As described in my first blog post on the site, I discovered Russ Johnson’s work in 1993 when I ran across a copy of his 1968 book, Forty Years with Mister Oswald, in a used bookstore in Illinois. Two years later I was chatting on the phone with Don Petterson, a collector friend in Vermont, who let me know that Russ was alive and well in Gibson City, Illinois. Don had first gotten in touch with Russ in 1979 after reading an article about Russ and Mister Oswald, written by Max Allan Collins for the old Comics Buyers Guide. Don ordered a copy of the book directly from Russ ($4.95 postage paid) and kept in steady contact, trading letters and Christmas cards. Don knew that I wanted to get in touch with Russ, so he kindly sent me his contact information, along with Russ’ daughter’s address:
I called Russ on June 28, 1995, to inquire about conducting an interview with him. Unfortunately, Russ’ hearing made communicating difficult, so I wrote him a letter the following day. At the time, I was editing 1506 Nix Nix, a small-press journal devoted to the comic and cartoon arts. The title was derived from Bill Holman’s screwball comic strip, Smoky Stover. Holman would scrawl the phrase “1506 Nix Nix” into the strip on occasion. 1506 was the hotel room number of his bachelor cartoonist friend Al Posen. The phrase was meant as a playful inside joke for women to stay away from Posen’s room. When I wrote to Russ, I explained that I would love to interview him for 1506 Nix Nix, and that while there were many fans of his work, I hoped to introduce his work to a wider audience.
My letter must have struck a chord with Russ, as I heard back from him just a couple of weeks later:
I followed up Russ’ letter immediately with a phone call, and we made plans to meet at his house in Gibson City, Illinois on July 29, 1995.
I don’t recall the exact time we agreed to meet, but it had to have been after 1:23 in the afternoon. How do I know, you ask? Simple. The Cubs were already playing their game against the Phillies which started at 1:23. And how do I know about the game, you inquire? Because of Harry Caray. When I found my way from the small downtown area of Gibson City to Russ’ house on East 9th street and pulled into his driveway, Harry Caray’s booming voice washed over me. As baseball fans know, Harry Caray was an iconic baseball figure, especially when he was announcing games for the Chicago Cubs. Caray was a gregarious character who sometimes found foreign-born players’ names a challenge to pronounce, but he was passionate about the game. And he was often loud about the game. Russ was an avid Cubs fan, but at 101 years old he was also quite hard of hearing, so the volume on his TV was turned up. Way up. Had I a headful of hair, it might have been blown back by the volume of Caray’s voice coming out of Russ’ house. I went up to Russ’ door and knocked, but the ballgame was so loud Russ couldn’t hear me knocking. I knocked on the door for a few more minutes, to no avail. I thought about trying the door to see if it was open but didn’t want to simply barge right in on a person I didn’t know, so I drove back to the small downtown, found a payphone (yes, this was 1995) and called Russ. I let him know that I was in town and this time when I pulled up, he was waiting for me at his door, Harry Caray just a loud memory.
I spent a couple of wonderful hours interviewing Russ. His eyesight was not very good, so he used a magnifying machine to view some of the artwork that I brought along, as well as to view some of his own work. While Russ’ hearing and eyesight had seen better days, he was as sharp as a tack, regaling me with stories about his life and career. He could pick out Fred Lasswell’s drawing on a Bunky Sunday page from the early 1940s that Lasswell had assisted on, even though it was signed by Russ’ former teacher, Billy DeBeck, who created the feature in the 1920s. Russ could talk about the line work in a Carl Ed Harold Teen daily, recounting another former teacher of his at the old Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. Russ also told me about his time in the Navy during WWI. Yes, WWI. Russ joined the Navy because he loved reading the Katzenjammer Kids growing up. The setting of the Katzenjammer Kids largely took place on the ocean or on an island and Russ dreamed of being on the sea after spending his life on landlocked farmland. Fortunately for the Navy, but unfortunately for Russ, he proved to be such a crack-shot from his years of hunting, that he was made a shooting instructor after spending only a couple of weeks at sea. As the interview went on, my mind kept going back to the fact that I was interviewing a WWI vet nearly 80 years after he had joined the Navy! I wish I had known of the cartooning he had done for the base newspaper in Charleston, South Caroline at that time. Too many unasked questions.
Russ was selling his Mister Oswald originals for $35.00 each back then. I asked about purchasing an original or two from him and Russ had me go through a metal flat-file filled with strips. I found two strips that I loved and went to pay Russ, but he stopped me and said, “I’m 101 years old. What am I going to do with money?” and graciously gave me the two originals. Below are two photos that I snapped of Russ that day, holding one of the originals that he gifted to me:
Russ passed away two months later, on September 7, 1995. I was honored to conduct his final interview, which later appeared in Hogan’s Alley magazine, and thank my lucky stars that I did not procrastinate is setting up my meeting and interview and with Russ. The interview is available to read at: https://www.hoganmag.com/blog/russell-johnson-and-mister-oswald-a-tale-of-two-proprietors
The Cubs won that day 9 to 8, so it was a good day all around.
Thanks for tuning in. If any of you have Russ Johnson or Mister Oswald stories to share, I would be honored if you would consider sharing them on this blog. Please contact me at email@example.com if you are interested in a guest-blogging appearance.
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.