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Remembering Les Coleman:

A Tribute

I was very sad to lose my friend Les Coleman on January 17th. I’d known Les for nearly thirty years, since the early days of Escape Magazine, to which he contributed several incisive book reviews and a double-page article on Charles Adams. I also commissioned him to write for The Cartoon Art Trust News during the Nineties. We both enjoyed exploring and discovering the worlds of underground and alternative comix, small presses, cartoons and art in general - among others his tastes embraced the work of Robert and Aline Crumb especially, Pascal Doury, Rory Hayes, Julie Doucet, Joe Coleman (no relation), Topor, Siné, H.M. Bateman, Diane Noomin, Bill Griffith, Peter Blegvad, Glen Baxter, René Magritte, Ernie Bushmiller, Louis Wain, Patrick Hughes, Herr Seele, Anthony Earnshaw, Caran d’Ache and Mark Beyer. Sharing knowledge and finds, discussing artists and stories, debating comics and art and life, conspiring on projects, always made our times together a pleasure.

So it was only sensible that, for the first pilot verison of Comica Festival in 2003 at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) in London, Les and I should co-curate a survey of North American underground and alternative comics, which he cleverly titled Foo Zap Yow & Now. We carefully collated choice rarities with eye-grabbing covers from both of our collections (the majority from Les’s) to pack every square inch of the five glass-topped display cases in the Concourse Gallery’s five bays down the left-hand wall. Above each case we put up framed prints from our walls by Robert Crumb, Mark Beyer, Joe Coleman, Julie Doucet and Chris Ware. We produced a free 16-page, A5-size catalogue, designed by Peter Stanbury, containing an essay by Les Coleman, quotes from 18 artists and a complete listing of the exhibits.

For Comica Festival in 2004, Les came up with the idea of a history of mini-comics, displayed in the cosy confines of Shoreditch’s BookArtBookshop and documented in a 12-page catalogue in A6-sized mini-comic form. Again we pooled our resources to show the widest possible range at our disposal. Les had the great idea of leaving the front covers of A Mini-History of Off-The-Cuff, Handmade Mini-Comics blank and inviting dozens of cartoonists to fill them in with original drawings. These ranged from English visionaries Adam Dant and Ed Pinsent (above) to the Festival’s international guests including Lewis Trondheim, Seth, Craig Thompson and Anton Kannemeyer. Earlier that year, we also spoke about the mini-comic phenomenon at the Caption Alternative Comics Convention in Oxford in August 2004 - which Andy Konky Kru captured in this on-the-spot sketch.

Deeply knowledgeable about Robert Crumb, Les curated a modest but delightful spotlight on his oeuvre entitled Art & Music To Uplift & Enlighten, again for BookArtBookshop, for the 2006 Comica Festival. Les wrote an essay on this theme and published it as an 8-page, A6-size mini-comic catalogue, illustrated with Crumb drawings from the show and again designed by Peter Stanbury (below). This was followed in 2007 by the Hypnogogism show examining the dream comics of Aleksandar Zograf, again with a small catalogue including an interview between Les and the Serbian cartoonist.

For several years, Les and I had wanted to co-edit a book of the best cartoon strips by Bateman, and while that never happened, Les did write a fine feature on the Punch and Tatler cartoonist in Comic Art magazine #6 (translated into French for Papiers Nickelés n°14 in 2007), and the French publisher Thierry Groensteen did publish a handsome compilation last year, Mimodrames. Les was instrumental in editing and producing the tribute exhibition and book to Anthony Earnshaw (shown below with Les in Brussels), whose bizarre Wocker strips I covered here.

Les was a widely published and exhibited author and artist himself, adept at aphorisms (his were included in Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists, Bloomsbury USA, 2007) and at ‘double-take’ drawings, paintings and artworks. These appeared in print in such collections as Unthoughts (Ink Sculptors, 1993), Unthinking (Littlewood Arc, 1994), Unthunk (Errata, 2002), Thunks (Red Fox Press) and Afterthunks (Boekie Woekie, 2011).

Among his many publications, I reviewed his hilarious Meet The Art Students, the fruit of years of art-school teaching, for The Comics Journal:

“In Art School Confidential, Daniel Clowes famously vented his spleen at the arts education system, which he had experienced as a student. Now comes Meet The Art Students, firing from the other side of the classroom. For twenty years, humorous artist and writer Les Coleman was a visiting lecturer teaching at art schools around Britain and became all too aware of their peculiar world. On long train journeys, he started noting the phrases and appearances of his students. These writings and drawings gradually built up into a portrait gallery of sharply observed types, each staring face-on as if in a photo booth or an identification parade, their telltale comment hovering above them, the whole frame crowned with an apt caption title. ‘The Great Procrastinator’ gives his excuse: “I’m waiting to borrow a video camera from Photography.” ‘Piss Artist’ explains, “All my best paintings are done when I’m completely wrecked”, with a footnote ‘Seeks brewery sponsorship’. For his new book Meet The Art Students: Now In Glorious Crayon (ISBN 1-871539-03-X, In House Publishing, £7.95) Coleman has selected forty-eight no-hopers, whose self-delusions, ruses and pretensions we can all recognize in others, and if we’re honest perhaps in ourselves too.

