Saturday, November 8, 2014

Behind the Shelves: Russ Johnson and Mister Oswald

There are many famous comic strips and creators that have been justly celebrated, studied and collected: Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates); Chester Gould (Dick Tracy); Hal Foster (Tarzan; Prince Valiant); Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon); Harold Gray (Little Orphan Annie); Charles Schulz (Peanuts) to name but a few, but one strip sits in relative obscurity despite an extraordinary sixty-two year tenure. Why? Because that comic strip was buried inside a monthly retail magazine that catered to the Hardware business.

The cover to Forty Years with Mister Oswald, published in 1968 by the National Retail Hardware Association. 

The story of Russ Johnson is fascinating on many levels. Johnson was not only a talented cartoonist, but a businessman who took over ownership of his father's Hardware store and ran the operation for decades. His first hand experiences as a store owner were the gist for many stories he devised. 

 In the introduction Johnson tells of his father's encouragement over his childhood drawings and notes the resemblance to Mister Oswald.  

What makes Forty Years with Mister Oswald such a worthwhile read is not only the reprinted strips ranging from its beginning in 1925 to 1968, but Johnson's own personal story. Each chapter begins with Johnson sharing his thoughts on both the comic strip and his experiences in the Hardware business - from the depression era and World War II to post war society and beyond.  

In Chapter 3 Johnson recounts his history in the hardware retail business, initially helping out his father and then making it a full time profession, a narrative that intermingles with his creation of Mister Oswald, a composite of he and his father.

Johnson's wit and perception of people and their idiosyncrasies (particularly customers) comes through in many of his strips. The universality of these situations and characters makes Mister Oswald far more than just a promotional piece for the Hardware industry.

In Chapter 13 Johnson relates the problems of doing business during wartime and losing employees who moved to different jobs when they returned. There is a real sense of the times, although Johnson's cartoon shows his ability to find humor in every situation. 

Johnson satirized his entire cast of characters, from customers and employees to Oswald himself. 

       Anyone who has had issues with co-workers can relate to the above two page strip!

Mrs. Oswald was an important component of the strip. As Johnson describes in Chapter 41: "Mrs. Oswald can be tender or domineering, solicitous or termagant, an inspiration or an exasperation." 

In Chapter 31 Johnson explains how the book was an opportunity to relate his experiences and not just publish the funniest strips, but in that mix there is a sincerity in both Johnson as creator and in his alter ego, Mister Oswald. In 1995 Rob Stolzer interviewed Johnson, and this quote stood out in my mind:

 " I lived that strip. I carried a little book around with me all the time. My wife complained about me looking at the book every once in a while, because I was living with all those people all the time. All those make-believe people, all those employees, I was living with them. When we would go to restaurants, they were at the table with us. I think I had some pretty good ideas."

I'll end this on a personal note. In the late 1970's or early 1980's I saw an ad for Forty Years with Mister Oswald in the Buyers Guide. I was aware of the strip because at the time I was employed as a clerk in a Hardware/Houseware store in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, NY. Jacobson Hardware was reminiscent of Mister Oswald and Russ Johnson's real life business in many ways. Both were family businesses, and the storefront had the same design as the version pictured on the upper right side of the book cover. I began reading Mister Oswald when I discovered it in the trade magazine Hardware Retailer (which was always available in the store) and was immediately amused by the artwork and storytelling. Johnson knew his stuff: jobbers, customers and co-workers were recognizable. My good friend Frank and I often worked together in the store and found ways to exasperate our boss Sid, much like Oswald's employees did. I sent a check out and enclosed a letter to Mr. Johnson and not only received a signed copy of the book, but the above personalized note. It's something I still treasure all these years later.

Johnson left the hardware business in 1953, but continued to produce Mister Oswald for Hardware Retailer, ending his run after 62 years in 1989. 

Russ Johnson passed away in 1995, at the age of 101.

You can read Rob Stolzer's full interview with Johnson here: 

..and for more samples of his work go here: