Ask a Cartoonist: Remembering Jay Kennedy
Before my time here at King Features, we had a much-beloved Editor-in-Chief named Jay Kennedy, whom some of you may remember, but others may not. He worked here from 1988 until 2007, and had a huge influence on so many cartoonists, by those who are syndicated here, but also by many outside of King Features.
This week, we asked cartoonists to share some of their memories of him.
My first encounter with Jay Kennedy came after I had submitted a couple of comic strip ideas to King during his tenure, around 1990. One time, he called me. Jay Kennedy actually picked up the phone and called me. When I began breathing again, he told me he saw a lot of possibility in my work, though this latest idea didn't really fly, but strongly encouraged me to try again with some other idea soon, and that he'd be very interested in looking at what I came up with.
Every once in awhile after that, Jay would call from out of the blue to find out what I was working on, and we'd talk comic strips. I'll never be able to put into words what those calls meant to me.
Jay's genius was grooming cartoonists he saw as having some potential (though why me, I'll never figure out). I finally got to meet him face-to-face at my very first Reubens (DC, in 1991). Jay invited me to dinner along with a handful of newbies one night (I think that's where I first met Glenn McCoy). Once seated, drinks were delivered, and orders were placed, he then began asking each of us about where we were from, etc. I couldn't help but notice Jay's jaw dropping when I said I was born in Alabama. I had the feeling I was the first person he had ever met from the "Heart of Dixie." He kept say, "Alabama? Really?" My belief is that he half expected me to suddenly pull off my shoes and start picking a banjo.
Happily, my being the spawn of "Deliverance country" didn't seem to make any difference after all, because Jay continued to be tremendously encouraging and helpful in all things cartooning for me. I will never forget him for that.
--Jeff Parker, Dustin
Jay was an artist as well as an editor. His brother gave this to me after he died. He was my employer, my teacher, and my friend. I learned a lot from him during the memorable years that I knew him. How fortunate I was to experience his kindness, his integrity, and his brilliance firsthand! I am reminded every day that my work and my life are the better for it.
--Karen Moy, Mary Worth
I had the opportunity to get to know Jay a little bit when we both attended annual conventions of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists in the 1990's. It turned out that Jay had grown up in Ridgewood, New Jersey, a neighboring town to where I live.
Jay tried to persuade me to do a comic strip, which he hoped King Features would be able to syndicate. I told him that while I enjoyed reading lots of other people's comic strips, I had no desire to do one myself. I love political satire, and I was very happy doing editorial cartoons.
At the time Jay was in charge at King Features, the Best and Wittiest Editorial Cartoons were still being distributed through snail mail in hard copy form ( they are now exclusively online). So it was a real pleasant surprise when I would receive a copy of one of my cartoons in the mail to which Jay had added a comment about how much he liked it. If he was reading all the different cartoons and comic strips being produced every day, and made that effort to praise what I had drawn, I was always very flattered and appreciative.
--Jimmy Margulies, Editorial Cartoonist
Early on, Jay was always very encouraging to me as a young cartoonist when I would submit comic strips for possible syndication to him. He always wrote positive personal comments in the margins of the rejection letters, asking me to submit again and telling me that he kept samples of my work in his "good art file." It really kept me going. Later, when he was considering me for the Barney Google and Snuffy Smith comic strip, I had submitted sample strips to him and then I left for a family vacation to Myrtle Beach, SC. He was going to make the decision that week and this was long before I ever had a cell phone. I remember giving him my resort phone number, but we kept missing each other. Often, we were out doing vacation activities and I would go from pay phone to pay phone to pay phone to pay phone to check in with him. But again I was missing him. At the end of the week, we finally got in touch, he offered me the job and my family and I went out for crab legs to celebrate. He was a wonderful man and he gave me a wonderful opportunity.
--John Rose, Barney Google & Snuffy Smith
Jay Kennedy was an extremely talented man. We joined the Syndicate the same year, 1988. The last long lasting strip from King Features was 1973 with Hagar the Horrible by Dik Browne. Jay turned all that around, and after Ernie came hit after hit. And I can honestly say that without Jay's consistent, personal editing of Ernie/Piranha Club, the strip would not be here today. Jay appeared in my comic strip multiple times. Here's an example from 1993
--Bud Grace, The Piranha Club
I never met Jay, but he was the one who saw the potential of Arctic Circle and signed me up. For that, I will always be thankful.
