Conducted by John Mozzer, June 10, 1973:
It was through Jim Steranko (who was recalling Jack Keller’s visit the previous evening) that I became aware of this comic artist’s residence in Reading, Pennsylvania’s Pennside and his most recent work for Charlton Comics’s HOT RODS AND RACING CARS and DRAG N’ WHEELS, in addition to the continuous reprinting of his KID COLT series He had also been the artist behind a number of Charlton’s war efforts, but he soon dis continued his work on them in order to de vote full time to the comics involving his greater love, auto racing.
Keller is also a creator of games which have never been marketed despite their great marketing potential. The pattern of one particular war game, using dice for battles, was rejected by Parker Brothers because of its unexceptable 10 pages of rules. However, another company used per cisely the same pattern in a series of war games, only not to his credit. He regrets not having followed his ability to create games more closely.
My first and lengthy visit with Jack on the 22nd of April, 1972 was followed by a series of phone conversations. A phone call which I eventually made one night led me to learn of the cancellation of HOT RODS and DRAG N’ WHEELS. I spoke to his wife.
“May I speak to Mr. Keller?” I asked. “He’s still at work.”
“I thought he worked at home?”
“Now he has another job,” said she, probably wondering who I was, “he doesn’t draw comics any more.”
But he may return, and in order to al low this relatively unspoken of comic artist to become a common and familiar name in fandom, I followed Jack through the living room of his home on Brighten Avenue, where he resides with his wife and three sons, on June 10, 1973.
For my second time I sat down in his den, in order to provide this interview, while he was reminding me that he had not thought about comics for at least six months.
MOZZER: I suppose I might as well start off this interview with a very familiar question, when and where were you born?
KELLER: Here in Reading on June 16, 1922.
MOZZER: When did you first become interested in drawing and what did you draw first?
KELLER: I was always interested in drawing. I drew comics, I would copy them from the newspaper, when I was just a little fellow before I went to school.
MOZZER: Were there any artists who influenced you or any particular artists which led you into comics?
KELLER: There was no artist that actually led me into comics. The desire was all my own and I would have to say that I was early influenced by Milton Caniff. I liked his style very much and at that period of time, after I got out of high school, TERRY AND THE PIRATES was a very big thing. I think a lot of people were trying to imitate him at the time. I liked his style although I can’t say that I’ve ever made much of an effort to follow it.
MOZZER: How did you come to draw for the comics?
KELLER: It seemed that no one in this area had even the slightest idea how to get into the field so I wrote and illustrated stories on my own and mailed them into the addresses that I found in the comic books.
MOZZER; So you haven’t attended any formal art school?
KELLER: No, I’m self taught. When I first got out of high school I did try a correspondence course. I think it was rather poor and did very little for me and most of my experience was gained in the process of drawing comics for. the magazines. I think that I learned quite a bit during the first year that I was in the business when I worked for Lou Fine. It was 1941 and was actually breaking in completely al though I had written and illustrated a story called THE WHISTLER which I sold to Dell Comics while I was still at home. After that I got a job as background artist for Lou Fine when he was illustrating THE SPIRIT.
MOZZER: How long did you work for him?
KELLER: I worked for him about one year. Then I decided that I didn’t like New York very much—
MOZZER: So you had moved to New York?
KELLER: Yes, I had worked staff for Quality Comics when I was doing the back grounds for Lou Fine, so I was in New York one year.
MOZZER: And you didn’t like New York?
KELLER: No, I didn’t like New York at all. I didn’t like the big crowds and every time you went out o eat you had to wait in line. Anywhere you went there seemed to be a crowd. I prefer the freedom of Reading rather than the confinement of the big city, the loneliness also of the big city.
MOZZER: So you moved back to Reading?
KELLER: Yes, but while I was still working for Quality Comics I took some work around to Fawcett and got a strip called JOHNNY BLAIR IN THE AIR. It was a filler for CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT’s comic book and was an airplane strip about the Civil Air Patrol So I did that and I also got some work from fiction House. I was doing a lot of air plane stories at the time. I was very much influenced by air war which was quite a thing of the time. That was between 1942 and ’45. I illustrated SUICIDE SMITH and CLIPPER KIRK. Clipper was a naval pilot and he was always on an aircraft carrier. Every time he cracked up he fell into the arms of a beautiful girl. It was always the same script every time! SUICIDE SMITH was pretty similar only he was a marine pilot. After the war the army and navy stories disappeared and crime stories were starting to pick up. I did some work for Biro and Wood on the strips in CRIME DOES NOT PAY. I also did some work for Hillman Publications including a strip called THE ROSEBUD SISTERS. It was about two elderly ladles, a takeoff of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, that got into all kinds of curious situations. So I worked on those strips and then it seemed that detective stories were fading a bit and around ’48 and ’49 I also did some work for a parochial school magazine called TOPICS. It contained comic strips that would tell the lives of priests and various types of heroes, maybe a racing hero or any other type, as long as he had a parochial background which incidentally I do not. I ran into some technical problems with that at times.
