As a boy in Dundee Ian Kennedy would sketch the Spitfires and Hurricanes that he saw overhead in the wartime sky and dream of one day cutting through the clouds at the controls of his own fighter planes. Little did he know then that his career lay not in flying planes, but in drawing them.
In a career spanning almost three-quarters of a century Kennedy drew for comics as varied as Bunty and 2000 AD. He drew Dan Dare and Judge Dredd. But Kennedy is probably most celebrated for his work for Commando, DC Thomson’s famous pocket-sized comic book, for which he drew more than 1,600 covers over five decades.
Kennedy was described as “a master of the comics medium” by DC Thomson, where he started work at 16, inking in the black boxes on the crosswords of the Sunday Post.
In 2019 DC Thomson published a coffee table book entitled The Art of Ian Kennedy and his work has featured in exhibitions. The official 2000 AD comic website called him a “legend of British comics”.
But a modest man, working away quietly in his home studio just a few miles from his birthplace, it was only comparatively recently that Kennedy realised just how highly his art was regarded.
As recently as 2011 he revealed that he did not even have a computer. In another interview, last year, he talked about getting messages from adoring fans asking about covers that he struggled to remember painting. It is only 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. A solitary child, he attended Clepington Primary and Morgan Academy in the city. He spent much of his childhood cycling in the countryside, reading comics and drawing. “I just had to draw, especially aeroplanes, my one abiding, not to say obsessive, love,” he said.
“Dundee was surrounded by airfields. Of course, there is Leuchars, and Montrose was the UK’s first airbase. But there were lots of others dotted all over the place training pilots. There was always something flying overhead... I grew up wanting to be in the boys in blue.”
His ambitions to join the RAF were thwarted by chronic ear problems. Eventually he needed a mastoid operation, though he did meet his future wife Gladys while he was a patient in Dundee Royal Infirmary. She was one of his nurses.
He attended evening classes at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, but maintained that he learned most from those around him in his early years at DC Thomson.
“It was like the medieval artist's workshop,” he said. “You had the Michelangelo or whoever and he had his minions around doing fill-in jobs or whatever. You just sat and sucked all this in.”
He and Gladys married in 1953 and with a son on the way Kennedy decided to go freelance in an attempt to boost his earnings. He discovered a ready market for his talents, although a lot of his early commissions were for Wild West stories and he hated drawing horses.
“I learned very quickly to supply, to the best of my ability, what was required. But when the change to Air Ace took place, boy, the world was my oyster and I was in my element at last.”
Air Ace Picture Library comics were similar to Commando and published throughout the 1960s. And it was Kennedy’s work on Air Ace that led to his long association with Commando. He painted his first Commando cover in January 1970, an action shot of a Luftwaffe Stuka dive bomber somersaulting through the skies.
Commando was a publishing phenomenon in its time. It was launched in 1961, contained a single self-contained story in each issue and was selling 750,000 copies a month at its peak in the 1970s. It is still going, though with a much more modest circulation now.
Kennedy produced meticulously detailed work. One of his great strengths remained aircraft and the other machinery of war, though he also painted strikingly dramatic human figures and his work was enlivened by a bold use of colour.
“Imagination is a great asset, but the details have got to be correct,” he said in one interview. “I have an extensive collection of references, photographic and otherwise.”
“They must have thought I was mad at Jessops, because I would hand in a whole 36 spool just of clouds. I've always loved doing the clouds, getting them right," he said on another occasion.
Such was his mastery of his craft, and particularly his superb depiction of aircraft, that he was regularly commissioned to provide artwork for the annual Leuchars air show in the 1980s and 1990s, and even commissioned to produce art showing what Leuchars air show might look like in 100 years’ time.
Although Second World War planes were a specialism, Kennedy proved equally adept at imagining future aircraft and was recruited in the 1980s when Eagle comic relaunched and revived the old favourite Dan Dare – Pilot of the Future.
Kennedy also worked on 2000 AD comic’s most celebrated strip, drawing Judge Dredd, the futuristic judge, jury and executioner played in different films by Sylvester Stallone and Karl Urban.
He even managed to propel Second World War Messerschmitts through a time tunnel and into the skies above Dredd’s Mega-City One, with one disoriented pilot screaming out “Himmel! This isn’t Stalingrad.”
Kennedy is survived by his wife Gladys and their children, Neil and Gillian.
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