Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Art of Ian Kennedy

In his new book, Masters of British Comic Art (Rebellion, 2020), David Roach described Ian Kennedy as “perhaps the most important artist at Air Ace (for Fleetway) where he drew strips and painted covers for nine years, meanwhile at Thomson he crafted light-hearted girl strips for Judy and Bunty, mixed with boys strips for Hotspur” in the 1960s.

Roach went on to say the 1970s and 1980s consolidated Kennedy’s position as “one of the country’s top adventure artists with crisp, dynamic strips for Wizard, Warlord, Bullet and Crunch along with IPC’s Valiant, Battle, Starlord and Eagle where he memorably drew Dan Dare for several years.”

The assessment is:

Kennedy’s work is characterized by energetic drawing, beautifully crafted ink work, a mastery of paint and a gift for bringing anything mechanical to life, all of which has been thrillingly evident in his long association with Commando which began in 1970 and continues to this day, resulting in over 1,200 exquisite covers. (p. 55)

Now that makes Kennedy the link between the pioneering postwar generation of British comic artists (he started his career in 1949 at the age of 17) of the 1950s and 1960s and the new wave of the 1970s and 1980s. Kennedy was one of the few who successfully transited to the adventure and science fiction strips of the 1970s and 1980s, and still working today. He even drew Judge Dredd in the mid 1980s, although he didn’t quite approve of some of Joe’s more violent punishments.

But it will be his Commando covers that will stand the test of time. In War Stories: A Graphic History (Collins Design, 2009), Mike Conroy praised Kennedy’s ability to draw a seemingly simple action scene but in actual fact, the cover is a master class in balance and design (p. 109).

Now, wait. Some of you are asking Ian who? Ian Gibson? Cam Kennedy? If you are unfamiliar with British comics history, now is the time to brush up on its rich heritage other than the writers and artists that most of us only know when Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Brian Bolland, Dave McKean and others invaded American comics in the 1980s and 1990s. A good place to start is the above-mentioned David Roach’s Masters of British Comic Art, a hefty hardcover tome of 386 pages.

Back to Ian Kennedy. From his website:

Ian Kennedy (born 22 September 1932, Dundee, Scotland) is a UK artist.

Growing up in Dundee in the Forties, Ian was enchanted by aircraft. An ear infection ended his dream of becoming a pilot, but a trip to Dundee Royal Infirmary led to meeting his wife to be, Gladys, who was a nurse and he pursued a career that involved drawing aircraft rather than flying them.

Ian started at D. C. Thomson & Co. in 1949 as a trainee illustrator, and in 1954, with a wife and son to support, took the decision to leave D.C. Thomson and go freelance. He has had a career in illustration and comic books ever since.

During the 1950s Ian turned his hand to illustrating anything and everything. His work appeared in Hotspur, Rover, Adventure, Sun, Buck Jones and many other comics.

In the 1960s the Picture Library became a popular format and Ian worked on Air Ace, Bunty, Battle and War Picture Libraries. That's not to neglect the work he did for many of the weeklies such as Adventure, Hotspur and Bunty.

From the 1970s onward, Ian began to specialise in science fiction comics, regularly producing work for IPC's 2000AD and Star Lord. He also worked for Battle Picture Weekly, Buddy, Blake's 7, Eagle (Dan Dare), M.A.S.K., Victor Summer Special, Wildcat and D. C. Thomson's pocket books (including Commando).

For those of us of a certain vintage, we grew up reading his Commando stories and Dan Dare in Eagle in the 1980s in Singapore.

I did an email interview with Ian recently. He still lives in Dundee.

What is your typical day like these days?

My typical day is much less structured than in previous times when, the only way to cope with a heavy workload was a strict daily routine of roughly eight hours with a break for lunch and, to a degree, relaxing in the evening. Now, as I do not have to meet so many deadlines, I am more relaxed as to when I go to the studio, which, I feel, has led to, in some aspects, an improvement in my work.

I am not much of a sports fan, although I do enjoy tennis, bowling and snooker on TV.

How is your health these days?

I have enjoyed a fair measure of good health over the years. However, since contracting prostate cancer 10 years ago, my health has deteriorated to quite a degree, mainly due to the chemotherapy which, although successful in treating the cancer, has had drastic side effects.

