Forty Years With Mister Oswald

Russ Johnson's Forty Years With Mister Oswald

Russ Johnson’s Forty Years With Mister Oswald is one of the greatest and least known comics ever.

Let me put that statement in perspective before starting my review. Two things that I love most are old comedy films (Laurel & Hardy, Lum and Abner, W.C.Fields, etc.) and comics / graphic novels. I’m most fond of the following comic artists: George Herriman (Krazy Kat), Floyd Gottfredson (early Mickey Mouse), Chris Ware, Joe Sacco, Carl Barks (Donald Duck), Don Rosa (Uncle Scrooge), Jeff Smith (Bone) and now, Russ Johnson.

Background:

I found this in a used book store a few months ago while going through the old cartoon/comic section.  Most of the books in this section were collections of either strips or single panel art (like you’d find in the New Yorker) and were published in the 60’s.  When I picked up Forty Years and started flipping through the pages I knew immediately that I had just discovered something rare and wonderful.  I looked for a price – $35.00

I didn’t know it at the time, but $35.00 is a steal.  You can find it online for less – but I wouldn’t complain about getting a copy at twice the price.  Strangely, I almost put it back because I thought $35.00 was too much for a book I knew nothing about.  I can’t really explain it now, but somehow I both know it was going to be worth it, but was afraid to gamble on the price.  Fortunately, I decided to bite the bullet.  I left the store pretty sure that I had just found something tremendous.  I was right.

The Review:

Forty Years with Mister Oswald is the story of the life of an American hardware store owner in the early 20th century.

Russ Johnson started drawing strips about daily life and trials of a hardware store owner around 1927 when he went to work in his father’s hardware store.  Each week, Johnson would hang his drawings in the display window of the hardware store for customers to read.  Soon, the Hardware Retailer, a magazine geared towards hardware store owners and suppliers found out about these strips and asked Johnson to begin submitting strips for each month’s issue.  Johnson continued drawing Mister Oswald for the next 65 years.

The first few pages of the book look almost nothing like the rest.  Johnson’s style and sophistication as a comic artist and story teller grew at a very rapid rate.  Early drawings are spare and unpopulated and have much cruder character designs.  This is typical for younger artists and I don’t intend that as a negative criticism of his work.  The early strips are charming and very funny.  The amazing thing is that Johnson’s style evolved and matured so quickly.  Compositions within panels soon become richer and more compelling.  Characters quickly find their niche within their world and begin to go about life in a naturalistic manner – moving freely in all dimensions within the panels.  This naturalism has the effect of making each scene feel even more real.  With Johnson’s increasing fondness for including great amounts of detail in every panel (he is not a lazy artist) scenes and characters become solid, grounded and real.  I love that his drawings retain a cartoony, happy, easy feel, while also being loaded with enough rich detail to help make the stories and situations feel more real.

This attention to detail is especially amazing given how busy Johnson was; he was almost always working.  I can’t imagine how much time he spent working on each week’s strip – but the time invested was well worth it.  There aren’t many people who could have done as much as Johnson did and continue to draw such terrific, hilarious comics for 65 years.  There isn’t much information about Johnson on the web, but this rare interview with Johnson at Hogan’s Alley captures some of the enthusiasm and spirit which made these strips so rich and rewarding.

Chapters:

I doubt that the strips were originally published with any words from the author, but Johnson adds a nice anecdotal summary before each chapter.  These behind-the-scenes details are a terrific addition to the book and usually describe how the comic life of Mister Oswald paralleled that of the author.  Chapters are divided into themes and revolve around certain events and periods of time, such as: The Roaring Twenties, Anatomy of a Hardware Store, Buying Merchandise, The Depression, Employees, War in Europe, Rationing, Post-War, Prosperous Times, Relatives, Conventions, Ersatz, Selling Out.  That’s just a sample.  The book contains 44 chapters, and in each, we are presented with a complex view of society, business, finance, family and friends.  The war years are particularly fascinating and serve as a nice historical/political document in comic form from a perspective that you won’t often find.

Take the following snippet from the opening introduction for the chapter “Herman Hammers” as an example of Johnson’s wit and political edge. Note: this takes place during war time and materials and goods are being rationed for the war effort. Oswald had just lost his employees due to enlisting in the Army and working for the war effort and he’s in a crunch for hiring new labor where none exists. He’ll eventually settle for Herman Hammers as a replacement employee – a decision which will keep the reader laughing throughout the rest of the book.

Chapter 14 : Herman Hammers

Metals were practically non-existent for civilian use and manufacturers began substituting pottery, wood, glass and plastic wherever possible. Plastics at that time were greatly inferior to those manufactured today. It was strictly ersatz, which meant you wouldn’t be able to give away articles made from it or other substitutes when the real thing became available again. To Mr. Oswald, Herman Hammers was ersatz. But there just wasn’t anyone better available.

Herman’s wife’s name is Yvonne. Her mother got the name out of a book and thought it was pronounced “Wy-vonny”, and that is what she has always been called. Herman and Yvonne named their first child Utopia, which pretty well described the way they felt about her arrival. Yvonne’s mother assisted in naming all the other children, and strangely enough, everyone is mispronounced except the last one.

I think that’s about the best intro ever. I’m still laughing about “Herman Hammers was ersatz“.  I almost called this blog ‘strictly ersatz’ because of that introduction, but I decided against it because I only wanted to write about things I love.

Johnson’s characters are filled with life through masterful story telling, realistic settings, brilliant situations, and hilarious dialog.  Each page has me wishing I worked with these people and I can’t stop wondering what it might have been like to know and work with the real Mr. Oswald.

Herman Hammers, the short guy, is probably one of the funniest characters in any comic strip ever.

To summarize:

  • Situations feel natural
  • Events unfold organically
  • Characters are complex and rich
  • Each page is beautifully drawn
  • Each panel is packed with great detail, information and heart

Each page and every story is modern beyond its years. This is a work of love and genius and it is far ahead of its time.

Fortunately, it’s also of it’s time.

Johnson’s tales will have you laughing on every page.  Get it if you can, but save an extra copy for me.

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