The nice thing about a book on a shelf is that it lives on. Case in point: Jack Kent. If you were a kid in the 60s and 70s, you might know about his books. If you were growing up in the 50s and 60s, you might know about his comic strip, KING AROO. IDW Publishing did, and this week it adds it to its Library of American Comics, which includes TERRY AND THE PIRATES, LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE, BRINGING UP FATHER and BLOOM COUNTY.
Jack Kent (1920-1985) wrote and drew 40 children's books, and illustrated 20 more. Writer and book lover Burgin Streetman, writing for the San Antonio Current, discovered him for the first time two years ago. She found an old copy of his book JACK KENT'S TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS. Here is how she ran across Jack Kent's work and how that started a quest.
"In my thrift-shop travels, I’ve come across a lot of forgotten gems, but there was something different about this book. The innocence of the illustrations, the sweetness in the characters’ faces, and the irreverence of the story made me want to know more about Mr. Kent. A thorough search through online bookshops, local thrift stores, and seven states’ worth of rare-book dealers led me right back to the place where I started, San Antonio. Jack Kent is probably the most famous illustrator you’ve never heard of"Above: a Sunday KING AROO panel nicked from Sherm Cohen.
This week, IDW's Library of American Comics, publishes what San Antonio native Jack Kent drew for 15 years before he did those children's books; the comic strip KING AROO. As the cover blurb states, this is "A royal invitation to a comics masterpiece in the tradition of Krazy Kat, Barnaby and Pogo." And that ain't no hyperbolic bunk.
Kent's comment in his NCS bio that King Aroo, "which ran (or jogged) for fifteen years, beginning in 1950, made me world famous for blocks around," is the kind of self deprecating joking a shy fellow might say. Truth is, AROO was highly regarded by both readers and Kent's colleagues.
Above: the first strip from November 1950, nicked from an interview with Bruce Canwell, Associate Editor of The Library of American Comics, at the Westfield Comics blog.
Don Markstein's Toonopedia describes the premise:
King Aroo was the monarch of Myopia, a pocket kingdom that doesn't seem to appear on most maps. His prime minister, grand vizier, chief advisor, or whatever, was named Yupyop. The two were about equally out of touch with reality and common sense, but Aroo's child-like unconcern for the duties and dignities of a king contrasted with Yupyop's more business-like attitude.
Like a lot of cartoonists, Kent was a fan long before he was a pro. Here's Bruce Canwell on Kent's early years:
In his teenage years, during the mid-’30s, he was part of the very first generation of fans… some wags might even say he was part of the first generation of fanboys. He referred to himself as “Texas Jack” in letters he wrote to all the major comic strip artists (this was all a few years before Action Comics #1, remember, so comic strips, not comic books, ruled the day). His letters were brimming with boyish enthusiasm, they showed how carefully he studied all the strips, he outrageously flattered the artists, and he always asked them to send him an original piece of artwork. His approach worked – seventy-five percent of the artists to whom he wrote sent responses that included autographs, pictures, and yes, original strips or drawings. Jack built a sizable collection in only about a year’s time! He ended up on Milton Caniff’s Christmas card list. He got letters and long-distance phone calls from George Herriman. All the while, Kent kept honing his own artistic skills until finally, he made it: he sold King Aroo and graduated from the ranks of the fans to the ranks of the pros.
Please consider buying KING AROO Vol. 1 for yourself.
My thanks to Dean Mullaney for the KING AROO preview.