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

September 28, 1989|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

Johnson: The owner of the school knew Willard and got him to teach a cartoon class up there. He did it for two weeks and couldn't take it anymore. Meantime, he saw all the (student) work, and he thought I had something, and he invited me up to the Tribune. . . . I stood around there for hours watching him work. He finally turned around and said, "Ferd, if you're going to hang around here all this time, I'm going to put you to work." So I got a job as assistant at 15 bucks a week. I wrote home, and I said, "Don't send me anymore money. I've got it made."

O.C. Life: At the time, the Tribune, under the leadership of co-owner and editor Capt. Joseph Patterson, was a cartoonist's mecca. Did you feel as though you were in exalted company?

Johnson: I sure as hell did. The Tribune had a bunch of cartoonists there. They were the best in the country at the time, so if I got into trouble, I'd ask them. They were great to me: Chester Gould ("Dick Tracy") was one; Harold Gray--"Orphan Annie"; Sydney Smith--"The Gumps." Frank King--"Gasoline Alley," was right next to us.

O.C. Life: How long did you and Willard and the other cartoonists all work together on the same floor?

Johnson: Six, seven years I guess. But the guys couldn't get any work done down there. There were card games, shooting craps--so they started working at home and then they started spreading out over the country. . . . A cartoonist can be wherever there is a mail box.

O.C. Life: Johnson was Willard's assistant for 35 years, traveling around the country living in hotels, apartments and farm houses in such far-flung locales as Florida, Maine and Los Angeles. The strip ran in 350 newspapers at its peak of popularity in the '40s and '50s, and when Willard died in 1958, Johnson officially took it over.

Johnson: They put my name on it then. I had been doing it about 10 years before that because Willard had heart attacks and strokes and all that stuff. The minute my name went on that thing and his name went off, 25 papers dropped (the strip). That shows you that, although I had been doing it 10 years, the name means a lot.

O.C. Life: As cartoonists whose comic strips appear seven days a week, how do you meet the demand of having to constantly come up with ideas?

Johnson, laughing: Well, the bills come in.

Fagan: That's enough to get the adrenaline going.

O.C. Life: Ferd, you've been working on "Moon Mullins" 66 years, and Kevin has been doing "Drabble" for 10 years. . . .

Johnson: He's just a boy.

Fagan: You know, that's true in cartooning terms. If a television show runs 10 years, it's had a great, long run. A 10-year-old comic strip is still a baby, really.

Johnson: I think a comic strip--a good one--is good for 30 years before it starts going down.

O.C. Life: Do you ever hit dry spells, times when the ideas have simply dried up?

Fagan: Oh, yeah, but that kind of comes with the territory. Every once in a while I don't feel very funny, but you just have to bear down. A change of scenery helps me a lot: to get out of the house, out of the studio, and just go somewhere for the day. I'll just take a drive, and sometimes that will help. And I find that when I'm dry, as soon as I get one cartoon going then it kind of opens up the way for some more--one idea leads to another.

Johnson: That's right. I mean, I go all week without an idea and sit down and in two hours you've got them all. That (coming up with ideas) is the hardest part of the job. The rest is easy, fun. It (the drawing of the strip) is like handwriting: You just go ahead and do it.

Fagan: I carry around a little binder-type thing, like a school note pad. I just take it with me to most places I go, and I just jot down things and come back and try to work it into a cartoon.

O.C. Life: The characters in "Drabble" are members of a suburban family. "Moon Mullins" started in the 1920s with a boardinghouse setting in a city. How do you define your cast of characters now?

Johnson, laughing: I'll be damned if I know. When it started, Capt. Patterson wanted a tough man's strip, and he heard that Willard was pretty tough. Well, he found that out because Willard used to submit ideas. . . . He'd turn them in and the comic editor would turn them down, throw them in the wastepaper basket. A few weeks later, they'd come out in George McManus' strip, and so Willard went in and poked this guy (the comics editor)--he knocked him out. Willard expected to get fired, but he didn't give a damn. Well, Patterson heard about this and figured he was the guy for this tough strip. Moon was named after "moonshine," of course. That was a big thing back then. Capt. Patterson named all the Tribune comics. He had ideas for them all. . . . He was so interested in comics he'd come around two or three times a week and chew the rag with us, suggest things, or call us up to his office. He was really a genius that way.

O.C. Life: The 1930s are considered the golden age of newspaper comics. Ferd, how do you view the '80s in terms of comic strips?

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