As a boy in Dundee, Ian Kennedy sketched the Spitfires and Hurricanes he saw overhead in wartime skies and dreamed of one day breaking through the clouds at the controls of his own fighter. He did not know then that his career was not in flying on airplanes, but in drawing them.
In a career spanning nearly three-quarters of a century, Kennedy has drawn for comics as varied as Bunty and 2000 AD. He drew Dan Dare and Judge Dredd. But Kennedy is probably best known for his work for Commando, DC Thomson’s acclaimed pocket comic for which he drew over 1,600 covers over five decades.
Kennedy has been described by DC Thomson as a “comic artist”, where he began working at age 16, drawing black boxes in ink on Sunday Post crossword puzzles.
In 2019 DC Thomson published a coffee table titled The Art of Ian Kennedy and his work has been featured in exhibitions. The Official 2000 AD Comic Site called him a “British comics legend”.
But a modest man, quietly working in his home studio just a few miles from his birthplace, Kennedy only relatively recently realized how much his art was valued.
More recently, in 2011, he revealed that he doesn’t even have a computer. In another interview last year, he talked about receiving messages from adoring fans with questions about covers he struggled to remember. It’s only been a few years since he attended his first fan convention and found himself treated like a veteran pop star.
He was born Charles Ian Kennedy in Dundee in 1932. As a single child, he attended Clapington Elementary School and Morgan Academy in the city. He spent most of his childhood cycling through the countryside, reading comics and drawing. “I simply had to draw, especially airplanes, my only constant, if not obsessive, love,” he said.
“Dundee was surrounded by airfields. Of course there are Leuchars, and Montrose was the UK’s first airbase. But there were many others everywhere, training pilots. There was always something flying overhead… I grew up wanting to be boys in blue.”
His ambition to join the RAF was thwarted by chronic hearing problems. He eventually required mastoid surgery, although he met his future wife Gladys while he was a patient at the Royal Dundee Hospital. She was one of his nurses.
He attended evening classes at the Duncan College of Art in Jordanston, but claimed that he learned most from those around him during his early years at DC Thomson.
“It was like a medieval artist’s workshop,” he said. “You had Michelangelo or someone else, and he had his henchmen doing shift work or something like that. You just sat there and soaked it all up.”
He and Gladys married in 1953, and along the way, Kennedy, who had a son, decided to freelance in an attempt to increase his earnings. He found a ready market for his talents, although many of his early commissions involved stories of the Wild West and he hated painting horses.
“I very quickly learned to deliver what was required to the best of my ability. But when the switch to Air Ace happened, boy, the world was my oyster and I was finally in my element.”
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Air Ace Picture Library comics were similar to Commando and were published throughout the 1960s. And it was Kennedy’s work on the Air Ace that led to his long association with Commando. He drew his first Commando cover in January 1970, showing a Luftwaffe Stuka dive bomber tumbling through the sky.
In its day, Commando was a publishing phenomenon. It launched in 1961, contained one single story per issue, and sold 750,000 copies per month at its peak in the 1970s. It still comes out, although with a much more modest circulation.
Kennedy produced a meticulously detailed work. Airplanes and other military equipment remained one of his strengths, although he also painted strikingly dramatic human figures, and his work was enlivened by bold use of color.
“Imagination is a big advantage, but the details have to be right,” he said in an interview. “I have an extensive collection of references, photographic and otherwise.”
“They must have thought I was mad at Jessops because I would have turned in a whole reel of 36 clouds alone. I always liked making clouds, doing them right,” he said on another occasion.
His mastery of his craft, and in particular his superb depiction of aircraft, was so great that he was regularly commissioned to illustrate for the annual Leuchars Airshow in the 1980s and 1990s, and was even commissioned to create art showing what it might look like. airshow Leuchars. 100 years later.
Although World War II planes were a specialty, Kennedy proved equally adept at imagining the planes of the future and was recruited in the 1980s when the Eagle comic relaunched and revived old favorite Dan Dare – Pilot of the Future.
Kennedy also worked on the most famous comic book of 2000 AD, drawing Judge Dredd, the futuristic judge, jury and executioner played by Sylvester Stallone and Karl Urban in various films.
He even managed to launch WWII-era Messerschmitts through a time tunnel into the sky above the metropolis of Dredd, with one disoriented pilot screaming, “Himmel! This is not Stalingrad.”
Kennedy was survived by his wife Gladys and their children, Neal and Gillian.
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