We are so happy to have a post today by a guest-writer, Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum student employee Katy Faulkner! Katy has worked closely with one of our largest collections, the Jay Kennedy Collection, and was kind enough to write about its contents and history for our blog. Enjoy!
Katy Faulkner bio: I am a fourth year English major with minors in History, Film Studies, and Popular Culture Studies. I have worked at The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum for almost three years. My experience at The Billy Ireland has shaped my education at Ohio State and has inspired me to pursue a graduate degree in library science with a focus in special collections and/or archives after I graduate.
History and Highlights from the Jay Kennedy Collection
During my time at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, I have had the privilege of working with a number of collections, particularly with those containing ‘floppy’ comic books. However, the Jay Kennedy Collection is probably the collection that I have worked with the closest and the most frequently. It has grown to become one of my favorite parts about working at the library, even if the sheer size of the collection can be more than a little intimidating at times.
Jay Kennedy worked for King Features Syndicate as a comics editor, but he certainly did not limit himself to just editorial cartoons and newspaper comic strips. In fact, his own personal collection is not limited to just mainstream or even standard-sized ‘floppy’ comics and no two items are exactly alike. Each individual piece that I have seen in this collection has provided a unique insight into the world of comic books that have been published in the last fifty years, as well as a commentary on the world as a whole.
Jay Kennedy’s collection begins a little bit after the Comics Code of 1954. The Code was designed to make comics more appropriate for children, but it also limited the types of stories that could be told. Influenced by the counterculture movements of the 1960’s, some artists responded to this by creating comic books on their own or in small groups (usually in San Francisco) that were not nearly as kid-friendly. And, thus, the underground comix movement was born!
Zap is probably the most well-known and influential underground comic book series and one that I have grown to know quite well after working with this collection. The stories in Zap ran anywhere from parodies of famous cartoon characters to psychedelic pages to stories that were vulgar just for the sake of being vulgar. Just one page in some issues of Zap could break multiple requirements set forth by the Code of 1954, which, of course, was the goal of the whole underground movement. However, one of the most interesting parts of Zap has nothing to do with the contents of the comic. Since they were being self-published or printed by smaller publishers and in smaller batches, many early issues of underground comix had multiple printings that were often not very consistent with one another. One of these discrepancies occurred in Zap #0 (published after issues #1 and 2), of which there are at least eleven different known printings. There was a mistake made on the cover in between printings (the scratch on the back of the character) that had to be touched up two different times in the next two printings. The difference is only slight, but it makes all the difference to collectors. Some printings are only discernible by the weight of their covers, which make it nearly impossible to tell the difference between two printings. However, Jay Kennedy was incredibly thorough with the collection of series like Zap and tried to collect each printing of each issue, which, along with his book, The Official Underground and Newave Comix Price Guide, proved to be extremely helpful in finding these subtle differences. Kennedy’s extensive collection of these variations shows just how unique and personal the underground movement was when compared to the clear-cut comics of the mainstream industry.
While Zap and similar underground titles were seen as a breath of fresh air from the mainstream comics that were being produced after the Code by some, the underground comix movement remained very much a boy’s club for a while. Some women in the underground comix movement grew tired of having their work ignored and of the content of some underground comix that were not very friendly toward women. Eventually, a group of women broke off on their own and created It Ain’t Me, Babe (1970), the first comic book ever to be completely produced by women. Keeping with the underground comix tradition, It Ain’t Me, Babe made no efforts to censor itself, but it does so less aggressively than Zap. The artists also parodied characters found in mainstream comics, as a way of challenging the mainstream comics industry, as well as making a statement about sexism in both the mainstream and underground spheres. It Ain’t Me, Babe may have only lasted one issue, but it led the way for other female-led underground series, such as Wimmen’s Comix (issues of which can also be found in the Jay Kennedy collection), to be produced. Discussions about women in comics are still being held today, particularly in the context of mainstream comics and their movie adaptations, but it is important to remember the work done by women in the underground Comix movement because they still had to make their own space during a movement designed to be open to everyone. The inclusion of these female-driven underground comix in Jay Kennedy’s collection is vital because it provides insight into a part of a major movement in comic book history that can often be overlooked.
While they obviously could not be nearly as radical as the underground comix, mainstream comic books also began making their own progress in pushing back against the Code around the same time. The most notable moment of this occurred after the US Government asked Marvel to create a story warning against the use of drugs. However, to be published with the Comics Code Authority Seal of Approval, showing drug use was strictly prohibited, even when put in a negative light. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Stan Lee decided to have The Amazing Spider-Man #96 (1971) published without the (in)famous Seal of Approval, making it the first mainstream comic book to be published as such. While this did not get rid of the Comics Code or Seal of Approval, it eventually led to revisions in the Code and paved the way for other publishers to tackle previously forbidden topics and expand on the types of stories that they could tell. Kennedy’s collection also includes other major moments in mainstream comic book history, such as Jack Kirby’s run on DC’s New Gods and his return to Marvel with Black Panther and Captain America. By collecting important issues such as these, Jay Kennedy has ensured that these iconic moments in storytelling are not forgotten and are available to researchers.
