« Auto racing began five minutes after the second car was built. » — Henry Ford
This post comes to you nearly seven days late, as I was sidelined rather abruptly by a nasty inner ear infection for the better part of last week.
I was inspired to write it by a mournful headline about the passing of an institution, Brooklyn, NY’s slot-racing emporium Buzz-a-Rama, founded in 1965… and now, with the death last year of its owner, Frank “Buzz” Perri, presumably closed for good. Here’s the story. And there’s even a documentary!
My own experience with slot-car racing was limited to miniature sets in boardwalk amusement parks, often powered by water pistols. Even then, it was clear that particular cars were better performers, and that there were preferable lanes. These were always occupied, seemingly on a permanent basis.
Slot-car racing knew its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, and I suppose its slow twilight somewhat mirrored that of such classic, once-ubiquitous pastimes as model railroading and model building, though surely the latter’s glamorous sideline, airplane glue huffing, will always be popular with the kids.
And what about comics? We’ve got that covered, so bear with me. Today, we wave the checkered flag in salute to Jack Keller (June 16, 1922 – January 2, 2003), who enjoyed a long career in comics beginning in 1941 with Dell, followed by a stint assisting Lou Fine on The Spirit while Will Eisner was serving in the war, then some work with Fiction House. A pretty spiffy résumé already!
As a staff artist for Atlas, Keller added to his body of work and his versatility. In 1953, he took over Kid Colt, Outlaw, one of his longest stints — 1953-67! By the late 1950s, he was also freelancing for Charlton Comics.
Eventually, Charlton managing editor Dick Giordano offered Keller an exclusive contract, and so he had to pick between Marvel and Charlton… while the Derby, CN publisher offered a lower page rate than Marvel’s, it offered steadier, more plentiful work, as well as near-complete autonomy. No arbitrary, unpaid re-dos and revisions, and full credit for all of his work*. Quite significantly, Keller would be free to devote himself to his favourite genre, racetrack opera. Easy choice!
Here’s a perfectly à propos story starring Scot Jackson and the Rod Masters*, Keller creations introduced in Teenage Hotrodders no. 1 (April 1963, Charlton).
From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, Keller handled the bulk of the main stories in Charlton’s stable of hot rod titles: Hot Rods and Racing Cars, Teenage Hotrodders, Drag-Strip Hotrodders, Hot Rod Racers, Top Eliminator, Drag ’n’ Wheels, Grand Prix, World of Wheels, Surf ’n’ Wheels… crafting gripping and meticulously-researched gear-head sagas injected with just the right dose of hi-test humour for the win. Speed demons Clint Curtis, Rick Roberts, Scot Jackson, Ken King and The White Angels got the real deal when Keller chronicled their full-throttle antics. Curtis and Jackson even faced off in Match Race! (Hot Rod Racers no. 10, Sept. 1966, Charlton).
Finally, when Charlton dropped its last two hot rod titles in 1973 (HR&RC and Drag ’n’ Wheels), Keller called it a career, left comics and went off… to sell cars.
« The Street Racers », written, penciled, inked and lettered by Keller, originally appeared in Teenage Hotrodders no. 20 (Oct. 1966, Charlton); edited by Dick Giordano.
*if you think that sounds like a porn name, what about early Hot Rods and Racing Cars protagonist “Buster Camshaft, Screwball of the Hot Rods”?
**Here’s the sort of Mighty Marvel experience that befell none other than Wallace Wood (and as we know, he wasn’t alone in this: « I enjoyed working with Stan [Lee] on Daredevil but for one thing. I had to make up the whole story. He was being paid for writing, and I was being paid for drawing, but he didn’t have any ideas. I’d go in for a plotting session, and we’d just stare at each other until I came up with a storyline. I felt like I was writing the book but not being paid for writing. » [ source ]