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Ferd Johnson, 'Moon Mullins' Cartoonist

October 19, 1996|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Veteran cartoonist Ferd Johnson, whose "Moon Mullins" syndicated cartoon strip debuted when Calvin Coolidge was President and ran until George Bush occupied the Oval Office, has died after a brief illness. He was 90.

Johnson, a longtime Newport Beach resident, was 85 in 1991 when he finally stopped drawing the daily cartoon strip about a roughneck pool-hall regular named after moonshine whiskey. Johnson moved into a retirement home in Irvine 15 months ago but remained active with his painting and never lost his sense of humor. He died Monday.

"He was quite upbeat in nature and had the humor right up until the last time I saw him," said Johnson's son Tom, a Newport Beach graphic artist who assisted his father with the strip the last 33 years of its 68-year run.

"Ferd was legendary within the cartooning business because of his longevity," said Mission Viejo cartoonist Kevin Fagan, whose "Drabble" cartoon strip appears in The Times. "The fact he did that for more than 60 years--that's just mind-boggling to think of all the ideas involved."

Fagan met Johnson for the first time in 1989 at Johnson's cluttered studio on the second floor of an office building on Coast Highway. Fagan was 33 at the time; Johnson 83.

"It really came through to me loud and clear how much he enjoyed his work and continued to enjoy it," Fagan said.

Johnson was 17 when he left home in Spring Creek, a tiny village in rural Pennsylvania, to attend the Chicago Art Institute in 1923. There, he met Chicago Tribune cartoonist Frank Willard, who was teaching a cartoon class.

Impressed with Johnson's work, Willard invited the young art student up to the Tribune office, then a mecca of legendary cartoonists, including Chester Gould ("Dick Tracy"), Harold Gray ("Little Orphan Annie"), Sydney Smith ("The Gumps"), and Frank King ("Gasoline Alley").

Willard had started drawing "Moon Mullins," which featured a colorful cast of characters who lived in a boarding house, only two months earlier. Johnson, as he once recalled, spent several hours watching Willard at the drawing board. Finally, Willard turned to him and said, "Ferd, if you're going to hang around here all this time, I'm going to put you to work."

Recalled Johnson: "So I got a job as assistant at 15 bucks a week. I wrote home and said, 'Don't send me any more money. I've got it made."'

*

At 19, Johnson landed his own Sunday color cartoon page, "Texas Slim," which made him the youngest syndicated cartoonist in the nation. The cartoon ran from 1925 to 1928, then made a comeback in 1940 and ran until 1958.

But Johnson remained Willard's assistant for 35 years.

And where Willard went Johnson followed. That meant living in a series of hotels, apartments and farmhouses from Maine to Florida to Los Angeles. When Willard died in 1958, Johnson officially took over "Moon Mullins."

Johnson actually had been drawing the strip for a decade due to Willard's health problems. But the minute his name went on the strip and Willard's name was dropped, Johnson said, the strip lost 25 papers. "That shows you the name means a lot," he said.

At its peak during the Depression, "Moon Mullins" appeared in 350 of the nation's largest newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. At the end, as a new crop of cartoonists took over the funny papers, the number of newspapers carrying "Moon Mullins" had dropped to around 50.

The one-time "youngest cartoonist in the nation," who for years could boast of being "the oldest guy in the business," knew the end was near in April 1991, when the Chicago Tribune, where "Moon" was born, dropped the strip.

Within days, the syndicate informed him that "Moon Mullins" was history.

Because daily strips are drawn six weeks ahead of publication, however, Johnson was able to send Moon and company off in style.

*

The last six strips showed everyone moving out of the old boarding house. In one, Moon carried his little brother Kayo out in the same dresser drawer Kayo had always slept in. And Lord Plushbottom pointed to the sky and proclaimed, "After 68 years, to that great comic page in the sky!" Which thrilled Kayo, who is shown jumping up and down, saying, "Hey great! I can catch up on 'Prince Valiant' and 'Mutt and Jeff' and 'Texas Slim'. . . ."

But it was for Moon Mullins himself that Ferd Johnson reserved the last laugh.

It was a single panel of a setting sun with Moon eyeing a curvaceous girl walking out of the panel. Says Moon: "I planned on marching off into the sunset, but she's going in the other direction."

Doris, Johnson's wife of 57 years, whom he met in art school in Chicago, died in 1986. He is survived by his younger brother, George H. Johnson of Portland, Ore.; son Tom Johnson and his wife Anne of Newport Beach; four grandchildren and one great grandson.

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