Those of you in the cartooning community who read this blog will know the name Jay Kennedy, comics editor at King Features Syndicate. Jay was the editor for my editorial cartoons throughout most of the years that my work was syndicated by King and continued as the editor for Zits.
You've heard by now that Jay drowned last week while on vacation in Costa Rica at age 50. Those words still stun me, though I've grappled with them through a long weekend.
By the time my editorial cartoons reached Jay's eyes they had already passed under the eyes of my Enquirer editor, so Jay played no active role in that capacity. Truth be told, his participation in "editing" Zits was pretty much confined to challenging Jerry Scott and me on matters of taste from time to time and then framing his defense of the strip for the flurry of editors who might complain. (Jay owned one of the world's greatest collections of underground comics, so his role as prude was pure academic exercise.)
The greater role Jay Kennedy served in my life was as a bridge. His presence at King was like having a fellow cartoonist embedded in the syndicate world, able to translate the business concerns of a newspaper syndicate to me, and translate the sensibilities of us cartoonists to the world of suits. The marvel is that he did this without changing voices, speaking in an authentic way that could be understood in both vastly different worlds.
Over the years, without quite knowing it, Jay and I became good friends. We cried together when each of us lost our wife and we danced at each other's wedding. We walked with each other through life's darkest nights. He was the only executive I've ever known who made more time to talk than I could afford. He listened. He was always available for a conversation. He loved taking an idea and examining it from every angle.
My late wife Lynn loved to sit with Jay at cartooning functions. At the end of the evening we'd compare notes on our conversations. I would have invariably spent the evening talking mundane cartoon matters with the cartoonists around me.
"Let's see," Lynn would say. "Jay and I talked about origami, Impressionism, Catcher in the Rye, post-traumatic stress syndrome, the war in Iraq and the the "69 Mets."
Jay told an interviewer once that he loved comics because they allowed an artist to talk directly about life instead of obliquely, like so much of the rest of the art world. Jay knew my children, their ages, what was going on in all of our lives and never failed to ask about the next chapter in any ongoing life stories we'd shared. This from behind stacks and stacks of comic strip submissions that were piled on his desk each day.
Jay Kennedy was a gentle, curious and creative soul and I will miss his voice on the other end of the line. "Jim, it's Jay. Do you have time to talk?"