In May of 2002 The Lovely Anna and I went to our third NCS Reuben awards weekend, this one held in sunny Cancun, Mexico. After two previous trips we were finally getting to know a few people and feel somewhat comfortable in the crowd. This year there was a number of boisterous and fun loving cartoonists from Australia we hadn’t met before. This crew were about as friendly and approachable as anyone you will ever meet, and the man leading the charge was a short, round-faced bearded bloke everyone knew as “Kems“.
The Cancun Reubens was one of the less attended weekends in some time being the first one after 9/11 and being out of the country, so it was a lot easier to get acquainted with those who were there. I therefore got quite a few chances to talk to “Kems”, who I found out was James Kemsley, a cartoonist from down under who drew a long running Australian comic strip called Ginger Meggs. We had a lot of fun hanging around with Kems, Peter Broelman and the rest of the Australian contingent. Kems and I were dumb enough to join forces on a water volleyball team that took on a team including Sergio Aragon?¬©s and editorial cartoonist Mike Ramierez, who proceeded to kick our asses. The site of Kems in his very European style swimwear looking like a baked tomato still makes me laugh out loud when I think about it. He did the following doodle for Anna in her photo album:
The next year at the Reubens in San Fransisco both Kems and I were guest speakers. I drew the NCS T-shirt art that year for the first time and did a caricature of he and Ginger Meggs digging there way up from Australia.
He talked about all the things he’d done… entertainer, TV actor, playwright, cricketeer… the guy had lived a very interesting life. He had a lot of stories and he always had a twinkle in his eyes and a smile on his face when he told them. In 1982 he became the fourth artist on the comic strip Ginger Meggs, a much-beloved legacy strip started in 1921 as Us Fellers by cartoonist Jimmy Bancks. Under Kemsley’s watch the strip’s flagging popularity surged. He did several books and had worked on the Ginger Meggs movie prior to starting the strip gig. He served as the president of the Australian Black and White Artists Club and later the Australian Cartoonists’ Association, where he won numerous awards including the Gold Stanley as”Cartoonist of the Year” in 2001.
After the Reubens in Kansas City in 2004, Kems stopped coming to the awards. I figured he’d gotten tired of the jet lag, but I was later told he had fallen very ill. This was shocking as he was such a vibrant guy… full of life and quick laughter. In fact, he had a very serious condition called motor neuron disease. This terrible family of disorders (of which Lou Gerhig’s disease is one) slowly destroys the motor neurons in the brain that control activities like speaking, breathing, swallowing, etc. Kems never recovered.
Yesterday I received an e-mail from Australian caricaturist Grant Brown to tell me James Kemsley passed away that day. He died at home surrounded by his family. He was 59 years old.
I didn’t know him well but anyone who ever met him became an instant friend, and another cartoonist was like a long lost brother. He’ll be missed by many. Peace, Kems.
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