Jay Kennedy, the editor in chief at King Features who may have been America’s pre-eminent comic-strip editor and an important underground-comic-book archivist, died Thursday, March 15, in Costa Rica, where he had been vacationing. Mr. Kennedy drowned after having been caught in a riptide. He was 50 years old.
Mr. Kennedy, a blond and thoughtful man with piercing blue eyes, was known in the comic-art business for protecting and sustaining some of the best comic artists in the culture from his position at Hearst’s King Features—the syndicate that distributes comics, editorial cartoons and games to more than 6,000 newspapers. Mr. Kennedy spearheaded and oversaw comic strips like Patrick O’Donnell’s daily strip about a little dog and a cat, Mutts, championed Zits and Curtis, and worked on revival projects like Blondie, Prince Valiant and Popeye.
Mr. Kennedy began his career in 1983 at Esquire, where as cartoon editor he was instrumental in helping Matt Groening convert to drawing humans, a conversion that resulted in the creation of The Simpsons. “He wanted me to draw humans,” said Mr. Groening, “because at the time I was drawing bunny rabbits—this was the mid-80’s—and I said I wouldn’t draw humans …. Finally, I gave in to Jay’s commercial instincts with The Simpsons.”
Mr. Kennedy was a sculptor as well, who created cartoony ceramics with a look somewhere between the style of R. Crumb, his friend Lynda Barry and Jeff Koons.
“Privately, he made beautiful sculptures—Pop Art sculptures, comic-strip characters—but there was some kind of trademark style to them,” said Gary Panter, a friend and new-wave comic artist who collaborated with Mr. Kennedy on The Official Underground & Newave Comix Price Guide.
But, said Mr. Panter, it was Mr. Kennedy’s participation in the politics of the 1970’s that piqued his interest in the inherent power of comics. “He must have started cartooning when he was a hippie. He believed in the early hippie vision—before [it] was destroyed by a number of things, like hangers-on and hard drugs. He had a complete collection of almost all hippie newspapers in his garage … and he had archived his clothing, like the embroidered jeans a girlfriend had made for him.”
Mr. Kennedy’s mother, Jean M. Kennedy, said she noticed her son’s “sharpness” on his first visit to the Museum of Modern Art, when he was 6 years old. Young Mr. Kennedy, arms folded, stood looking at Monet’s Water Lilies, then said, “It’s all pretty good, except for that mistake over there in the corner.” The rest of his family strained to see what Jay was getting at—then a stunned security guard admitted that the painting had been retouched after an installation mishap.
Mr. Kennedy took cartooning very seriously. Last year, in an interview about cartoonist Jill Kaplan’s comic strip The Pajama Diaries, Mr. Kennedy—a supporter of women comic artists—explained why he had been initially drawn to her work. ‘“The primary attraction was a very honest vision of her life,”‘ he said. Mr. Kennedy consistently spoke about the gravity of artists who can reveal some kind of truth.
“He had an art-history background,” said Patrick McDonnell, who was Mr. Kennedy’s classmate at the School of Visual Arts, “but it was in the underground comics that he found a form of self-expression. He was a gift to the industry.”
“His attitude about comics was they were just so accessible to everybody, and I think that’s the main reason he loved them,” said the artist Drew Friedman, who worked with Mr. Kennedy at Esquire.
“From my perspective, cartooning is a perfect blend of his interests in art and sociology,” said Mr. Kennedy’s brother, Bruce Kennedy. “His interest in the 60’s was also sociological—not just to be part of the movement.” But, he added, Jay felt it should “be for the people.”
Mr. Kennedy was a hyper-organized archivist: He had a little Smithsonian of underground newspapers and comics, sealed and dehumidified, with complete, pristine, dried-and-filed collections of most of the underground and alternative newspapers of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
“I often went on vacation with him and other friends down to New Orleans for the annual Jazz Fest,” said Mr. Groening, “and he’d walk out of the secondhand bookstores carrying stacks of underground newspapers. I always felt that his life was building toward making some sort of display of this incredible knowledge of an obscure part of our pop culture—specifically underground comics and underground newspapers.”
But Mr. Kennedy derived the most pleasure from working with other artists. “He nurtured and influenced the careers of many cartoonists, including my own,” said Karen Moy, Mr. Kennedy’s assistant at King Features for 18 years and the writer of Mary Worth. “Throughout the years, his interest in developing the work of cartoonists was constant. He reviewed many, many people’s work, and he discovered many people—just countless,” she said.
According to his friends and family, Mr. Kennedy’s ability to cultivate dynamism in the industry revealed itself in his passionate focus. “Jay was very mild …. He was not the person who would be dancing on top of a table,” Mr. Panter said. “He had an idea of doing things with comics that wasn’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 …. Artists need friends,” he added.
When Mr. Kennedy married Sarah Jewler, the late managing editor of New York magazine, in 2002, many of their cartoonist friends pitched in on a group gift.
“It was Lynda Barry’s idea to do the old-fashioned thing of writing ‘good luck’ on their car,” said Patrick McDonnell. “It was myself, Lynda, Matt Groening, Jim Borgman and Jerry Scott. We drew our characters and little well wishes. They loved it, I think. The thing I found out later was, one of the paints we bought wasn’t that easy to wash off—but they were very proud the next day going to town with the car all painted.
“I must say,” said Mr. McDonnell, “it looked pretty snazzy.”
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