dutch). I can't remember how it was supposed to happen (supposedly by accident), but eventually an entire building would be built with this stuff without people realizing it. A terrorist group would seize the building and threaten to detonate it, taking down the surrounding buildings with it. You can see the possibilities for some interesting story elements.

Extra Series (also called ‘B Series’)

  1. De Geheime Smaragden+ (The Secret Emeralds): Tomas receives a kind of testament from the father of “the king of New York” (yes indeed, at that time my infantile self seemed to think NY was a kingdom, so this has nothing to do with John Gotti). Anyhow, the testament tells of a secret mine filled with rare emeralds. Tomas has to bring some of the emeralds to this ‘king’ and gets a map to the mine in return (don't ask). Of course Tomas' arch enemy learns about this secret and a pursuit ensues. As you could have guessed, this comic never went far.
  2. De Ijzeren Vogel* (The Iron Bird): Tomas builds a giant bird-shaped aeroplane and manages to finally eliminate his archenemy, but gains a new one in the process. You can read this entire comic yourself!
  3. Noodlanding! (Emergency Landing!): this comic was never started, like B3 and B4 of which I have no idea how the stories were supposed to go. But this one is kind of funny: it was to be a kind of comic version of a typical ‘airplane disaster’ movie. However, in almost every comic, Tomas experiences a plane crash or something similar, so the idea for an entire comic about a plane crash was quite absurd.

Series nor Extra Series

  1. De Geheime Drugshandel* (The Secret Drug Trade): the story starts with a simple traffic accident which would cause Tomas to discover a secret drug trafficking organized by his arch enemy Smuggler (what's in a name). In essence, it is one big pursuit, plus some insane battles (during one of which Tomas loses the invulnerability he gained in “The Four Magic Flowers”). Despite the twists and turns the story takes, I managed to finish it.
  2. Het Rode Kristal+ (The Red Crystal): actually there are two comics by this name, an ultra-small one (almost as small as A6) and a large A4 one which was to replace the failed small one. Both didn't get very far and I can't remember ever having a concrete idea about a story.
  3. De Titanic (The Titanic): yep, I actually had the idea of making Tomas experience the Titanic's disastrous maiden voyage. I don't even know anymore how I was to explain the slight problem with time continuity, but at any rate this comic didn't get farther than 4 lines.

Two-in-one Special

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.

The Special Editions (by my brother)

  1. De Diamantensmokkel* (The Diamond Smuggle): the name says it all. Tomas travels to San Francisco and accidentally stumbles upon criminals smuggling diamonds.
  2. Dreiging uit de Ruimte+ (The Threat from Space): this story didn't get far, but it did manage to go slightly insane and turn into some kind of Star Wars-like space fight.

The A.T. Series (by my brother & me)

  1. De X-7 Satelliet+ (The X-7 Satellite): Tomas is recruited by some Russian agency to recover parts of a crashed spy satellite. However, an insane criminal is also interested in this satellite, and most of the story is about battles between Tomas and this guy. The unfinished story ends with some really violent scenes which I suspect to be inspired by movies like The Godfather trilogy which my brother had seen at that time.
  2. De Tsunami-Golven (The Tsunami Waves): it is pretty obvious what this was supposed to be about, but don't ask me anything about a story.

The Iron Bird

Read the comic with comments here!
For the Dutch-speaking readers: lees hier de strip met commentaren!

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.

Final Thoughts

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:

  1. Resist the temptation to get instant results by quickly starting to draw unprepared: before you start your first panel, you must have a good idea of how the comic will end. Write a script, make rough sketches of what will happen on which pages. Otherwise you will end up with unfinishable comics like me. You could try a wildly improvised comic once in a while which could produce interesting results, but it should be the exception to the rule.
  2. Do not spawn a gazillion comics simultaneously. The work required to finish one is already plenty.
  3. First practise a lot on drawing your characters before you start working on your first comic. Otherwise it will show an obvious evolution in drawing style within the same comic.
  4. Don't try to stuff as much as possible into every square inch of every page. Less is often more.
  5. Regardless of what techniques you use, make sure that the very first things you draw can be easily corrected afterwards.

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.

©2006-2015 Alexander Thomas