Remembering James Kemsley

Daniel Best remembers his friend, the great late Ginger Meggs artist.

BY DANIEL BEST
ohdannyboy.blogspot.com.au

 

On my hallway wall I have several pieces of original artwork, all framed and on display.

It’s mainly art by Americans, friends of mine, like Norm Breyfogle and Stephen R Bissette, along with Trevor Von Eeden, John Romita, Mike Zeck and friends no longer with us, Dave Simons, Mike Esposito and Jim Mooney.

Amongst the collection is a sketch of Ginger Meggs riding a skateboard with the inscription:

“For Danny. With many thanks for your part in Ginger’s South Australian history. Thanks mate!
– James Kemsley”

Everyone who has seen this sketch has asked, what part of Ginger’s history? What happened? The answer isn’t that complicated.

In 2004 I made contact with James Kemsley and asked if I could interview him as part of an on-going series on my then web site. James readily agreed and we spoke several times over the phone, via email and in person when he invited me to attend a Meggs XI cricket game at Tandunda.

James and myself hit it off, and our calls would go for hours, much to the amusement of my (then girlfriend, now) wife. But that wasn’t my claim to history.

I got a frantic phone call from James in mid 2004 telling me that the Sunday Mail in Adelaide decided to drop Meggs in favour of American sourced strips, most of which seemed to cross promote FoxTel. James was furious, so was I. This was Ginger Meggs!!! An Australian icon. If ever there was a strip that needed to be in Australian newspapers, it was Ginger. For 83 years he’d been in the paper, no way was he going to go quietly.

The more we spoke a plan began to hatch. James decided that we’d hit up as many radio stations as we could, and, to maximise the results, I’d join in and agree to be interviewed at the same time as he was. This meant word could get out twice as fast.

I then contacted people I knew in the media industry and, before we knew it, the requests were coming in for both of us to speak out. We also began a petition, which was to be presented to the editors of the Sunday Mail. On the same morning I spoke to the ABC, James spoke to 5DN. Once we were both finished I rang him and we compared notes. We expected more media exposure but within two hours of the pair of us going to air the editors at the Sunday Mail had offered James a new contract and were begging for a new Meggs to appear that very Sunday. We’d won the war with our first shots, something that impressed and amazed us both.

James told me, both verbally and, of course, in writing, that I was now part of Ginger Meggs official history which is only a few years off hitting the century mark. I may be a very minor footnote, but I’m in there. I was thrilled and proud to be a friend of James Kemsley, as were countless others. He was generous with his time, and funny to speak to. I miss him.

James isn’t with us anymore, and we’re all poorer for his passing. Jason Chatfield has taken the mantle of being the Ginger Meggs cartoonist now and he’s doing pretty darn fine with it. James would be proud to see Jason’s strips appearing everywhere and he’d even happier to know that Meggs is still going strong. As it should be.

This conversation came out of a few phone calls that I recorded, with James’s permission, in 2004. My comments are in bold; James Kemsley’s comments are in italics.

I begin by asking James about his background and how he began cartooning. We soon got onto the topic of the fastest cartoonist in Australia, WEG.

I guess I was one of these kids who always enjoyed drawing and copying Disney cartoons and general animation type things, Popeye and whatever. I always found it very relaxing to draw, and it was the one thing that my parents thought that I could do at a very young age and so they encouraged me. I also wish they had encouraged me to sing or play cricket, but they didn’t encourage me as much, so I am not able to do those other two things. But just at a very young age I started drawing and then I got to a stage when I was about 15 or 16, it might have been as late as 18, I was living in a country town in Victoria and they had their local problems.

I did a cartoon protesting against one of their local environmental problems and it was published in the local newspaper and this was back in about 1960, it must have been 1965 or 1966, and they approached me about doing a cartoon once a week for the paper after that, which I ended up doing for about two and a half years, so I guess that is how I got into it.

The Victorian cartooning scene in the 1960s was dominated by WEG and Jeff Hook in Melbourne and on a national scene, people like Bruce Petty and Paul Rigby. I was more along the lines of trying to copy WEG, Rigby and Hook more than anybody else as they were the cartoonists that I really enjoyed. At the same time I had always been a Wizard of ID fan and that is the humour I enjoyed.

