comic art by Mark Smeets 1989
'Warenonderzoek', 25 November 1989. Illustration in NRC Handelsblad.

Mark Smeets was a mid- to late 20th-century Dutch illustrator and comic artist, widely considered an oddball in his medium. He never created a recurring comic character, nor an actual comic album. Most of his "stories" are one-shots and unfinished projects, some consisting of only one or two panels. All are surreal juxtapositions of strange images and dialogues, devoid of any real narrative. His art appeared in underground publications like Tante Leny Presenteert, Modern Papier and Gezellig & Leuk. Together with his brother, Luuk Smeets, he established the regional small press magazine Venlo-Internationaal, while his work remarkably enough also ran in the mainstream newspaper NRC Handelsblad. Smeets impressed many of his peers with his uncompromising and highly original drawings and story fragments. He still enjoys a cult following today, remaining a prime example of an "artist's artist." 

Early life and influences
Mark Smeets was born in 1942 in Hulst in the Dutch coastal province Zeeland, and has subsequently lived in Maastricht and Amsterdam. His father was a French-language teacher, and an amateur violinist on the side. In 1948, the family moved to Hoensbroek, in the South Eastern province Limburg. Smeets loved the town, particularly the sand hill where he and his friends went to play, nicknamed "De Zandberg" ("The Sand Mountain"). In his artwork, he would evoke Hoensbroek time and time again. In 1954, the Smeets family moved to Venlo, in the north of Limburg. Because of much family turmoil, his aunts regularly had to take care of young Mark. Mother Smeets was frequently institutionalized because of "nervous breakdowns", and father was an alcoholist. By 1959, his drinking problem had become so severe that he could barely teach sober, and he was sent into early retirement.

From a young age, Mark Smeets loved reading comics and making illustrations. He disciplined himself in making annual special birthday card illustrations for his friends and relatives, a tradition he maintained throughout his life. At age 17, he already called himself "a master in different styles, including his own". Indeed, his artistic influences were many and varied. Smeets admired painters like Hokusai, Aubrey Beardsley and Hercules Seghers. His highly detailed and surreal drawings also bring to mind the disturbing paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. In the field of comics he looked up to 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 adored Hergé's crisp clear "Clear Line" style, where characters and backgrounds are neatly juxtaposed for a fluent reading experience. In Herriman's 'Krazy Kat', he loved the eccentric spelling and lack of instantly understandable punchlines. When the pop culture paper Hitweek discontinued its serialization of 'Krazy Kat' in 1968, Smeets sent in two fan drawings, asking for the series' return. He continued promoting the comic with new readers' letters and illustrations, even after Hitweek had changed its name into Aloha.

Tante Leny
Hergé influences in the story 'De Slag bij/van Itte Oot', published in Tante Leny Presenteert #15 (1974). 

Throughout his life, Smeets was always more interested in individual panels than full gags or stories. He mostly ignored the narrative sequence they were a part of, and regarded them as a kind of miniature, fascinating in their own right. As a young reader, he didn't always understand the words in the speech balloons. Therefore, he was more intrigued by the lay-outs. As a boy, he already sent in drawings to children's magazines, but was often rejected because the editors doubted whether he had drawn them by himself. In 1955, the twelve-year old Smeets won the second prize in a drawing contest organized by Elseviers Weekblad. Veteran artist Eppo Doeve complimented him with the "dynamism" of his illustration. Between 1956 and 1957, his earliest comics, 'Ploc en Pluis' and 'Choco' ran in the children's supplement Het Kleine Carillon, part of the regional newspaper Dagblad van Noord-Limburg. Smeets owed this honor to the editor, whom his family knew personally.

Smeets also sent letters to comic artists he admired, like Spirou magazine staples André Franquin, Morris and Will, who sent him personalized drawings back. In the summer of 1958, the fifteen-year old Mark Smeets biked all the way from Venlo to Boitsfort, near Brussels, in the hope of meeting Franquin. He didn't even inform his family where he had gone and his money was already spent before he crossed the Dutch-Belgian border. Luckily he was able to meet Franquin, who gave him some practical drawing advice. Yet afterwards, Smeets kept hanging around in Brussels for a week, also meeting Jidéhem and Morris, and spending his nights sleeping in greenhouses.

In 1959, Smeets won third prize in a drawing contest organized by insurance company Nillmij. In between he also made illustrations for his high school paper. Between 1960 and 1962, Smeets studied Advertising and Graphic Arts at the Academy for Applied Arts in Maastricht, until he was drafted. He tried to use his studies as a reason to postpone his military service, but unfortunately his grades were so bad that he had to leave the Academy anyway. Smeets did manage to eventually leave the army, being officially rejected as "unfit for further service".

