In Memoriam: Les Barton

I-Spy by Les Barton(via Lew Stringer and Steve Bright): downthetubes is sorry to report the death of cartoonist Les Barton, the artist who originally drew DC Thomson’s Sparky comic’s brilliant I-Spy character.

Les, who lived in Uxbridge, Middlesex, passed away in a nursing home after a long illness. He was 85.

“I’m sure that other comic enthusiasts more familiar with his long career will be publishing their tributes to Mr.Barton, but to my mind he will always be “The I-Spy artist”,” says Lew Stringer on his blog. “Back in 1969, aged 10, I would look forward to every Friday to read the latest installment of comedy-action serial I-Spy in the Sparky. This was a strip in a similar vein to Odhams’ Eagle Eye and The Cloak, but it had its own unique charm thanks to the clear penmanship of its artist Les Barton.”

Like Lew, I remember Sparky with considerable fondness, and particularly characters such as I-Spy, written in the 1970s by George Glencairn Urwin. You never saw I-Spy’s face but what you did see were no end of crazy Heath Robinson-inspired gadgets and other things he used in his eternal war on enemy spies.

He was also responsible for The Wonderful World Inside Ma Kelly’s Telly in the same madcap title, which featured the tiny characters who live inside your TV set and act out all the shows, viewers unaware that this is how it is done. That too is a memorable strip, surely owing its heritage to the kind of ‘living toys’ tales of countless childrens’ annuals down the years as well as strips such as The Tellybugs in Smash! and The Numskulls in The Beezer.

The British Cartoon Archive notes that Les was born on 8 December 1923 in Wareham, Dorset. A self-taught artist, he started work at the age of 14 as a telegraph clerk and his first published cartoon appeared in the Militant Miner published by the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1944, one of three titles they distributed (Les would contribute cartoons to many campaigning groups during his lifetime, drawing political cartoons and caricatures for The Statist in 1963 and 1964.

During World War Two he served as a draughtsman in the Royal Signals and War Office Signals and produced his first regular cartoons for WAM (West African Magazine) when he was stationed in Lagos in 1946.

After the war, Les worked as a photographic retouching artist and commercial artist in advertising, and during his diverse career, signing his early work “Lezz”, drew cartoons for a huge range of titles during his career such as Revellie, Tit Bits, Sporting Record, Punch, Men Only, the Daily Mirror, The Times and Private Eye.

He was staff artist on The Sun during the Falkands War in 1982.

In addition to his much-loved Sparky work, his comics credits include Billy Bunter in the 1950s. He also drew strips for IPC including Whizzer and Chips (drawing episodes of Harry’s Haunted House), Cor! and Oink. He also designed humorous greetings cards for Camden Graphics, Rainbow Cards and Cardtoons.

He continued working into his eighties. In 2004 he provided illustrations for Baxter Vs. The Bookies, written by Roy Granville, which had a follow-up in 2007, both published by Hayes Press.

A water colour and oil painter in his spare time, he was one of the longest standing members of the Cartoonist Club of Great Britain, where he attended the first meeting (on April Fool’s Day 1960) and held the position of treasurer for over 20 years.

“During the final days of his illness, Les dictated a letter to his son to be sent to the Cartoonists Club of Great Britain in order to thank them for their ‘many cards and cheerful messages during my incarceration (care of Her Majesty’s NHS)’. Lew Stringer writes. “It’s a warm and heartfelt letter showing how much he appreciated the camaraderie of his fellow cartoonists over the years.

“It tells of the highs and lows as experienced by everyone in the business and ends on a positive note: ‘I wouldn’t change a damn thing’.”

• Les Barton, 8 December 1923 – 20 October 2008
View a selection of Les’ cartoons on the ToonTrek Comic Relief Tour Site

Categories: British Comics - Current British Publishers, Obituaries

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