On the comics page, scenes from Minneapolis

“Sally Forth” artist Jim Keefe works local sites into the strip’s backgrounds

"Sally Forth" artist Jim Keefe in the basement studio at his home in Kingfield. Photo by Dylan Thomas

Even the most dedicated reader of “Sally Forth” would probably not notice anything special or unusual about the comic strip’s Sept. 19 edition — unless, perhaps, that reader was a neighbor of Jim Keefe.

Keefe, who lives in the Kingfield neighborhood, took over art duties on the strip in 2013, and since then he’s worked in a few Easter eggs for local readers. When he needs to draw a location in the Forth’s unnamed Midwestern city, Keefe often looks around his Southwest Minneapolis neighborhood for reference.

This summer, the strip’s writer, Francesco Marciuliano, submitted a script with Sally’s sister Jackie taking a job at an arts and crafts store, so in August Keefe took his camera over to digs, a fabric and craft store located at 38th & Grand. He was looking for a shop with the just right feel, and “digs just hit it,” he said.

He asked owner Katie Koster if he could shoot some photos, and on Sept. 19 the store’s façade appeared in the strip’s opening panel.

“I loved it,” Koster said. “I thought it was super-fun to see my space in illustration. … It’s so fun looking at the drawings, because it’s digs.”

There’s just one difference: In the strip, the name on the awning is Small Wonders, not digs. Not that Koster minded; the ongoing gag that week was Small Wonders’ almost total lack of foot traffic.

It’s fitting that a Minnesotan is drawing “Sally Forth,” which is syndicated worldwide by King Features and appears in close to 700 newspapers. Midwestern working mom Sally, her East Coast-raised husband Ted and their daughter, Hillary, were created in 1982 by Greg Howard, a St. Louis Park native who earned a law degree from the University of Minnesota in 1969.

When the strip launched, Keefe had a job at the Minikahda Club on the border of St. Louis Park and Minneapolis, and he still remembers overhearing a group of members joking about the attorney who quit to draw comics.

“I was this busboy who wanted to be a cartoonist,” he said.

At the time, local art schools were less accepting of cartooning as a worthwhile area of study. Keefe spent a semester at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, but said he felt “just so out of place.”

He moved to the East Coast to attend The Kubert School, a New Jersey cartooning and illustration school founded in the late-’70s by Joe Kubert, a DC Comics artist. After graduating, Keefe was hired as head colorist for King Features Syndicate, one of the major distributors comic strips to newspapers.

He still colors the Sunday editions of “Beetle Bailey,” “Blondie” and “Hagar the Horrible.” Keefe also spent about six years on “Flash Gordon,” writing and drawing the sci-fi adventure strip launched by Alex Raymond in 1934.

Things have changed since Keefe’s school days. MCAD is now one of a handful of degree-granting institutions that offers a major in comic art, and Keefe — like a number of local cartoonists — occasionally teaches there as an adjunct faculty member.

Keefe draws in a home studio located in the basement, just a few steps beyond his washer and dryer. A shelf is stuffed with comics collections, and on the walls hang a few prized originals, including dailies from “The Amazing Spider-Man” comic strip drawn by veteran Marvel artist John Romita and the adventure strip “Secret Agent Corrigan” drawn by Al Williamson, who may be best remembered for his work at EC Comics in the 1950s.

Keefe said drawing “Sally Forth” is “five long days of work” each week. He starts around 9 a.m. each day and works into the evening. He employs some of the laborsaving shortcuts available to the modern cartoonist — including digital lettering — but each strip is still draw in pen and ink.

“You are looking at references to save yourself time,” he said.

Both the Augsburg University campus and the Riverview Theater marquee have appeared in “Sally Forth” strips. Washburn High School is the model for Hillary’s school, and its West 50th Street main entrance appeared in the first panel of this year’s April 10 strip. Keefe said his depictions of Hillary’s classmates reflect the diversity of Washburn, where his wife, Deb, works in administration.

The Dec. 4, 2016 “Sally Forth” — a longer Sunday strip — opens with a street scene that many Minneapolitans would instantly recognize: Hennepin Avenue in Uptown, decorated for the holidays. Keefe’s composition captures the west side of the 3000 block, from Magers & Quinn Booksellers to Penzeys Spices.

In the next panel, Hillary and her friend, Faye, walk down the sidewalk past Comic Book College’s former location on Hennepin. The store recently moved to Nicollet Avenue, just a few blocks south of Keefe’s home.

Keefe presented owner Tim Lohn with the original art for the strip as a moving gift. Lohn said he planned to hang it on the wall once he’s done unpacking.

“I thought it was very cool,” Lohn said.

A "Sally Forth" strip in progress on Keefe's drafting table. Photo by Dylan Thomas
A “Sally Forth” strip in progress on Keefe’s drafting table. Photo by Dylan Thomas