Spring Creek native at points youngest – and oldest – artist in cartoon business
The Chicago Tribune must seem about as far from Spring Creek as the moon.
But a Spring Creek native carved out a space as a teen drawing comics and turned it into a decades-long career.
Meet Ferdinand Johnson.
Known as “Ferd,” Johnson was born in 1905 in Spring Creek where he lived until the age of 17 when, according to his obituary, he left town to attend the Art Institute of Chicago.
“There he met cartoonist and teacher Frank Willard, who had just begun drawing Moon Mullins,” that article states. “Willard soon took Mr. Johnson on as an assistant at the Chicago Tribune, a relationship that spanned 35 years. When Willard died in 1958, Mr. Johnson took over Moon Mullins.”
He worked on that strip for nearly 70 years.
He drew the cartoon up until 1991 when he was in his early 80s. The cartoon was about “pool-hall regular Moon Mullins who was named after moonshine whiskey,” the obituary states.
An inventory of his cartoons can be found at Syracuse University.
“Johnson became interested in cartooning after winning the Erie (Pa.) Dispatch-Herald cartoon contest at the age of 12,” a bio with their collection states. “After finishing high school in 1923 he attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts but left school after only three months to take an assistant’s job at the Chicago Tribune with Frank Willard who had recently created the Moon Mullins comic strip.
“While assisting on Moon Mullins, Johnson remained active with other Tribune projects. He created several comic strip features for the Syndicate – Texas Slim (1925-1928) and Lovey-Dovey (1932) – did sports illustration work and produced advertising cartoons. In 1940 he revived Texas Slim in Texas Slim and Dirty Dalton (with the companion strip, Buzzy), which ran for 18 years. After Willard’s death in 1958 he took over full responsibility for Moon Mullins, which he continued to draw (assisted in later years by his son, Tom) until his retirement in 1991.”
A comic reference guide states that Johnson took on various stages of the production process before taking over the whole operation while Willard was still alive. He wouldn’t sign the cartoon as his own until after Willard’s death.
An article on the Texas Slim cartoon at toonopedia.com speculates that his 68 year career is “probably the longest in the history of American Comics.”
“He was only 17 when he started hanging around The Chicago Tribune’s offices in 1922 (the year before Moon Mullins started and he became Willard’s assistant), but he got to be so familiar a sight and so well known there for his humor and drawing ability, that he was offered a chance to create a strip of his own. Texas Slim, a Sunday page, debuted from the Trib’s syndicate on August 30, 1925,” that article states.
A 1989 article in the LA Times details that Johnson was “billed as the youngest cartoonist in American” when he was 19.
“But it is for ‘Moon Mullins’ that Johnson is best known,” that article states. “He was hired as assistant to the strip’s originator, Frank Willard, two months after the strip’s debut in 1923 and inherited the cartoon featuring a roughneck pool hall regular when Willard died in 1958.
“At 83, Johnson is still at it, turning out daily ‘Moon Mullins cartoons, which still run in about 100 papers. It is considered one of America’s handful of classic comic strips, and Johnson is, as he says with a touch of pride, ‘the oldest guy in the business.'”
An additional LA Times article two years later reported that the comic had been canceled after the 68 year run.
He was very candid in that article about the success of the strip, which had appeared in 350 newspapers at its peak
“Sixty-eight years is a long time to be doing one thing, but the next 68 years I’m going to concentrate on painting,” Johnson told the LA Times in 1991. “They just kept dropping off because it’s so damn old. The new ones come out and the editors want to make room for them, so the old ones get dumped. And ‘Moon’ sure qualifies that way.”
“But it’s been a good life. I’ve traveled all over the world and bought a home and all that good stuff. So I’ll be enjoying going through life waking up in the morning with nothing to do…. It’s nice to get up in the morning and know I don’t have to sweat an idea…. In fact, I haven’t had an idea since I stopped. That was the only tough part of the job. Boy, 365 of them a year for 68 years. That’s a lot of ideas,” the LA Times report quotes him as saying.
He would outlive his comic strip by five years, dying at the age of 90 in California.