One of my favorite parts of getting to look through older comic books is reading through the letters pages in the back. I always try to glance specifically at the letters pages of any Marvel comic that includes Black Widow because the cinematic adaptation of her character seems to always be a topic of discussion today, so I find it interesting to see what people had to say about the character in previous years. There was one letters page in Amazing Adventures #4 (1970) from Kennedy’s collection that particularly caught my attention. All of the letters included in this issue are regarding the first issue of the series and tend to be very favorable toward Black Widow’s character, but wary of the way that she was written in this particular series, which also seems to be the consensus of her film counterpart today. When one fan writes in that they felt that there were no “real moments” in the Black Widow story, Marvel responds by stating that this is the first time that their staff, “which happens to be comprised mostly of males,” has handled a super-heroine strip and requests their fans to give them some slack. While this response may be true and the writers may have actually been struggling to write Black Widow, it really shows a larger issue within the industry at this time and one that still has not been completely resolved to this day. Although this specific instance would not be considered a crucial part of comic book history, this tiny part of the Kennedy Collection provides relevant commentary on present-day issues.
One of the best parts about Jay Kennedy’s collection is that he did not just collect well-known comic books like those mentioned thus far. Kennedy made an effort to collect comics that often do not get as much coverage as the mainstream comics or the Underground comix. Minicomics began emerging around the end of the Underground comix movement, and were perhaps even more unconventional.
Not bound by any publishing requirements, minicomics could also be printed in any format and creators certainly used this to their advantages with the comics they were producing. One example of the vast imaginations of minicomics artists from Jay Kennedy’s collection is Comix in a Capsule (1986), which is exactly what it sounds like. These comics are on strips of paper that are rolled up and contained in capsules to look like pills. The format of these comics adds to the fun because the reader has to work to get to the comics and the content of the comics are a complete surprise. However, I imagine that getting the comic strips back into the capsules is not quite as fun of a process. The creativity of this format is really amazing and highlights the versatility of minicomics and the interactivity of the comics medium as a whole. Comix in a Capsule shows that comics are fairly limitless in how they can be presented and read. Jay Kennedy’s inclusion of this piece and others just as uniquely formatted allows insight to just how creative cartoonists can be when given no restrictions.
Minicomics were also able to tell stories that mainstream comics and underground comix were not interested in telling. Minicomics artists took aspects from everyday life that may have been considered too boring for the mainstream and Underground worlds to publish, and made art out of them. One set of minicomics that caught my attention is by Rick Geary. Geary’s minicomics show partial snapshots captured from everyday life that most people would never even think twice about, which is what makes them interesting. This series includes minicomics dedicated to everything from office supplies to transportation systems to kitchen appliances. Each page is just one image or partial image that may or may not have a caption included. When there is a caption included, it is often very brief and does not tell the reader exactly what they are looking at. This allows the readers to apply these images to what they have seen in their own lives and they can create a story of their own to go along with the minicomic. This series of minicomics shows that not all comics have to have constant action to make them interesting and that comics can truly be about anything and everything.
Another unique aspect of minicomics is the simplicity of some of them. With an average length of about eight pages, minicomics did not have to worry about creating elaborate tie-ins, crossover events, or showy panels. However, the artists were still able to create enjoyable stories and entertaining casts of characters. One example of a fun, simple minicomic found in Jay Kennedy’s collection is Matt Feazell’s Cynicalman, a comic about a stick-figure superhero of the same name. Cynicalman’s snide commentary paired with his constant apathetic expression and reluctance to actually be a superhero is quite humorous. By having the superhero drawn as a simple stick-figure, Cynicalman also provides commentary on the overly muscular superheroes of mainstream comic books. Instead of detracting from the pleasure of the comic, the simple stick-figure design only adds to the enjoyment. Another minicomic that I rather enjoyed reading from this collection is Colin Upton’s Socialist Turtle. Just the title alone is great, but the turtle’s angry expression and his ranting against the Revisionist squirrel are what really make the story enjoyable. There is just something fascinating about cute animals discussing political movements and social issues. The length of both of these titles allows for great one-liners. This humor combined with the simple art style of both of these titles remind me of the web comics I see all over the Internet today. Combining social commentary and humor in just a few panels requires great talent, something that Jay Kennedy’s collection of minicomics is absolutely full of.
Obviously, I have chosen only one or two titles to represent brief moments and movements in recent comic book history. There is certainly more to be said about each subject and more knowledge to be gained from Jay Kennedy’s vast collection alone, but these pieces are the ones that have consistently stuck out the most to me during my time working with this collection. There is a treasure in every one of the boxes of the Jay Kennedy Collection and the library is extremely lucky to have it. Stop by and see what treasures you can find!