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Visual Arts > Art

Just only Jack

The boy who created a paper kingdom in his San Antonio backyard

Courtesy Estate of Jack Kent
Jack Kent Sr. circa 1969
Courtesy Estate of Jack Kent

 

Two years ago, I had no idea who Jack Kent was. I collect vintage children’s books for my son, and rooting around in a junk shop on Austin Highway one day, I came across a little book called Jack Kent’s Twelve Days of Christmas. It’s a thin paperback in which a cartoon boy gifts a cartoon girl all the things from the namesake song. All of them … every single day, so that by the end, the girl has 12 partridges in 12 pear trees, 24 turtle doves, 36 French hens, 48 calling birds, and so on, until she runs screaming off the final page.

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.  He published 62 children’s books and produced an internationally acclaimed daily comic strip that ran for 15 years, and he did it all right here, from the banks of the San Antonio River. 

This month, the Library of American Comics and IDW Publishing will reacquaint the world with at least one corner of Jack’s creativity, his comic strip, King Aroo, presented for the first time in book form. Any of you who grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s might remember a squat little sovereign with a kumquat-shaped head who once upon a time ruled a kingdom called Myopia that covered “almost an entire acre.” King Aroo: Volume One will include all the daily and Sunday comics from 1950-52, prefaced by an in-depth biography of Kent’s life and career written by Bruce Canwell, associate editor of the Library of American Comics.

“Our mission is to reprint a wide range of classics, and King Aroo has always been on our short list,” says Canwell, who fell in love with the strip in the ’80s after seeing excerpts of it in Nemo, a magazine for comic aficionados. “We were lucky in that Jack’s son still had his father’s original newspaper proofs, so we were able to reproduce a clean and fully restored product.”

For the biography, Canwell worked closely with Kent’s son, Jack Jr., and Kent’s cousin, Kent Cummins, and interviewed neighbors and friends, scouring the archives of the San Antonio Light and the San Antonio Express-News to build a full picture of Jack’s life.

If there was ever a creative soul married to Texas, and San Antonio in particular, Jack would be it. Jack’s family settled in the King William district in the late 1920s before it was redeveloped, when the San Antonio River was nothing more than a trickling stream. His mother, Peg, managed the old Maurer apartments on Beauregard (they have since been converted to condos), and his father, Ralph, was a one-time manager of the Buckhorn Saloon. Jack was 15 when the worst of the Depression hit, and he dropped out of high school to help support his parents and start on the road to achieving his lifelong ambition, to be a cartoonist like his idols Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates) and George Herriman (Krazy Kat).  He worked in local print shops, drew caricatures for the San Antonio Light, and finally earned an internship in Houston assisting Elmer Woggon on his strip Big Chief Wahoo. In his free time, he sketched out his own ideas and penned lavishly illustrated fan letters to his cartoonist heroes, collecting hundreds of replies, autographs, and drawings.

Jack’s career plans were stalled when 1941, after Pearl Harbor, when he enlisted in the military. It took him four years to get back to San Antonio via Alaska and the Philippine Islands, and when he returned, he used his discharge pay to purchase land on Johnson Street overlooking the river — a vacant lot that formerly housed a Victorian washed away by the floods of the 1920s. Within five years, he’d sold King Aroo into syndication and used the money to design and build “King Aroo’s Castle,” a funky King William hodgepodge still owned and occupied by Jack Jr., a geneticist with the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research and a board member of the King William Association, and his wife Susan Athené.

In October 1953, the San Antonio Express Sunday Magazine sent a staff reporter named June Kilstofte to the house to write a story about Jack and his urban pioneer homestead. In the article, she describes him as “a very friendly guy” and the Kent house as “a long, low building, with flagstone terraces on either side” with “long stretches of lawn, shaded by huge pecan trees.” She finished up by noting “you get the feeling you’re in the country, but you’re just a short distance from downtown.” June met Jack for the first time on his doorstep that day, and from that moment on, the two were inseparable. Engaged on Valentine’s Day of ’54, they were married that summer on June’s birthday at St. John’s Lutheran by La Villita. Jack Jr. was born the following year.

King Aroo ran in the San Antonio News and the Sunday Express, the New York Daily Mirror, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Houston Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the Kansas City Star, and in some major publications in Mexico and Canada.

“Many students of comic-strip history have compared and contrasted Kent’s King Aroo and Herriman’s Krazy Kat, with good reason,” writes Canwell in his forward to the book. “Both are set in fanciful lands — anthropomorphic animals dominate both casts of characters — both strips feature intricate, decorative background art — and the prize for the most sophisticated wordplay in comic-strip history invariably comes down to a contest between King Aroo, Krazy Kat and Walt Kelly’s Pogo, with a case easily made that King Aroo captures the gold.”

After a 10-year run on the McClure Syndicate, followed by a five-year stint with Golden Gate, Kent was ready for a change and ended the strip in 1965. With his newfound freedom from the daily grind, he packed up his family and spent a few months traveling around Europe in a Volkswagen, pondering what to do next. Upon returning to the States, he continued to pitch ideas for new comics, but none of them stuck. To support his family, he illustrated panel comics for Playboy, the New Yorker, and Mad Magazine, even designed Hallmark greeting cards. Though he would always see himself as a cartoonist first, it wasn’t until three years later that he found his second career.