You had wanted to be a pilot when you were young. When was the last time you took a plane and where did you travel to?

Yes, that was the burning ambition, sadly not to be! Last flight was a short one - Edinburgh to Belfast return!!

What is heroism in this time and age?

Heroism? I believe it manifests itself in all walks of life. Disregarding one's safety for that of others, might well be considered heroism.

Are characters like Dan Dare and Judge Dredd still relevant today? (this year is the 70th anniversary of Dan Dare)

Dan and the Judge relevant today? I really do hope so as I make a living out of portraying them!

It is 2020. War – what is it good for?

A bit of a dilemma here. Although earning a living portraying war, I find the very thought of mankind going to war totally abhorrent, especially when it is, frequently, to further the aims of politics or religion.

You drew many science fiction and futurist comics. What are your hopes for the present and future?

I consider Scifi and Fantasy publications to be the natural successors to the traditional Fairy Tale and, therefore, hope they will continue, with one proviso. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of the grotesque to the exclusion of all else. I feel we can do without this unnecessary trend!

(M.A.C.H. 1 from 2000AD Annual 1982 - you can always expect planes in a Kennedy comic)

Do you still read any comics today? What about books, music, movies or plays?

I do glance/examine current publications including those for children, especially for the ones in their middle age! That apart, I do not do much reading of books as I tend to doze off, having then, to reread that last paragraph - very boring! I enjoy TV documentaries and music, especially DVDs.

You are still making appearances at comics conventions and events like the Lakes International Comic Art Festival (2018), the 40 Years of Thrill-power Festival (2017), a celebration of 2000AD and the launch of your own art book, The Art of Ian Kennedy, published by DC Thomson last year. Are you seeing a revival and reassessment of your career and now more famous than ever than?

I took some persuading, mainly by my friend Phil Vaughan of Duncan of Jordanstone Collage of Art and Design at the University of Dundee, to attend some of the local conferences. My reluctance was based on the belief that all I had done was earned a living, like so many others, using a talent I was lucky to possess. I soon realised that I was part of an industry providing entertainment for many members of the public of all ages. I, very quickly realised, that having had such an interesting and rewarding life in comics etc, there was an opportunity to put something back by making myself available to discuss, for instance, my "apprenticeship" among the unsung professionals in the Art Department of D.C.Thomson & Co. Dundee. The knowledge I gained then has proved invaluable, and has played a great part in any subsequent success that has come my way. As for the "fame" - I must admit, I find it, at times, somewhat difficult to cope with as, although I enjoy company, I am essentially a bit of a loner which is rather fortunate in that I have never had any trouble in spending many solitary hours in the studio.

How do you explain your longevity?

I can only put my longevity down to sheer luck in having my wife Gladys look after me all these years, ensuring a healthy diet and, most of the time, ironing out the creases in life. In addition, it must be noted that apart from my talent, I have been extremely fortunate in that my professional life coincided with what I term "The Golden Days of British Comics" when there was no need to search for work.

What do you think about the fact that comics are taken more seriously now and are given more respect and research? (there is a Scottish Centre for Comics Studies at the University of Dundee, which offers a Masters in Comics and Graphic Novels, the only course of its kind in the UK)

The recognition is long overdue! I mentioned earlier, the artists in the department at Thomson. Each one was a talented professional who, today, would get the recognition they richly deserved. Along with many others around the land, they laid the foundations of comic illustration as we know it today. You mention Dundee University's interest and initiative in the world of comics. I am rather proud to be connected, albeit only in a very minor way, in that from time to time, Phillip Vaughan, the Senior Tutor invites me to meet and talk with the students on that particular course.

Are you working on any new projects?

I am fortunate in that I am still contributing covers for Commando combined with commissions mainly from private individuals. This is more than enough as I now find it difficult spending more than three to four hours at the drawing board. At present, there are five commissions and a cover awaiting attention.

Can you show us some work in progress pages or art you are working on?

I prefer, out of respect for my clients, not to publicise current work. However I shall attach some of my recent efforts.

Thanks, Ian!

