Stacked unceremoniously in a box among other mementos from Roger Kastel’s career can be found a well-preserved copy of his first paid job as an artist. It’s a full-sized comic book designed to teach industrial workers how to perform their trade better.
As his son, I’m quite familiar with my father’s work—or at least thought I was—but this found work was new to me. I’m shocked at how sophisticated these early cartoons are, especially considering Dad was only 15 years old at the time. I recall what I was doing with my life at the same age, and the comparison embarrasses me.
As an early dusk falls outside my father’s Massachusetts home on the short days between Christmas and New Year’s, I pull up a seat next to Dad, each of us within an easy arm’s length of eggnogs with a spot of whiskey in them.
My father is best known for his Jaws and Empire Strikes Back movie posters and countless illustrations of best-selling and popular books. Now entering his seventy-third year of being a professional artist, he has enjoyed an extraordinary career. At age 88 he is still painting and is still sought out frequently by the media and those in the memorabilia business for interviews and public appearances.
For the next several hours I do something long overdue: interview him, partly for family history and partly to preserve a little bit of Americana because, after all, he is a man who produced some of the most recognizable images of the 20th century. I push the record button and begin talking with a man who tries to come off as unremarkable. But I know better, and have known so for a long time.
Dad applied for his first paying job at the suggestion of neighbor and early mentor, cartoonist Tom Hickey. As advanced as his drawings were for someone of his tender age, Dad casually mentions, “I also had to create the characters,” which made his youthful endeavors even more impressive.
At an early age he wanted to be a cartoonist and draw comic books when he grew up. “I loved the comic book artists and all the cartoonists. It was a wonderful age, and I was inspired by Alex Raymond who did Flash Gordon and Rip Kirby.”
While still in high school, Roger commuted into Manhattan during the summer from his parents’ home in White Plains to attend the Art Students League. To fund his art education, he caddied at a local golf course.
“The first summer I studied anatomy,” he recalls, something he readily admits he lacked the knowledge of and technique for at that point. He was in classes taught by famous artists Sidney E. Dickenson, Edwin Dickens, and Robert Beverly Hale, although Kastel admits they rarely ever taught, and their lectures were mostly given by monitors in the class.
With the help of Bob Baron, a friend and fellow artist, Dad eventually got into one of the classes taught by Frank Reilly, one of the most sought after and influential instructors at the school. This was in the postwar era and Dad, literally a kid, found himself in the same class with ex-GIs, many of whom had also studied with Reilly before the war. Dad was in awe of the returning GIs, who, he remembers, were “fantastic artists” and much further along as artists.
Paperback cover illustration, 1963
To take full benefit of all the accomplished artists around him, Dad used great logic, “I always would sit behind someone who was good, to see how he did it.”
If you grew up in the Kastel household, you were well aware of Frank Reilly’s name, and when Dad spoke of him it was in reverent tones. Dad wasn’t alone in his admiration for Reilly, as many other students at the Art Students League during that era felt the same way.
“Mr. Reilly could teach you how to draw, and he could teach you how to paint. If you asked him a question, he would have the answer. He would teach by lecture every Tuesday and Thursday—very intense lectures,” Kastel adds with emphasis.
“My drawings were lousy; I was a kid. Some guys in class could draw so beautifully. Mr. Reilly wouldn’t say your drawings were terrible, he would say, ‘do this, correct that,’ and I would work on what was bad on my drawing.”
Paperback cover illustration, 1963
The Korean War interrupted Dad’s education at the Art Students League, and he enlisted in the Navy. The Navy saw fit to train Dad in lithography, which is the process of printing. When stationed in Miramar in San Diego the lithographers were put into the photo lab. He and his fellow lithographers couldn’t figure out the military logic behind this, and the best they could conclude was, “Lithography … photography. We guessed the Navy thought they sounded similar, so they should be together.”
“As we were being given a tour of the photo lab we were going through a room, and one of the guys in the room asked, ‘Are any of you guys an artist?’”
“I raised my hand and said, ‘Me, me, me!’ That’s how I got into the Art Department.” From that modest beginning, Dad eventually got to ply his trade doing various artwork and cartoons for the Navy over the course of his four years in the service.
Adventure, December 1964
Once out of the Navy he considered staying in California. “I loved California. There was a great school, The Art Center, and a lot of illustrators came from there. But I also wanted to get back to New York City.” He then ran into a buddy he had known since boot camp, who was heading back to New York, and Dad decided to drive back East with him. “I was home for a week or two, and I was reading the New York Times and saw a job for a Studio Assistant. It was for the Harry Watts Studios. I showed my portfolio to the Studio Manager who said, ‘Yeah kid, you’ll do.’ I wound up sweeping floors, delivering illustrations, retouching and cutting mats.”
My next question was going to be, if he thought being a studio assistant and sweeping the floors was beneath him. Before I can even ask, Dad’s eyes light up as he beat me to it saying, “I loved it.”
He learned many valuable lessons on the job that would serve him well later, including how to meet Art Directors. Before going out to deliver his first painting, the Studio Manager warned him, “You’ll get into agencies and meet many Art Directors. And when you do, the Art Director is going to ask, ‘What do you think?’ And you’re going to say, ‘I love it!’”
With Dad, for the most part, this was true. Because Harry Watts Studios, in his own words, “had some fantastic artists,” which included Paul Burns, Mark Miller, and Frank Lacono, to name a few.
Reflecting back 60 years, Dad says with a touch of sadness, “This was the last classic era of the magazine illustrator.”
Eventually, Dad moved up and got a job in Reddy Kilowatt’s four-man art department doing paste-ups and black-and-white cartoons of Reddy. Reddy Kilowatt was a cartoon character designed to educate the public on energy generation and conservation. During this period he got to work with Reddy Kilowatt’s stalwart Charlie Bader, who Dad calls a “sensational cartoonist.”
Adventure, August 1965
Perhaps the best thing about the job was Reddy Kilowatt’s work hours, “It was 9-5,” he said, “when no artists worked 9-5.” This schedule would become important as Dad re-enrolled in the Art Students League and attended night school for several more years. The formula was tiring but simple: work during the day at Reddy Kilowatt and go to school five nights a week at the Art Students League, studying under none other than Frank Reilly.
“Reilly was a great lecturer,” Dad emphasizes. “He studied with people trained in the atelier tradition,” which dates back to the Renaissance where a master painter would teach a select group of pupils.
This teaching method resonated well with Kastel. “It was so different than high school or the military. This is something I really wanted to do, and just the way I wanted to do it. I could work at my own pace. If I had a problem, I knew I could work my way out of it, and there would be people to help you. There never was a test. Attendance was never taken. You came in, and it was up to you.”
Among a few of the many known artists, Dad got to know and befriend while he attended the Art Students League included James Bama, Carl Hantman, and Peter Maxx.
It was at the Art Students League that Dad sold his first illustration. “Reilly would have what was called professional problems. This was work assigned by people like book publishers, and they always paid for the best artwork.”
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