James Bacon checks out the new exhibition at Dundee University devoted entirely to the work of the late, much-missed British comic and cover artist at Dundee University, open until early May…
Dundee University’s Tower building is very close to the railway station, and this modern building built in sandstone with wood cladding reaches into the sky while sitting calmly on a green facing much older buildings. Opened by the Queen Mother in 1961, it is currently housing a celebration of illustrator, comic and cover artist, the late Ian Kennedy. Readers here will be well aware of the huge amount of work that he created, yet it was certainly with excitement that I approached this exhibition.
The ground floor reception and lobby was bustling with students, coming and going as I arrive, about ten minutes to the hour, it’s full of vibrant life, people rushing to learn and understand. I am quickly directed up to a mezzanine area which overlooks the lobby.
Despite the amount of people downstairs, I find myself in a gently quiet and spacious area, white walls contrast with wooden walls and floor. This is a fabulously welcoming space, yet it feels brim-full of art. I count some 35 pages of original art and 38 covers alone, with drafts, pencils other works and a huge selection of items this is an impressively large selection well over 100 items on display.
One is immediately struck by a display case with four pages of “M.A.C.H. 1” from 2000AD, stunning black and white comic book action, featuring a Vulcan and Nimrod perfect drawn and the action sequence so well laid out bring the reader on a clear journey.
Next to this there is a cabinet, photographs of Ian from his early years with DC Thomson, including a very happy Ian sitting at an artist’s desk, a large wash of hair and a wonderful smile, next to a photo 60 years later, receiving a Scottish Independent Comic Book Award. As if we need reminding of the family man, there’s also a picture of his grandson’s dog.
The grouping here is clever, time has been spent considering what goes where, and so I find a section on Stirling Moss, an original cover or splash page art for an unknown publication, one of many pieces that I have never seen, and one expect not to. As ever, Ian’s technical skill with portrayals is spot on, Moss in his Lotus winning the German Grand Prix in 1961, next to two panels, a fine demonstration of art that one might not be aware of.
The double page opening spread for the Judge Dredd story “99 Red” from 2000AD Prog 423, is just stunning; Ian captures the action brilliantly. I’m interested how, in one frame, Ian gave Judge Sleeven and the perp he’s attacking an extra surrounding edge. It’s noted that even though, initially, Ian was unsure of Dredd, he came to love the character and especially liked the art of Carlos Ezquerra. The seven page story, here in full for readers to enjoy, includes three floating Dredd heads!
A black and white cover from Star Lord from 1978 demonstrates how Ian brought incredible aircraft illustration to the pages of comics, and not far away we find the 2000AD Prog 446 comic on display, Messerschmidts flying around Mega City One – an incredible piece of work, brining accuracy and detail.
One wall features no less than twelve Starblazer covers, offering a wide variety of fantastical and science fiction art, so bright and beautiful. The 1980 covers from Starblazer number 16, “The Secret of Soma” and Starblazer 19, “Sinister City” are so incredibly science fictional they feel like Ian totally captured the essence of great SF book covers going back over decades.
Four frames present six images, all from the 1980s Eagle comic. The Mekon features of course, but there is a stunning cover, too, where we see Dan Dare in a Space Shuttle and the atmosphere of space, is perfect. Who would imagine space would look good in purple? Yet here we see how Ian portrays the sense of movement of the ships, and also gives a sense of place and breadth in one page.
It’s amazing to see Ian’s fully painted work up close, giving insight into what was occurring, for instance on the top right hand side in type on one page is ‘2000AD annual p5′ and then at the bottom says in pen ‘D/D ANN Page 5’ presenting questions to the viewer.
Kelvin Gosnell’s 2000AD Future Shock tale, “The Collector”, published in Prog 210 in 1981, gives the observer an incredible story, four pages of aircraft brilliance set originally in Vietnam. We see B-52s and Phantoms in flight and fight, the twist is there for readers, and it is a fantastic story; succinct, clear, exciting and all the aircraft are so stunning. In many regards, seeing Ian’s work in this fantastical story makes one realise that his expertise at aircraft could be deployed to all types of stories, and occurs repeatedly, adding a touch of class every time.
The realisation that I’ve not even seen half of this exhibition at this point put into context just how much effort has gone into it, and also so how much amazing work Ian created. Of course, there’s a huge section dedicated to war comics; even as a child I knew what an Ian Kennedy cover was, even if I was not aware of him. His work was always so beautiful, capturing both motion and action but also, most importantly for me even at that early age, was his important attention to detail and accuracy.
Much insight is given is given to Ian’s unique approach in the exhibition’s descriptions of his work, noting, for example, how, “lan’s early work on Commando coincided with the arrival of new acrylic paints which would transform his technique and led to his unique trademark style.”
The colour work he had done in the 1960s was created using ink and watercolour, but he found acrylics much more versatile. Initially he used a thick impasto technique “which was very effective but rather slow and time-consuming”.
To save time, Ian began treating his acrylics like watercolours: “water them right down and let the colour flow on the page… The most important thing I’ve learned with that is that gravity is a very good friend, in that if you want the colour to flow in a certain direction then you just tip the board so that it runs in that direction… I can stop the colour moving just by hitting it with a hairdryer.”
This supporting information is so welcomed. I appreciated and enjoyed these type of insights which are about the exhibition, helping and giving understanding.
The Stuka from a 1970 Commando preparing to dive down on a aircraft carrier is beautifully presented, a fine example of Ian’s impasto technique, next to the last cover for Commando he painted, issue 5531 from 2022, featuring a Canberra. While there is obviously a difference in some aspects of the brush work, the accuracy, the beauty and the ability to contrast and present action and draw the eye around the page is there.
