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Jesse James is a rock and roll cartoonist

Rock and roll performer Jesse James is also an accomplished cartoonist.
Meaghan Richens/NNSL photo

Jesse James has two things on him at all times: his poetry book and his tiny sketch book.

The poetry book – "because I love writing poems," and the sketch book – "because sometimes I could be at a coffee shop or a restaurant and I’ll see something and decide it could be a short little story for Jimbo.

James, better known for his vibrant, soulful voice as the lead singer of the Juno-nominated, NWT-based rock group Digawolf, is the creator of the comic strip Jimbo Bear. Jimbo is an eternally mischievous bear cub who made his newspaper comic strip debut in 1990, said James. He first appeared in the Native Press, which was launched in 1971 as a newspaper for the Indigenous people of the Northwest Territories.

The strip chronicles the adventures of the titular character and his friend Henry, a scruffy looking trapper who lives in a cabin in the woods.

"I’m always constantly thinking of silly stories for Jimbo and Henry," said James.

Jimbo has a tortured relationship with delicious treats. He wants them all the time; a tiny cookie monster with a hairy bellybutton whose saucer eyes are as big as his stomach. A well-meaning but rambunctious scamp who makes Henry a mess of eggs, hash browns and toast, but eats the whole lot before getting the meal from the kitchen to his friend’s place at the dinner table.

The bear seems to love the great outdoors, though he often struggles with his ursine instincts. In this week’s strip, Jimbo enters into a rhetorical tussle with Henry about the need to hibernate. "I was born in the bush man! I know when to sleep and not to sleep!" he tells Henry before falling fast asleep in the fourth frame.

James published the strip from 1990 to 1993 when he shelved his illustrator’s pen, started a family and pursued other projects. Jimbo made his triumphant return to the printed page earlier this year thanks to James’s children.

"I have two kids, they’re seven and nine, and whenever we have an opportunity we do some drawing and some art together," he said. "I began drawing the old character again for my kids and they liked it so much they wanted me to start again. So that’s how Jimbo Bear came back."

James contacted Northern News Services, which agreed to start publishing his work.

When asked how his singing career relates to his cartooning, James said one makes him tense, while the other relieves him.

"Music stresses me out," said James. "When I’m drawing those sketches it seems to calm me down. I think it’s a pleasure for sure."

Born in Behchoko, James said he has been interested in the arts since childhood.

"I really loved drawing and I loved painting and cartooning," he said. "I remember growing up in Behchoko, we didn’t have the luxuries of paper to draw cartoons."

So James honed his craft on book covers and scrap paper. At nine-years-old he went south to attend school where he discovered the inspiration behind Jimbo Bear: the Garfield comic strip by Jim Davis. That comic chronicles the adventures of a paunchy cat who loves lasagna and hates Mondays, his owner Jon Arbuckle, Odie the yellow-furred dog and a number of other characters.

He decided to name the bear Jimbo after seeing the name ‘Jembo’ – with an e – on the inside of a 54-40 album.

"I thought that was the funniest name ever," he said.

James switched out the "e" for an "i" and Jimbo was born.

He’s hoping to inspire others to follow their own creative passions.

"I’m sure there’s a lot of young cartoonists out there who would really love to show us their characters every week or two as well," he said. "That would be awesome. That’s my whole purpose and goal."