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Jay Kennedy as an Editor
posted March 25, 2007
 

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I don't know how Jay Kennedy dealt with all of his writers, but here is some of the editorial advice he passed along to me as someone contributing to a daily strip from 1999 to 2002.

I came to Dan Wright's feature Bobo's Progress (later re-named Wildwood) late in the development process, so a lot of what I received was a crash course, and some of it came secondhand. I get the sense from talking to a few other writers and cartoonists that Kennedy preferred to impart his knowledge through work on the strips themselves rather than making explicit, general points.

Like many people on a brand-new strip, I had a lot of arrogant ideas about what readers surely wanted and my ability to go places I thought no one else dared. The more I worked with Jay, the more I saw the general wisdom of the advice he offered, and the underlying, fear-driven absurdity that lingered over much of what I was arguing when we would butt heads. He was unfailingly patient in walking me from point A to point B.

We had one particularly memorable lunch meeting during the strip's second year where I realized over my soup spoon he had gone over the entire run to date and labeled each strip according to whether they were good, okay or downright awful. I was flabbergasted he took the time to do this just because I was coming out to New York on other business and had 90 minutes for him. The nicest thing about the lunch was that in addition to working through those dailies where the writing could have been better he pointed out what worked with some good ones and one or two he seemed to mark just to tell me he liked them a lot, which I found endearing. I remember one strip he asked if I had come up with the idea completely by myself or had tweaked the thought from elsewhere because he thought it was the best joke of the run to date. That might sound insulting, but so much of writing a comic strip is running variations on a single theme or a humorous thought, so much throwing down on paper "everything you know," to use Johnny Carson's words, I understood exactly what he meant.

Some of Jay's advice may have been industry-wide conventional wisdom as opposed to something that began with Jay. And of course, given Jay's influence, a lot of what he had to say was industry conventional wisdom just by virtue of his having said it. Also, some of what Jay told me was likely specific to the project. Still, I think the following may give you an idea of his general, thoughtful, rational editorial approach, and the ways he communicated them to his creators.

* Each strip in a comic's first few years should be self-explanatory, to the point of being completely understandable if it's the first comic of yours that anyone reads. This is because it's going to be the first comic of yours that many people read. Only years down the road and with a great deal of popularity and goodwill can you make a joke that depends on the reader recognizing your characters and appreciating that joke because of that recognition. Most readers are far less familiar with the characters than you are; they skip your strip days and weeks, and they don't take notes.

* That being said, it's okay to use signifiers that everyone can relate to. If your character is a kid named Kevin, you can make a joke about Kevin's relationship to his dad, because people know what a kid is and what a dad is, and can see "dad" and "kid" in your drawings. You can't make a joke about Kevin being Kevin.

* Characters being mean or cruel, particularly to one another, reflects poorly on those characters way more frequently and to much greater effect than it provides an opportunity for those characters to be funny.

* That goes double for adults being mean to children.

* Some of the best inter-character relationships in comics are those that are inherently unbalanced, like that shared by Mr. Natural and Flakey Foont.

* The strip you've done you like the least is likely someone's favorite strip you ever did. Don't presume you'll know the audience's reaction.

* While it's great to have a book of your strip, and an ongoing series of books can be a great complement to a daily strip, having a book is not the magic bullet that most people think it is. So concentrate on your strip, not on making it to a collection.

* Cannibalism: don't go there. (Okay, that one was specific to our project, but it's a really funny note.)

* A true test of a strip is when it's removed from a newspaper, because it lets you see whether it's hitting with readers in a way that they'll complain about its departure.

Those aren't all the rules he applied, of course, just the ones I jotted down in my journal from that day. (Some of them are a bit beyond editorial, too.) Jay was certainly careful about unintended expressions of ethnic (character names) and sexual humor, and he was willing to point out over-wordiness or a lack of clarity on a daily when he saw it. Together, this may make him seem kind of rigid, but he was willing to roll with the punches. He wasn't a formula guy. Two of his later strips, Franklin Fibbs and A Lawyer, a Doctor, & a Cop were written in a way that broke a lot of standard thinking about presentation and writing, and he delighted in pointing out the freshness of each strip's basic approach.

Jay and I continued to talk after the feature ended and I had gone back to spending more time as a writer about comics. He was supportive of this site, which I greatly appreciated. When I saw Jay at conventions, he always expressed profound and I believe sincere disappointment that our feature hadn't been the hit we had all hoped.

The last time I spoke at length to Jay Kennedy he was enthusiastic about a new strip that he knew was going to have a tough time in the market ahead. He told me how it had become syndicated, where it came from -- the story within every comic strip story -- and what he thought made it special. He was beaming.

*****

the strip up top was one I remember changing because of Jay's advice, from a glib and obtuse wisecrack in panel four to an action that reflected a more positive side of Bobo's personality