Cartoonist and illustrator Michael Kennedy is infusing the world of comics with Black stories
With a desire to provide “a stronger foothold for playful Blackness” in the cartooning industry, illustrator and cartoonist Michael Kennedy is all about representation within the art form. Injecting his own British and West Indian experiences into his work, he also takes references from African American cartooning, as well as The Beano and Studio Ghibli, which invoke political and emotional undertones found in adult media. Having learned to strike a balance between commercial commissions and passion projects, the Birmingham-based creative speaks to us about illustrating for The New York Times, the benefits of having a column and making his work more accessible for editorial platforms.
Editorial illustrator and Cartoonist
The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, The Believer, The New York Times, Businessweek, NBC News, VQR
Place of Study
BA Visual Communication: Film and Animation, Birmingham City University (2013-2016)
What I do
How would you describe what you do?
I’d say that all my work stems from the cartoon – that’s the rich language I draw from. From there, I make single image cartoons for news articles and columns, and larger pieces for the more literary commissions, wherein I get to translate a short story into one image that could be a comics cover of sorts.
Then I have my actual cartooning and graphic novel practice that sometimes makes its way into a journal or magazine, but is largely published by myself. I’m currently working on a collection of short stories I’ve written and illustrated that will be my first piece of mature solo work. I’ll try and approach publishers with it – I’ve been working on those [stories] since leaving university and it’s been a long process.
What are the main influences and inspirations behind your work?
I want to provide a stronger foothold for playful Blackness within my field. The canon of people that illustrate for magazines and produce graphic novels rarely look like me or my family or have our perspectives, and that’s been a driving factor for me; it feels like I’m treading new ground. I find that in music, film and literature, what I want to see is already being made, and made well, so I can’t add anything to that conversation.
“I want to provide a stronger foothold for playful Blackness within my field. The canon of people that illustrate for magazines and produce graphic novels rarely look like me or my family, or have our perspectives.”
That’s not to say I’m disregarding what has come before. Jackie Ormes, Charles Johnson, Ollie Harrington, Morrie Turner, Kerry James Marshall, to name a few, made essential contributions to the editorial and cartoon world. They’re only just starting to get their due recognition, mainly through publishers such as New York Review Comics and their collection It's life as I see it. What’s interesting is that many African American cartoonists had equally, if not more successful careers in fine art and literature that drew on comics and animation culture. I’d like to think cartooning was their true passion!
Generally speaking though, anyone published by Drawn and Quarterly seems to have a large influence on my creative choices nowadays. I’m finding great comfort in the idea of making work for young people and teens, so I’ve been consuming a lot of staples from our childhood and trying to insert my British and West Indian experience into them. The Beano, Studio Ghibli films and R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps are some of my references.
They all contain the political, emotional and spiritual content that adult media does, but simply and in a felt, experienced way. I hope to create that feeling in most things I do nowadays – subtle and clear, but kind of mundane too.
Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
I think you need to put in enough hours of practice in order to be confident, especially with editorial work. Starting out in Illustration a couple of years ago, I had to be super-flexible and open to changes and new directions, which was a challenge at first emotionally, but I’d been through enough as a comics maker to execute any new direction with the same amount of polish and clarity.
Trust is also a key thing to have too, as art directors are your friends in the process. I can’t imagine pushing back on any feedback they have for me – we’re all paid to do what’s best for the piece at hand.
What’s been your favourite project to work on from the past year, and why?
This New York Times piece (above) about faith within Black literature. I have a good working relationship with the art director so I felt comfortable enough to divert from my usual smooth-line approach to incorporate rougher, more realistic line work on the hands, as well as on [American writer and activist James] Baldwin’s face. The use of grayscale was new also. All in all, it felt like a mature piece compared to my usual goofy schtick and I look back at it fondly.
It might be the first piece where my ego or voice wasn’t as dominant as the actual subject matter. I surprised myself.
If you could sum up your job in an image, what would it be and why?
The image (below), because I’d say it sums up the ideas process pretty well – there’s always one janky idea.
How I got here
What was your journey like when you were first starting out? Did you find your feet quickly?
In comics I’m still finding my feet. It’s a marathon, but it informed the illustration work. Somehow, I took to it like a duck to water – a couple of road bumps, but you have to dust yourself off and come back stronger.
How did you go about landing your first clients and commissions?
I was approached after having posted on Instagram for a few years. I had polished the comics drawing to a nice standard, and Claire Merchlinsky, an art director at LEVEL MAG, decided I could apply what I was doing to their website, which produces articles for Black American males. She approached me with a relatively large project – one lead image and about seven portrait drawings.
I stayed exclusively at the site for about six months then took on their flagship column, Only Black Guy in the Office. That’s when art directors took notice and started reaching out. It’s not the most conventional route, but I’ve embraced the path I’m on.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
I’ve had to accept the gradual process of my work and creative mindset becoming more accessible. My life plan was always to be as alternative and edgy as possible until I became middle aged. The way things have gone has meant I now need to be clear and accessible.
At present I’m content with that, but I imagine I started many comics in the past couple of years to rebel against the tone of my illustration commissions. I’m glad to say that the two outlets have met in the middle over the past couple of months. If I were younger, I most likely would’ve sabotaged the editorial commissions – and ultimately my livelihood – in the pursuit of being anti-mainstream.
At the end of the day, working for literary magazines opens the door for making comics. I’ve had comics published in McSweeney’s and The Believer. So they I’m willing to reach the audience on their level.
If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why?
Podcasts that interview cartoonists, preferably hosted by cartoonists. It’s satisfying to hear people with the same creative struggles as you still working at 60 – it’s really calming. I highly recommend Gutter Boys, Vmspod, Thick Lines and Noah Van Scivers’ YouTube channel.
For my birthday a year or so ago, my partner bought me Taschen’s Jaques Tati retrospective book box set. It’s massive and contains four or five books with the filmmaker’s scripts, production photos, things of that ilk. It put me off from pursuing filmmaking, but not in a bad way! Having a creative life with its ups and downs so beautifully packaged in printed form continually inspires me to work in printed media and write and present cartoon characters’ lives with equal care.
Studio Ghibli is an endless resource. I could lift at least one thing from a Ghibli film, apply it to my work in illustration and in comics and my work would be improved massively. There’s a reason they’re so popular. At the minute I’ve managed to combine my pencil crayon and my pen and ink styles by referring to the film Ponyo a lot! There is so much craft in their films, it’s impossible to ignore.
How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work?
In the 15 years I’ve used social media, the six months in 2020 where I made most of my art director contacts would be the only time it was essential. I don’t have the personality suited to it. I can build some momentum, but every couple of months I’m going to retreat to write things and read, and I lose all favour with the algorithm, or whatever it is.
However, the contacts and friends I made there that I’ve worked with since are still very real, so I have that to be grateful for. That said, it’s been good for selling mini comics and for reaching art directors – you can do all that with a couple thousand followers and some strong, solid work, as well as expressing desire to actually work and reach people in your posts.
What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
I’ve fallen off this habit recently, but a mantra has been that on Mondays I do all my admin, invoices and vendor forms. Keep it chugging along business-wise, and have no guilt or imposter syndrome at the end of the week.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
My advice is to be clear that you actually want to work and respond to briefs, hit deadlines and receive feedback. I started making comics online after high school with this mindset and I was being hired even when I wasn’t skilled enough.
There was also a period in my mid-twenties where I wasn’t presenting myself as someone that was easy to work with, mostly because I was grumpy and wanted an uncommercial practice. This was possibly because I thought I wasn’t good enough. At some point I was tired enough of poverty that I began being clear about what I wanted from social media and saying yes to everything that came my way. After a year or so, you start to realise your worth, what works best for you and that you can turn things down.
Last piece of advice is that if a reputable place offers you an interesting enough recurring gig, like a weekly column, take it and never look back. Your bank statements will thank you for it.
Interview by N'Tanya Clarke
Mention Michael Kennedy