Comics History

Lambiek at Lambiek.net (1999-2004)


The Lambiek.Net homepage in 2007.

On 1 November 1999, with one foot in the previous century and another in the next, Kees Kousemaker launched his most ambitious project yet: the Comiclopedia - an online encyclopedia dedidicated to finding and providing a biography of every comics artist who ever existed. The Comiclopedia can be considered Kees' magnum opus, his ultimate love letter to the medium. It pays tribute to comics artists from all centuries and countries, proving that comics, like any other art form, are indeed timeless and universal. Since the 20th century was about to end, Kees felt it was definitely a good time to look back.

Preparations
It must be said that our original ambitions for Lambiek.net were modest. By the late 1990s, comics artists began launching their own websites, and fan sites were also popping up. The initial aim of the Comiclopedia was to create a portal which would guide fans to those third-party websites. Kees envisioned a "digital phonebook", which would also provide some basic info and an art sample for each artist. But even with this mission, technical adjustments had to be made. The original Lambiek site, hosted by XXlink since 1994, was, to say the least, very basic. A new design was necessary to conform to our plans and updated standards. One of the companies Kees talked to was Hazel Productions, whose concept proposal not only included a news section and an encyclopedia, but also a message board and a "fun page" with games!


The Lambiek.Net team in 2004: Rick Webb, Kees Kousemaker, Bas Schuddeboom, Margreet de Heer.

Rick
Help eventually came from overseas. Californian Rick Webb had worked as a Mac specalist for Apple Computers in Silicon Valley during the 1980s, and, after several years of wandering, in the late 1990s ended up in Amsterdam. He eventually settled in Lambiek's studio appartment, which was turned into our online department. Much of the site's early design, including its blue font, was provided by Rick (AKA "Spiderman"). Since the project was meant for an international audience, the domain name Lambiek.net was registered, in addition to Lambiek.nl. With a need for more navigation and bandwith, the server was moved to "The Bunker", a secure underground Internet facility near Canterbury, England. Rick did a fine job with the website design, because the International Webmasters Association awarded our site the Golden Web Award twice, back-to-back: in 2001-2002, and again in 2002-2003.


Homepage in 1999 (shortly before the transfer) and in 2001.

Early days
On 1 November 1999, the Comiclopedia went online, but started small. The original comic artist list was only 200 artists, and just 15 had their own biography written. The rest had biographies added over the next couple of weeks, while new names were also added. Looking back, we still had a lot to learn. Some articles were too basic, irrelevant or riddled with corny remarks. Certain illustrations were actually drawn by an assistant, rather than the original artist. Some artists had two entries, under two different pseudonyms.


Early biographies, like this 1999 biography of Milton Caniff, were handwritten, then typed up for the online Comiclopedia

In some cases, confusion was caused by the transcriptions of languages like Arabic, Korean and Japanese, which produced different spellings for the same name. People who are named "Chong" can also be spelled as "Chung", "Tchong" and "Tc'hong". Western names can cause confusion too: if you have two U.S. artists who are named "Jack Smith" and who lived in the same state or era, it would be hard to tell them apart.

Some entries weren't about people, but organizations: the now obsolete Comiclopedia had a page about the Xeric Foundation. Information we found in encyclopedia was sometimes outdated, and we unwittingly perpetuated their inaccuracies. And then we made some plain old mistakes. During the early months, Kees often used interns to help with the site and some knew little about comics. To them it was merely a typing job. Several of our early efforts can still be seen with the Wayback Machine of the Internet Archive.


Two entries for the same artist, based on different spellings of his name..

But despite these beginners' mistakes, the Comiclopedia was unique in its approach to comic art. Kees naturally kept a close watch, personally picked most of the artists and illustrations. Since comics are a visual medium, the illustrations had to be carefully selected. Above all, Kees wanted to provide an impression of an artist's style and capabilities. These could be breathtaking illustrations, atmospheric scenery, dynamic action scenes, interesting lay-outs, captivating cliffhangers, colourful use of language, perfectly timed gags and/or moving emotional scenes. Kees and his staff had a lot of fun collecting beautiful images, strips, book covers, self-portraits and publicity stills. Some were scanned from books or magazines, others faxed. Most images came from Lambiek's own inexhaustible archives. Co-workers still remember how Kees would stumble up the stairs with piles of comics, already making himself heard with the all-important question: "Do we have this one yet?" While his interest in comics knew no boundaries, he specialized himself in alternative, artistic and underground comics, and additionally Kees had a bountiful list obscure pioneers. Arjan Vlaming scanned most of the early images on the site, earning him the nickname "Scan Man". With the project well on its way, Peter Pontiac's beautiful Amsterdam map was printed on mousepads to promote the new website in August 2000. On 1 September 2000, Wired.com posted a piece spotlighting the Comiclopedia, attracting more international visitors to our site.


Pontiac mousepad (actually used by the editor for the preparation of thousands of Comiclopedia pages!)

