It Started with a Book

This very book, in fact:

I was antiquing in a small town in Illinois in 1993 when I ran across a used bookstore.  Now I had a thing for used bookstores, especially in the pre-and-early internet days.  My father was a voracious reader and once a month or so we would head to the Cranbury Bookworm, a wonderful old used bookstore in Cranbury, New Jersey.  It was a large three-story establishment, housed in an 1800s white clapboard house.  And it had that used bookstore smell.  Slightly musty, the air filled with the scent of aging paper.  I loved it.  Whenever I traveled, I would look for used bookstores, looking for books by some of my favorite authors, Raymond Carver, W.P. Kinsella and B. Traven.  I would also make sure to hit the humor section, to see what sort of old cartoon books they had.  I grew up reading comic books, which were my gateway drugs into comic strips.  I loved looking for old comic strip reprint books, such as the great Cupples & Leon books from the 1920s and 30s.  On this day in this small Illinois town, I ran across the book pictured above, Forty Years with Mister Oswald.  I had been studying old comic strips for over a decade at the time, but never heard of the comic strip or the cartoonist, Russ Johnson.  Leafing through the book, I was smitten with the style.  Great cartooning from days gone by.  I’m also a sucker for cartoons that reflect social history and I loved that the strip revolved around a hardware store.  But I was not smitten by the price, which is still marked in pencil on the upper right corner of the front end page: $20.00.  I looked through the book again, considered the price, and grudgingly put it back on the shelf.  I left the store and made it nearly one block before I turned around, went back to the bookstore and purchased the book. 

I mentioned that comic books were my gateway drugs into comic strips.  Forty Years with Mister Oswald is the gateway drug for those who enter the Cult of Mister Oswald.  The comic strip is a time-capsule of life in a small-town retail environment through the Great Depression, through war, and through changing technologies.  Russ was a store owner himself (two stores, in fact!), so he knew the trials and tribulations of retail sales firsthand.  His monthly feature, drawn for the Hardware Retailing magazine, portrayed those trials and tribulations with a wonderful ear for dialogue, terrific cartooning, and great humor.  The 1968 book sadly remains the only Mister Oswald reprint book published, even though Russ drew the strip for another 22 years, retiring in 1990 at the age of 96.  I interviewed Russ in July of 1995, two months before he passed away at 101 years old.  But that’s a story to be recounted in another blog post.  Until then, be well.  Thanks for tuning in.

Rob Stolzer has been collecting original comic strip and cartoon artwork for over 40 years. He has written numerous articles for Hogan's Alley, the CFA-APA 1506 Nix Nix and other journals. Stolzer teaches art at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where he teaches Drawing, Figure Drawing, Graphic Narration, Illustration, and Painting.


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