Kichka’s neverending story

The Israeli Cartoon Museum in Holon pays tribute to the Belgian artist with an exhibition of some of his most famous works over his 30-year career.

One of Kichka’s experiments for Wissotzky tea, a comic without Mr. T’s canteen. (photo credit: Courtesy)
One of Kichka’s experiments for Wissotzky tea, a comic without Mr. T’s canteen.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Comics – Comme Il Faut ” is quite a statement of intent. It is the name of a delightful exhibition of comics for children created by Michel Kichka over the last three decades plus and – for those who don’t know French – translates roughly as “Comics – The Way They Should Be.”
The exhibition is up and running at the Israeli Cartoon Museum in Holon, which, considering Kichka was one of the driving forces behind the institution’s establishment seven years ago, is a fitting venue for the 60-year-old Belgian-born illustrator and comics artist.
“Until now, the museum has only held group exhibitions of living artists, or solo shows of dead artists. It is nice to have a solo exhibition and still be alive,” he quips.
And he is very much alive, kicking and drawing. Kichka is a pi - oneer of the comics field here. True, there was the “Hungarian mob” – Hungarian-born illustrator and caricaturist Kariel Gar - dosh (a.k.a. Dosh) and Yaakov Farkash (Ze’ev) – and the New York- born Yaakov Kirschen had just about started his long-running strip Dry Bones in The Jerusalem Post . There was also the only sabra in the sector at the time, Dudu Geva, who had already done some good work for seminal satirical TV show Nikui Rosh and was part of the team that put out the groundbreaking humor and satire tome Zoo Eretz Zoo .
Without straying too far into the realms of hyperbole, one could say that when Kichka made aliya in 1974 at the age of 20, he came to something of a cultural desert in his beloved field.
“I don’t know that I’d put it quite like that,” he says, “but there weren’t too many comics publications here back then.”
Zionist fervor fired his move here. Back in his hometown of Liège, he was a member of the Hashomer Hatza’ir youth movement, and his decision to make aliya came in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. He came not only to make his home here, but also to make his mark on the country’s fledgling comics scene.
“I came with some kind of crazy ideal that I was going to create comics here, in Israel,” he recalls. And there was plenty to be done. “I saw there were a few sporadic things here, which were not high-quality – all sorts of Hebrew translations of things like Te x [ Taylor , a Western comic book series], Tarzan and cheap booklets – or there was Mad magazine, which you could get in [local book store] Steimatzky.”
While it was nice to have access to at least some comics, as far as Kichka was concerned, the local market was sorely wanting.
For starters, he had grown up in a country with a glorious tradition in the field. Belgium boasted the universally acclaimed The Adventures of Tintin and Lucky Luke , and as Kichka came from the French-speaking part of the country, he also gravitated toward publications such as the ever-popular Asterix .
“I bought Mad magazine when I came to Israel, but it wasn’t Israeli,” he notes, “and when I was a student at Bezalel [Academy of Arts and Design], in the early 1970s, Dudu Geva started his comic strip in [ Jerusalem weekly] Kol Ha’ir .”
While Kichka was happy to see some kind of activity in the field, Geva’s creation was an entirely different kettle of fish than the graphic literature of his youth. “It was very foreign to me. It seemed off-the-cuff, and he used a lot of slang, and also I was a new oleh. I didn’t understand the gist of it, and my Hebrew was very limited back then. I was glad to see it existed, but I also knew there was room for other comics alongside it.”
As the comics going was tough, the inspired Zionist Kichka got going.
“I wanted to do something about it. I wanted to bring something of the things I’d grown up with, but I wanted the characters to speak Hebrew,” he says. “I didn’t want the backdrop to the comics to be the streets of Brussels, rather the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.”
The idea was not only to impart something of the wealth of the art form that had fired his young imagination, but to also offer Is - raeli kids an experience that fed off their cultural and social habitat.
“It was very important for me to offer Israeli kids the opportunity to grow up like I had, in Belgium, with the same sort of heroes, with all sorts of adventures,” he says.
The new oleh grabbed every opportunity that came his way to put his ideas into pictorial practice, but this was limited to inter - mittent ventures. He finally got a chance to make a meaningful mark on the junior comics scene when popular children’s paper Ma’ariv Lanoar decided to add comics to its offerings.
“I had done stuff for [children’s publication] Davar Leyeladim, for student pay – I really wanted to do the work – but this wasn’t a quality publication,” he recalls.
Things radically changed for him in 1985, when Davar Leyelad - im merged with two other children’s newspapers – Ha’aretz Shela - nu and Mishmar Leyeladim – to form Kulanu .
“They had a full-color double spread, and they asked me to create comics for it. That was a wonderful opportunity for me, and I created a character called Hame’uleh Memuleh – in English you could call it the ‘Perfect Stuff.’ It was about a kid who wanted to live his life as he saw fit, which didn’t sit too well with his parents.
