Commando Artist Interview - Ian Kennedy
- Fri 25 Feb 2011
The legendary Commando artist discusses a long career in comics.
In a village
on the edge of Dundee lives a very gentle, softly-spoken man. Ian
is 78 now, and lives in a nice cottage with Gladys, his wife of 58
years, just yards from a view made famous by James McIntosh
Patrick. He keeps himself to himself and enjoys a quiet life, with
occasional trips to the doctor - he is recovering well from
prostate cancer - and a regular pub lunch with old friends. He's
also one of the most revered illustrators of the post-war period,
with a 61-year career that reads like a Who's Who of comics.
The name Ian Kennedy isn't well-known to the public, but his
talent is legendary in the publishing industry. His most famous
work is for Commando, DC Thomson's pocket-sized war comic,
especially his breathtaking depictions of aircraft. But his CV also
includes magic words like Hotspur, Buster, Wizard, Warlord, Air
Ace, Dan Dare - for the 1980s relaunch of the famous Eagle comic -
2000AD's Judge Dredd, Blake's 7, even Bunty and the other girls'
titles. Gone now are the heroes of Wizard's Typhoon Tennyson and
Buster's Jeff Craig, Detective - but there's still a lot of hero
worship out there.
"I don't have a computer but it doesn't stop people getting in
touch with me, " he says, almost sheepishly.
"The number of websites about me - it's actually a wee bit
The modest artist, settled comfortably into his
conservatory, is a reluctant interviewee but it doesn't take much
to coax him into sharing his memories. Born in 1932, he was too
young for war service but old enough to begin a lifelong obsession
"There was always something flying overhead in those days," he
grins, and suddenly there's a hint of the small boy of 70 years
"We had Tealing aerodrome, we had Leuchars over the way, the
Catalinas would come down on the Tay, as well as Walruses and
Kingfishers. There were always Spitfires and Hurricanes around,
"I grew up wanting to fly. That was my ambition. I was going to be
one of the daredevils."
Sadly, an ear infection, which persisted throughout Ian's youth
and ended with a mastoid operation, put paid to his hopes of flying
and excluded him from National Service, too. The silver lining was
he met Gladys, then a nurse, while he was being treated. They
married in 1953. By that time, Ian was already an artist, having
gone straight from Dundee's Morgan Academy - before that, he was at
Clepington Primary - to DC Thomson as a trainee illustrator in
"It was like an apprenticeship and, in my own mind,
I can put it no higher than it was like the medieval artist's
workshop. 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. You were learning and you
didn't know it. It was just a wonderful place to be and the guys
were always very helpful."
Filling in was correct - Ian's first job was inking the black
boxes in the Sunday Post crossword. But the intensive nature of the
drawing school - his only training other than a brief period of
night classes at Dundee College of Art - served him well.
Asked about his influences as a young artist, he cites Spanish and
Italian creators, especially Italy's Ferdinando Tacconi, and
another talent closer to home.
"My icon was George Ramsbottom in the DC Thomson art department.
He was quite a magnificent artist among quite a few others but he
was the one that I benefited most from."
But, with his responsibilities as a married man and a father
growing, Ian decided to switch to more lucrative freelancing in
1954, picking up jobs with Amalgamated Press - later IPC - through
an agent, but keeping in touch with DC Thomson, who continued to
use his work.
Sighing regretfully about this digital age and its
effect on publishing, he describes those days as "golden times",
when a talented young artist could find work easily. His first
freelance strip was the wild west story Kit Carson, but he was soon
looking for an excuse not to draw horses - an "ugly" animal, he
"Air Ace was a favourite, because I could draw aeroplanes, of
course, but also Warlord Picture Library, which included things
like tanks and boats."
As the years went on, Ian took whatever opportunities came his
way, working on pretty much every children's comic produced in the
UK between the 50s and the 80s.
Science fiction became popular, so he turned his hand to that,
too, drawing for early 2000AD strips like MACH 1. One big
opportunity was the comics version of the TV programme Blake's 7,
although the comic lasted only 23 issues before the show's
cancellation killed it, too, in 1983.
"That was quite good fun because I went down one day to meet the
cast and watch them working on one of the scenes in the studio, and
to get photographs of the equipment they were using."
Soon afterwards, while he was recovering from a road
accident - his car left a local road and overturned, in icy
conditions, leading cheeky IPC well-wishers to draw it flying with
the Red Arrows and get the pilots to sign the art - that Ian was
offered the work that would introduce his work to a new generation
of young fans, the revamp of Dan Dare.
"It wasn't the original Dan Dare. It was his nephew or grandson or
something. It was a different character, although there were
similarities. I got stuck into doing all these space ships and
things. I loved it."
Since Dan Dare was created by Frank Hampson for the original Eagle
in 1950, there have been several attempts to relaunch the
character, and the Kennedy era was no more permanent than the rest.
But it is wellremembered - and collected - by fans today, for its
incredible illustration and design work, especially on those
The planes have never stopped flying around Ian Kennedy's head, as
he has clocked up more than 1200 covers for Commando and provided
the art for a huge number of interior pages. He used to provide a
painting every year for the cover of the RAF Leuchars Airshow
programme, until Photoshop undercut him, but the originals still
hang on mess walls for airmen to enjoy.
Even his most famous image for 2000AD, a cover printed 25 years
ago, features Me 109s, taken through a time tunnel to Judge Dredd's
dystopian future. One pilot screams, "Himmel! This isn't
Ian was diagnosed with prostate cancer but has responded well to
treatment, the cancer having been caught in time. He now urges
everyone he knows to visit their doctor for a check that could save
"I'm not totally retired, " he smiles.
"I do the odd commission, and I still do the odd Commando cover. I
do little aircraft features for their inside back cover, too, which
is an interesting little exercise.
"I work maybe three or four mornings a week. I try not to work the
full day now, as I'm easily tired. I find if I do maybe two or
three hours at the drawing board, that's enough. I'm pretty
He continues, "It's nice still to be involved, in a small way. If
you're in your cot with a pencil and paper, as I was, it's inborn.
It's just something that I still enjoy doing. I'm lucky enough to
be able to do it at my own pace. It's almost a therapy."
His therapy is framed on the walls of Ian's home, and it has
medical benefits for anyone who glances at it. The huge,
full-colour acrylic paintings are pin-sharp in their accuracy and
very, very beautiful. They are, of course, of aeroplanes, framed by
Ian chuckles, "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."
Again, there's that grin - and he looks a bit like his Dan Dare,
because illustrators often look like their characters, having
practised drawing faces with the help of a mirror.
"Head in the clouds, " he laughs.
This article originally appeared in the February 12th
edition of The Courier.