Fifty is too young to die. Jay Kennedy was vacationing in Costa Rica, got caught in a riptide, and drowned. Too young, too soon, a waste of a humane and persistent talent. The immediate outpouring of shock and sadness in blogs around the Web testified to the affection and regard in which he was held by cartoonists, ample testimony to his skill as an editor and as a nurturer of the medium. I encountered Kennedy for the first time 10-15 years ago at the Festival of Cartoon Art sponsored every three years by the Cartoon Research Library at Ohio State University in Columbus. A bunch of us went to dinner one night after the festivities, journeying south of the sprawling campus to German Town and a restaurant that served the repast of the neighborhood. I was sitting across from Steve Bentley, who does Herb and Jamaal, and somewhere at the table was Zippy’s Bill Griffith. Next to him sat Jay Kennedy, who, at the time, was merely comics editor at King, having ascended to that throne in 1989 after a year’s apprenticeship as deputy comics editor with Bill Yates. Kennedy, due to his position, was doubtless the most powerful person at the table, but you wouldn’t know it from his behavior. He mostly listened. But whenever he spoke, there was nothing tentative about his utterances. He spoke when he had something to say on the subject, and he was neither shy nor particularly conversational. He tended to be succinct, almost blunt, his opinions thoughtfully arrived at and clearly enunciated.

Kennedy was short with blue eyes and, back then, wore his blond hair almost shoulder length. Born in 1956, he was a teenager growing up in Ridgewood, NJ, when hippies replaced beatniks in the culture of the Youth, and he took in the hippie attitude, it seemed to me, and made it part of his vision, but he was also comfortable in a suit. A perfect combination, probably, for finding and fostering talent in the odd niches of an odd profession and then navigating it through the narrow entrepreneurial channels of a giant syndicate to the world of commerce where bottom lines matter more than lines on paper. He was always on the look-out for new and different cartooning, seeking to revive newspaper comics as an entertainment genre while also extending a helping editorial hand to aspiring cartooners. Kennedy recognized the shameful dearth of women cartoonists in the syndicated ranks and worked steadily to change the status quo. He recruited Rina Piccolo to do Tina’s Groove and found Sandra Bell-Lundy for Between Friends and Hilary Price for the utterly unconventional Rhymes with Orange and, more recently, Jill Kaplan’s uniquely voiced Pajama Diaries. He also created an unusual repertory strip, Six Chix, which presents the work of six female cartoonists in rotation, a different one each day. And he dipped into alternate comic books to find Terry LeBan, who, with his wife, produces Edge City.

My first direct knowledge of the agility of Kennedy’s mind and his canny reading of the market was with Bobo’s Progress, a strip about a bear and his woodland buddies who played together in a band called Bobo’s Progress. Drawn by Dan Wright and written by Tom Spurgeon, the strip occasionally ventured into realms of Christian spirituality. Kennedy, seeing the spiritual bent of the creators, realized that the strip could easily be re-focused slightly to appeal to a vast Christian readership. Shortly thereafter, the strip was re-titled Wildwood, and Bobo found himself the pastor in the forest. Alas, the strip was discontinued within a year or so. I think (but I don’t know for sure and don’t want to pry) that Wright wanted other outlets to express his vision; he’s now doing Rustle the Leaf weekly online with Dave Ponce -- creating “a world where a sagacious leaf, a trash-talking acorn, a persecuted dandelion seed and a know-it-all raindrop” ponder environmental principles. The point of this apostrophe to Wildwood is that Kennedy could so deftly serve two masters: the combined creative impulses of Spurgeon and Wright would be more fully engaged with the new focus, and the strip would presumably supply an emerging but as yet unmet need in the marketplace.

But Kennedy didn’t neglect the syndicate’s vintage works. He found new talent to continue Prince Valiant when John Cullen Murphy retired, and he launched King’s online subscription comics page, DailyInk.com, where current strips rub shoulders with such ageless  masterpieces as Bringing Up Father, The Phantom, Rip Kirby, and Krazy Kat. It is a canny collector-inspired combination, and charging a subscription fee protects King’s current client relationships: DailyInk doesn’t give away the store that subscribing newspapers are paying for.

Kennedy was the epitome of unobtrusiveness, but his mild manner should not be mistaken for diffidence or indecisiveness. In 1992, he famously fired Bobby London who had been doing Popeye since 1986. The incident is still clouded with unanswered questions. Ostensibly, London’s offense was alluding in the strip to the issue of abortion, but since questionable the strips had been distributed, presumably after being cleared through King’s editorial process, most of us wondered whether the abortion strips were the sole or even the actual cause for the dismissal.

As a youth, Kennedy studied sculpture and conceptual art at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, according to Steven Heller in The New York Times, but he spent his life in cartooning. His first cartooning love was underground comix, and he collected them with a passion for encyclopedic thoroughness. While studying sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he met another future figure in comics -- Milton Griepp, who was then working at Wisconsin Independent News Distributors; Kennedy checked with WIND to make sure he had all the underground comix available. In 1982, Kennedy self-published The Official Underground and Newave Comix Price Guide, a monumental reference work with which he hoped to consolidate all he had learned about the genre. By then, he had contributed to an earlier guide, the 1979 Illustrated Checklist to Underground Comix: Preliminary Edition, from Archival Press in Cambridge, an experience that doubtless convinced him something more substantial would better serve the medium. Kennedy kept learning more and piling up more and more information, aiming, his friends were convinced, at producing an up-dated edition. Alas, he didn’t get to that before he died.

In 1983, Kennedy began a five-year tour as cartoon editor of Esquire, leaving in 1988 to become deputy comics editor at King Features. He advanced to comics editor the next year, and in 1997, he was named editor in chief of the syndicate. While at Esquire, Kennedy convinced Matt Groening to branch out from drawing rabbits to drawing humans; “The Simpsons” was the result of Groening’s conversion. Still at Esquire, Kennedy met cartoonist Lynda Barry, working with her occasionally, she says, as her co-writer. But Kennedy’s imagination reached beyond the funnies. David Stanford (with whom I do some work at Andrews McMeel Universal’s online incarnation, GoComics.com) recalled “a long-ago conversation when Jay told me about his idea for an internet startup that would be ‘a world-wide flea market,’ and he was seeking backing for it. It was essentially eBay, before that had made any appearance in the world at all. He was a smart guy, very creative.”

Bringing his instincts and insights to King, Kennedy “had a profound impact on the transformation of King Features as a home for the best new and talented comic strip creators in the country,” according to the syndicate’s executive vice president, Bruce L. Paisner, in the company’s news release. King’s president, T.R. “Rocky” Shepard III agreed: “He strengthened King’s roster of talented commentators and writers and articulated his vision for the future of the art.” Kennedy believed in the “hippie vision,” according to Gary Panter, who collaborated with him on the Underground Guide, “ -- before it was destroyed by a number of things, like hangers-on and hard drugs. ... He had an idea of doing things with comics that weren’t being done. There was a missing component in culture, and he felt he could do something there. Not everyone can be a nutty artist,” Panter finished, “ -- artists need friends.” With Kennedy’s death, cartoonists lost one of their most stalwart.

Tom Spurgeon has a long and thoughtful and detailed remembrance and appreciation of Kennedy and his work at www.comicsreporter.com.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com


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