Keenan Keller and Tom Neely

Tom Neely and Keenan Keller Interview: L.A., DIY, Punk, Process, and Primates By Alxis Ratkevich

Sep 25, 2014

Tom Neely (Henry and Glenn Forever) and Keenan Marshall Keller (Galactic Breakdown) have come together to create The HUMANS, a comic full of ape bikers, exploitation, bananas, and badasses. Keenan and Tom have been bringing DIY comics to L.A. and beyond for years. Their latest joint venture has really hit the sweet spot.

I heard of Tom Neely from Henry and Glenn Forever. It was pretty big—big enough that I had heard of it and seen it around—and I knew Tom made it. When I finally got around to checking it out, (I’ll admit I was a little late to the party) I immediately recognized a familiar sensibility, a punk sensibility. I was also a fan of his beautifully bizarre images from The Wolf. I made a conscious decision to start buying more art. I wanted to spend what I had supporting things like music and art even though I’m pretty broke all the time. At some point I hooked up with Tom and I had him do a portrait of my boyfriend. It was around Halloween and he drew him as a rocker wolfman. I went to Tom’s house to pick up the drawing. I awkwardly introduced myself in his doorway and handed him a 7” of my boyfriend’s band. The drawing came out really cool. Later I ran into him at The HUMANS signing and he was so genuinely nice. That was that: I was a total Tom fan.

Keenan Keller, I met a while back—originally through John Henry and Heather of the band Static Static. I was a fan of Static Static, and at some point got introduced to Keenan, his wife Lesley (who plays drums in a bunch of cool bands such as Red Aunts, Intelligence, and Smelly  Tongues) and Keenan’s space at the time, the Show Cave. There were some cool shows at the Show Cave, but eventually it closed. I knew Keenan’s work from his drawing in his comic Galactic Breakdown, and in some gig posters of his I’d seen. I really responded to his frantic and expressive drawings with their bright, bold colors and insane imagery. Everything felt like it was going to vibrate or explode off the page. It seemed to have this uncontainable energy that I could identify with. I was super excited when he drew the Wizzard Sleeve/Gary Wrong Group Halloween Violence 7” swamp wolf mask. It was such a cool idea to have an old school paper mask come with the record. I’d never seen anything like it before. I’m a real big Wizzard Sleeve/Gary Wrong fan, so the whole thing pretty much solidified that Keenan was cool in my eyes.

Personally, I have and always will have a thing for monkeys. Growing up, I always liked movies, TV shows, anything monkey or primate related. Tthe Lonesome Stranger is one of my all-time favorites. So of course it piqued my interest to see that there was a new project with Tom, Keenan, and some badass apes. Being a fan of the Zig Zags, their song for the accompanying 7” only sweetened the pot. I sat down with Tom, Keenan, and a sweet old dog named Barker. We talked all things L.A., DIY, punk, process, and primate. I mean what else do you need?

Where are you from and how has that influenced your art?

Tom: I grew up in Paris, Texas. I definitely did think it influenced me in a lot of ways. It’s hard to say how specifically it did. I had a couple other artist friends there but mostly I was the outsider, weirdo, metalhead artist in a town of rednecks and small town people. So I didn’t really fit in. I think that encouraged my artistic behavior to keep persuing it because that’s where I found happiness—making comics.

Then I ended up going to grad school at the San Francisco Art Institute for painting. Growing up in Texas I had very little access to comics, other than mainstream stuff, but when I moved to San Francisco is when I first discovered alternative and underground comics. The history of underground comics. That stuff is now informing my work a lot more and has been a bigger influence on me in the last decade as I’ve been making my own comics.

Keenan: I was born outside of Washington D.C. in McLean, Virginia. That affected me a lot because I grew up aware of other cultures and other people. I think it definitely influenced me as an artist later on in my life. When I turned eleven my family moved to Clearwater, Florida and that is about as reverse culturally as you can get. It’s the anus of the world, basically, and that affected me even more so, probably. I got to learn exactly what I hate about humanity, America, and everything from growing up in Florida. Then I went to Chicago for film school to get away, and I hated Chicago as well. So that’s why I ran to L.A., and I love L.A. So, I finally found a place I like.

Alxis: How does living in L.A. affect you and influence your artwork?

Tom: It took a while to settle in, but the last six or seven years—as I’ve become friends with more artists and musicians and just creative people in general—I love it. I feel like there is a little boom of artistic bohemianism that thrives in the nooks and crannies, unwatched by Hollywood, separate from that, that’s really inspiring and cool. That’s part of what lead us to do the soundtrack component of our comic book, reaching out to other artists and musicians who we are in contact with and seeing how that can add to what we are doing.

Keenan: I love L.A. It’s one of those things—in other parts of America you come across people who totally hate L.A. for no reason, having never been there. I think that seems to me why I like L.A. so much. We’re protected from idiots and assholes who might just want to judge it from maybe an entertainment and Hollywood standpoint. But, I’ve met more cool people, more cool artists. I’ve collaborated with more people and I’ve grown as an artist since I’ve been here. Whereas everywhere else I always felt stunted and the cities I lived  in before seemed to collapse around me. I never was able to get footing and get things going. In L.A. it’s much easier. It’s a giant suburb. It’s punk and weird as hell, and I love it. Culturally, it’s all over the place. You have every single country on the planet having a neighborhood here. Great food, good music. I don’t see myself ever living in another city.

Tom: Yeah, me neither.

Alxis: Do you have any comics or characters that you created when you were real young that are really funny or embarrassing?

Keenan: I didn’t start drawing comics until I was twenty-nine. So the first comic I ever drew was Galactic Breakdown, which is the first thing I ever published. I mean I could be embarrassed of almost everything I’ve ever drawn but I don’t have anything in the recesses of my past that is that goofy or stupid, ‘cause I wasn’t doing it. I was doing bad films and stuff like that.

Alxis: So what about a bad film then?

Keenan: Well, let’s put it this way, I burnt all the negatives of all the films that I did in film school. That’s how bad they were. That’s how little I enjoyed the process or respected what came out of what I did. That was such a long series of dumb ideas that I wouldn’t even want to get started, but I don’t really have anything that sticks out.

Tom: I have so many bad comics in my past. The one that really stands out was one I never even published. It was in the 1990s and I just did this thing in my sketch book that I would show my friends at parties and stuff, but it was terrible. It was this comic called Tom Man, Defender of Girls and Nerds. It was this dumb parody comic of superhero comics, and it was my first attempt at drawing an actual comic book.

Keenan: Were you the hero?

Tom: Yeah.

Keenan: Yeah, okay. [laughs]

Tom: But my favorite childhood embarrassing superhero that I invented is called the Zookeeper. I wish I could show you the outfit. It was so ridiculous. He was so pimped out. He had a fur cape, fur loin cloth, and a big lion’s mane for a hairdo. He could speak with animals and control them.

Keenan: That sounds pretty bad.

Alxis: Do you have a character that you feel is your mascot?

Tom: Well for The HUMANS, Karns is becoming one of our favorite mascots ‘cause he’s kinda the weirdest, gnarliest character in the bunch. The first issue ends with Karns’s corner. We hope people will write letters to him, and he can answer. So he’s becoming our mascot for this series.

Keenan: Personally, in the comic I do, Galactic Breakdown, the character Roids. I guess for people who know me as a cartoonist, that’s probably how they see me. They’re always shocked when they meet me because they expect me to look like a back-acned steroid freak.

Tom: I guess I’m most known for Henry and Glenn Forever but everything I do is so different that I haven’t had any defining characters. I never came up with one character that I used for a long period of time. I guess Henry and Glenn is the closest I’ve done to that.

Alxis: Do you feel you have a philosophy about what you make and put out?

Tom: I do and I don’t. I mean, it’s constantly evolving. Now we are both entering a new venture with HUMANSgetting picked up by Image since we’ve both been DIY, self-publishing artists. I’ve always had a central philosophy of just trying to keep pursuing my art in whatever way I can. That is basically the only driving force. I think we both will continue to do DIY projects and self-publishing, but it’s also nice to have somebody do some stuff for me.

Keenan: Everything we’ve done is multi-layered in some capacity. Neither of us is a gag cartoonists—who do something just for a laugh—or a gross-out artist who does something just to gross people out. We’re dealing with multiple planes. I don’t think of an audience when I’m writing. My audience is me when I’m creating because that process is for me. Then, afterward, I just hope people connect to it in some capacity.

Tom: I’ve worked in various other capacities, but with my own personal books and comics the drive has been a story that I want to tell, that I want to draw for myself, and then, hopefully, people will like it later. My books up until this point have been more personally artistically driven, really personal stories I wanted to do. Through working on the Henry and Glennseries, I learned that it’s fun to make entertaining comics. It’s fun to make comics that people laugh at and really like. That has opened me up to be able to do something like The HUMANS, and realize I can do something that isn’t just brooding navel-gazing. I can do something that people have fun with and, in turn, I’m having a lot more fun making it.

