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

September 28, 1989|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

Johnson, laughing: It's great for young guys.

O.C. Life: In comparing the work of cartoonists in the '20s and '30s, there is a great difference in drawing styles. Today's style is much simpler.

Johnson: Well, in the old days you were supposed to know how to draw to get a strip started. Nowadays, anything goes as long as it's readable. The ideas are the most important thing.

Fagan: The other thing is you had more space back then, too.

Johnson: Six columns (wide).

Fagan: And today the cartoons are shrunk so small, it doesn't allow a lot of room. I mean I don't have the talent to do what Ferd does. . . .

Johnson: That's why your style is great for this.

O.C. Life: How do you describe the drawing style of today's cartoonists?

Johnson: Simpler. I think (Charles) Schulz started this (with "Peanuts"). Everybody put thousands of lines in--a lot of drawing. He came along and, well, you know what the characters are.

Fagan: He (Schulz) was able to just capture the essence of what they were with just a few lines.

O.C. Life: Being able to draw is obviously a prerequisite to doing a comic strip, but how important is the ability to come up with funny ideas?

Johnson: Ideas, by far, are the most important.

O.C. Life: Does the ability to come up with humorous ideas just come natural to both of you?

Fagan: I think so. I don't know if you can train or teach someone to look at life in a strange perspective. . . . I've been drawing all my life just for the fun of it and always drawing goofy things--it's like it's just kind of a natural thing.

O.C. Life: Is it the same way with you, Ferd?

Johnson: Ever since I was a kid I sketched. Frank King ("Gasoline Alley") told me, "If you want to learn how to draw, get a sketchbook. Go out and sketch everything. Come back and try to repeat it from memory. If it doesn't work, keep going back and forth." Those old-time cartoonists could do that. There's a guy named Gaar Williams who had an office next to ours. He could draw anything. If I was stuck, I wouldn't have to go look up anything. I'd show it to him, and he'd draw it for me.

O.C. Life: How much time do you spend in the studio? Is being a cartoonist a seven-days-a-week proposition?

Johnson: It is for me because it's easier. I work two or three hours (a day). I get in around 9 or 9:30 and leave at noon. That's just the drawing part. The ideas are at home, wherever I am.

Fagan: Actually, about the only time I really spend in my studio is when I'm ready to sit at the drawing board and ink it out. But most of the time when I'm writing I'm anywhere. Like I said, I go out and sit at a local restaurant for a few hours and get some ideas that way or just sit at the couch and things like that. But it is a full-time job, seven days a week. I can sit down and force myself to think of ideas, but I think the best ideas just come out of the blue.

Johnson: Out of the air, that's true, without even thinking of them.

Fagan: What really frustrates me is when they come that way I sometimes don't have my note pad with me and I don't write it down immediately. It happened just last night. I was doing something, and I said, "Boy, that would make a funny cartoon, I better write that down," (but then I thought) I'll remember it, and not 15 minutes later I had forgotten it.

Johnson: That's true. And you dream about them. (laugh) You wake up with a great idea and write it down and (the next morning) you can't read it.

O.C. Life: How old were you when you began thinking you'd like to become a cartoonist?

Johnson: I think I was 11 years old. And then I won a newspaper cartoon drawing contest, and I think the prize was two or three tickets to "Peck's Bad Boy," and that got my dad to thinking, and he gave me a $28 correspondence course. I went through that and worked on the high school (year) book all the time. I did lots of drawings there. At 13, I sold my first cartoon, for money, to a railroad magazine. It paid me $10 a month for years and years.

O.C. Life: Did you have the same kind of experience, Kevin?

Fagan: Pretty much, yeah. I was 10 or 11, too. I thought, boy, it would be fun to be a cartoonist. But as I was growing up, I didn't really pursue it because I didn't know how you became a cartoonist. I had no idea how you did that for a living. It all happened kind of by accident at Saddleback College. A friend of mine knew that I doodled and drew pictures just for fun. His sister was the editor of the school paper. They were looking for a cartoonist, and so I was nominated. When I started drawing in college, that's when I really started to give some thought to, "Gee, I could do this," because the reaction was really so positive and people were saying you really ought to look into this.

Johnson: Somebody told me that (the late cartoonist) Virgil Partch encouraged you or something like that.

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