One could say that other than being bloody talented with the pen, Ian is also lucky to be at the right place, at the right time. From being the tea boy and doing up the crossword in the DC Thomson office in the late 1940s to drawing adventure and romance strips in the 1960s, and cementing his contemporary reputation as one of the pioneers of 2000AD and his long time association with Commando, Kennedy is one of the few postwar giants of British comics still with us today. Younger readers should read more about his work and learn from him. That’s why I wanted to do an interview with him.

There are still new areas to research for his comics. His war stories would have been studied but given the interest in early romance comics in the UK, Kennedy’s girl strips for Judy and Bunty are up for a reevaluation.

I did an interview with Calum Laird, the editor of Commando comics, back in 2015.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Reality Bitchslap: Interview with Arif Rafhan

Epigram Books is restarting their line of graphic novels, this time getting the rights of comics from the region and translating them into English for the local market. Earlier this year, they published the late Gerry Alanguilan’s award-winning Elmer (the Philippines), a timely read in these troubled times about race and discrimination; and Tita Larasati’s Coming Home (Indonesia), a graphic diary of Tita’s own return to Bandung after 10 years away from home.

This month, a new title is released, Arif Rafhan’s Reality Bitchslap (Malaysia), a travelogue of twentysomethings on the verge of adulthood and on the road to explore Southeast Asia and their own future. Sounds very Gen-X, which it is as the story is set in the early 2000s when Arif and friends took some time off to see the world.

It is a breezy read, reminding one of hanging out at the Central Market in KL and plucking the courage to cross the road in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Originally published by Maple Comics in 2015, Reality Bitchslap (Malay title: Pelempang Realiti) reminds me of the other travelogues by Mimi Mashud published by Maple. Mimi documents her family holidays while Arif’s encounters in Reality Bitchslap should not be experienced with family members. So kudos to him for laying bare his misadventures with the seedier side of Southeast Asian backpacking.

All these have to be taken with a pinch of salt, of course. You wonder if Arif and his friends are really that na├»ve and innocent about the ways of the world – after all, KL is a big city too with sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Arif shared that he was inspired by the Dead Kennedy’s song, Holiday in Cambodia, to visit Phnom Penh. I wish there were more personal insights like these which would be more interesting than the boys avoiding sexual advances in the different cities. While sex tourism is prevalent in certain parts of Southeast Asia, to highlight it frequently in the story can also be a stereotypical depiction of the poorer places in the region (circa early 2000s).

I found the ending rather abrupt. It reads like Arif could still go on as we do not know his solo travels in Jakarta and Bandung when his travel companions returned home first. Perhaps he was constrained by the page limit but a sequel of his recent travels with this same group of friends (all married with kids) could show how they and the world have changed. After all, Maple publishers shared that their entire run of Pelempang Realiti is sold out.

I did an email interview with Arif recently.

How did this book come about? Is this your first book and what else have you done?

The pitching process started with a small zine I made for my booth at KL ZineFest back in 2014. It's an 8-page zine made out of A4 paper. The story was about a flower girl who was a bit too friendly and ended up hanging out with an old white man at the back of the restaurant (that story is featured in this book as well). I sold them for RM2 each and 100 copies were gone in a few hours. I have attached the picture here (the mini zine is on the top right of the picture. Photo credit: AkuNapie):

Since people liked the story, I came up with a 10-page sample of the book in English.

Together with the treatment of the story, I started to pitch to a few publishers at that time. After a few rejections, I approached Amir Muhammad (Buku Fixi, Kuman Pictures) with my idea and he suggested for me to approach this new comic publisher, Komik Maple. I met Amir Hafizi and Roy Ablah at a mamak stall and they suggested for Reality Bitchslap to be made in KL slang instead and to be renamed to Pelempang Realiti. This helped me build a strong foundation locally at this initial stage (I was a newbie with two illustrated books and only one graphic novel under my belt). I obliged and that's how this graphic novel was officially kicked off.