Toonder Studio's
Considering Smeets' later reputation for bizarre comics that leave regular readers baffled, it is strange in hindsight that he began his career working for a major professional comic studio with a family-friendly reputation, the Toonder Studio's in Amsterdam. Smeets was hired in November 1963 and by March 1964 he was sent to work at the company's Irish division. Studio owner Marten Toonder was planning to move to Ireland, and had sent his son Eiso Toonder ahead to set up a local studio. There, the local Irish artist Terry Willers was employed to draw for Toonder's daily newspaper comics 'Panda' and 'Tom Poes'. It is generally assumed that while in Ireland, Smeets was working as Willers' assistant. However, an alleged affair with Willers' wife caused an abrupt end on their collaboration. By early June, Smeets was already back in The Netherlands. At the time, many aspiring Dutch comic artists would probably have been disappointed having burned their bridges at the biggest and most lucrative comics studio of the country. But all in all, Smeets was too individualistic and self-willed to work as an anonymous studio worker after all. From then on, he would follow his own, idiosyncratic path. 

Mark Smeets
Panel from a 1989 comic by Mark Smeets. 

Starting in the mid-1960s, Mark Smeets developed his trademark style. He made dozens of stand-alone panels and strips, some barely colored, inked or even half-pencilled. They feature strange scenes without context. To the casual reader, it seems as if he stumbled into a plot where he missed the beginning: shattered images from non-existing stories. All action follows a stream-of-consciousness, rather than a logical, narrative. Things happen at random, inspired by Smeets' barely comprehensible associations and mental leaps. He deliberately used archaic expressions that have little to do with the visual action. Smeets often listened to the radio or his Bob Dylan records while drawing, and often incorporated things announcers said, or translated strange Dylan lyrics directly in his dialogues, regardless of how little sense they made in that context. Other times he requoted lines from 'Tintin' stories. On several of his unreleased sketches, Smeets wrote down strange sentences in the margins. One of the oddest is a line where he declares Dutch children's writer Annie M.G. Schmidt "the opposite of Hitler."

As strange as Smeets' comics appear, they are nevertheless impeccably lettered and drawn. He tried to achieve the same awe he felt as a child for comic artwork, even if he was too young to fully understand the dialogues and plotlines. Many comics from his childhood featured old-fashioned expressions or wonky sentences. Sometimes because the artists or magazine editors couldn't think with the mindset of a young reader. Other times because the stories were badly translated from French or English. Smeets cited Hergé's 'Tintin' as an example. The stories feature mature content and can be quite complex for children. But at the same time, the visuals are so attractive that kids are still mezmerized until the final page. They even absorb the words they don't understand. In fact, when the 'Tintin' stories were retranslated in the 1970s, Smeets was disappointed that the archaic language was updated. To him it removed a lot of the comic's power.

'Pipco et Violet' (Juinensche Courant, 22 January 1983).

Smeets didn't want to conform to society's expectations, but maintain his creative independence. He was a high school, academy and military service dropout. Throughout his career, he was never really associated with one particular magazine, also because he had no real recurring characters or even remotely finished stories. Most of his drawings were made for his own pleasure and remained unpublished sketchbook art. Each time people offered him a position in a prestigious magazine or a book deal, Smeets backed out. The few comics that appeared in print are rarely longer than one page. A notable exception was the text comic 'Pipco & Violet' (1982-1983), of which six "episodes" ran in De Juinensche Courant, the spoof newspaper of the fictional town of Juinen from the satirical Van Kooten & De Bie TV shows. As "Smayts", he also illustrated that paper's text serial 'Het Lijk in de Streekbus' ("The Corpse in the Regional Bus"). Made together with his brother Luuk Smeets, one episode also appeared in issue #6 of Windig & De Jong's Gezellig & Leuk comic book (September 1984).

Smeets regularly announced he would make a full story one time, but never got around to do so. He attributed this to a so-called "lack of discipline", even though he also remarked that "more discipline might make my work less lively and attractive." Interviewed by Pieter van Oudheusden in 1993, Smeets stated that he preferred drawing buildings over people, but nevertheless felt an unfinished building was more interesting than a completed one. He wanted the combination of absurd elements in his drawings to express bewilderement, "otherwise the onlooker will be done watching too soon."

Mark Smeets
From: Tante Leny Presenteert (1974)

After leaving the Toonder Studios in 1964, Smeets briefly continued his studies at the Maastricht Academy, but left once again after a year. Together with fellow student Harry Buckinx, he went to another Maastricht academy, Jan van Eyck, but by 1969 he again dropped out. As an artist, Smeets got caught up in the free-spirited atmosphere of the 1960s. Thanks to psychedelica and underground comix, there was now room for unconventional comics, intended for adult readers. His earliest comics in his trademark style ran in the Dutch music magazines Hitweek (1967-1968) and Aloha (1969-1970), where their trippiness reached the right audience. Fellow Dutch underground artist Evert Geradts recognized his talent and in 1971 gave him a spot in his underground comic magazine Tante Leny Presenteert. There, Smeets' graphic talent and highly experimental drive had an electrifying effect on his colleagues, 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 Dutch underground comix anthology 'Cocktail Comix' (1973). In France, Mark Smeets gained fame when the entire 15th issue of Tante Leny Presenteert was dedicated to his work and translated into French under the title 'A4 Comix'.

