Friday, June 21, 2013

John Kent 1937 - 2003

Today marks the anniversary of the birth of cartoonist John Kent in Oamaru, New Zealand in 1937. Kent spent his early life in Blenheim, later working in advertising in Auckland. Kent immigrated to England in 1959 and worked in advertising as an artist and copywriter. Kent made the switch from advertising to political cartooning in 1969 with his first published work a small strip, Grocer Heath, featured in Private Eye. This was the start of a thirty-five year relationship with Private Eye, a regular venue for Kent's work until his passing in April 2003.

John's wife Nina recalled Kent's career change:

"He came home from work one day and he said, "I'm going to be a political cartoonist." He was like that, he was very kind of quietly authoritative. He said it and I had enormous faith in him, I said "Yeah fine, okay." I didn't know he was all that interested in politics, though we did discuss it from time to time. I knew he was obviously some kind of artist as he'd been an art director. He was in advertising, that's what he was doing in Auckland before he left. He came to England and he did very well in the business actually. He thought it was stupid. He suddenly woke up one day and thought, what is this, a lot of grown-up men sitting around a table talking about a chocolate bar or something like that, and it didn't make a lot of sense to him. He was more interested in politics.He left one job and went to another job and they obviously didn't have a lot for him to do there or whatever it was, it was so boring. I didn't know he'd been doing it for a year, he'd been fiddling with this idea of Varoomshka. He decided to do it, He just went for it. When he had finished the idea he took it to the Guardian and they just overnight said, "Wow! That's fantastic and yes we'll have it."

John Kent cover for The Private Eye Story.

The several A3 samples of Varoomshka Kent sent to the Guardian impressed features editor Peter Preston and Varoomska appeared weekly for the next decade. Varoomshka was originally based on Kent's wife, Nina, and inspired by fashion model Verushka - Countess Vera Gottlieb von Lehndorff.

Michael McNay, a Guardian sub-editor at the time Kent's Varoomshka submission was received wrote,

"It was every features editor's dream: an innovatory political satire sprung, perfectly formed, from the felt tip of its creator. A hard core of the staff regarded themselves as the repository of Guardian values, and delivered a petition demanding the withdrawal of Kent's subversive work. But the editor, Alastair Hetherington, had the great virtue of always trusting his executives, and he saw off the opposition."

Varoomshka collection published in 1972.

Varoomshka, a naive blonde bombshell, was a device Kent used to frame his political examinations with searing insight. McNay recalls Kent's collaboration with deputy features editor, David Mckie:

"McKie's intellectual grasp of politics made him the perfect contact and adviser for Kent, but he increasingly found that as he explained the complexities of a situation, Kent cut through the persiflage to the basics."

After the Guardian dropped Varooshka in 1979 she reappeared in the NUJ paper, the Journalist, but was dropped after allegations of sexism. In 1982 Kent created another incarnation that appeared in the Sunday Times, with a strip entitled Zelda.

Kent also contributed cartoons to the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Sunday Times, and the Evening Standard. In 1998 when he joined The Times, his strip La Bimba was another "incarnation" of Varoomshka. In the late eighties Kent produced two lavishly illustrated guide books of the cities of Vienna, and Florence and Siena.

2011 saw the publication of The Someday Funnies from Abrams, A large 215 page hardcover originally commissioned in 1970 as a 20 page supplement for Rolling Stone magazine featuring artist and writers commentaries on the '60's in comic form. Editor Michel Choquette commissioned work from around the world but seven years later found himself $300,000 in debt and with no publishing partner. With dismal prospects for publication, Choquette placed the project in storage. A Comics Journal article on the project in 2009 lead to publisher interest with Abrams finally bringing the book to fruition.

John Kent was among the 169 artists and writers featured which also included Frank Zappa, Jack Kirby, Frederico Fellini, Jean Giraud, Tom Wolfe, William Burroughs, Art Spiegelman, Ralph Steadman, Will Eisner, René Goscinny, Wallace Wood, Justin Green, Don Martin, Sergio Aragones, Harvey Kurtzman and Gahan Wilson.

I'll be posting an interview with John Kent's wife Nina Kent in coming months.

All images © 2013 Nina Kent

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