« Alcohol is for drinking, gas is for cleaning parts, and nitro is for racing! » — Don Garlits
At this time each year, Montréal is beset by its own plague of greedy locusts: it’s Formule 1 Grand Prix time! While our fair city offers other crowd-pleasing events (for instance le Festival international de jazz de Montréal and le Festival Juste pour rire / Just for Laughs), the most glaring distinction between the Grand Prix and the others is that it essentially draws just one type of visitor, a Las Vegas/Florida Spring Break/Nascar sort of randy, aggressive, would-be Alpha Male yob. Imagine hosting the Republican National Convention year upon year, and at eardrum-tormenting sonic levels. Time and time again, the newspapers run the same stories about rampant prostitution and criminal exploitation and how the event only benefits bar, hotel, restaurant and cab operators and variegated pimps… and shafts everyone else. The usual one-percenter bait-and-switch appeal to everyday avarice, it never fails.
Oddly enough, despite my distaste for racing culture proper, I’m paradoxically quite fond of hot rod comics. I was as surprised as anyone when I chanced, several years past, to read an odd issue of Drag n’ Wheels that had come into my possession decades earlier in the midst of an assorted lot (this was no. 46, April 1971)… and greatly enjoyed it. Gripping stuff, as it turned out!
Now, there’s no question that the number one driver of Charlton Comics’ hot-rod line* was Jack Keller (1922-2003), a Golden Age artist who found his true niche with car comics. Around 1967, he was offered an exclusive contract with Marvel to work on their western titles, but Keller declined in order to focus on his Charlton account, where he could write, pencil, ink and letter his own stuff… without having to redraw anything. Moreover, he claimed to favour horsepower over horses.
Keller’s car stories are often a delight, full of knowing detail, clever humour and plenty of thrills. However, if Keller had produced the entire line on his own (as he did, in fact, when it was whittled down to a pair of titles in its final years), the growing bleakness in his work could have become wearying. Drawing from his direct involvement in the racing scene, Keller packed his stories with pompous asses, dangerous egomaniacs, slimy backstabbers, sociopathic glory hogs, and other representatives of a bloodthirsty, mean-spirited mob.
Charlton’s main writer, Joe Gill, filled out the rest of the book, aided by a rotating crew of artists, among them Don Perlin, the tireless Charles Nicholas ‘n’ Vince Alascia duo, Tony Tallarico, Bill Montes, Dick Giordano, Bill Molno, et al.
But in the line’s peak years (1964-1969, also an aesthetic apogee in automotive design), the number two illustrator in Charlton’s racing stable was Edd Ashe (1908-1986), another journeyman from the Golden Age of comics.
Here, at last, are some actual comics. Dragstrip Paved With Gold appeared in Hot Rods and Racing Cars no. 90 (June 1968, Charlton Comics), and was written by Joe Gill, pencilled by Edd Ashe, and inked by the mysterious and likely pseudonymous T. Roots.
It might be easy to miss some of the more unusual nuances of Gill’s tale. When faced with the daily task of coming up with material grounded in genres with a limited number of available plots (say, romance, war, horror, hot rods, sports), Gill kept the plot basic and tidy, but enriched his stories with unusual characterization, pertinent technical details, vernacular and jargon… and sometimes moral values quite at odds with the prevailing societal mores. In this story for instance, note that the ladies in Terry and Jim’s lives provide the voices of reason, prodding them gently away from blind ambition, excessive materialism and showboating and toward self-preservation and enlightened self-respect. Dead men can’t keep up with the Joneses… or rather ahead, in this case.
As a bonus, I’ve compiled a complete-as-far-as-I-know bibliography of Mr. Ashe’s contributions to Charlton hot rod comics (1964-1969); wherever available**, follow the links to read the issue on comicbookplus.com!