Why did you call the book Pelempang Realiti? (pelempang = slap) Were you thinking of the phrase Tiada rotan, pelempang berguna juga?
Haha! That's a very good proverb. However, I'm not that deep! I remember Ben Stiller's film, 'Reality Bites' (1994), a movie about these struggling Gen X graduates facing the reality of adulting, which is different from what they expected back in college. I am also a big fan of the Dead Kennedys, a hardcore punk band from San Francisco back in the 80s, especially their hit song, Holiday in Cambodia. The song 'bitchslaps' most of these so-called middle class educated graduates who think they've seen everything; compared to what the Cambodian people were facing under the Khmer Rouge. So, I combined Winona Ryder and Jello Biafra (of the Dead Kennedys) together and came up with Reality Bitchslap (Pelempang Realiti).

A big fierce slap to me as I faced the reality of the Third World countries through our backpacking journey and how it realigned my perspectives and attitude towards our fellow Southeast Asians with some comedic flavor.

How did the deal with Epigram come about? What do you hope to achieve with the English translation? (new audience in Singapore and English-reading readers?)

Epigram contacted Komik Maple and Amir informed me about the intention. I said okay and I was included in the discussion from then on. As I mentioned earlier, the original idea of this book was in English and translating it to English was not a big problem for me. It's just that some of the details needed explanation for relevance purposes.

Do you think non-KL, non-Malay readers will relate to this book?

The theme of this book is very general; it's a road story. Some of the jokes were funnier in KL slang but I personally changed them so it would sound funny in English as well. To begin with, this story was set in the early 2000s, so I already set my mind writing the story to be relevant with today's readers. But again, 99% of the book is a true story, my own experiences, so I had to make sure the narrative and context are general enough so it will be relatable to most people around the globe, but with some local hints here and there.

How close is the English title Reality Bitchslap to what you have in mind?

Reality Bitchslap was the original title. So coming up with Pelempang Realiti was the challenge actually! Pelempang is quite harsh compared to 'tampar' and 'sepak', so I think the chosen word pretty much captures the essence of the story.

How do you find the English translation? Were you involved and what is gained and lost in the process of translation?

I was heavily involved in it. Actually, I was the translator, haha! I worked with my old friend, Yanty Ishak as my personal editor on the translation. I also worked very closely with Sylvia from Epigram and she helped me with the context and relevance from English readers' perspective. I can safely say that there is no lost in translation in the process. What makes me happy is that now the book has its own international face whilst promoting local flavors as well.

Who / what are your influences? (punk rock and dead kennedys..) I am thinking of someone like Fatah who used the Terengganu dialect in his comics.

Fatah, Lat, Jaafar Taib (to name a few) are my heroes. These Godfathers of local comics created success stories for us younger generations to study, adjust, adapt and practice in today's age. I was lucky to get the chance to work with Jaafar Taib for a year as a Gila-Gila contributor in 2018 and now I'm working closely with Lat for his latest graphic novel as his inker.

Dead Kennedys obviously was the main reason I wanted to go to Cambodia in the first place. My other influences are Robert Crumbs and I read Joe Sacco a lot before I wrote this book. I was intrigued by Sacco and Crumb’s honesty in their stories even though it makes them look weak in their own stories. I tried to include the 'nakedness' of the protagonist in this book as well, especially his thoughts and impressions.

What is your 'day job'?

I'm a full time visual artist and an animator. Currently I'm partnering with a few interior design companies and municipal bodies, providing mural artworks for new offices and public spaces such as libraries and street art. I'm also involved in the animation industry, both pre-production (concept art, environment design, storyboards) and the principle animation as well.

On graphic novels, I'm currently working with my long-time collaborator, Melanie Lee on a new book (Amazing Ash and Superhero Ah Ma), hopefully coming out by the end of this year by Difference Engine in Singapore. My next personal project is to compile my webcomics, #SeketulSina (comics on parenthood and a kid named Sina) into a physical format. I am also currently writing a new graphic novel about a kid who is experiencing his coming-of-age in a small town in Taiping, Perak in the late 80s.

Heard you are working with Lat now on Mat Som 2. How is the progress on that?

We've been working together on this project for two years now and at the moment we are on the last leg of the inking phase. This is considered as my best 'achievement unlocked' moment as a comic artist, having an opportunity to work closely with a master and to learn not just the technicalities and history of KL & Perak, but also the mindset and attitude from Lat in creating a comic that 'talks, sings and dances' to the readers in a unique and beautiful way. Hopefully the book will be published this year, it's all up to the Big Man himself.

An old interview with Maple from 2015: