Russell Keaton was a noted cartoonist and one of the first to use a woman as the main character in an aviation cartoon. Born in Corinth, Mississippi, on 15 May 1909 to Ernest and Velma Rinehart Keaton, he began drawing after his father’s death in 1913. Keaton attended school in Corinth until his senior year, when he went to live with an aunt in Huntsville, Alabama. After graduating in 1927, Keaton briefly attended the University of Tennessee. Dismayed to find that he could not take art courses until his junior year, Keaton left in 1928 to attend the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.
The same year, the National Newspaper Service began the comic strip Buck Rogers and contacted the Chicago Academy in search of an artist to draw the strip’s Sunday version. Keaton was recommended, and he began his work on Buck Rogers in January 1929. In 1932, Keaton married Virginia LaGarde, also of Corinth.
Keaton’s work on Buck Rogers was uncredited, and in 1933 he left the strip to become an artist for the aviation comic strip Skyroads, where he was allowed to sign his own name. In addition, Skyroads did not require Keaton to live in Chicago, so he returned to Corinth, where he became a member of the local Rotary Club and the Corinth First Presbyterian Church, serving as deacon and president of Men of the Church and teaching the boys’ Sunday school class.
Keaton dreamed of creating his own strip, however, and on 2 October 1939 Flyin’ Jenny made its debut. Keaton’s choice of subject matter came from the interwar popularity of aviation comic strips, his own interest in flying, and the then-novel idea of a female protagonist in an action cartoon. The Keaton family, which now included a daughter, Julie Virginia, moved to Memphis in 1939 so Keaton could take flying lessons. He often sketched Flyin’ Jenny at the Memphis airport and put the names of Memphis residents in his strip because he “got a kick out of seeing how many find themselves.” The Keatons moved back to Corinth in 1941. In an effort to remove some of the strip’s work from his own shoulders, Keaton partnered with a number of writers, including famed naval aviator and scriptwriter Frank Wead. In 1943 Keaton joined the Army Air Corps Reserve and served as a flight instructor at the Jackson, Tennessee, Army Contract School while continuing his work on the weekday version of the strip. His family joined him in Jackson, and a second daughter, Mary Janalee, was born in 1943.
The Keatons returned to Corinth in 1944, but Russell Keaton was soon diagnosed with acute leukemia, and he died on 13 February 1945. The artist for the Sunday version of Flyin’ Jenny, Marcus Swayze, took over the strip, which folded in 1946.
- Virginia Keaton Anderson, The Aviation Art of Russell Keaton (1995)
- Memphis Press-Scimitar (14 February 1945)