Kees Kousemaker flying high over Lambiek in Amsterdam, a drawing by Peter Pontiac for the occasion of Lambiek's move to Kerkstraat 78
Kees Kousemaker, Holland's most renowned comics expert, made his mark in the underground art world when he opened Lambiek in November of 1968 - the first comics shop in Europe and now the oldest and possibly finest in the world.
Cornelis Kousemaker, known as Kees, was born in Steenbergen, The Netherlands in 1942 during World War II, a very intriguing time for the youngest child in a family of lawyers and judges. He grew up in the village of Zeist, where he and his friends roamed the woods in search of any war relics. He was an avid collector and preservationist even at this young age, and would display the found items in the attic of his parents' home and invite friends to visit his "museum" - a dramatic undertaking since it was not clear whether a handgrenade, a centerpiece of his exhibit, was still unignited or not.
It was one of the first of many exciting collections that Kees would share with the world. He also surprised family and friends by going to school at the Art Academy in Arnhem, instead of studying law. He later returned to Zeist as an art teacher.
As a child, Kees was captivated by the comics printed in local newspapers (many of them drawn by the Marten Toonder Studios). As many people did at the time, he cut them out for his collection. When his generation came of age in the 1960s, there was increasing interest in and demand for these old comics. During the 1950s comics had been slighted by educators - here as in America, comics were considered evil, perhaps leading to criminal behavior or even slowing the child's reading skills.
Kees Kousemaker presiding over the original Lambiek shop at Kerkstraat 104 in 1974
Comics store Lambiek
When Kees was in his twenties, the appraisal of comics changed, and Kees himself became one of the major forces in this new respect for the comics medium, when he opened the doors of Europe's first comic store in 1968 - Lambiek, named after the comic character 'Lambik' by Willy Vandersteen, and intended as a pun on some of the modern "boutiques" of the time.
Lambiek soon became more than just a store. Kees was an active collector, not just of the old cut-out Dutch comics, but also of international comics, such as underground magazines, which found their way into the Netherlands thanks to Olaf Stoop's Real Free Press. With his keen eye for graphic excellence, Kees treated comics as art, which met sometimes with ridicule, but also with respect from the established art world.
From the very beginning, Lambiek has been a place where comic artists would meet. Kees was a very enthusiastic, warm-hearted patron and even though he was still very young (he was 26 when Lambiek opened its doors), he exuded a fatherly aura with which he supported and guided any comic artist that timidly stepped into the store, hoping to find interest for their work.
His legendary comic shop and art gallery has won several prizes, including De Zilveren Dolfijn Award (1979) from the Belgian "strip klub", the P. H. Frankfurter Prize from the Dutch comics club Het Stripschap (1997), and the famous Will Eisner Retailers Award (1995), for Lambiek's unique contribution to the international comics world.
In the 1970s and 1980s many comic artists entered Lambiek, often as teenagers, with their self-fabricated comics magazines. Kees would always buy their work and put it up for sale in the store. Some of these artists were Windig & De Jong, Hanco Kolk & Peter de Wit, Peter Pontiac, Joost Swarte, Gerrit de Jager and Jean-Marc van Tol. They all established lifelong friendships with Kees, and as they rose to fame in the Dutch comics world, Lambiek was proud to present exhibitions of their work. Many of these artists have also made wonderful promotional artwork for the store.
The first of these famous exhibitions took place in 1986 and featured RAW, the American comics magazine by Art Spiegelman, in which Dutch comic artist Joost Swarte was published. Swarte opened this exhibition and started a long line of exhibitions over the years, showcasing artists like Robert Crumb, André Franquin, Chris Ware, François Avril, Loustal, Will Eisner and many, many others.
Lambiek's studio apartment, sketch by Adrian Tomine (1996)
Three things stand out about these exhibitions: in the first place it was remarkable how Kees treated them as genuine Art Exhibitions, always making sure to invite the critics and patrons of the "real" art scene. Secondly, Kees hailed his comic artists with unequaled generosity and hospitality, often putting them up in the famous studio-apartment above the store, where they in turn showed their gratitude by making a drawing on the studio wall. Eventually, the appartment not only provided its occupants with a quiet place in the center of Amsterdam, but it also became a true Valhalla for any comics fan.
Segment of the wall in the Lambiek Studio at Kerkstraat 78. It contained artwork by Eric Braün, Al+Flag, Jim Woodring, Pete Poplaski, Janet & Michael T. Gilbert, Willem, Barbara Stok, Eric Reynolds, Hélène Brosseau, Lian Ong, Roberta Gregory, Bob Fingerman, Sophie Crumb, James Sturm, Seth, David Sandlin, Ellen Forney, Jeff Smith, Dan Schiff and others.