MOZZER: You met Jim Steranko early in your career. How did you come to know him?
KELLER: I knew Jim because he got the word that I was working on comics. He came to me when he was about seventeen or eighteen years old and showed me the drawings he was working on. They were very interesting and very encouraging. He was still crude, naturally, at that point but there certainly was a measure of talent there which has later proven to be very much so. I tried to give him a few tips, to work with a brush more so than a pen, I think he was working with pen at the time, mostly, and at that time most of the comics had been finished in brush work.
MOZZER: What was the reason for that?
KELLER: For one thing there weren’t any really good fountain type drawing pens around and it seemed to be the type of work that publishers were going for. So, Jim and I had some contact over the years and it wasn’t until maybe nine or ten years later that I think Jim actually broke into the business. But he always had the desire and we occasionally would talk about it. I did tell him that I could tell him where to go and what to do but it was all basically up to him as far as advancement and he took care of it very nicely.
MOZZER. That’s for sure. What came next in your career? Did you go on to Marvel?
KELLER: Yes, it was about 1950 that! started with Marvel. When I started there first we’d do a lot of strips that were just once and done type adventures, a variety of crime stories, war and also a few weirds. At about ’51, Stan gave me an assignment to do KID COLT. He liked the job I did on it so that lasted for about fifteen years. I finally was the one that quit because of another commitment
MOZZER: What was the commitment that caused you to leave KID COLT?
KELLER: Well, I had a choice at that time. I was getting very wrapped up with automobile illustration. The racing stories that I was producing for Charlton were progressing quite nicely. Dick Giordano, who was editor at the time, offered me a very nice package if I would go exclusively with Charlton and forsake my duties with Marvel. So, after telling Stan Lee about this he gave me a counter offer to go with Marvel exclusively. I pondered the question quite a bit because they both had been excellent people to work for. I like Stan Lee very much and I also enjoyed Dick Giordano’s company. I finally decided on going with Charlton for the simple reason that the subject matter was more appealing to me. That was the sole reason. Actually, financially. Stan Lee’s offer was superior. so it was a matter of illustrating what I liked best and at that time it was auto racing.
MOZZER: One of my questions was how did you become connected with Charlton but I suppose you’ve just answered that.
KELLER: Well, actually I became connected with Charlton before then in 1958. KID COLT comics had come to a halt because there was a problem with the distribution. American News. which had been distributing the Marvel Comics at the time, went out of business. When this occurred it threw a halt to all publications of Marvel for the simple reason that they had no one to distribute the magazines. All the other distributing companies had other comic book lines and they felt that this would be in conflict with the other lines that they were distributing. So Marvel was placed in a very uncomfortable position. It wasn’t until several months later that they finally did establish with a distributing company. I’m not certain whether it was their own or they became affiliated with another company.
MOZZER: How did this lack of distribution of the Marvel Comics lead you to become connected with Charlton?
KELLER: Oh, yes well, one of the unfortunate parts of being a comic magazine artist is that when you’re out of work, you are completely out of income. In other words you can not draw unemployment compensation. You must find work somewhere. So I waited about two months and Stan Lee kept assuring me that they were soon going to be starting but it didn’t happen. So, I decided I would follow a pursuit. I was always interested in automobiles, so I contacted Marshall Chevrolet on Lancaster Avenue and got a job there in 1957. I had only been working with cars for a few months when Stan Lee and Marvel Comics finally solved their problem. He wanted me to start illustrating KID COLT again. I told him that I felt committed to Marshall Chevrolet since I had assured him that I would not quit immediately if the comics did come back. so I merely penciled KID COL’!’ for about 7 or 8 months. I was rather dissatisfied with the unsatisfactory way that the strip was being inked, so after being with Marshall for about thirteen months I decided to return to comic books entirely. I also made a move toward Charlton publications. I think that the experience I gained while selling cars was helpful along with my natural desire and interest in auto racing.
MOZZER: That’s fine. What was the first assignment that you received from Charlton?