Like all kids, I used to read the Sunday comic veraciously, probably up until I moved to Victoria where there were no Sunday comics as such in those days. I used to enjoy reading Ginger Meggs, Uncle Joe’s Horse Radish and Fatty Finn. The Australian comics are the ones that appealed to me really.

After growing up enjoying the work of the legendary cartoonist WEG, James became friends with him. James recounted how WEG once drew Ginger Meggs in a political cartoon once and promptly mailed it off him to keep. In 2003, James was the President of the Australian Cartoonist Association.

Last year it was quite a thrill and pleasure to present WEG with what we call our Jim Russell Award, which is an award for contribution to the art form shall we say and he was a recipient last year. It is not so much something that you win, but you are rewarded.

About Darren Close

Darren Close
Darren is the creator and publisher of the KILLEROO series, and also the creator of the OzComics website and subsequent drawing challenge on Facebook. He's been around the local comic scene for far too long for many people's liking. Gary Chaloner was foolish enough to make him the new Managing Editor of AustralianComicsJournal.com

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3 comments

  1. Great article! Thanks for sharing the extended conversation, too. It’s fascinating stuff!

    I’d like to share a Kemsley connection myself. I grew up in Bowral (which you mentioned in relation to the Bradman Museum). When I was eight years old The Cartoon Book had just come out and my friends and I spent weeks going over every page, copying tracing drawing.

    One afternoon James had a book signing and gave a short cartooning class at the town library, which was just down the hill from from the primary school. Imagine that! A tiny library packed full of kids and parents all clutching that magic yellow book, as James flipped page after page of butcher’s paper on the easel. I recall he drew Ginger Meggs (of course), but also Santa Claus head-first in a chimney, which was hilarious. It was without doubt one of the defining moments of my life.

    At school the next day I announced to my class that was going to be a cartoonist. That was it! Now not everyone gets to draw Ginger Meggs, and these days very few people get to be a Professional Cartoonist. But I’ve never stopped drawing, and I never forgot the impact of that afternoon.

    Recently I started running comics workshops with the Melbourne Library, hoping very much to continue the tradition of inspiring kids to draw silly pictures and tell stories. I owe a lot to the memory of James Kemsley. Creativity and kindness are not forgotten. (And yes, I still have that autographed copy of The Cartoon Book!)

  2. I was also lucky enough to attend a cartooning workshop with Jame ( almost 30 years ago). It was at that point that I stopped putting the line across the top of the capital ‘J’ in my name( because James didn’t use one when writing his name).

  3. That’s a great read, thanks Daniel, which has stirred up my memories of James.

    I had been on the committee of the ACA ( Australian Cartoonists Association) for about 3 years when, at our 2002 AGM, I became Treasurer and James was elected in as the President. I had met James a year earlier but knew very little about him.

    For the next 4 years we worked “hand in glove” and developed a great working relationship in our roles, whilst becoming good friends at the same time. He was fantastic at organising people and events and had many contacts or friends in so many areas of society and the media. He was like a whirlwind, just kept going until everything was in place. And if it wasn’t in place he’d get on someone’s case and get it sorted (in a friendly but firm way). Kems was great at working the phones.

    In fact, James would have so many things on his plate at the one time, ACA functions, Meggs, Family, his business, gawd knows what else, that we (ACA committee members) figured there was more than one of him. It was a running joke. There had to be more. How else was he getting all that work done (and sleeping). The betting ranged from 2 through to 5, although 3 seemed to be favoured by most.

    It was a pleasure working with Kems over the years and I learnt so much from him. I was never far from him at our annual Stanley awards and conference weekends. Being the bag man, I was either collecting or handing it out. He introduced me to so many of our great cartoonists at these functions and it seemed there was nobody who didn’t know him. Probably because he was such a nice guy.

    In 2006, we finished our 4 year partnership on the committee. A year later we bid James a sad farewell.
    Great memories, thanks Kems.

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