The twelve Commando covers sit so well next to the cover for Out of the Blue from Aftershock Comics, written by Garth Ennis and Keith Burns, portraying a Junkers being attacked by a Mosquito, and Ian’s art for Sniper Elite Resistance.
The beautiful cover from Coming Home, an anthology of stories told by combat veterans, which was Ian’s final piece of work completed only a few days before he died in February 2022, sits well here; you know it’s very hard to even reconcile that he’s gone from us, just a year ago. I was grateful to meet and chat with Stretcher Bearer Stan at Thought Bubble last year, who contributed to this amazing collection of stories, which Ian supported.
Two variant covers for Titan Comics Johnny Red mini series (Issues Two and Eight, respectively) also feature, again written by Garth Ennis with interior art by Keith Burns, and they sit very nicely below a Douglas Bader strip from True War, published in 1978, and an unpublished splash page which must be the interior of a bomber, more art that is unique to this exhibition.
I also love the way one gets to see behind the scenes here. For example, we are presented with a mock up and final cover Commando comic 5503 from 2022, “SS Colonel”, which allows the reviewer to consider the process, materials being used and progression. It looks like Ian used colour pencils initially, and one can see how the colours might change, but the sentiments of shading, colour use and positioning remain, and then were so well executed in paint, subtle changes improving the strength of the image.
“Commando Jim”, original art for Adventure comic from 1960, on loan from DC Thomson & Co Ltd, is lovely to see, work coloured by company artists. Likewise, we are offered an interesting selection of other work, so we are presented with “Girls of the Pony Patrol” from Bunty (1963), “Deep Sea Debbie” for Judy Annual 1968, “The Blind Bowler” from The Hotspur (1963), and “Red Skull Branson” original art for Adventure (1955), one of Ian’s early works, again, all on loan from DC Thomson & Co Ltd.
This section demonstrates the time and effort that has gone into the assembling this broad exhibition. Without doubt, many fans will have know Starblazer, Commando and 2000AD, but the inclusion of these works is important, and thorough on the part of the curators, we get to see the breath of work that Ian created.
A fabulous Battle of Britain composition featuring Heinkels flying over England, being attacked by Hurricanes, is so substantial and strong, the movement, angles and speed of the attack all visible to the viewer, who is presented with so much detail.
More Starblazer covers bring me close to the end, where we are treated to an original page from Adventures with Scalextric Speedmaster in the “Race of Death”, published in 1981, a 21 page comic for inclusion with a Scalextric catalogue that year, that again, as ever, demonstrates Ian’s remarkable versatility.
Finally we have five pages of “Invasion”, a story written by Chris Lowder and with lettering by Tom Frame, the classic 2000AD story, from 1977; and it’s an amazing selection of pages to see, it’s so sharp, cleanly drawn and here you can see the different layers for the title, speech bubbles and narration boxes and credit card. It’s all quite amazing.
There were more cabinets, too, and I have not mentioned all of the art of display, but the University has done locally-born Ian Kennedy proud here.
Ian worked for DC Thomson and his art and legacy over decades are presented here in a delightful space for fans and those interested alike. His history is presented, noting that he painted over 1300 cover over a long career. Such a phenomenal body of work, including covers of the programmes for the RAF Leuchars Air Show, as well as pieces he drew that have not been published.
It was wonderful to meet Ian and engage with him as a fan in his later years at conventions, and it is nice to see that his contribution to learning is noted: “he loved interacting with students on the comics courses at the University of Dundee.”
The exhibition has been curated by the University of Dundee Museums in collaboration with Philip Vaughan, DC Thomson & Co Ltd and Ian’s family. Much praise must be given to Phillip for doing such a fabulous job here and the family and DC Thomson deserve thanks for their generosity in sharing so much art with fans and students alike, who appreciate it so much.
This is a superlative exhibition, and one that is very worth seeing.
• Ian Kennedy – Celebrating a Comics Legend opened Saturday 18th February 2023 and runs until Saturday 6th May 2023 | Dundee University, Tower Building | Web: dundee.ac.uk/events/ian-kennedy-celebrating-comics-legend
• Watch: A guided tour by comics expert and Abertay University lecturer Phillip Vaughan showcasing highlights of the exhibition Ian Kennedy: Celebrating a Comics Legend in the Lamb Gallery, Tower Building, University of Dundee, given at a special event on 3rd March 2023 in the company of members of Ian’s family, former friends and colleagues and comics fans.
• Check out The Art of Ian Kennedy at www.iankennedyart.co.uk | Twitter | Instagram
• There is also an Art of Ian Kennedy Facebook Group – this isn’t official, but items of note are posted by Mark to the group
• The Art of Ian Kennedy is available to order here on Amazon (Using this Affiliate Link helps support downthetubes, thank you)
• The Art of Ian Kennedy is also available to order from DC Thomson direct now
The book showcases Ian’s fantastic array of work for not only DC Thomson Media but also his own personal collection. The high spec 160-page art book includes both never before seen and classic covers, as well as illustrations from the DC Thomson archives, featuring titles as diverse as Lucky Charm and Buddy. Set out chronologically, the book showcases Ian’s career at the famous Scottish publishing house, from his early days working on ‘Red-Skull Branson’ and ‘Commando Jim’ to his most recent covers and commissions for Commando
• Ian Kennedy comic collections on AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)
All art © Ian Kennedy or respective publishers
Categories: 2000AD, Art and Illustration, British Comics, Comics, Events, Exhibitions, Features, Other Worlds, Reviews
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