Russ Johnson

Russell Johnson (1893-1995) was born on a farm outside of Gibson City, Illinois, a small farming community close to the center of the state, about 100 miles from Chicago.  Johnson graduated from the Dixon College and Northern Illinois Normal School, which operated jointly, in 1915.  Dixon was a business-oriented private college, while the Northern Illinois Normal School was a teacher training institution.  The schools ceased operation around the time Johnson graduated.  Looking to leave the small farming community he grew up in, Johnson sought work in Chicago, eventually landing a position with Montgomery Ward. 

With the beginning of WWI in 1917, Johnson signed up for service in the U.S. Navy.  Johnson was a fan of the Katzenjammer Kids, the Sunday page comic strip created by Rudolph Dirks in 1897 and continued by Harold Knerr beginning in 1914.  The strip largely took place near or on the high seas, and growing up land-locked in Gibson City, Johnson longed for life on the ocean.  His life on the ocean was short-lived, as Johnson proved to be such a fine marksman from all his years of hunting, that he was made a shooting instructor after only two weeks at sea.  Always keen for cartooning, Johnson began drawing cartoons for Afloat and Ashore, a Naval paper published in Charleston.

After the war ended, Johnson returned to his job at Montgomery Ward in Chicago, taking night classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, where they had a cartoon arts program.  Johnson took classes from Billy DeBeck, the creator of Barney Google, and Carl Ed, the creator of Harold Teen.

Johnson returned to Gibson City in 1921 to work in his father’s hardware store. In addition to his regular work in the store, Johnson drew advertising cartoons for the store’s window displays, with new cartoons appearing every Tuesday. Johnson soon began cartooning for one of the local newspapers, which were seen by an editor at Hardware Retailing, a monthly trade magazine geared towards the hardware industry.  Johnson was asked about contributing cartoons to Hardware Retailing and began his six-decade association with the magazine in 1925. Two years later, in October 1927, Mister Oswald was born, appearing in a twelve-panel, Sunday page-format strip titled “It’s a Sad Story, Mates.” Soon after, Mister Oswald was the star of his own strip, documenting the trials and tribulations of a hardware store owner, a subject Johnson knew all too well.  In the 1930s, Johnson began drawing advertising comic strips for other companies, including the Armstrong Cork Company, the Sporting Goods Dealer, and the Remington Arms Company.

Johnson not only ran a hardware store full-time after his father’s death, but he also ran a shoe store, which was started by his brother-in-law.  Running two retail establishments and drawing multiple comic strips proved to be too much, so Johnson dropped most of his other comic strips to work exclusively on Mister Oswald.  Johnson retired from retailing in 1963, but continued Mister Oswald for many years, finally handing over the reins to the illustrator Larry Day. Day, also from Gibson City, had assisted Johnson on the strip since the early 1980s, but by 1989, when Johnson was 95 years old, he was ready to retire from Mister Oswald.  Day continued the strip in Hardware Retailing until 2008.  Johnson had worked on his strip continuously for 62 years, a record for a comic strip done by its original creator.  But even in retirement, Johnson continued to work, creating a mainstream comic strip about retirees that he hoped to syndicate. That strip remained unpublished. Johnson passed away on September 7, 1995 at the age of 101.

A word from Rob Stolzer, your tourguide:  as you might read in my initial blog post on this site, I have been a fan of Mister Oswald for 30 years, ever since stumbling upon a copy of “Forty Years with Mister Oswald”, a reprint book published in 1968 by the National Retail Hardware Association.  I have been a comics fan for 45 years, well-versed in comic strip history, but Mister Oswald was new to me.  I was smitten.

Mister Oswald is a time-capsule of the 20th century American retail trade.  It mirrors our country’s social history through the Great Depression, wars, and changing technologies.  It was also drawn by a man who was a terrific cartoonist, one who had a great ear for dialogue and knew how to deliver a gag.  Russ’ work featured excellent character development, strong line work, and a wonderfully delineated sense of place.  I’ve often wondered how many nuts and bolts Russ drew during his 62 years drawing Mister Oswald.  It had to have been in the tens of thousands. 

My thanks to Dan Tratensek, the publisher of Hardware Retailing magazine, for giving me permission to create this website devoted to Russ Johnson and Mister Oswald.  I look forward to seeing treasures from the archives of Hardware Retailing and bringing them to light to a wider audience on this website.

Finally, I was both honored and lucky to conduct the last interview Russ ever gave, in July 1995. He was 101 years old at the time and passed away two months later.  I will recount my meeting with Russ in a future blog post, but you can read the interview as published in Hogan’s Alley magazine at https://www.hoganmag.com/blog/russell-johnson-and-mister-oswald-a-tale-of-two-proprietors

If you have any comments about the website, or information/material about Russ that you would like to share, please contact me at rob@robstolzer.com.  Thank you!

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