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Toon Talk : Two Comic-Strip Artists Discuss the Craft They Love

September 28, 1989|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

When Kevin Fagan's newspaper cartoon strip, "Drabble," debuted in 1979, the then-22-year-old former Saddleback College student was billed as the nation's youngest syndicated cartoonist.

Now 33, the Mission Viejo resident recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of his popular cartoon, which appears in 220 newspapers. The strip's hero is Norman Drabble--a shy, insecure and occasionally bumbling college student who lives at home with his parents, a younger brother and a pet duck named Bob.

When Ferd Johnson's first solo cartoon strip, "Texas Slim," debuted in the Chicago Tribune, he too was billed as the youngest cartoonist in America. That was in 1925 when Johnson, now a Newport Beach resident, was a mere 19 years old.

But it is for "Moon Mullins" that Johnson is best known. He was hired as assistant to the strip's originator, Frank Willard, two months after the strip's debut in 1923 and inherited the cartoon featuring a roughneck pool hall regular when Willard died in 1958.

At 83, Johnson is still at it, turning out daily "Moon Mullins" cartoons, which still run in about 100 papers. It is considered one of America's handful of classic comic strips, and Johnson is, as he says with a touch of pride, "the oldest guy in the business."

Although they live only 25 miles apart and were familiar with each other's work, Johnson and Fagan had never met. When Orange County Life called to set up a meeting between the two cartoonists, they were enthusiastic.

The summit took place late one morning in Johnson's studio on the second floor of an office building on Coast Highway in Corona del Mar.

Johnson moved into the tiny studio in 1968 and, judging by the looks of it, hasn't cleaned house since. Every corner of the room is cluttered with piles of original cartoon strips, old newspapers and magazines. (Smiling wryly, Johnson confesses, "I don't know what's underneath the first three layers.")

A narrow path on the threadbare "brown and dirt" carpet leads the way to two side-by-side vintage drawing tables. The one on the left, once owned by Frank Willard, is where Johnson spends three hours a day, seven days a week, drawing the daily strips. The one on the right is where Johnson's son, Tom, does the Sunday strips and helps draw the dailies.

For their visit, the soft-spoken Fagan--wearing a polo shirt, sweat pants and jogging shoes--sat at Tom's drawing table.

Johnson, his trademark straw hat set at a jaunty angle, sat behind his drawing board in a swivel chair with a pronounced squeak. He perched his feet on the edge of a metal wastebasket, and for the next hour, the two cartoonists talked shop.

Johnson: So, you're the youngest cartoonist in the business now.

Fagan: Oh, I don't know about that. I don't think that's quite true anymore. I think "Calvin and Hobbes" (cartoonist Bill Watterson) has got a year on me, or something like that. I was for a little while anyway. . . . I brought you an original in case you collect such things.

Johnson, accepting an autographed "Drabble" strip: I'll have to give you one.

Fagan: I'd love one.

Johnson: I like your stuff. You know, it took me years to get to liking it. But, hell, for the past four or five years, I think it's great.

Fagan: Oh, I appreciate it. Thank you.

Johnson: You've got an individual style, and you should never try to improve it.

Fagan, laughing: I guess after you've been around for a while it's "style," but when you begin it's just "strange," you know. But it turns into "style."

Johnson: You're getting so you can draw real well.

Fagan: Yeah, thanks. (laugh) I use rulers now. That helped.

Johnson: What's your studio look like?

Fagan: My studio's in my home, and we just moved to a bigger house because we're expecting our second child in a matter of weeks. So the home we moved to has a three-car garage, and my brother, who's a carpenter as a hobby, came down from the Bay Area, where he lives, and built a studio in my garage. So it's brand-new. We just got the carpeting laid and put up book cases.

Johnson: I used to work at home until the syndicate told me to get an office. I don't know why--maybe too many distractions (at home). . . . I like to meet people. It's like a family around here. You chew the rag, you might get a few ideas that way.

Fagan: Well, I've always worked at home. And it was great until I got married, and then it started to get a little crowded in there. There were a lot of distractions, and then when the first baby came along, it really got to be kind of a pain. So that's when we decided to move. This studio I have now is great. It's got a big heavy door between me and the inside of the house (laugh), so you can't hear a lot.

O.C. Life: Ferd was 17 when he moved to Chicago from a village in rural Pennsylvania to attend art school, where he was "discovered" by cartoonist Frank Willard.

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