Thirdly, the openings of these exhibitions were joyous occasions for which the whole comics community was invited. They would last until the last glass of beer and wine had been consumed, and often continued into the night at the café on the other side of the street. The highlight of any opening was the speech given by Kees. He was a gifted orator with a great sense of humor.
Kees compiled various books on comics, including 'Strip voor Strip' (1970), published by his own company De Morsige Roerganger, and 'Wordt Vervolgd - Stripleksikon der Lage Landen' (1980), published by Het Spectrum and co-created with his wife Evelien. The latter book provides a historical overview of comics, as well as an encylopedia of every known Dutch and Flemish comics artist and series up to that point - the embryonal version of the current Comiclopedia, so to speak. By then Kousemaker was so respected among comics artists that he was able to ask several icons to personally illustrate chapters: Theo Van Den Boogaard, Marten Toonder, Berck, Piet Wijn, Hans G. Kresse, Kamagurka, Peter De Smet, Martin Lodewijk, Thé Tjong Khing, Jef Nys, Joost Swarte, Willy Vandersteen, Bob De Moor, Marc Sleen, Bert Bus, Jean Dulieu, Willem, Frans Piët, Harry Buckinx, Daan Jippes, Fred Julsing and Gerrit De Jager. Everyone of them made a drawing of a particular letter of the alphabet, then decorated it with well-known comics characters whose name (in Dutch translation) started with that letter. It led to some unique drawings where famous artists drew in different styles and depicted other characters than their own. Kees also contributed many articles about comics to international publications and numerous references such as the Spanish historieta publication, 'Historia de los Comics'.
When the Robert Crumb exposition opened on Lambiek's 26th anniversary in November 1994, fans offered to start a website, so Lambiek became one of the first companies in The Netherlands to have its own site. Kees paid them in comics and the site grew to 80 pages in four years, but he had a much larger vision than that.
A webmaster and Mac tech appeared in 1999, thanks to his son David, which attracted many eager student interns and staff to write biographies and scan comic art for the Comiclopedia. Operating out of the artist apartment upstairs, Kees hoped it might showcase 2,000 artists in early estimates, before Google's debut, but after the article in Wired, a new strategy was created and that number was soon surpassed. The 10,000th artist was added in July 2008, and the Comiclopedia is still growing today.
In 2001 the History of Dutch Comics (in Dutch and English) was launched as well as many smaller articles, making an excellent reference for comics researchers all over the world. When Kees retired from store activities in 2005, he became more involved with the website's content and used his Mac skills and keen eye to scan many classic comic illustrations that he and Bas Schuddeboom added to the site almost every week for his last three years.
Kees and Margreet working on their book about comics (drawing by Margreet de Heer)
Apart from his work in the store and on the site, Kees was involved in naming the streets in a new part of the Dutch city of Almere, which were named after Dutch comic characters or their creators. In 2005, Kees and co-worker Margreet de Heer produced a playful book on Dutch comics, 'De Wereld van de Nederlandse Strip', in which over a century of Dutch comics was displayed, drawing upon the resources of the legendary collection of Lambiek.
Donald Duck looking for a rare first issue at the famous Lambiek comic shop, in the 2500th dutch edition of Donald Duck weekly magazine (September 2000) featuring a story about 'Cees Sokkenstopper', our own Kees Kousemaker.(artwork by Mau Heymans)
Kees was awarded a Royal Decoration in 2006 for his numerous contributions to the Dutch comics field, and became a Knight in the Order of Orange-Nassau ('Ridder in de Orde van Oranje-Nassau').
Queen Beatrix embraces Sir Kees, a tribute drawn by Peter Pontiac
The Lambiek store moved three times in 40-some years, but stayed on the Kerkstraat (first at number 104, then 78, then 119, then 132). The latest moves in 2003 and 2005 created a lot of anxiety, but Kees was happy when the dust settled and he was able to leave the daily business to his son Boris and good friend Klaas Knol, who has been with the store since the early 1980s.
Kees stayed active with the store and was involved with the site until the very end. In 2009, he was diagnosed with cancer. He died at home, in the presence of his wife and children, on 27 April 2010. Upon hearing of his death, both national and international press made commemorations, and comic artists worldwide contacted Lambiek to offer condolences and share their memories of this comics legend, a warm man who has touched many lives and has been a crucial influence on the Dutch comics scene - and beyond.
Kees was at the vanguard of promoting comics as art, and was internationally respected as an expert in his field, inspiring and supported many artists over the years. Both the Lambiek store and this website are continuing in his spirit.
More about Kees:
Dutch biography in De Nederlandse Stripgeschiedenis