Mister Oswald, by Russ Johnson
'Mr. Oswald' (February 1961)

Russ Johnson was an American comics artist, best known as the creator of 'Mister Oswald' (1927-1989), a comic strip which ran for six decades in the nationally syndicated trade magazine Hardware Retailing. Set in a little hardware store, it features the daily problems of an unlucky store owner, his employees, the salespeople and the customers. A gentle, old-fashioned comic strip, much of its charm comes from its recognizability. Johnson drew every background and object with intricate detail. By running for more than half a century, 'Mr. Oswald' is a time document on how stores evolved over time. Yet much of the comedy itself is timeless, particularly to anyone who ever ran or visited a hardware shop. Together with Australian cartoonist Jim Russell Johnson is also the longest continuously active comics artist of all time, both working a record-breaking 62 years (!) without interruption! Yet since Johnson mostly worked for a small niche magazine both his fame and record have often been overlooked by comics fans and historians. 

Early life
Russell P. Johnson was born in 1893 on a farm, not far from Gibson City, Illinois. As a child he loved Rudolph Dirks' The Katzenjammer Kids'. Johnson studied at Dixon College and Norman School. After graduation in 1915 he moved to Chicago, where he worked at Montgomery's Ward. In 1917 the United States got involved with World War I and Johnson subsequently joined the navy. When his officers noticed he was quite skilled at shooting, thanks to years of hunting animals around his farm, he was brought back to land to become a military shooting instructor. During his military service Johnson drew cartoons for Afloat and Ashore, a Naval paper published in Charleston, South Carolina.

In 1918, back in civilian life, Johnson took evening lessons at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, studying under Billy DeBeck and Carl Ed. By 1921 he returned to his birth town, Gibson City, where he became employed in his father's hardware store. However, he kept drawing advertising cartoons for the store's window displays, which were renewed every Tuesday. Through his aunt some of his cartoons got published in local newspapers. In 1925 the editor of the Hardware Retailing magazine asked him to draw some cartoons for his monthly magazine? Johnson created several one-shot features for the magazine before he introduced his signature character.


Mister Oswald (1932)

Mister Oswald
In October 1927 Johnson created the comic strip which would become his life's work: 'Mister Oswald' (1927-1989), which ran in Harware Retailing for six decades. He chose the name Oswald, because it "seemed to be a sort of a dumb person to him." The character itself was modelled after his father. In the comic strip Oscar A. Oswald is owner of a retail store. Mr. Hotair (recognizable by his derby hat), and Herman the short-sized employee are two of his colleagues. Mr. Hotair is always bossing everybody around, while not doing anything fruitful himself. Herman has a tendency to say the wrong things at the wrong time. He is usually blamed for whatever goes wrong in the store, even if it was clearly not his fault. Oswald too can be very grumpy and usually hasn't got the foresight to prevent things from going wrong. The comedy isn't wacky or wild, but mostly revolves around plausible, recognizable events, all set between the walls of Oswald's store. Action rarely took place elsewhere. As a result 'Mister Oswald' is an enjoyable and recognizable study of the human condition. A group of simple-minded people getting worked up over banal events...


'Mister Oswald' (May 1959).

Thanks to Johnson's drawing talent every panel is fun and interesting to look at. He spent a lot of time trying to draw every object on every shelf or corner to the tiniest details. The backgrounds evoke the cosy atmosphere of a little, overcrowded storage shop. Everything has an enjoyable old-fashionedness about it. The cartoonist unwillingly created a time capsule of how a typical retail store looked in the 1920s and evolved over the decades. Reading the episodes chronologically one instantly notices how business was conducted, how people were dressed, how certain objects looked... One also notices that even back then customers complained about the service, while the store owners quarreled with their salespeople and blamed it on the employees below the ladder. In an era when most old-time stores have closed down because the competition of supermarkets and big malls has been too strong, 'Mr. Oswald' remains interesting to historians and nostalgic readers. 

Other comics
During the early 1930s Johnson also created the comic strip 'Bunker Bunk and the Boys' - about a wholesale business - and 'Sellem and Son' - about two retailers - for the Armstrong Cork Company. The Sporting Goods Dealer ran his comic strip 'Adam and Steve' and the Remington Arms Company featured a full-page comic strip on a monthly basis. But Johnson would soon drop all these comics in favour for 'Mr. Oswald'.

Adam and Steve, by Russ Johnson
'Adam and Steve'.

Retirement and longevity record
'Mr. Oswald' ran for more than half a century, even when Johnson retired from the retailing business altogether in 1953. The strip was published in European hardware retailing magazines as well. It ran in the UK's Ironmonger from 1955 to 1982 and in Finland's Nupi from 1957 to 1982. In 1968 a compilation book was published: 'Forty Years with Mr. Oswald' (National Hardware Retailing Association, 1968). In the book, Johnson also recounted his own history in the retail business, both in the introductions for each chapter and in a comic strip created specially for the book. In 1989 the 95-year old cartoonist finally retired, having drawn 'Mr. Oswald' continuously, without assistance during most of its run, for a record-breaking 62 years. The only cartoonist to match this record was also named Russell, namely Australian cartoonist Jim Russell, who continued his comic strip 'The Potts' (1939-2001) for the exact same amount of time and also without assistance! But one must consider that 'The Potts' was a daily comic, while 'Mr. Oswald' only appeared once a month. Second place is taken by U.S. comics artist Fred Lasswell, who drew the daily comic 'Barney Google' for 59 years (1942-2001), though with the aid of assistants. At the third place we find the Englishman Frank Dickens, who drew his daily gag comic 'Bristow' completely on his own for 51 years on end (1961-2012). Fourth place is for Charles M. Schulz who drew the daily 'Peanuts' comic strip between 1950 and 2000 for 49 years without assistance, though he did use assistants for the separate comic book publications. Fifth we find the Belgian cartoonist Marc Sleen, who drew the daily newspaper comic 'Nero' without assistance for 45 years continuously (1947-1992) (and had ten other comics series running in between for 18 years!). 

Final years and death
'Mr. Oswald' was continued until 2008 by Johnson's assistant Larry Day, who unlike Johnson had no experience in the retail sector. Meanwhile Johnson still tried to launch another comic strip. Once again he took inspiration from his own life and wanted to make a comic strip about people in retirement. Unfortunately no syndicate was interested. The tireless comics veteran lived to become a centenarian and eventually passed away in 1995 at age 101. Two years before his death he was interviewed by Rob Stolzer for issue #10 of the magazine Hogan's Alley. 


From: 'Forty Years of Mr. Oswald'.

Russ Johnson's final interview, by Rob Stolzer

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