Former Commando editor Calum Laird, today both author and comics writer, remembers his friend, artist Ian Kennedy, his work, and memories of working with him…
As the news that Ian Kennedy had died spread through the comics world, one of the first messages I received was from John Freeman. John knows that Ian and I have a long history so as well as offering his sympathies, he invited me to write something about that. I can’t say it’s been easy to write, but it has made me think more about some of the happier times spent in Ian’s company than I might have done otherwise.
I’ve told this story of our first encounter before, so forgive me if you’ve already read it. What has astonished me is that it took place over 40 years ago!
So, it’s 1981, I’m 18 months into my time at DC Thomson, and only a few days into my first stint on Commando. (They thought they had got rid of me on a number of occasions but, like a bad curry, I just kept coming back.) On the Friday of that first week, a smartly dressed figure entered the office, carrying a small artist’s folio (the folio was small, not the artist) and greeted the staff as he made his way over to the far corner of the office where, behind a massive roll top desk, sat Ian Forbes, the Editor.
“That’s Ian Kennedy,” my colleagues at the sub-editors’ desk informed me. No further details were deemed necessary.
So began a well-rehearsed routine. Ian would hand over a pencil rough or a completed cover, there would be a discussion and he would leave to finish the rough or work on the new commission he’d just been handed. Generally, the brief for the new cover was based on a scene or scenes inside the book so Ian would be given copies of the relevant pages, and the characters who would appear. He’d also be given photocopies of the equipment that was to be shown.
If that sounds cold and clinical, it wasn’t. It was professional, yes, but there was a lot of friendly banter to and fro, as things were chewed over. Although the two Ians and George Low would do most of the discussing, the sub-editor handling the particular story (and hence its cover) would be called across to chip in or clear up some query. Despite the seemingly rigid and hierarchical nature of the office set-up you, as a sub, were treated as an equal – and the one with (in theory) the fullest knowledge of “your” story.
It was only when that first week’s finished art was handed over for the subs’ perusal that the great light dawned. I recognised the style and realised that all that art that I had admired was from the hand of the artist who had just left the office. In my defence, these were the days before any credits appeared in the comics.
Over the following years, Ian’s visits became less structured and there was always time for a chat with everyone in the office. Amongst other things, we used to (gently) argue over the relative performances of our favourites in Formula One. Ian had a soft spot for Michael Schumacher and I didn’t. Over a couple of seasons we had our own fantasy Formula One competition. At one stage, I threw together a paper-maché trophy, which I presented to him at the end of his winning season. I was horrified to discover last year that he still had it!
That Ian’s a motorsport fan will be no surprise to anyone who has seen his Scalextric catalogue, released in 1983.
By 2007, I was now sitting at the figurative roll top desk (it was taken away before I could sit at it!) and our relationship changed again. Ian was now turning the dodgy briefs we (well, I) handed him into the proper, stunning covers that will forever be his trademark. On a couple of occasions (or maybe more), my requests overstepped the mark in one way or another; I’d rather not say how. I’d know because when Ian appeared after a week with the pencil rough he’d look angry (always a pretence, by the way) and his hand would quickly go into the pocket of his jacket to produce a yellow or red card, depending on the size of the flaws I’d put in the brief. Having put me firmly in my place, he’d then reveal a pencil sketch that put everything to rights.
And then we’d have a chat about almost anything but work. I’ve often wondered whether I was being called for everything in the privacy of his house in Liff at those times. I don’t think I want to know.
Come 2015, and my retirement from the hot seat. It’s always difficult for an editor when they retire to know what relationships will continue. After all, it’s in a freelancer’s interest to keep the paymaster onside. I needn’t have worried where Ian was concerned. Not only did he come to my pay-off and thoroughly enjoy himself, he and I continued to keep in touch. We had definitely moved beyond being professional colleagues.
We even collaborated again, this time as guests at Dundee University’s comics course. Seeing Ian’s generosity with his time, expertise, and insight for the benefit of the students reminded me of the way he helped a novice editor.
The other place I’d see Ian was at comics conventions, where he’d be chatting with his admirers and generally having a whale of a time. Even in his late eighties, his energy at these events was a wonder. I’m very glad that he was able to go to so many of these cons as the reaction to his presence underlined how important he had been to so many people’s lives. Their obvious respect was so much more real than we editorial people telling him the same thing second-hand.
A last thought. It’s well known that Ian had a hand-written sign in his studio that read, “It doesn’t have to be a bloody masterpiece!” But they all were. And so was he.
Thanks for everything, my friend.
Ian Kennedy, 22nd September 1932 – 5th February 2022
• Wildcat 1 – Turbo Jones here on amazon.co.uk (Affiliate Link)
• Commando No 4781 – D-Day Dodgers
Story: Alan Hebden Art: Vicente Alcazar Cover: Ian Kennedy
• Buy the digital edition from AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)