--Alex Hallatt, Arctic Circle
The last time I met with Jay was in the summer of 2006 when I visited his office to discuss the direction of "Safe Havens" as the characters moved to a college setting. He went through the strips I'd done the previous year, and he felt one in particular stood out: where Samantha was explaining her genetic process to a gentleman, whom we discover in the final panel is a mouse she's turned into a human. Jay felt that was a unique direction, and he encouraged me to push the strip toward its fantasy elements. For the next several months I e-mailed him my penciled gags for his critique and review as the strip made that transition. This personal attention and support was always his hallmark.
My favorite memory of Jay isn’t one memory. It’s of the several-times-weekly conversations we had, starting long before I was syndicated. His politics were as far from Mallard’s and mine as possible. To sum them up, he once told me that one of HIS favorite memories was of being patted on the head by Eleanor Roosevelt when he was a little boy. His parents had taken him to Hyde Park, where she was to make an appearance, and encouraged him to crawl under other people’s legs to get to the front of the crowd. As she passed, she patted him “right on the head!”, he would say, as if he’d been blessed by a goddess. We liked to live down to our stereotypes of each other; he could be really picky about what he ate and drank, and proudly told me that his mom not only made separate meals for the family’s adults and children, but different meals for each picky child. “Does that complete your mental picture of my liberal, permissive upbringing?”, he’d ask.
Our regular conversations had begun because, for the first year or so of my syndication, Jay wanted me to clear every cartoon with him before I inked it, lest I become the first cartoonist in history to lose 400 newspapers on the same day. Those editing sessions would ineluctably become conversations about everything from politics to car-bodies (we both longed to someday design them, and shared the conviction that, for every beautiful car on the road, there are at least fifty hideous ones), to the time he, on a lark, ran for, and was elected, student body president at Wisconsin, and proceeded to blow the entire student budget on covering the school lawn with plastic pink flamingos. Again, he took pride in reinforcing my notion of the sort of thing liberals like to spend other people’s money on. He could, it seemed, talk knowledgeably about practically anything, while questioning most everything, including himself.
Heck, I met him because he wanted to take a chance on a right-wing, knuckle-dragging conservative comic strip.
Jay Kennedy started out as my editor, and became my good friend.
--Bruce Tinsley, Mallard Fillmore
I first talked to Jay in '94. I had sent submissions to King and Chronicle Features after years of selling to magazines and anthologies etc... and it was incredible to hear right back from Jay and Chronicle who BOTH wanted to work with me! I did a series of panels for Jay, 75 in all but I hadn't heard back after the initial request to work on a theme he envisioned. Chronicle, meanwhile, was courting me. They told me I could do anything I wanted, so I ended up signing with them. When I finally heard back from Jay, he was disappointed but encouraging. So... years later, after Chronicle folded and sold to Universal, who eventually dropped my contract (and dropped 2 other women at the same time!), I almost immediately heard from Jay who mentioned he didn't see "Fair Game" listed in Editor & Publisher and would I be interested in this new concept of being part of a team of 6 women who each got a day of the week and rotated Sundays. It was such an exciting idea I said, of course, I would love to be part of such a revolutionary project! It took about a year where we all worked on enough strips and panels for our launch. Kathryn Lemieux came up with the name which we all loved and with a couple of switches to the team over the years, we are still going strong in our 14th year of syndication! The Six Chix were Jay's baby and a unique concept that is still one of a kind on the comics pages. I think Jay would be very proud!
--Stephanie Piro, Six Chix
Jay and Sara visited us in California, maybe ten years ago. For some reason I had this urgent need to get to Home Depot on that particular afternoon, so I invited them to come along. As I was backing out of the driveway I noticed that Jay was sitting on the edge of his seat, sort of swinging his feet and grinning. He noticed me noticing him and he said - - actually, he kind of chirped - - he chirped, ”I’ve never been in a pickup truck before!” Now this was one of those four-door Fords with leather seats, sunroof, and a six CD changer, so it barely qualified as a truck, but I thought, “Okay.”
Sara was sitting in the back seat – she volunteered to do that so Jay could get the complete pickup truck experience, I guess. Her illness was giving her more bad days than good ones by then, and she was tired. As we made our way down the road she started smiling and humming along to the Neil Young CD playing on the stereo. Jay was thrilled to see Sara smiling, which made him smile, too.
So as the sun set over the ocean, those two dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers sat lost in the moment; grinning, swinging feet and singing Neil Young songs as we rolled along the Pacific Coast Highway, headed for Home Depot. I’ll keep that image in my mind forever.
There was one time he made me feel less embarrassed for mistakingly taking the freight elevator up to his office. We had a good laugh over it then, and in the years that followed.