Alxis: What is your artistic process?

Keenan: For me, it’s always different. I try to be open. With drawing, for me it’s not easy. It’s kind of a hard process. I’m not schooled as an artist. I don’t understand things like proportion and point of view and stuff like that. To me, it’s more about finding what I want to say and trying to do it in any capacity I can.

Tom: Same with me. My process has been different every time. This one is new, too. I’m doing it much more traditionally. He gives me the script, then I thumbnail it out, then do the pencil and inking and try and keep it going, which is different from in the past when it’s been more like working at the whims of my creativity.

Alxis: What other kind of art do you do outside of comics and how do you collaborate with these other artists?

Alxis: What was the original idea of having a 7” with The HUMANS comic?

Keenan: When I started doing comics, I always wanted to do a comic with a record. I always liked the idea of a soundtrack. I liked the music tying into it. I like getting bands to tie in. I like creating bridges with artists. So when we got to The HUMANS, it was a no-brainer.

Tom: Once people starting seeing The HUMANS artwork, people were reaching out to us, saying, “We want to do music for this,” so that’s really cool. There’s actually a band called, Boss Kong that formed out of The HUMANS. It’s a band that lives in The HUMANS world but it’s an actual band now. With the Zig Zags, we both like those guys a lot and it seems like the right sound for a biker comic.

Keenan: I’ve been a fan of Zig Zags since they’ve been a band. The moment we were like, “Let’s do a record,” they seemed like the perfect band to do it. Smelly Tongues—my wife is in that band—and they had an idea to do something really weird and witchy for the other side, so I was like, “Let’s do it.” In the 1970s lots of comics came with records. That totally had something to do with it. We grew up with those. We’re going to continue to do music with the comic in the future.

Tom: There’s a really horrible Spiderman album from the ‘70s, that’s like a really bad prog rock album. Also just like the exploitation movies that we’ve been inspired by for The HUMANS series—especially the biker movies—all have such great soundtracks and we’re both vinyl fans.

Alxis: How did you collaborate to make The HUMANS? What was that process like?

Keenan: I write a script and then I give it to Tom. He starts penciling out the issue. We talk about it. He changes bits here and there. We talk more and we figure out what we like overall and what we don’t. Then he inks it, so it’s a complete collaboration.

Tom: The story was initially his, but we are co-creating and forming the universe together. It’s a back and forth but we both have equal creative duties. I’m bringing as much of my storytelling to it as he is, but visually. Then when Kristina Collantes brings her colors into it, it adds a whole other layer to it.

What was the process of working with the Zig Zags?

Keenan: They saw some sketches, and I wrote them a text and gave them a synopsis. Jed was like, “Oh, I got it.” That’s all it took ‘cause Jed is already in that mindset. The titles of half their songs on the new album are from movies, so they were like, “Got it. Done.”

How do you feel about doing signings and comic-cons?

Cons and shit like that can be a nightmare. I think I’m starting to get better at learning how to enjoy the aspects that are enjoyable and not focus on the shit that I hate about them.

Tom: I really enjoy it because I spend most of my time just over there in the corner by myself, drawing in a cave. Going to cons can sometimes feel like a distraction, but most the time—especially if you just finished a project—it’s like a nice, fun party to celebrate the fact that you just finished something.

Keenan: The number one thing I take away from these events is when I get to hang out with people who I don’t see ever except for at these things.

Finally, list these primates starting with the best—Bubbles (Michael Jackson’s chimp), Ham (the first chimp in space), Clyde (the orangutan from Any Which Way but Loose), Koko (the sign langue speaking gorilla), and Bonzo (the chimp from the Ronald Reagan movies).

Tom: Clyde’s number one.

Keenan: Clyde’s number one, for sure.

Tom: We even have a character named after Clyde, who basically is Clyde.

Keenan: It’s been like my number one goal since I went to film school: I am going to write a monkey movie. My wife has gotten sick of me saying it forever. Ham (the first chimp in space) is two.

Tom: Yeah, I put Ham, then Koko. I always loved Koko. Then maybe Bubbles.

Keenan: I mean Cheetah would be above all those guys.

Tom: Yeah, and Lancelot Link.

Keenan: Yeah, Lancelot link would be number two. Cheetah three. Well, then the apes from Going Ape! would be next.

[Keenan and Tom continue to list monkeys and discuss monkeys from movies and television...]