Meanwhile, Smeets sent letters to Hergé, who paid him a huge compliment by stating that he "couldn’t teach him anything that he didn’t already know." During the summer of 1971, the two artists met in Brussels. Hergé asked Smeets to draw a six page-story for Tintin magazine. A golden opportunity, but again Smeets only worked out two pages of material, which he never sent to Hergé. In 1972, Smeets received a fan letter from American underground artist Bill Griffith, who had read his comic 'Road Tango', which Smeets had published under the pseudonym "Emsé" in Tante Leny Presenteert issue #12 (fall 1972). Griffith wrote: "(…) my attention became riveted to a 2-page story of yours, entitled Road Tango. This short piece held me in its spell as I admired the line quality, the figure drawing, the beautiful gestures.'"

Thanks to fellow artist and admirer Theo van den Boogaard, Smeets was given a position within the Dutch mainstream newspaper NRC Handelsblad, where he made occasional drawings and comics from 1978 until his death. He mostly illustrated articles in the paper's Saturday supplement. There, he received the creative freedom he so craved. The editors mostly accepted whatever he drew, even if it had very little to do with the topic or article it was supposed to accompany. They even made sure he reached his deadlines by inviting him to work at the office. In the 1980s, Smeets also contributed to Windig & De Jong's Gezellig & Leuk magazine, and the alternative comic magazine De Balloen, published by Ger van Wulften's Espee. Other magazines that featured Smeets' art were Avenue, Muziekkrant OOR, Sekstant, Mensen van Nu and Psychologie.

Art by Mark Smeets
Illustration by Mark Smeets for NRC Handelsblad (1999)

In 1998, together with his brother Luuk Smeets, Smeets launched the small press magazine Venlo-Internationaal, referring to the Dutch historical city of of Venlo. 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 was expected to exactly re-enact all of its historical games in the neighboring stadium. After Mark Smeets' death in 1999, Luuk Smeets continued the magazine on his own.

The largest part of Mark Smeets' production was limited to his personal sketchbooks, which remained out of the public eye. The lack of a solid body of work and mainstream appeal, have made Mark Smeets a true "artist's artist", just like fellow outsider Flip Fermin. Between 8 November and 7 December 1975, his drawings were exhibited in the Lijnbaancentrum 165, Rotterdam, at the instigation of his wife. During an exposition at Kees Kousemaker's Gallery Lambiek in 1996, his work was noted by American artist Chris Ware. 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."

From: Venlo International (1995)

Death, legacy and influence
Mark Smeets was described by many as a strange, but likeable individualist. Drawing was his passion. His house was an unorganized mess of unfinished drawings and newspaper and magazine clippings. To him, all other activities and responsiblities were a waste of time. Friends and relatives took care of him, because he simply wandered around from place to place, unable to function in society. He often didn't keep promises or was absent during family meetings. His first wife left him, and his second wife, with whom he had a daughter, kept the relationship working by living separated from him in her own home. Nevertheless, Smeets had a good bond with his daughter, Violet, after whom he also named the girl protagonist in his short-lived comic series 'Pipco & Violet’ (1982-1983).

Mark Smeets spent his final years between Amsterdam and his parental home in Baarlo. In 1998, he was diagnosed with chronic leukemia and his health quickly deteriorated. His condition made it almost impossible for him to hold his drawing tools. As such, he lost the will to live and opted for euthanasia. A day before his death, he drew and colored a square tower. The caption to this melancholic drawing read: "Last Castle". On 8 September 1999, Smeets passed away in Baarlo. 

Today, the legacy of Mark Smeets is kept alive by his friends. For those interested in his life and career, the extensive retrospective 'Mark Smeets - De Triomf van het Tekenen' (Scratch Books, 2016), compiled by Fake Booij, Piet Schreuders, Luuk Smeets and René Windig, is highly recommended. A facsimile edition of his 1993 sketchbook was published simultaneously. In 2011-2012, Smeets' striking depictions of the fortified city of Venlo were on exhibit in the Limburg Museum. During the Haarlem Comics Festival in June 2016, Mark Smeets' artwork was exhibited in the Teylers Museum.

Mark Smeets
Drawing by Mark Smeets for NRC Handelsblad, 2 January 1998. 

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