Russell Johnson was one of America's most accomplished and least-known cartoonists. Born on December 10, 1893 in a farm outside the small prairie town of Gibson City, Illinois, Johnson displayed early drawing skill. In 1915, he moved to Chicago to take a job with the department store Montgomery Ward, where one of his duties was drawing cartoons for the company newsletter Star News. After a stint in the Army in World War I (where he drew for Afloat and Ashore, a Navy newspaper published in Mt. Pleasant, a base in Charleston, South Carolina), Johnson returned to Chicago and briefly studied with syndicated cartoonists Billy DeBeck (Barney Google) and Carl Ed (Harold Teen) at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. In 1922, however, Johnson left Chicago to return to Gibson City to help his father, gentleman-farmer-turned-retailer Fred P. Johnson, run his hardware store. As Johnson wrote in 1968, "I got a temporary leave of absence from my job and came to Gibson City, Ill. And as I write this 45 years later, I am still here." In 1930, his father died, and Johnson managed the store until his retirement from retailing in 1963. He died on September 7, 1995, at the age of 101.
While working at the store, Johnson produced drawings for use as newspaper ads and window dressing. Johnson's aunt, a journalist, wrote a profile of the "cartooning hardwareman" for the trade magazine Hardware Retailing, and editor Rivers Peterson immediately asked Johnson to submit work to the magazine. His first submission appeared in 1925, and Johnson produced at least one cartoon a month for Retailing for 64 years. In October 1927, Johnson drew "It's a Sad Story, Mates," a strip about a hardware store owner and manager named Mr. Oswald (whose appearance and personality was modeled on Johnson's father) driven insane by the demands placed on him by charities, civic organizations, and high-pressure salesmen.
This cartoon proved so popular with readers that editor Peterson asked Johnson to make Oswald the star of a monthly strip, and Mr. Oswald became Hardware Retailing's most popular feature. In what remains the definitive account of Johnson's art and career, Dale Luciano, in Comics Journal #83 (August 1983), describes one symptom of Oswald's popularity: "Throughout most of Mr. Oswald's history, his adventures have appeared in Hardware Retailing in full-page form. In October 1962, the editors of the magazine modified the format so that three vertically aligned panels appear per page in a sequence of three successive pages, to accomodate the requests of advetisers who wanted to buy space adjacent to the cartoon."
Here's a sample of this broken-up layout, with a strip from November 1984:
Johnson retired from the strip in 1989, but Chicago-area artist and cartoonist Larry Day--himself from Gibson City, and Johnson's assistant on the strip for some years in the 1980s--continued the strip in the pages of Do-It-Yourself Retailing, Hardware Retailing's new incarnation, until 2009.
Besides Luciano's piece, there's very little writing about Mr. Oswald; notable is Rob Stolzer's interview with Johnson in Hogan's Alley #10 (2002). But Johnson deserves a lot more attention. He's a master ar creating both characters and a coherent, energetic world for his characters to inhabit. The central locale of Johnson's strip is the Oswald Hardware Company, located in the town of Dippy Center and populated by an eccentric supporting cast, including:
The dense stock clerk Herman Hammers, who was hired during the World War II labor shortage and, despite his ineptude, remained in the store to pester Mr. Oswald for the rest of Johnson's run;
Fuller O'Zone,a young-man-on-the-make who joined the cast in 1975 with the intent of taking over the store once Oswald retires; and
The cashier and bookkeeper Perlie Gates, Oswald's most competent and depandable employee. So valuable, in fact, that when she gets a boyfriend, Oswald sends O'Zone to woo her, just to prevent her from romantic entanglements that'll lead her to marriage and quitting her job.
There are plenty of other memorable characters. I'm particularly fond of Mrs. Oswald, whose bossy personality and ignorance of the hardware business makes her a perfect foil for her husband, and the unscrupulous Higgins Brothers, who run a hardware store across the street from Oswald's store. In Forty Years with Mister Oswald, a collection self-published in 1968, Johnson includes a drawing of a typical Chamber of Commerce meeting attended by Oswald, and all of Oswald's fellow Dippy Center merchants are labeled with punny names and plausible businesses. Most of these characters appear in strip throughout Johnson's 62-year tenure; Johnson was obviously--and passionately--interested in capturing the ways in which small-town inhabitants interact on a day-to-day basis. Also in Forty Years is a detailed map of Dippy Center, a map based on the layout of Gibson City. As an artist, Johnson created a consistent, naturalistic and complex fictional analogue to the people and architecture of the real world.
Johnson also courts (as well as subverts) realism through his densely detailed mise-en-scene. Take, for instance, this drawing, from a chapter heading in Forty Years:
What effects do such meticulously rendered backgrounds have on comics readers? On the one hand, the extreme detail functions as a signifier of realism: we see the buckets on the shelves and the hinges on the posterboards, and we believe that Johnson has captured the visual essence of a mid-century hardware store. (This belief is, of course, supported by knowing about Johnson's own decades-long career as a hardware retailer--who else is better qualified to draw what the business looks like?) I'd argue, however, that the realism of Mr. Oswald (and many other comic strips and books with detailed panels) does more than just get the surface details right; the artist's willful inclusion of heavy dollops of detail can direct the reader away from the characters and the narrative. The Harvey Kurtzman/Will Elder collaborations (as published in Mad, Trump, Help!, and the "Little Annie Fanny" tales in Playboy) are for me a quintessential example of "background noise." Elder draws Kurtzman's stories--usually based on some movie of TV show that Kurtzman is satirizing, as when Sherlock Schomes blunders his way through solving a case--but the world that Elder's characters inhabit is laced with "chicken fat," with labels and objects that merrily spin away from the narrative and provide us with another level of enjoyment, one not contingent on even the pretense of a story or parody of a story.
Johnson's comics aren't as antic as Elder's. Mr. Oswald's backgrounds are usually faithful depictions of the mise-en-scene of a hardware store, and these depictions set the stage for the narrative. But occasionally, Johnson slips in a detail that exhibits an offbeat sense of humor that deviates from the typical naturalism of the strip. In his Comics Journal article, Luciano calls these "dada jokes" with "a certain absurdist, non sequitorial quality," and lists several examples from Forty Years, including an advertising sign for washing machines that says "Buy a Chilly Noiz / Washes / And get a lot of New Wrinkles," and a garbage can for sale that reads "Hoot Receptacle, made in Dresden, China." Any reader of Mr. Oswald eventually comes up with his/her own list of favorite funny, surreal touches; personally, I love the boxes of "Vital Organs" piled near Oswald's desk, and the word "Phooey" as the name of a hardware catalog. In fact, Johnson consistently uses "Phooey" as the name of Oswald's wholesaler, and I'm tempted to read "Phooey" as Johnson's telling commentary on his beloved business. No matter how lovingly he drew the nuts and bolts in Oswald's store, and no matter how dutifully he managed his own store in Gibson City, Johnson occasionally wanted to say "Phooey" to all things hardware.
There are other elements of Mr. Oswald that speak of the difficulties of hardware retailing. Despite its Segar-like graphics and comedic approach, Mr. Oswald is an honest depiction of the plight of the small retailer in 20th-century America. Although running a store might seen to be a relatively independent profession, at least compared to working for a boss in a white collar job, Oswald is continually at the mercy of market forces beyond his control. Potential customers take their business to rival store Higgins and Higgins; employees make costly mistakes; sales representatives stick him with merchandise that dies on the shelf; and Oswald consequently experiences the "fear of falling" (to use Barbara Ehrenreich's phrase) out of the middle class and into poverty and bankruptcy. Johnson's drawing style--the density of detail, the static panel grids, the avoidance of close-ups--creates a visual claustrophobia that traps Oswald as much as his career does.
Sometimes Oswald's lack of control over his life and career takes on almost tragic dimensions. The May 1974 Mr. Oswald strip begins with Oswald chuckling over the advantages of inflation: "Everything we own will be worth more tomorrow than it is today!...Everybody's makin' more money than they ever did before--no one questions the price of anything--they won't know it won't be cheaper!! What a set-up!" At a business meeting, Oswald shares his theory with a colleague, and during a walk back to work the colleague tells Oswald a story about a German hardware retailer in the "pre-Hitler inflation period" who makes a forture buying nails wholesale and then selling them at inflated prices. Here's the conclusion.