comic art by Mark Smeets 1989

Mark Smeets was somewhat of an oddball in Dutch comics. He never created a recurring comic character, nor did he produce an actual comic album. Still, he left a lasting impression on his peers with his uncompromising and highly original drawings and story fragments. His art appeared in underground publications like Tante Leny Presenteert, Modern Papier, Gezellig & Leuk and his own small press magazine Venlo-Internationaal, but also in the mainstream newspaper NRC Handelsblad.

Early life and influences
Smeets was born in 1942 in Hulst in the province of Zeeland, and has subsequently lived in Maastricht and Amsterdam. At age 17, he already called himself "a master in different styles, including his own". Indeed, his artistic influences were many and varied. Among them were Hokusai, Aubrey Beardsley, Bud Fisher, Robert Crumb, Bill Griffith, George Herriman, Jack Davis, Morris, André Franquin and, most notably, Hergé. Especially the 'Tintin' albums 'The Blue Lotus' and 'The Secret of the Unicorn' left a lasting impression. Smeets' highly detailed and somewhat surreal drawings also bring to mind the disturbing paintings of Hieronymus Bosch.

Tante Leny
Hergé influences in Tante Leny Presenteert #15.

Toonder Studio's
Considering his later oeuvre, he was the most unlikely artist to be associated with Marten Toonder's creations. But the Amsterdam-based Toonder Studio's were in fact Smeets' first employer. He was hired in November 1963, and sent to the company's Irish division in March 1964. There, he probably assisted the illustrator Terry Willers on the daily newspaper comics 'Panda' and 'Tom Poes'. An alleged affair with Willers' wife caused an abrupt end to his Irish adventure, and in early June he was already on his way back to the Netherlands. All in all, Smeets was porably far too self-willed for mere studio productions, and from then on he would work on his own, idiosyncratic oeuvre.

Mark Smeets
From: Tante Leny Presenteert (1974)

Smeets' stories were fragmented, and showed a non-logical stream of conciousness narrative full of associations and mental leaps. His first solo drawings appeared in the underground magazines Hitweek (1967-1968) and Aloha (1969-1970), where they caught the attention of Evert Geradts. Geradts then ran Smeets' work in his underground comic book Tante Leny Presenteert in 1971. With his unconventional style, Smeets quickly became an inspiration to the other artists of this publication, including Harry Buckinx, Aart Clerkx, Bill Bodéwes, Peter Pontiac and Peti Buchel. Soon, Smeets also made his appearance in Joost Swarte's magazine Modern Papier and the anthology 'Cocktail Comix' (1973). Mark Smeets gained fame in France when the entire 15th issue of Tante Leny Presenteert was dedicated to his work, and was translated into French ('A4 Comix').

Later on, Smeets also contributed to Windig & De Jong's Gezellig & Leuk magazine , and to the alternative comic magazine De Balloen. In mainstream media, Smeets was a longtime illustrator and occasional comic artist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad between 1978 and 1999. His drawings mostly illustrated articles in the paper's Saturday supplement. Other magazines that featured Smeets' art were Avenue, Muziekkrant OOR, Sekstant, Mensen van Nu and Psychologie.

Art by Mark Smeets
NRC (1999)

In 1998 he launched the small press magazine Venlo-Internationaal, together with his brother Luuk Smeets. The publication with a very limited print-run of about 60 copies was described as "a family magazine for Venlo and the rest of the world". It contained the completely incomprehensible adventures of Hay & Huub, drawn by Luuk, and also of Ruk Römkes, the cracked reporter of the local newspaper. The brothers also unfolded a zany project called 'Venlo-World', a plan to rebuild the old fortified town of Venlo as an amusement park in the Groote Heide nature reserve. The local soccer club should exactly re-enact all its historical games in the neighbouring stadium. Luuk Smeets continued the magazine on his own after his brother's death.

From: Venlo International (1995)

The largest part of Mark Smeets' production was however limited to his personal sketchbooks, which remained out of the public eye. The lack of a solid oeuvre and mainstream appeal, make Mark Smeets a true "artist's artist", just like fellow outsider Flip Fermin. His work was noted by American artist Chris Ware during an exposition at Gallery Lambiek in 1996. Ware immediately printed some of his drawings in the American art anthology Kramer's Ergot, and noted: "Mark Smeets uses comics to make visible the 'invisible' sedimentary layers of accumulated human activity. I guess that the humor or interest of his strips comes from the potentially wild juxtapositions which might result from such a cosmological 'stripview'. Regardless, I find his stuff completely fascinating." Famous Dutch underground cartoonist Peter Pontiac ranked Smeets as "one of the best artists of the past 100 years."

Mark Smeets

Mark Smeets spent his final years in Amsterdam, but he also spent much time near his parental home in Baarlo. In 1998 he was diagnosed with chronic leukemia, his health quickly deteriorated. When his condition made it almost impossible for him to hold his drawing tools, he opted for euthanasia. A day before his death, he drew and colored a square tower, with the caption "Last Castle". Mark Smeets passed away in Baarlo on 8 September 1999. The work of this remarkable comics poet is far from forgotten. A solid proof is the extensive retrospective 'Mark Smeets - De triomf van het tekenen' (Scratch Books, 2016), compiled by Fake Booij, Piet Schreuders, Luuk Smeets and René Windig. A facsimile edition of his 1993 sketchbook was published simultaneously. Smeets' striking depictions of the fortified city of Venlo were on exhibit in the Limburgs Museum in 2011-2012. During the Haarlem Comics Festival in June 2016, Mark Smeets' artwork on exhibit in the Teylers Museum.

Mark Smeets

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