Yet all work still had to be combined with daily business in the store. It frustrated Kees a bit, as he wanted to collect as many artists as possible. Therefore the early articles were still very short: often less than 20 lines for each name before Kees wanted to move on to the next one. The original shortlist for the Comiclopedia contained about 500 artists, and the plan was to expand to maybe 2.000-3.000 articles. A somewhat humble ambition, considering that, as of 2020, the Comiclopedia has over 13.900 articles! As our enthusiasm grew, so did the Comiclopedia.


Part of a strip by Margreet de Heer about her time at Lambiek (from: 'De Jubelende Jubilaris', 2008)

Margreet de Heer & Bas Schuddeboom
Of all the early contributors to the Comiclopedia two people stand out. On 22 March 2000 Margreet de Heer became our web editor, and she stayed for five years. In February 2001 she received assistance from Bas Schuddeboom, who was initially yet another intern. Both took their job very seriously and upped the ante in terms of quality (and quantity). Margreet was a great writer. She managed to pen down all the essential information in a nutshell and still kept it pleasantly readable. She made it her pride to doublecheck every statement, particularly its spelling. Although Margreet had a huge interest in all kinds of comics creators her speciality were socially conscious artists, literary comics, female artists and the contemporary Dutch comics scene. Her expertise made her the perfect assistant for Kees' other projects, such as the commissioned articles and essays, speeches, the Almere project and the online overview of the Dutch comics history.


Bas Schuddeboom's first Comiclopedia page about François Walthéry. Still very basic, compared to its current state after umpteen rewrites.

Bas Schuddeboom is technically skilled, a fast typist and able to read French. Given the huge amount of Franco-Belgian artists which needed to be included, Kees naturally took him in, even though he already had two interns working for him when Bas started. Bas has a wide variety of interests, but his first and foremost speciality are Franco-Belgian artists, specially those working for Dupuis/Spirou magazine, Disney comics artists and Dutch comics artists. It therefore came to no surprise that his first two articles were about François Walthéry, creator of 'Natacha', and Marc Hardy, the artist behind 'Pierre Tombal'.

Following his apprenticeship at the editorial offices of the Dutch Donald Duck weekly, he also started adding more and more Disney artists to the site. At a certain point, their number became so plentiful that it started to annoy Kees: "Don't we have enough of those duck tracers yet?" he used to sigh. Bas even created a separate page to list all Disney artists included in the Comiclopedia. When this list became one of our most visited pages, Kees quickly changed his stance and jokingly complimented himself for persuading Bas to add all those anonymous unsung heroes.

Dan Schiff
Another important help during those early days was Dan Schiff from California. A client and fan of Lambiek from the early 1990s, Dan wanted to work for what he considered the best comic book store on the planet, volunteered to proofread and edit the Comiclopedia. Besides making sure grammar and overall style of the biographies were consistent, and checking that all external links were still functional, Schiff was also able to reword phrases so they sounded like standard American English, instead British English (so humor, not humour was found on the website, for example). Between 2001 and 2005, he looked at every entry for the Comiclopedia from A to Z three times, examining (and for older biographies, re-examining) a total of over 10,000 entries.


Original home of the "Nederlandse Stripgeschiedenis", with header design by Peter Pontiac.

Dutch comics history
With the Comiclopedia only just launched, Kees embarked upon his next major project in collaboration with Margreet. The "Nederlandse Stripgeschiedenis" section of the site was revived with an extensive chronicle of Dutch comics history. The section was an updated and extended version of Kees and Evelien Kousemaker's books 'Strip voor Strip' (1970) and 'Wordt Vervolgd' (1980), both the definitive guides regarding Dutch and Flemish comics artists up till then. In January 2001, the first pages were launched, roughly divided by decade and format (newspaper, magazine and advertising comics). Kees personally dictated many articles and selected the images, but Margreet did the largest part of the research and writing. She also designed the roll-over navigation buttons, which earned her the royal title "Icon Queen" from Rick. Much information was extracted from Kees' books, but the team also contacted artists for more updated biographical data. The work done at this time, at the dawn of the digital age, was initially written by hand and then typed up. Artists like Joost Swarte, Dick Matena and Peter Pontiac sent their updated résumés by fax.


Faxes sent in 2000 by Dick Matena and Peter Pontiac with biographical data.

Kees, Margreet and later, Bas kept expanding this Dutch comics section. Each decade eventually had a chapter about newspaper strips, comic magazines and advertising comics, and thematic pages related to the specific time period. Dutch comics magazines received their own article, as did the most important Dutch authors, in addition to their English-language profile in the Comiclopedia. Site visitors regularly helped us out, like Ernst Slinger, who provided us with much information about the obscure 1940s comics magazine Stripfilm. Hans Matla's massive comic book collection and handy reference guides were a huge help. Kees regularly dropped in on Jos van Waterschoot, manager of the Special Collections at the University of Amsterdam, which also houses the Comics Documentation Centre. These visits usually resulted in Kees returning with piles of newspaper clippings and obscure magazines to be scanned.


