Friday, March 16, 2007

Jay Kennedy

(photo from Hogan's Alley)

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.


patricia said...

That's a beautiful, thoughtful post, Brian.

I only met Jay once, and I recall that I was very surprised at his lack of stature – in the cartoon world everyone spoke of him with such respect and reverence, I just assumed he would be at least six feet tall.

I can't begin to imagine how those who were very close to him must feel right now. It's such a tragic loss.

ronnie said...

I echo what Patricia said - that is a very fine post, and I hope people will say things as nice about me when I am gone.

I note that, as you say, your experience of being "coached" by Jay is being repeated by other cartoonists registering their grief in comments in various places. What a compassionate man he sounds like, to have held such an important job and yet to take the time to think of each submission as some earnest young kid drawing at his kitchen table and responding to those efforts.

Sad indeed.


Anonymous said...

As a long-time friend and colleague of Jay, I'm impressed with how accurately, and eloquently, you portrayed a man you had met only once!

Anonymous said...

When I started working for Fred Greenberg's Great Eastern Conventions in 1990, I got to meet Jay Kennedy through Fred. Jay was a really nice guy and I helped him go searching through Fred's vast comic collection looking for obscure underground comics for his follow up to price guide.
We talked all the time about comic book and comic strip history and I learned so much from him and found other great books than undergrounds that he wanted to read. Good times.
I left Great Eastern in '95 and only saw Jay sporadically at comic conventions and events since; he was always smiling and had a large group of people around him always talking about comics and the state of the industry.
He was truly well liked and received by his peers.

My prayers and condolences go out to his family and friends.
He shall be missed.

Gary Esposito