Tuesday, July 19, 2022
Rest in Peace James Burnett Ivey
My dear friend Jim Ivey, age 97, died on July 14 2022. His death was not a great surprise as his health had been deteriorating steadily for the last few years. Still, when I got the call from his wonderful and devoted caregiver, Joy Lal, I was surprised. Mostly because Jim was a man of his word, and he promised me that he had 100 years in him. Jim’s father had lived to the age of 99, and Jim was certain that he was going to outdo his old man.
This will be in the nature of a tribute, but I cannot hope to list all of Jim Ivey’s myriad accomplishments. Instead, I offer some highlights from the life of an incredible man, and a few personal reminiscences of the man who accurately described himself as a “bon vivant and raconteur”, leaving out those honors and such as, once again in his words, “a mere bagatelle.”
Of course most anyone coming to this website knows that Jim Ivey was an accomplished and influential newspaper editorial cartoonist. In his career he served at that post on an astonishing four major newspapers: Washington Star, San Francisco Examiner, St. Petersburg Times and Orlando Sentinel. His claim to fame was that he eschewed the standard editorial cartooning elements of grease-pencil shading, and labeling all the characters and devices. His cartoons were very simply drawn, with a minimum of lines, no shading, and labels were used sparely. Ivey’s cartoons took their power from their simplicity, their immediacy, and the power of the ideas which never relied on old over-used tropes of the trade. Ivey trusted his ability to draw in order to be able to drop all those labels, and trusted the intelligence of his readers to follow along.
Ivey struck out in his own direction but also admonished other cartoonists to modernize their work as well. In a series of articles about European editorial cartoonists that ran in the magazine Freedom & Union, he showed that they were producing outstanding work that made most of their American counterparts look positively antique by comparison. Ivey’s outspoken opinions earned him a few enemies in the cartooning fraternity, but also helped to open the eyes of newspaper editors to the possibility that editorial cartoons didn’t have to look one particular old-fashioned way.
But that was only one of Jim Ivey’s important and lasting contributions to cartooning. At the same time that he was working to bring editorial cartoons out of the horse-and-buggy days, he was also fervently collecting the works of and celebrating the cartoonists of those bygone ages. His love for cartooning, and his desire to foster and share that love, led him in 1967 to open the very first art gallery devoted to displaying and selling original cartoon art. He opened The Cartoon Museum in Madeira Beach, Florida, and in its early years his emporium offered, for a token admission fee, a tour of the history of cartooning, featuring originals by all the masters of the form.
Ivey was no businessman, but even he couldn’t fail to see that The Cartoon Museum in its original form was not profitable. That’s when he got one of his few great money-making ideas. In addition to the gallery, he would offer current and vintage comic books as well. The mania for comic books was just starting to snowball, and he found that he could finance the part of The Cartoon Museum that he cared about by selling comic books to the kids and the new breed of collectors that were beginning to come on the scene.
It was a marriage made in heaven. Although Ivey disdained comic books, considering the vast majority of the art to be overblown and the stories ridiculous, they – as he would grumble – “paid the rent.” It is unclear how long the Cartoon Museum was open before it started featuring comic books, but if it was not the very first comic book store (a title supposedly held by The San Francisco Comic Book Company, opening in 1968), it didn’t miss that distinction by far.
In 1974, Jim Ivey took an idea that did already exist – the comic book convention – and put his own spin on it. He and several partners put on the first OrlandoCon (he had since moved himself and The Cartoon Museum to that city when he switched papers). The weekend get-together offered all the typical comic book convention fare -- a dealer room and a few fan-favorite comic book creators – but Ivey also invited editorial cartoonists, newspaper strip cartoonists, animators, in short, anyone who worked in the cartooning fraternity, and treated them all like royalty. He gave a cartoonists-only dinner and roast, and handed out the Ignatz Award (a gold brick) to living legends whose names were often completely unknown to most of the comic book fans in attendance.
OrlandoCon was singular in that it was run by a man who didn’t much care about comic books, but whose love for cartooning in general was unbounded. Because of that, he got amazing guests; people who would come because they knew that Jim would ensure them a good time. OrlandoCon stuck to those principals for an amazing twenty-one years, with Jim the heart and soul of every one. (Wikipedia suggests that there were two more than I recall, in 1995 and 1996, but I have no memory of them, and since I was usually running the admission gate in later years, I wonder if they really happened?).
Jim’s interest in the history of cartooning also led to a number of publications. Foremost among them is the book “Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs – The First Adventure Comic Strip”. Published in 1974 and a sales success, it showed that the adventure strip reprint book -- not even really a thing then -- was a viable genre, leading to many subsequent publishing ventures that made the great adventure strips accessible to comic strip fans, and thus fostering comic strip fandom in general.
Ivey also published the cartooning history magazine cARToon, later CartooNews, in the 1970s. The magazine offered a scattershot view of cartooning history, focusing on whatever Ivey happened to be excited by at the moment. Never a big sales success, those who did receive it were offered a mind-expanding view of cartooning history in each issue.
