Friday, April 21, 2006

You Don't Know Jack... Keller, that is.

Sadly, I’ll bet that Jack Keller will be all but forgotten as a comic book artist in 25 years time. Why? Well, for one thing, he was never a ‘big name’ in the first place, and he has been filed under ‘workmanlike Silver Age artist’. Secondly, he spent most of his time toiling in two genres that have all but fallen off the pop culture radar screen: westerns and hot rods.

Hot Rods? Yup – Hot Rods. Once upon a time, Hot Rod comics were an actual genre unto themselves. They featured young daredevils having all sorts of 8 cylinder adventures. The high water mark of the genre was likely DC’s Hot Wheels series featuring artwork by Alex Toth. Almost completely forgotten today, though, is that Charlton (the little company that could) had some high quality Hot Rod titles the seemed to be almost single handedly by Jack Keller. Keller really seemed to know his way around the racetrack and was able to portray the excitement of a race or a chase – something that is quite tough in the comic book medium.

I haven’t had too much exposure to these books – but from what I’ve seen they are simply a lot of high-octane fun. They might seem beyond silly today, but there must have been a decent market for this stuff once upon a time. These are not all that tough to find, and can be had for mere peanuts.

Keller, of course, is best known for his long running stint on Marvel’s Kid Colt, Outlaw. Kid Colt is not my favourite of the Marvel/Atlas gunfighters (that honour goes to Rawhide Kid), but under the guidance of Stan and Jack (Keller, ‘natch) is always a consistently good read. Many of Marvel ‘western’ characters had villainous counterparts that had similarities to its 20th century heroes with the ‘Circus of Crime’ being the most blatant. It’s probably not just coincidence that the coolest 60s villains, Doctor Doom, had a near twin in the coolest western villain, Iron Mask. I assume that Iron Mask was designed by Jack Kirby, but deep down I like to the Jack Keller played a role.

Keller gave this book a very distinctive look – there is a certain beauty in its simplicity. One of the things that may have kept Keller out of the limelight is that he was rarely give the opportunity to provide artwork for the cover. Through the 50s, covers were done by the likes of Joe Maneely and John Severin. Later, Jack Kirby contributed numerous memorable covers – followed by the likes of Dick Ayers and Larry Lieber. Why was Keller so rarely chosen to do the cover to what was essential his book? Who knows? I have added one of the few Kid Colt covers by Keller – it’s pretty cool, in my humble opinion.

I realize that the above is basically just babbling, and that 99% of people really don’t care about Keller once way or the other. For those who are interested, let me point you towards a wonderful article written by Doc V http://www.comicartville.com/jackkeller.htm - , who writes much better than yours truly and provides some nice example of art from his wonderful collection.

1 comment:

benday-dot said...

This isn't strictly a hot-rod comic, but I just read the 1991 Eclipse reprint of the Frank Frazetta Johnny Comet strips. Part of Comet's gig is a race car driver, and some of the pen and ink drawings Frazetta lays down of Comet and his car in kinetic action are pure benday gold. You are right it is a sweet genre, and I suspect huge at the time, what with the cult of the car taking over America in the 50's and the subsequent muscle car culture of the 60's about to become ubiquitous. A look at some of the silver age Marvel's confirms this... Flash Thompson and his flashy wheels, and Johnny Storm (hmmm... Comet/Storm?) forever tinkering with his hot rods in those 60's Fantastic Fours. Thanks so much.