Jon Kennedy: Actors on the Stage

Look Back and Laugh: 38 Years of Arkansas Political Cartoons" (front cover) by Jon Kennedy

Look Back and Laugh: 38 Years of Arkansas Political Cartoons” (front cover) by Jon Kennedy

In 1978, Jon B. Kennedy published a retrospective book of 38 years of his political cartoons drawn for the Arkansas Democrat entitled Look Back and Laugh. The book covers a great deal of American (and Arkansas) political history. At the time of its publication Mr. Kennedy would continue to draw cartoons for the newspaper for another full decade.

Jon Kennedy’s career for the Arkansas Democrat spanned five decades from 1941 to his retirement in 1988. Mr. Kennedy’s body of work provides insight and context for some of the more significant historical events of the 20th century, as well as providing something of a window into the everyday lives of Arkansans. He shifted focus easily from national and international concerns to political and social issues much closer to home. Kennedy’s basic approach to cartooning for the editorial page always combined solid draftsmanship with good composition. His cartooning style remained remarkably consistent for well over 50 years. His approach to political commentary was always one of simplicity and character.

Jon Kennedy sits with Senator J. William Fulbright in Kennedy's office. October 30, 1970.

Jon Kennedy sits with Senator J. William Fulbright in Kennedy’s office. October 30, 1970.

Kennedy’s cartoons always began with a rough sketch in nonrepo blue pencil on coquille board. He preferred the beaded texture (specifically of coquille “A”). After completing the light blue pencil sketch he would ink the outlines filling in areas of solid black. Half tones or shading were accomplished with a black colored pencil broken up by the beaded surface of the coquille board. This same technique can be seen consistently in Kennedy’s work from 1941 until 1988. Kennedy’s cartoons involved fairly detailed caricatures of his subjects, so he kept extensive photo files of politicians who might become the subject of his cartoons. A favorite subject for lampooning was U.S. Senator William Fulbright.

Kennedy’s Fulbright cartoons convey a sense of the senator’s authority and perhaps a bit of his ego. Kennedy evidently understood Fulbright very well; his depictions of Fulbright also extended to theatrical portrayals of the senator on the stage of the Farkleberry Follies. The Farkleberry Follies, named for the Farkleberry bush, were satirical productions staged by members of the Arkansas media. Kennedy performed in the role of Senator Fulbright on a number of occasions and imitated the senator’s baritone voice perfectly.

"Shock treatment" by Jon Kennedy depicts J.W. Fulbright wearing a suit of armor and a shield labeled "U.S. commitment to protect Israel." "Congress," the "White House," "Zionists," and the world look on with surprise. August 27, 1970.

“Shock treatment” by Jon Kennedy. August 27, 1970.

Historically, political cartoonists have relied on visual metaphors, symbols, and allegory. Like any rhetorical device, these tools were and still are used by cartoonists to clarify and distill relatively complex issues. Jon Kennedy employed visual metaphor but did not make it a foundation of his cartooning style. When he did use metaphor, it is seen as a necessary vehicle for his message. A good example is a cartoon Kennedy drew to depict the crowded field of candidates for the 1962 Arkansas Governor race entitled “Political Trading Cards.” All seven 1962 gubernatorial candidates are shown as major league baseball players, each one caricatured on his own trading card. Each card also featured satirical information “stats” and background about the featured candidate. In contrast with many contemporary political cartoons, some of which seem to be created only as vehicles for topical humor, it communicated an impressive amount of background information concerning the seven 1962 gubernatorial hopefuls. Kennedy told aspiring cartoonists that in the process of composing his drawings, he would visualize the setting as his “stage” and his cartoon subjects populating that stage were his “actors.” He advised cartooning students to try using that same creative process.

In pursuit of his straightforward approach to political commentary, Kennedy worked continuously on his drawing skills. He was still attending life drawing sessions well into the later years of his career.

John Deering

John Deering has been an editorial cartoonist and illustrator for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for 30 years starting with the Arkansas Democrat in 1981. His two comic features, “Strange Brew” and “Zack Hill” are distributed by Creators Syndicate as are his editorial cartoons. John has spent a lifetime as an artist and his paintings can be seen at Cantrell Gallery in Little Rock. He is also a figurative sculptor. John regrets never having entered the “Draw the Pirate” cartoon contest.