“Not that their teachers get off scott free. Coleman is as mischievously accurate about his colleagues in his limited edition hardcover, The Professors, by showing them all typically busy elsewhere and totally absent. Coleman handcolours their empty portrait frames, and adds captions to undermine their feeble excuses with the cutting truth. One teacher says he is “over on the other site”, but really “fancies the new secretary”, while another claims to be busy with “reports”, but is “making a scale model of the Eiffel Tower in his spare time”.”

How To Make It In The Art Business (2002)
Click image to view larger.

Les also collaborated with Neal Fox, a friend since childhood, who drew his portrait which opens this article. Les published a print of his pointed mock advice on ‘How To Make It In The Art Business’ (above), turned into a 12-panel comic strip lecture drawn by Fox. This scathing indictment of the spent British arts establishment concludes that “Opportunism is the only ‘ism’ going on these days.” Coleman and Fox reunited on a vitriolic sequel for ArtReview magazine here. More recently, Les advised and wrote several excellent entries for my guide 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die, and had a piece on Joe Brainard in The Coelacanth Journal No. 8.

Over the last few months, after Paquito Bolino from Le Dernier Cri kindly put me back in touch with Mark Beyer, Les has been preparing a substantial article on this unique artist, whom he collected and much admired, for the magazine of ‘Outsider Art’ Raw Vision. It will be cover-featured in their next issue, #78. It’s something he was particularly pleased to have done. I know he was also very happy to have properly met the Crumbs in Sauve last summer - it was just a shame that he was not well enough to see them in London at Comica and join them afterwards for dinner last November.

On Feburary 4th 2013, Les’ son, Max Coleman, wrote to me after the funeral with this very apposite footnote:

“You might also like to know that in the final months of his life he pulled off one more publication. It is very aptly called Another Book and is a collection of colophons (edition and printing dates). On the 6th January, when he was seriously ill, I noticed a box in his bathroom. I was surprised to see his new book, as he had not mentioned it to me, On asking, I discovered he was unhappy with the cover as the background colour was wrong and the finish was too glossy. I felt sad he was not happy with the cover, but glad he had got it finished. The day after Les’ funeral, we discovered a box of books that had been dumped in a street near his flat. It was Another Book exactly as he wanted it. I was amazed. The books must have been delivered on the day on the funeral and then stolen from the doorstep! This story underlines what a great man he was.”

I am not alone in greatly missing ‘Uncle’ Les, as a wry, witty writer and artist, a liberated and liberating creator and thinker (or ‘thunker’?), and as a good friend. Here is one of the original covers which he drew for the Mini-History exhibition. His moving pencil has completed its final panel.

As a footnote, Les Coleman’s collection of comics, books of art, humour and illustration, and his own papers and correspondence has been donated to the University of Arts London and is archived and accessible at the London College of Communication. Here is the UAL website’s introduction to The Les Coleman Collection, with is catalogued and searchable online here.

Amongst the Les Coleman Collection is a significant collection of comics from North American underground [1968-1980] and alternative [1980-present] comic book movements. Perhaps the most significant component of the collection is Coleman’s Robert Crumb material, which is possibly one of the largest in the UK. Other highlights in the collection include large collections of the work of Canadian comic book artist Julie Doucet and Serbian artist Aleksandar Zograf, complete runs of classic counter-cultural comics Arcade, Bijou Funnies and Raw. In addition to comics, Coleman also acquired various signed and limited edition prints by comic book artists such as Charles Burns, Joe Coleman, Joost Swarte, Archer Prewitt and Aline-Kominsky Crumb. An admirer and champion of the art form, Coleman organised and curated various comic exhibitions in his lifetime. A prominent British comic commentator and critic, Coleman was also in correspondence with various artists including Doucet, Zograf, Mack White, Jeff Johnson and Prewitt.

The second part of the Coleman collection is comprised of art, illustration and humour books from America, Australia, the UK and Europe (predominantly France and Belgium). Coleman’s twin fascinations in this area were cartoons and surrealism, and his favoured artists range from the gentle newspaper gags of ‘Larry’ to the dark absurdist visions of Roland Topor. Other prominent artists in this part of the collection include Charles Addams, Edward Gorey, Saul Steinberg, HM Bateman, Glenn Baxter, Ivor Cutler, Maurice Henry, Sempé and Siné.

The third part of the collection is made up of Coleman’s personal papers. Amongst this part of the collections there is a great deal of correspondence with his contemporaries in the art world such as painter, collaborator and teacher Patrick Hughes, the artist and children’s’ illustrator Tony Blundell, artist and colleague Charlie Holmes, artist and illustrator Chris Vine, French surrealist and publisher Marcel Mariën, and many more. Additionally there is a large collection of postcards and Christmas cards, many designed by the aforementioned artists. There is also some draft artwork and research material for a cartoon strip entitled Ying and Yang which Coleman created in collaboration with Hughes. There is also a large collection of research material, primarily consisting of handwritten notes, annotated scans and photocopies, photographs, and sketches. Research material relates both to Coleman’s teaching and curation careers.

Posted: January 20, 2013


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My Books

Comics Unmasked by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning from The British Library

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

1001 Comics  You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett

Featured Books

Meet The Art Students:
Now In Glorious Crayon
by Les Coleman