Tuesday, September 12, 2023

An Interview with Artist Jim Keefe

September 13, 2023

I've been fortunate to know Jim Keefe since about 2007 or 2008 first on the comicon.com untamed message board, where he dove in and brought expertise to the few serious discussions, and later he visited and ended up guesting at Minnesota's Fall and Spring Con's. He'd often buy my latest work, and that of course makes him an extra special friend. I was humbled that he'd do so. For years I badgered him for an interview, and am happy to present this collection of my questions and his answers.

For those few who don't know your work, please share with my readers how you entered the comic world, and where you went in the beginning.

Growing up in Minneapolis I tried some of the local art schools, but it just wasn't a good fit. This was the early 1980s when comic art and cartooning were generally looked down upon at an academic level. What gave me some hope was an interview in the Comics Journal with comic book artists Steve Bissette and John Totleben who were working on Swamp Thing (with writer Alan Moore). They mentioned a new school for cartooning that had opened a decade prior called the Joe Kubert School. That they had gone there was all the recommendation I needed. I applied and ended up being accepted.

At the same time I graduated from the Kubert School, King Features was shopping around for a colorist for their Comic Art Department. They called around for applicants to neighboring art schools and the Joe Kubert School was one of them. Joe Kubert recommended me and two other graduates for the position, and long story short I got the job.

I worked there for about a decade honing my skills and submitting my work whenever an opportunity arose. I ended up doing everything from syndicated fashion illustrations to ghosting the Secret Agent Corrigan comic strip. This eventually lead, after numerous rejections, to getting the Flash Gordon gig. That was the first job I had with some real name recognition. Didn't pay well but it got my foot in the door.

I love Flash Gordon, as you know, and loved your work on it, did the original move you particularly?

As a kid I was pretty much unaware of the cartoonists from the Golden Age. It wasn't until the Kubert School that I was introduced to them. The comic book artists I grew up on and admired all looked back to the big three of adventure strips from when they were kids. Milton Caniff doing Terry and the Pirates, Hal Foster on Prince Valiant, and Alex Raymond on Flash Gordon.

The first few years of Flash Gordon particularly attracted me as it as just nonstop action, then of course the lush line work he developed. It also showed Raymond's amazing growth as an artist - Just incredible.

You worked with legend Al Williamson, and with his work, in particular perhaps. How does that affect your work? Tim Truman said his art on Hawkworld was especially sharp because he was working with Alcatena, a fine inker and famous artist, he suggested it raised the bar for his energy and efforts.

Agree with Tim Truman 100%. Artists of Williamson's caliber just make you push the envelope and work harder to improve. Along with Al Williamson I had a number of other iconic cartoonists do art assists on Flash Gordon. I’ll quickly name drop Joe Kubert, George Evans and John Romita just for the fun of it. In each example I would send a script and a rough layout of the page with explicit directions NOT to follow the layout, but to just use it as a jumping off point. In each case their layouts were a vast improvement and an incredible teaching moment for me.

Tell me about your upcoming project featuring Charles Schultz, Peanuts cartoonist and creator.  Was he a particular inspiration to you, and if so, have you chosen your current work (Sally Forth) as means of telling similar real world truths in a humorous fashion?

Saturday September 30th I'll be giving a lecture on the world of comic strips at the Minnesota Historical Society, in conjunction with their fantastic Charles Schulz exhibit they currently have running. As a 30+ year veteran of comic strip syndication I have the unique experience of having worked on staff during the transition to digital (back in the 90s) in addition to working on two different comic strips, Flash Gordon and Sally Forth. So lots of fun stuff to go over.

Charles Schulz was an inspiration as he was a Minnesota native. Someone from my neck of the woods who went out into the bigger world and became a cartoonist. And he wasn’t just any cartoonist, but one of the greatest.

Regarding Sally Forth, writer Francesco Marciuliano and I are big Peanuts fans and have done multiple homages to Charles Schulz in the strip. Francesco even does a recurring premise of Hil and her friends looking up in the clouds daydreaming reminiscent of a classic Peanuts strip where Charlie Brown, Lucy and Linus do the same thing.

In reference to an artistic inspiration Peanuts has on my current job, Charles Schulz had mentioned in an interview once that if you're not drawing something funny, then what’s the point? Always have that in the back of my head when drawing Sally Forth.

You had a lovely article featuring Schultz recently. If you are able, if anyone is, what would you suggest is the deepest reason for his greatness? Where can folks find the article?