That was a bit like I’d been, and the character looked like me.”
Sadly it was a short-lived escapade. “After a few months, the bosses told me they couldn’t afford to pay me any longer, and that they could fill the space with posters they got for free, of 1980s stars like [rock singer] Rod Stewart and [model-turned-pop singer] Samantha Fox.”
However, that curtailment led to bigger and better things when tea-producing giant Wissotzky got in on the act and established a children’s newspaper called Mashehu .
“It was a publication for children from the end of elementary school to the end of junior-high school,” he recalls. It was a great break for Kichka, allowing him to go for broke. “It was a glossy publication with a professional staff, and the owners asked me to create a character called Mr. T.”
To anyone who watched TV in the mid-1980s, that name imme - diately conjures up images of the muscle-bound, mohawk-coiffed actor who played B.A. Barracus on The A Team. For Wissotzky, though, the use of the single initial was designed to highlight the beverage the company had been purveying for well over a century, as it was keen to introduce a new range of tea-based products to a younger audience.
The idea was for Kichka to reference a classic cartoon character.
“Mr. T. was to have a canteen that would be full of tea, and when he found himself in trouble he would drink from the canteen and, like Popeye with the spinach, he’d find his way out of his predicament,” he says. “It was also just like Asterix with his magic potion.”While he was delighted to work on a cartoon strip for a quality publication, he wasn’t entirely enthusiastic about the premise. “I don’t believe in superhero characters or, for example, that taking a swig of tea can give you special powers. But I decided I’d go along with it, because I really wanted to do the comics.”
The instruction from the people who paid the bills was also to have neat comic storylines that had a beginning, middle and end. Kichka preferred to leave his readers hanging and eagerly waiting for the next issue. He gradually got back on his professional and creative track when, with his editor’s implicit consent, he began creating open-ended strips and, daringly, orchestrated a situation whereby Mr. T.’s canteen, with its tea elixir, went missing.
“The bosses kept asking when the canteen was going to reappear,” he recalls, adding with a chuckle, “It never did.”
Kichka clearly enjoys his work. It is easy to imagine him as an enthused teenager hungrily devouring the works of Georges Remi, Maurice De Bevere, Albert Uderzo and the other legendary comic-book illustrators of his youth. He also clearly has no problem communicating his ideas to his young audiences.
But make no mistake, the man takes his work extremely seriously, and not just the aesthetics of the final product. At some stage, for example, the Mr. T. strip featured a scientist who invented a time machine with which the hero could flit across the centuries. One of these was Israel of the 1950s.
“I did a lot of research for that,” he says. “I even looked at all sorts of pictures which [iconic photographer Robert] Capa took in Tel Aviv of the 1950s, so I could faithfully recreate the streets of the city.”
Mr. T. came to an abrupt end due to some differences of opinion among the Wissotzky powers that be. By now it had become clear that Kichka always had a knack for ending up on his feet, raring to get into the next project. Fourteen years ago, he started a comic strip for children’s magazine Einayim , for kids age seven to 14, which is still running. Fitting - ly the strip is called The Neverending Comics , and for now, at least, it appears to be just that. He says he has enjoyed the work for the last 14 years and hopes to continue with it for many more.
The Neverending Comics is actually an interactive slot. As with Mr. T., he leaves each issue’s storyline open. However, in contrast to his Wissotzky endeavor, Kichka takes the idea a step further in Einayim and asks his young readers to send in suggestions of how the story should continue.
“In a good month, I get around 80 responses, and generally 40 to 50,” he says. “It is a challenging thing to do. I respond to all the kids, and we run seven or eight suggestions in the following issue.”
It was also around that time that he began passing on some of his hard-won professional wisdom and expertise to new genera - tions of illustrators and comic-strip artists, as a teacher at Bezalel, his alma mater.
The exhibition in Holon offers him a sense of closure, and the opportunity to survey some of the work he has put in since he first made it over 40 years ago.
“It is thanks to [exhibition curator] Asaf Gamzu that all these things are now on show to the public,” he notes. “They were lying around in drawers and cabinets at home, and it is wonderful for me to see them again after all these years. Asaf did a great job with the exhibition.”
Mind you, it’s not as though Kichka hasn’t had highly positive feedback over the years. “People have come to interviews, to be accepted to Bezalel, and told me, ‘I am here because of you, because of Mr. T.
’That was great to hear.”
A couple of years back, the Bezalel instructor received an even more heartwarming compliment. “A female student came up to me after an end-of-semester class and produced an old copy of Einayim and told me that 11 years earlier I’d selected her suggestion for continuing the previous month’s story, and [she] asked me to autograph the magazine. I was only too happy to comply.”
 “Comics – Comme Il Faut: Michel Kichka Draws Comics for Children” closes on February 14. For more information: (03) 652-1848 or