JACK KELLER (1922-2003)

     The comic book world lost one of its most durable mainstays of the 1950's and 1960's when Atlas/Marvel and Charlton artist Jack Keller passed away on January 2, 2003 at the age of 80 after a short illness. Keller had a long and distinguished career spanning the years 1941-1973 on a score of features for numerous comic book companies but is best known for long runs on two features in particular, KID COLT OUTLAW at Atlas/Marvel and the entire genre of hot rod and racing cars titles at Charlton.

     Jack Keller was born on June 16, 1922 in Reading, Pa. Except for a short period early in his career, he would spend his entire life there. Like almost every artist from his generation, his earliest artistic idols were Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond and Hal Foster, and as a child devoured their newspaper features, especially Caniff's TERRY AND THE PIRATES.

     In 1941, fresh out of high school and with no formal art education, Keller created, wrote and drew a comic book feature called "The Whistler" which was accepted for publication by Dell Comics and appeared in the title WAR STORIES, issue #5. By his own admission it was extremely crude but it somehow opened the door to a job in 1942-43 with Busy Arnold at Quality Comics. Among a handful of different features including inking BLACKHAWK, artwork in features llike "Man Hunter" and "Spin Shaw", Keller also did backgrounds for Lou Fine on THE SPIRIT while Will Eisner was in the service. Keller was now living in New York City full time at the 34th street YMCA and his quarters were cramped and tiny. Making the rounds over the next few years, Keller had stops at Fawcett drawing "Johnny Blair", at Fiction House drawing features including marine pilot "Clipper Kirk", "Flint Baker" and "Suicide Smith", and at Hillman on "Boy King", "The Rosebud Sisters" and various crime features. As the decade closes, Keller does work for Charles Biro and Bob Wood at Lev Gleason in CRIME DOES NOT PAY, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT and various Western features from roughly
1949-50.
                                                                                          Wings Comics #59 (July 1945)
                                                                                     [contains Keller Suicide Smith story]

     Jack Keller's last two major accounts in his comic book career would be where he'd leave his lasting mark. In 1950 Keller showed up at Stan Lee's Timely Comics doorstep and would begin an association that would last the entire decade. At this point in Timely history, Martin Goodman had just dissolved the long-standing Timely bullpen. Originating in 1941, this was a means for Goodman to save money by weening away his dependence upon the Lloyd Jacquet shop, Funnies Inc. for artwork. Goodman started an "in-house" staff to churn out the scores and scores of features appearing in his comic book line's myriad titles. Known as the "cataclysmic closet catastrophy" (as coined by Stan Lee in his recent "bio-autography"), the story goes that Goodman opened a closet to find a six foot stack of bought but never printed artwork. Going ballistic, he instructed Stan Lee to fire the staff and everyone went freelance.

     Jack Keller shows up right at this moment and is immediately given work with stories for Western titles, early pre-code horror and even the rare romance story. His most prolific "early" Marvel work though, was in the dizzying array of redundant Timely crime titles. This work is severely overlooked and under-appreciated when one is considering Keller's career.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

     Never a spectacular or flashy artist, Keller's crime stories nevertheless had an urban grittiness perfectly suited to the subject matter with a style similar to that of crime comic collegue Vern Henkel, and two steps above the Timely crime comic bullpen fare of 1948-49. At least 75% of Keller's crime stories were scripted by Carl Wessler, who wrote more crime stories than any other Timely scribe during this period. Often entire issues in 1950-51 were Wessler scripted. Look for these stories in titles like AMAZING DETECTIVE CASES, KENT BLAKE, ALL-TRUE CRIME, JUSTICE COMICS, CRIME EXPOSED, CRIME CAN'T WIN and CRIME MUST LOSE.

     As 1953 rolled in, Keller added more horror and war stories to his credit but a Western feature that he'd drawn since 1951, KID COLT OUTLAW, began to take prominence. When Stan Lee gave Keller KID COLT in 1951 it was nothing more than another assignment but while other artists came and went on various features (Maneely on BLACK RIDER, WYATT EARP, RINGO KID, WHIP WILSON , THE GUNHAWK, Shores on TWO GUN KID, Romita on WESTERN KID, Roth on APACHE KID, Wildey on OUTLAW KID, etc.), Keller "never" really left KID COLT and drew his adventures both in his own long running title and also in the anthology Western title GUNSMOKE WESTERN, right up to the Atlas implosion in the spring of 1957. Throughout this long run he would continue to do Western fillers but his non-Western work practically vanished by 1955 as his entire output was dedicated to the Western genre.
 Kid Colt Outlaw #79, pg. 2 (July 1958)
          [retold origin of Kid Colt]