As with any great cartoonist, the trick is to get the reader not to see the drawing but the characters. Schulz was a master at this in how people could relate to his characters and identify with them - laugh and cry with them. That it was ink lines on paper affecting them so is the magic of the medium.

And Here’s a link to the article in the fall 2023 Minnesota History magazine.


I am curious about your thoughts about AI regarding art, writing, music and what not. Is it a threat, is it a boost to creative life? In the most distinct manner, what is the art world's problem with AI? As I've said in interviews, if AI copies my work, people would think, AI writes shitty poetry. What's the problem there? But for a Neal Adams, or Ernest Hemingway, or Mozart, are there any threats to the art world?

AI isn't bad in and of itself. It's how it's used. Also, a lot of these programs are strip-mining other artists work as part of their algorithms.

I’m going to hand the mike over to Sarah Anderson (Sarah’s Scribbles) and quote excerpts from her guest essay for the New York Times for this one. She succinctly points out the iceberg we're heading for.

“I was sent via Twitter an image generated by A.I. from a random fan who had used my name as a prompt. It wasn’t perfect, but the contours of my style were there. The notion that someone could type my name into a generator and produce an image in my style immediately disturbed me. This was not a human creating fan art or even a malicious troll copying my style; this was a generator that could spit out several images in seconds. With some technical improvement, I could see how the process of imitating my work would soon become fast and streamlined, and the many dark potentials bubbled to the forefront of my mind.”

“I felt violated. The way I draw is the complex culmination of my education, the comics I devoured as a child and the many small choices that make up the sum of my life. The details are often more personal than people realize — the striped shirt my character wears, for instance, is a direct nod to the protagonist of “Calvin and Hobbes,” my favorite newspaper comic. Even when a person copies me, the many variations and nuances in things like line weight make exact reproductions difficult. Humans cannot help bringing their own humanity into art. Art is deeply personal, and A.I. had just erased the humanity from it by reducing my life’s work to an algorithm.”

“So what makes up these data sets? Well, pretty much everything. For artists, many of us had what amounted to our entire portfolios fed into the data set without our consent. This means that A.I. generators were built on the backs of our copyrighted work, and through a legal loophole, they were able to produce copies of varying levels of sophistication.”

“Many artists are not completely against the technology but felt blindsided by the lack of consideration for our craft. Being able to imitate a living artist has obvious implications for our careers, and some artists are already dealing with real challenges to their livelihood.”
“I see a monster forming.”

-Sarah Anderson  New York Times 12/31/2022

I've been waiting forever for your personal work featuring your beloved father and his service in WWII.  Is that still in progress? Or has it come out and during one of my moments of memory loss or health issues, I've missed it?

That's been on the back burner for the longest time. Having a freelancer’s seven day a week work schedule isn’t tenable to getting a a lot of personal projects done.

That said, though, I've been working hard on carving out time for personal projects, and will be starting a Patreon within the next month as a catch basin for that and other projects.

Will comics in floppy form, survive post modern culture, or will they be consigned to online?  If not, how might they survive with paper price increases, piracy, and the resistance to cost increases?

First off, I abhor when comic books are referred to as “floppies.” When the h*ll was that decided?! I hear the word all the time in certain comic book circles and I'm just glad it hasn't taken off in the general public.

But I digress…

I don't see comic books disappearing anytime soon, but they sure aren’t the powerhouse they used to be, and haven’t been for some time. Case in point, most kids today are introduced to superheroes from the movies, not the comics. It's the analogy of movies and TV superseding radio back in the day. Radio didn't go away, it just changed and became streaming services and podcasts.

As times changes, so does the comics biz. As comic book sales have shrunk over the years graphic novels (especially YA books and manga) have increased in popularity. To zoom out a bit… In the early 1900s onwards comic strips reigned supreme. By the 1940s comic books had taken off. In the 1960s indie comics/undergrounds entered the fray. In the 1980s self-published/alternative comics joined in at the same time graphic novels were just getting their sea legs. In the 1990s online content joined the mix. And now in the 21st century graphic novels and manga have taken flight.

Cartoons, comics, graphic novels – whatever you want to call it (but not floppies) – the packaging keeps changing, but sequential art is just as popular now as it’s ever been. And as long as the stories are strong and the artwork delivers, the art form will continue to have an audience.

And that’s my two cents.

For those interested in more info on me and what I’m up to:
here’s my Linktree https://linktr.ee/jimkeefe

All images are copyright © their respective owners, use is simply as fair use and no ownership rights asserted.

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