KELLER: Incidentally, there were several inkers. Well, the first assignment was an auto racing strip about a race that used to be held in Mexico. At the moment I can’t recall what it was called. It was not the BAJA 500 but it was another Mexican road race that they had. I think the strip was about five pages. I also did a few westerns for them. THE SHERIFF OF TOMBSTONE became one of them. I did some war stories for them. But more and more as the time went on it became to the effect that I would do nothing except exclusive work on auto racing stories because that was where my main interest was. Before I joined Charlton, there was a hodgepodge of artists in there doing a terrible job. They were totally uninformed about the techniques of racing and about what a racing car actually looked like. They didn’t know about suspensions or anything of that sort. When I joined Charlton. they had HOT RODS AND RACING CARS. Then after a while they went into a second magazine. When they went into the second magazine they gave me the opportunity to write; before that they would not let me write. This was when Pat Masulli was editor at Charlton, before Dick Giordano. Dick Giordano was assistant-editor then. They said to me that they were going to take on a second magazine because the one was doing quite well. I suggested the title DRAG. Pat Masulli hesitated for a moment. He thought that it was a pretty good title but already had another in mind. He said we’re going to call it TEENAGE HOTRODDERS. Everything was TEENAGE. TEENAGE WEREWOLVES and TEENAGE everything else, in the early sixties. It was a big thing in movies at that time. They thought TEENAGE HOTRODDERS was a better title than DRAG. I thought a simple word like DRAG served as a great title. Of course, about a year and a half or two years later Malar. I guess that was Peterson Publications at that time, came out with DRAG CARTOONS, a very popular cartoon magazine.
MOZZER: Any more comments you could make about Charlton before we go on to dis cussing your techniques?
KELLER: The only thing else I could say is that HOT RODS AND RACING CARS and TEENAGE HOTRODDERS did quite well and became so popular that they grew into four books. There were four magazines there for a while. One of them was GRAND PRIX, which was my favorite, and the other was DRAG N’ WHEELS. Later, Charlton made a purchase of an entire comic group that I believe Harvey Publica-tions had been doing, like BEETLE BAILEY—-
MOZZER: The King Features characters?
KELLER: The King Features characters, that’s right. They bought that allotment and with that they had to cut in half all the magazines that they were currently doing. So, they decided to chop two of the hot rod books off Incidentally. One of them had been changed to KEN KING which is a motorcycle character we had for a while. RICK ROBERTS was dropped although he was in the GRAND PRIX magazine. I thought GRAND PRIX was a great title, which I had sub mitted incidentally. I think it was a big mistake when they dropped that strip because I think it was the best of all the racing characters.
MOZZER: Were you with HOT RODS AND RACING CARS from the beginning of its publication?
KELLER: No, I wasn‘t. HOT RODS AND RACING CARS had been established several years before I became affiliated with it in 1957. That was still when I was doing some work with Marshall Chevrolet but I think I did one or two strips before I decided to return to comic books.
NOZZER: What was the reason behind their cancellation?
KELLER: The books had reached a point where some dramatic changes had to be made. For one thing we had to come out with characters with hang-ups. The simple nice guy that just goes out and has an adventure was becoming passe. It was definitely a point where we had to make a move. But George didn’t seem to want to go along with another racing type character. He had some ideas of his own and the books were dropped. With the dropping of the books, I had reached a point where I had to do something else and l decided to go back into the old profession of selling cars at Marshall Chevrolet again.
MOZZER: What are your thoughts about returning to comics and what do you think these people at Marshall Chevrolet would say if you did?
KELLER: They realize there’s that definite possibility and if something comes along that’s attractive to me in comics I’ll definitely go back to comics. But it has to be something that I can really express my self in every way that I really want to. I want the subject matter to be something that’s very suitable to me and also that arouses my interest.
MOZZER: What competition did Charlton’s racing comics face and what was your opinion of the competition?
KELLER: Well, the only competition I think we ever had was some from DC but it only lasted a short time. That was called HOT WHEELS. I did some filler strips for DC on HOT WHEELS and I also did one of the feature stories in there.
MOZZER: I didn’t know you worked for
KELLER: Yes, Dick Giordano had left Charlton and went to DC. When he was editor at DC he had contacted me on it. Later, he decided that he would be much happier going back to illustrating and he is a very fine illustrator and an exceptional inker.
MOZZER: Has Gold Key or Dell ever ventured into this theme of comic book publishing?
KELLER: Gold Key…it seems to me that I was contacted by Sal Trapani to pencil some strips for him at one time. I did pencil a few for him but I never saw how the inking turned out on it. I don’t know what happened to the strip, but once I saw the way it had been written and the theme they were going on, it was a teenage gang and an approach to hotrodding that had long past, I told him that I felt the book was doomed to failure from the start and I don’t think it ever got very far.
MOZZER: To sum up the rundown of your career, all the companies you have worked for are Marvel, Quality, DC briefly, Charlton, and what others?
KELLER: There was Hillman, Biro and Wood, Fiction House and Fawcett.
MOZZER: What is your opinion of comic books today?
KELLER: Joe Kubert’s recent work on TARZAN is very much to my liking. Basically I think that we should keep progressing along with the times and not go back to reprints.