Hot Rod Racers 1 : Local Champ / The Compact Cavaliers / Back-Road Champ
Hot Rod Racers 2: The Avenger / Joe’s Jalopy / The Driver, not the Car
Hot Rod Racers 10: Quarter King
Hot Rod Racers 11: Fast Loser
Hot Rod Racers 12: Wrecks to Riches
Hot Rod Racers 13: The Spoiler
Hot Rod Racers 14: The Day the Creampuff Won
Hot Rod Racers 15: You Never Know!
Grand Prix 16: Bossin’ the Turns
Grand Prix 17: Twins’ Trouble / Constant Loser
Grand Prix 18: Gentleman Driver
Grand Prix 19: The Eagles Scream
Grand Prix 20: For Money or Marbles
Grand Prix 21: The Town Wreckers
Drag-Strip Hotrodders 2: Tamed Tiger / Falcon Flyer / Little Eliminator
Drag-Strip Hotrodders 3: English Cousin / 1320 in 13.20 / S/S King
Drag-Strip Hotrodders 5: Great Moments in Racing History: “Rods Across the Sea”
Drag-Strip Hotrodders 10: The Furious 40! / 200 Plus!
Drag-Strip Hotrodders 11: Match Champ
Drag-Strip Hotrodders 12: I’m a Lemon (A Car’s Own Story)
Drag-Strip Hotrodders 13: Speed in All Seasons
Drag-Strip Hotrodders 14: Playin’ the Role!
Drag-Strip Hotrodders 15: “Mighty Mustang”
Drag-Strip Hotrodders 16: Speed at Any Price
World of Wheels 17: Modified Madness
World of Wheels 18: The Astro Rod
World of Wheels 19: “Speedy”
World of Wheels 20: Beast From the East
World of Wheels 21: The Rat Pack
World of Wheels 23: The Wild Ones (Parents)
World of Wheels 27: The Sissy Wagon
World of Wheels 28: Home Town Driver / Lemon at Le Mans (Vince Colletta inks)
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 72: Farmboy at Le Mans
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 73: Outlaw Hot-Rod / 300 MPH Flying Jet / The Novice / Hold It!
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 74: Final Test (Colletta inks)
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 75: Great Moment in Racing History: “Race to the Sky”
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 78: Great Moment in Racing History: Sebring ’65
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 79: Mille Miglia of 1952
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 80: Great Moment in Racing History: The Vanderbuilt Cup Race of 1937
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 83: The Digyard Demon
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 85: Fast and Furious
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 86: Backyard Grand Prix
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 87: The Pigeon / Just a Country Boy
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 88: Wild Willie & the Black Baron
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 89: The Mighty Midgets
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 90: Dragstrip Paved With Gold
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 91: Piston Head
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 92: Dirt Track Digger
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 93: Tomboy Tornado
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 94: A Friendly Little Car
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 99: The New Breed
Teenage Hotrodders 15: Great Moment in Racing History: The World 600
Teenage Hotrodders 16: Great Moment in Racing History: The Detroit Special
Teenage Hotrodders 17: Great Moment in Racing History: Le Mans 24 Hour Race 1959
Teenage Hotrodders 21: His Big Dream
Teenage Hotrodders 23: Flying Failure
Top Eliminator 25: The Pigeon
Top Eliminator 27: RedLight Express / Mad for Matches
Top Eliminator 28: Blow-Up
Top Eliminator 29: Scarface and the Get Away Gasser
Drag ‘n’ Wheels 32: Weird Willy’s Wild Wagen
Drag ‘n’ Wheels 33: Smoked In
Drag ‘n’ Wheels 34: Wastin’ Time
Drag ‘n’ Wheels 35: The Firecracker 500
*These were Hot Rods and Racing Cars (1951-1973); Speed Demons (1957-58); Dragstrip Hotrodders / World of Wheels (1963-1970); Teenage Hotrodders / Top Eliminator / Drag ‘n’ Wheels (1963-1973); Hot Rod Racers / Grand Prix (1964-1970); and Surf ‘n’ Wheels (1969-1970).
**Until they wised up sometime in 1968, Charlton didn’t bother to copyright their publications; therefore, they wound up in the Public domain.