     In the spring of 1957 the infamous Atlas Implosion left Keller and scores of artists without their main source of freelance income. Goodman and Lee pared down the bloated line from a high of about 70 titles to a paltry 16, quickly acquiring distribution for the books from National's distributor, Independent News and Stan Lee began to use backlogged inventory for the remaining 8 books allowed per month. Keller, always a tremendous car buff, frantically secured employment at a car dealership in his home of Reading, Pa but almost immediately the Western inventory ran out and Stan called back his Western mainstay artists, Joe Maneely, Jack Keller and Dick Ayers. Keller would return to KID COLT, but time constraints limited his work to a degree. Lee would call back additional Western artists to help out, especially with the tragic death in 1958 of his star artist Joe Maneely, and slack in the Western books was picked up by artists like Jack Davis and John Severin.
                                                                                  Kid Colt Outlaw #92, pg. 1 (Sept. 1960)

     Within a short time Keller also secured Western and war scripts from Charlton in titles like BILLY THE KID, CHEYENNE KID, BATTLEFIELD ACTION, FIGHTIN' MARINES, FIGHTIN' AIR FORCE, FIGHTIN' ARMY, SUBMARINE ATTACK and others. A long friendship and association with editor Dick Giordano ensued and by 1959 Keller parlayed his love of cars and racing into a long writer/artist tenure on the title HOT RODS AND RACING CARS which lasted, with a short hiatus, until 1973. Keller would also add other hot rod titles over the years like HOT ROD RACERS, DRAG 'N' WHEELS and WORLD OF WHEELS. By 1967 Keller had finally left Stan Lee and Marvel for good and would work nearly exclusively for Charlton until 1973. A handful of concurrent stories from DC in the years 1968-71, including fillers for their HOT WHEELS title, would cap his career and Keller retired from comics and went back to selling cars and indulging his hobby of model cars and die cast car models.                     
     Hot Rod Racers #11 (Nov. 1966)


             
                                       Hot Wheels #3 centerfold (July-Aug. 1970)

     I want to close with some personal recollections about the art of Jack Keller. His work was the very first Timely-Atlas art that made an impression on me as a kid. I can honestly say that the very first Atlas book I ever owned was a copy of the Mar/53 issue of ADVENTURES INTO WEIRD WORLDS #16, bought at a Phil Seuling convention in 1972 for about $1. My favorite story of that issue was a great 5 page pre-code stunner titled "Surprise!". In a nutshell, the plot consisted of a miserable, old landowner who pined after a beautiful young gypsy woman Lola who lived on his estate, and extremely jealous of her handsome young gypsy lover, Stephen. After repeatedly getting his advances spurned he murders her lover hoping to have a clear path to her affections. The young gypsy mourns for weeks and continues to spurn him, wanting only to see the handsome face of Stephen again. An old gypsy woman then promises the old man she could give him the same handsome face and after a seance ceremony commands Stephen's ghost to switch faces with his murderer. His face now changed, he runs to Lola and the kicker is in the last panel as she shrieks in horror at his face, the face of Stephen dead in his grave for 2 months! As a child, I never forgot that last panel with the EC-like rotting face and it haunted me for weeks! For this reason I've always held a soft spot for Jack Keller.
                                                                                     Advs. Into Weird Worlds #16, pg. 5
                                                                                                      (March 1953)

     Over the years, as he dropped under the radar of the comic book world, I always assumed Jack Keller had long passed away. Then about 2 years ago someone passed along Keller's phone number to me and I was shocked to know he was still alive. I planned on calling him, letting him know how much I enjoyed his early work, express my admiration for his long run on KID COLT and hopefully get his take on fellow Atlas Western artist Joe Maneely and how he felt his KID COLT compared to Maneely's characters and whether he was inspired or influenced by Maneely's dynamics. The number remained on a post -it note attached to my computer monitor as 2 years passed and I never seemed to find the time to call him. Keller then gave a wonderful interview to Jon Cooke in CBA and word that his health was failing got around. I thought this was now the time to call but more time passed. Then the sad news came that Keller had died and the number is still staring me in the face as I type this.

        Kid Colt #80, pg. 1 (Sept. 1958)

  
     Jack Keller's career was one of long-standing durability. Never as talented as a Bill Everett, a Joe Maneely or a Russ Heath, he nevertheless was a dedicated professional who will be remembered by fans for his wonderful body of work.

©2003
by Dr. Michael J. Vassallo
DocV@prodigy.net

About the author:

Dr. Michael J. Vassallo latest contribution honors the memory of Jack Keller, the longtime stalwart of both Atlas/ Marvel and Charlton comics. Dr. Vassallo's essay offers a fascinating look at Keller's art and long career.

                 
            My Own Romance #18                 Crime Exposed #7                    Strange Tales #45
                     (Sept. 1951)                             (Dec. 1951)                                (April 1956)