Another of Jim Ivey’s contributions to the literature of cartooning history happened one day at the Cartoon Museum. Jim was paging through a big stack of early Sunday comics tearsheets, looking for certain items that had been requested by a buyer. A pimply-faced teenager, a regular at the store, was in the midst of picking through the back issues of his favorite comic books. He stopped to look at the gorgeous old Sunday pages as Jim paged through them, and was immediate entranced. Jim being Jim, loving an audience, he told the kid a few stories about what newspaper comics were like back in the early days of the form. The kid was enraptured and asked question after question about these stupendously beautiful pages. When Ivey was finished picking through the big stack of comics, there was a stack for his buyer, but there was also another stack. Jim pointed at that extra stack with his cigar, saying “Sir,” – he called everyone 'sir' – “you need to cut back on that comic book habit of yours. This,” he said, stabbing at the pages with his ever-present stogie, “is the good stuff. You need to learn to appreciate it. Take these with you. My gift.”
Of course that teenager was me, and Jim had set me down a path that continues to this day, tracking down the history of newspaper comics. Jim was not one to be overly effusive, but he let me know, in his low-key way, that he was proud and delighted with the work I have done. And of course I am only one of a legion of kids who were taken under Ivey’s wing, counseled to look deeper at cartooning than superhero comics. With some it was the history aspect, for budding artists it was to open their eyes to all the various forms and genres of cartooning that were available to them. And who knows how many cartoonists owe their livelihood to him, because I haven’t even yet mentioned that Ivey taught thousands of kids the principles of cartooning. He loved to teach cartooning, and did so at the University of Central Florida, Rollins College, Crealde Art Center, and even in the aisles of the Cartoon Museum after business hours when no other venues were offered. One of his pet projects, an instructional book on cartooning tiled Graphic Shorthand, was finally completed and published when Jim was close to 90 years old.
I’ve talked about Jim’s accomplishments, but those who knew him will probably remember him best for his outsized personality. Jim was a born showman, loved to play the emcee, the raconteur, loved to tell jokes and laugh at the jokes of others. His infamous gruffness at The Cartoon Museum was a trademark, an act that made all of his customers want to be one of the select few he favoured. Everyone wanted to become one of the regulars who were greeted when they walked in with a loud and enthusiastic “How’s tricks, wildman?” or some similar line. The ultimate indulgence was to be invited to sit in at the never-ending penny ante card-game that probably ate up whatever profits Jim made (he was a devoted but consistently unlucky gambler). When I was finally invited, after being a Cartoon Museum regular for years, I made the mistake of winning a huge pot, and was never asked to sit in again.
Jim seemed able to maintain a positive attitude no matter what. He had a lot of misfortunes, setbacks and sorrows in his life, but you’d never know it from his demeanor. For instance, when the great mid-1990s ‘comics implosion’ happened, the Cartoon Museum, never much of a money-maker in the best of times, went way into the red. Jim unceremoniously closed its doors, sold off the stock for pennies on the dollar to another shop owner, and sold his house, which was burdened by a mortgage payment he could not afford. With the resulting small bankroll he rented a decrepit storefront and turned it into a used bookstore. Jim couldn’t afford an apartment in addition to the store rent, so he slept on a cot that he set up between the bookshelves each evening. Never one to bemoan his fate, Jim claimed to be delighted with the situation because he finally had time to read books all day long since there were so few customers to interrupt him.
When even that business proved unsustainable, Jim met an affable fellow who lived in a seedy apartment, and went in with him as a roommate, barely squeaking by on his small Social Security cheques. To help make ends met, Jim became a professional ‘clipper’ for me. I was very busy running a computer business in those days, and had mountains of bound volumes and other comic strip related stuff that I had no time to clip, sort and file. Jim took on the job of working through all that material, sort of a dream job for one so devoted to comic strip history.
But now I see I’m digressing. The point I was getting to is that Jim’s impressive career by no means left him living in a mansion, sipping cognac and smoking Cubans by the fireside. He richly deserved that, and would have greatly enjoyed it, but it was not to be. Jim’s last decade or so was spent living in spare rooms with friends (including me for a year), until the VA finally anted up and paid for a shared room at an assisted living facility. Despite him being a World War II Navy veteran (he served on a submarine in the Pacific), it was like pulling teeth even to get that. But Jim’s winning personality saw him through even there. When the woman who ran the facility, Joy Lal, decided a few years later to close it, she took two of her most favoured guests into her own home. One of them was Jim. Jim spent his final eight years with Joy, being cared for as his medical issues inevitably mounted up over the years. Even when Jim became a real handful, Joy was steadfast in her devotion to him.
At 97, Jim managed to outlive many of his countless friends, so Joy has decided not to have a funeral. Jim’s body has been cremated, and his ashes will be scattered at sea by the Navy, just as Jim wanted. If you knew Jim, or admired what he did in his life, please send a condolence card to Joy Lal. Knowing that other people cared for him will be an enormous help to her in dealing with the grief of losing her ‘Jimmy’. Her address is:
2770 Green Meadow Circle
Kissimmee FL 34741
From 2007 to 2016 Jim produced a weekly comic strip page for Stripper's Guide that lasted for almost 400 installments. These one-page strips offer his viewpoint on all manner of topics, but often concentrates on a sort of informal meandering autobiography. The strips are tremendously entertaining, and a master class in minimalistic cartooning. On my new website (almost ready to go live), where posts can be sorted in proper order, you can read the entire series; just follow this link.
In one of his final contributions, Jim offered up the ultimate in capsule autobiographies, his life in a single page:
I'm surprised you didn't join in the card games more often. If one big win was all it took to be uninvited there wouldn't have been any players. ; )
Joy was an angel to Jim. Such a blessing.
Here's my write-up about Jim if anyone is interested. https://craigzablo.com/?p=30200