After being rejected nearly 24 times, Just Only John was published in 1968 by Parent’s Magazine Press. A children’s book loosely based on the antics of Jack Jr., it’s the story of a boy, John, who gets tired of being just simply John. He procures a magic potion that allows him to become whatever anyone calls him (a pig, a rabbit, an old man) and hilarity ensues. Its success was soon followed by The Grown-Up Day and Fly Away Home in 1969. From there, he never stopped, publishing books for Doubleday, Random House, Simon and Schuster, Macmillan, and Scholastic, until his death in 1985 — 40 of his own books, 22 that were illustrated for other writers.

“He always wanted another daily comic, but it never did work out,” remembers Jack Jr. “For many years, the bios in the back of his books would read ‘Jack Kent is a member of the National Cartoonists Society,’ and eventually they stopped saying that. He’d made the career shift in his own mind.”

Odds are you’ve read, or been read, at least one of Kent’s books in your youth. Now, except for a small handful, all of these stories are out of print, meaning unless you’re willing to shell out (in some cases) a small fortune on eBay, you won’t be reading them anytime soon. There’s Mr. Meebles, about an imaginary friend who begins to worry what happens when the little boy who imagines him stops imagining him; Dooly and the Snortsnoot, about a young giant who just can’t get, well … giant; There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon, about a mother who doesn’t believe her son has a pet fire-breather until the thing becomes so big, it walks off with their house. And dozens and dozens more that are so smart and polished they could’ve been written yesterday.

Many children’s book titles remain in print for decades, their authors’ names known to multiple generations of children. So, how is it that a talent as prolific as Jack’s slid into mainstream oblivion? San Antonio poet and writer Naomi Nye was a good friend and neighbor of the Kents. Jack was a true artist devoted to his work, she says, but he just wasn’t into self-promotion.

“The Kents were so friendly and adorable, just exemplary people. But for some reason, when it came to the public, Jack held back,” says Nye. “He loved reading, culture, and art, and was totally authentic, without an ounce of bravado. Very honorable and painfully shy.” Nye would attempt to cajole Jack into speaking to library groups and students, and Jack would always decline. “He told me, ‘How could I possibly know how to say something to a group that would fit more than one point of view at once?’

“I would laugh and tell people, yes, he’s the friendliest man on earth, but no, he won’t come to visit.”

“Daddy was far from perfect and agonizingly aware of his imperfection, but he really did act and live as if a man’s only limitations were his own poor choices,” says Jack Jr. “Roughly schooled … he read and read and read and was interested in absolutely everything. Whatever I asked about when I was little, he tried to answer, and then referred me to the encyclopedias and dictionaries he’d picked up in used book stores. No excuses: The answer is out there. Dad once wrote that his being self-educated ‘explains much and excuses nothing.’ He excused himself far too little, I think.”

Jack loved books and filled his home with thousands of them. He was best friends with the Rosengrens, who owned one of San Antonio’s finest independent bookstores, and spent a small fortune picking gems from their shelves. He kept his family, his art, and his books close, but could never quite escape the feeling that he never lived up to his full potential and was painfully altered by a war that he enthusiastically volunteered for.

“He was more generous and more gentle than he had reason to be, given where he’d come from and where he’d been,” remembers Jack Jr. “My mom said he had a recurrent nightmare about combat. He didn’t hunt or fish. He gave various reasons for that: He’d done enough killing in the war. Most animals were better people than most people he’d met.”

Jack Sr. died in 1985 after an 11-month battle with leukemia. A few years later, Naomi Nye penned a poem about him and included it in her book, Mint. It begins ...

“In a cottage by a river, a man made stories. He lived so fully in his room it was hard to get him out. His room grew jungles, revising itself with light. I think he would stand in his room staring out at rain falling into the river and wonder why people went anywhere to begin with — this world of avenues fashioning, tugging, offering what we learn to need — he could see the sadness in that without even entering it.”

One of Jack’s dying wishes was to see his archives donated to the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota, one of the world’s largest children’s literature research collections. June Kent, a woman who’d never driven a car in her life, bought a station wagon, and she and Jack Jr. packed up Jack’s original drawings and children’s book manuscripts and drove them cross-county to the state where, coincidentally, June (who died in 2000) was born.

“Jack was a very witty person with a twinkle in his eye and a huge family man,” says Karen Nelson Hoyle, curator of the collection and a friend of the Kents. “June and Jack Jr. arrived here with that station wagon packed to the gills, and you never see that.”

So here he is, Jack Kent, a man so humble and shy that his lack of self-promotion was his legacy’s fatal flaw. You can see it in the stories he wrote. They are kind and honest and funny, devoid of narcissism, and written with the child in mind, or, at the very least, the witty adult with a bit of the rascal in him. In a self-effacing bio, Kent once wrote, “Getting from 1920 to the present with a minimal loss of parts and facilities has been my most noteworthy accomplishment … The very “comic” strip King Aroo … made me famous for blocks around. Since 1967 have been writing and illustrating children’s books. There have been over 40 up to this time (2:45 p.m., but my watch may be slow) and more are in the womb. I’m having fun, my wife is an angel, my son is a genius, and I am thrice blessed.”

Jack Kent’s legacy should be a huge source of pride for the people who loved him and for the city he so adored. In his lifetime, his cartoon work was admired by the very men he looked up to, and now, with the reemergence of King Aroo, a new generation of artists will find inspiration in his strip. As for his children’s books, do a little digging. Rosengren’s might be long gone, but try the used book shops … Cheevers or Half-Price or Nine Lives … the San Antonio Library. His books are still out there, just waiting to be loved again. It would be a damn shame to see them disappear forever. •

Burgin Streetman is a freelance writer and blogs about vintage children’s books at Vintage Kids’ Books My Kid Loves (vintagechildrensbooksmykidloves.com). 

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