MOZZER: What are the possibilities of a revival of KID COLT?
KELLER: I haven’t discussed it at length with Stan Lee or Roy Thomas but perhaps at one of the future meetings of the convention in New York I just might stop over and perhaps we’ll get together on some thing, who knows.
MOZZER: Could you explain a little of the techniques and materials you use in your work?
KELLER: In the last few years I was using regular stock of paper that I received from Charlton. Before that I had used STRATHMORE, as everyone else has at one time or another, which can be obtained at any art store. I usually use the high finish but it is available in a medium finish too which a lot of artists use, I had used a variety of WINDSOR-NEWTON brushes. Probably a Two is the most versatile. I had gone all the way up to a Five at the suggestion of Dick Giordano. Five is a very meaty brush which has a very beautiful point despite its ability to contain a lot of ink. You are able to ink a great deal without refilling the brush. I think you can get finer work with a little bit more detail when using a Two, or possibly a Three. My son Richard, when he was about 151/2 until recently, had been using a RAPIDOGRAPH Number Two pen in order to do all of my lettering and he did a beautiful job. _It was nice work for him because Richard is now 10 and he’s attending the Berks County extension of Penn State in the local area here. Next year, of course, he’s going to campus.
MOZZER: Are you generally pleased with the way your work appears in print?
KELLER: Generally speaking, Charlton especially for some years had very poor presses. Kore recently their copy is a lot more crisp and sharp but in some years past it had be n quite blurred. Also, one thing that always irritates an artist is if the coloring is off set and it doesn’t appear exactly, in other words you might have a. mouth with lipstick on which just a bit off to the side of the mouth. Alot of the detailing, if you get into to fine line, is often lost in the reproduction and in the reprint.
MOZZER: How long does it usually take you to do one comic book story?
KELLER: That would depend upon the number of pages, of course. I was fairly rapid with my work, especially in recent years. I had simplified it somewhat possibly because of the rates they were paying. I would pencil a page in an hour to an hour and a half, Inking would take approximately an hour and a half to two hours, for a page.
MOZZER: I suppose when you were penciling you would leave most of the detail for the inking?
KELLER: Yes, I did that quite often, especially when I was drawing wheels or any thing of that sort. I would sketch them in very loosely. I could pick up the detail very easily in the inking. Generally, I never filled in large areas of black.
MOZZER: What are some of your hobbies? Auto racing, and please explain these intricate models of cars on display surrounding us in this room.
KELLER: Yes, I’m a miniature car col-lector in addition to being a racing car buff. Primarily, I do collect miniature racing cars. Now a lot of these models were quite helpful when I was illustrating the racing comics because when you draw a Ferrari it should look like the Ferrari you are drawing and when you draw a Porsche that’s exactly what it should look like. You need a combination of photographs plus the three dimensional model to carry through all the way because when you’re illustrating a story you’re going to have to cover the car from every angle. Here’s two examples. This one is an old FRAZER-NASH which was cast in the ’30’s by Dinky Toys and sold for approximately $1 when it was new. Recently, I sold the same model for $12, so it has grown in value. Now here’s one made by Rio of Italy and it’s an old FIAT. It sells for about $6 right now but once it becomes obsolete, I think you’ll agree, that’s going to be worth some money because this is a beautifully detailed model.
KELLER: They’re truly accurate of today’s cars, and the more realistic the better. You can only buy a very limited amount in the Reading area. I get most of them through a distributor in California.
MOZZER: Okay, are there any contemporary artists, not necessarily connected with comics, who you admire?
KELLER: I’ve always admired Peter Helck’s great illustrations of old time racing cars. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen any of his work. He does these beautiful paintings of the very early days of racing such as the old Vanderbilt Cup races and when they actually raced on dirt roads and thin s of that sort.
MOZZER: Do you have any advice for a student who is interested in the field of art?
KELLER: Anyone interested in the field of art, I would say get a formal background. This is perhaps my biggest regret. I could perhaps go into something like teaching or another field of art. If you just limit yourself to cartooning the field is so limited and the opportunities are very small. It’s an erratic business and you’re subject to the whims of the public and that can change overnight. What might be popular today in another month or so could be very unpopular. It’s not a very stable career, although it has been pretty good for me over the years. I had close to thirty years in the business and for the most part it was pretty good to me.
MOZZER: To sum it up, do you have any comments you would like to make?
KELLER: Nothing in particular except that I’m not quite sure whether I really want to get back into the business. I have to make up my mind on that. If I do I think I should make it within the next few months. Perhaps something will come out of it if I get over to the convention. That might be a determining factor right there.
MOZZER: Okay, thank you very much.
KELLER: My pleasure.
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