Friday, March 16, 2007
Jay Kennedy, editor-in-chief for King Features Syndicate--a job that made him one of the most important people in the world of cartooning--sadly and unexpectedly died yesterday. He reportedly drowned while vacationing in Costa Rica.
I'm pretty stunned. A syndicate editor is the person to whom you mail samples of your comic strip when you want it to be published in newspapers, and for a long time I did that semi-regularly. Every year or two I'd develop a comic strip, put together a month's worth of samples, send them to the syndicates, and wait for the rejections to roll in. Usually it's a discouraging, dehumanizing, unrewarding process.
Jay was one of the few editors who took the time to provide notes and encouragement along with the rejections. I knew I was getting somewhere when his notes grew from a scribbled sentence to a few paragraphs to comments on the individual strips. Finally, I came up with an idea he really seemed to like, and we corresponded back and forth for months trying to shape it into something I could write and draw and he could sell. That idea eventually died, and I think the fault was mostly mine. Jay gave me the opportunity and I didn't know how to take advantage of it.
I since learned that this is a very common story cartoonists tell about Jay. Turns out he treated a lot of people with the same kindness, grace, and generosity of spirit--which actually makes me less special than I thought, but him more. The number of cartoonists who say "I persevered because of the encouragement I got from Jay Kennedy" is enormous.
At last summer's San Diego Comic-Con, I attended a panel featuring several syndicated cartoonists and afterward reintroduced myself to Brian Walker, who is a comics historian and writer in addition to his work on "Beetle Bailey" and "Hi and Lois," two strips originated by his father Mort. I'd met Brian at my book launch in New York, he remembered me (I'm always surprised when people remember me), and after we talked for a minute he gestured to the man standing next to him and asked me, "do you know Jay Kennedy?"
After years of imagining Mr. Kennedy ("call me Jay") as a giant of the industry, I was kind of shocked to meet a man much shorter than me who at first seemed very quiet, almost timid. I introduced myself, told him I'd written Mom's Cancer, which he'd read--his wife had recently died of leukemia, though I have no idea if that experience and reading my book coincided--and figured this was my chance to tell him what I'd always wanted to:
"You won't remember, it's been a long time, but I submitted work to you and it meant more than you'll ever know to get any feedback at all, let alone the kind of encouragement and respect you gave me. Thank you."
And in fact he did still remember my work, said he'd always liked it and was sorry it didn't work out, and we had such a great conversation that I'm afraid I rudely cut out Brian Walker, who kind of wandered off and I really hope doesn't remember me now.
I haven't tried to come up with a comic strip for a long time--just haven't had any good ideas--but always in the back of my mind was the germ of a notion that I'd give it another shot someday and, when I did, Jay would be there to read it. I'm sad that will never happen and very glad I took the opportunity to thank him when I did.