The two dropped illustrations from Fred Julsing's memoirs of his Toonder Studio time.

The Dutch section also presents some interesting anecdotes or obscurities. A special chapter provides a history of Marten Toonder's studio, with personal recollections by former employees like Fred Julsing, Albert van Beek, Siem Praamsma, Harry van den Eerenbeemt, Patty Klein and Ed van Schuijlenburg. In November 2002, Dick Matena strongly disagreed with Fred Julsing's recollections and let us know by mail. For a short while we had a true polemic on the site, but in the end we settled upon an edited version of Julsing's memoirs.One of the disagreements in the Julsing-Matena clash was about the two artists allegedly breaking into the Toonder Studio's through a bicycle shed to spend the night there. Another incident involved around Julsing's description of Matena boiling with anger whenever a certain former studio chief was even mentioned. Both passages were removed from the article, and two illustrations were dropped.

Another page provides some unintentional comedy. While an intern at the editorial offices of Donald Duck magazine in 2002, Bas paged through early issues and noticed that the editor of some editorials - who wrote under the pseudonym "Uncle Donald" - was quite a grumpy person. He would often complain about "today's youth" while these same children were his target audience! The tone of some of his editorials were quite aggressive, and while it was in tone with Donald's actual short-temperedness, it still was hypocritical considering the editorials tried to pass adults off as people whom children should admire. Bas felt this old grouch was too irrestistible to not devote an article too, and collected some of the most remarkable examples. If you can read Dutch, check out the article here.

Originally the entire Dutch comics history section was written in our native language, but in 2003 Margreet made a shortened version in English as well.


Margreet de Heer in the Lambiek studio, 2002.

Virtual expositions and other new sections
During the early years, new sections were steadily added. Simultaneously with the physical expositions in our gallery, Lambiek.net hosted virtual expositions of the artwork, which could be ordered online. Arjan Vlaming spent many hours preparing the code for our first online store, with technical assistance provided by The Bunker's Adam Laurie and his crew at A.L. Digital in London. Arjan's store was online only a short period in 2004-2005, until our new server no longer supported the code it was written in. It would take eight years before our new webshop went online. New informative sections were added on 21 March 2002, focusing on specific moments in comics history, such as Dr. Fredric Wertham and the Comics Code, as well as new articles about important comics magazines. On 21 June 2002, William Randolph Hearst was the first publisher to receive his own article. The history of specific comics genres, like underground comics and erotic comics, were also given their own pages. It's perhaps not a big surprise that to this day our page about eroticism in comics is the one that attracts the most visitors.

Technical blah-blah
As the Comiclopedia grew, technical difficulties began to pop up. The original blue site was not a database, but a collection of thousands of individual .html files, which had to be updated manually. Rick had done his best to create a consistent underlying source code, which enabled him to do bulk changes, but he didn't take the overenthusiastic writers Bas and Margreet into account. They piled new images and articles onto the site every day, regularly messing up his carefully crafted template. Poor Rick spent nights on end repairing the damage, and then took an equal amount of time during daytime complaining about it. Luckily he eventually managed to drill the team into meticulous working protocols. And always, other problems were never far away. Originally, our editing software had our entire site structure mapped out. At one point, it couldn't keep up with the amount of files anymore, forcing us to do even more manual labor. To keep the cost for bandwith down, the site moved to a web-hosting facility in the Southwest of the United States. But unfortunately, the site regularly reached the maximum storage amount, and overseas phone calls were necessary to expand our hosting limits.


Bas Schuddeboom in the Lambiek Studio in 2003, probably destroying source code.

The growth of the site also required efforts to make it more user-friendly. Artists were listed in our index by their last name, but originally their names were written in the "First name, last name" format. The first names appearing before the last made the ever-expanding row of names seem out of order. Bas and Margreet spent an entire summer day in 2001 changing each name to the "Last name, first name" format - all manually, one by one. Years later, in 2005, our editing software and the entire operating system had enough of the amount of files, piled up in one folder. Rick had to relocate them into new folders, one for each letter of the alphabet. This meant that each page got a new weblink. For instance, the URL to our Will Eisner entry was originally "lambiek.net/artists/eisner.htm", but now added the letter "e": "lambiek.net/artists/e/eisner.htm". Changes in URL's weren't picked up by search engines as quickly as they are now. Also, links from other websites to our didn't work anymore. So Bas had to alarm the entire Internet. Posts by him about this matter can still be found on several message boards, if one does its best (but why would one?).

All these technical and monotonous executions enabled us to keep on expanding our treasured project. On 23 January 2003,  Nick Percival became the 3.500th artist to get written up in an article. bp Nichol became our 6.000th biography on 11 October 2005. And there were many more to come...


Margreet and Kees at work, by Margreet de Heer (from: 'De Wereld van de Nederlandse Strip', 2005).

Next chapter: Lambiek at Lambiek.net: expansion (2005-present)