I only had the pleasure of knowing Jay personally for a short time. However, his influence on me stretched for decades. He was the first editor to write encouraging words on my rejected college strip submission (we’re going waaay back, here). He was also the one who launched my first strip, a weekly. When he later accepted “Pajama Diaries,” he left a recorded message on my cell phone voicemail that was so personally riveting, it took me two years to delete it -- and that was by accident. Basically, if it weren’t for Jay, I may not have this incredible career which I love so dearly.
Jay was such a champion of women cartoonists. I wish I had more time to know him better. Mine was one of the last strips he launched, and I was very dependent on his knowledge and advice. I fondly recall his thoughtful yet candid feedback. I also remember a time – about a year after PJD launched – that Jay basically implied it was “sink or swim” time. That is, I no longer needed to submit strips to him for editing before they were published. Right then, I felt like he removed the training wheels and suddenly I was free to do my thing. For me, that was like a last “gift.”
--Terri Libenson, The Pajama Diaries
I first met Jay back in 1989. I was fresh out of the Joe Kubert School and he was interviewing applicants for a colorist position that had just opened up at King Features. Suffice it to say Jay saw some potential and ended up hiring me.
Jay was in his early 30's when he started at King and signaled a changing of the guard in the Comics Art department. He seemed to have a very clear vision in what he wanted to accomplish at King. A fan of the medium, and underground comics in particular, he wanted to bring that sensibility to the comics page. For a field so entrenched in the mainstream it was quite the juggling act, I never fully appreciated his skill at this until after the fact. Over the years I saw him help bring a number of strips on board to King, among them such hits as Baby Blues, Mutts and Zits.
Back around 1995 when they were shopping around for a new artist for Flash Gordon I started drawing up samples - Jay rejected those initial pages. I tried my hand at it again months later and to my surprise Jay not only hired me as the artist but as the writer as well. That first year I did the strip Jay was very hands on. He'd make me do changes to everything from the artwork to word balloon placement. Jay could be rather blunt giving a critique, but it was never mean-spirited. It all had to do with telling a better story. After that first year I was on my own.
I worked with Jay on staff for close to ten years. Too many memorable moments to pick just one... I'll end it with saying his legacy is the great strips he brought on board while at King. He also gave this aspiring cartoonist his first big break into the field and I owe him a lot.
Jay Kennedy was instrumental in our moving Baby Blues to King Features. He was always fun to talk to about comics because his encyclopedic knowledge always left me with something I had never heard of.
My strongest memory, though, is spending time with him at San Diego Comic-Con. It was a great day—Patrick McDonnell and his wife, Karen, Jay and I walked all over Comic-Con. I learned about Jay’s Robert Crumb sketchbooks, which I never got a chance to see. But the thing that sticks with me is our dinner, when he recounted in chilling detail what it was like to be in Lower Manhattan near ground zero on September 11, 2001. I believe we were at Comic-Con the first summer after that September 11.
The eerie scene he described of walking out of Lower Manhattan and then across the bridge in total silence is still one of the images that comes to my mind whenever anyone mentions that day.
--Rick Kirkman, Baby Blues
Jay Kennedy was my editor for 20 years. He always reminded me of the character actor Wally Cox from the 50's TV sitcom "Mr. Peepers." Wally was also the voice of "Underdog. I thought Jay sounded a lot like him and he was about the same size.
I didn't know him well, but I enjoyed our relationship. Like with my current editor Brendan, whenever I received a call from Jay, my first reaction was "Uh oh... What did I do wrong now?"
I remember one time he called because he had a problem with the punch line in a Sunday MARVIN. Since we were on deadline I scrambled quickly and emailed a new ending to him. He wrote back to tell me that the corrected version made him laugh out loud. Considering how many cartoons Jay looked at everyday, his response meant a lot to me.
--Tom Armstrong, Marvin
I decided to get into the comic strip business in 1991, and from the very beginning, Jay was my mentor. I remember the rst conversation we had. He called me at the agency I was working at to discuss the comic strip samples I had sent to King.
I’ll start by telling you I had no idea who this Jay Kennedy guy was when the secretary paged me to tell me he was on line 1. It turns out the syndicate contact information I managed to dig up at my local library was very, very old, and I had sent my submission to the attention of a previous editor. Jay never mentioned this, being the gracious gentleman that he always was. Instead, we talked for what seemed like an hour, and he offered up his thoughts on my work. I continued to submit strip ideas to him over the years, and while he never felt the work I was sending him was marketable on a large scale, he did feel I had talent. Every time I sent him samples, he would call or write, offering tips and encouraging me to continue.
Jay was a remarkable man, and I will forever be grateful to him for guiding me down the long path toward fullling my dream.
--John Hambrock, The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee
--Bill Griffith, Zippy the Pinhead