They're Still Going Strong : Cartoonist, 79, Has Worked 61 Years on 'Moon Mullins'

Times Staff Writer

They began working in the 1920s, and after 60-odd years on the job, they've more than earned the right to sit back and relax. But at a time when the vast majority of their contemporaries have long since called it quits, they refuse to retire.

Blessed with good health and indomitable spirits, 83-year-old Holly Lash Visel, 81-year-old Carl Civic and 79-year-old Ferd Johnson remain not only willing but also able to continue working. For Visel, Civic and Johnson, their work is their pleasure and, for them, there's no end in sight.

Like comic George Burns, himself still going strong in his 80th year in show business, they believe it's best to keep working as long as they can. As the youthful 88-year-old Burns says, "You've got to do something that will get you out of bed."

Ferd Johnson had just finished fielding three phone calls and was pouring coffee into Styrofoam cups for himself and a visitor to his cubbyhole of a studio in an office building on Coast Highway in Corona del Mar.

The calls were from friends wishing him well on his 79th birthday.

Johnson no longer makes a fuss over birthdays, however, and had nothing special planned for the day. For him, it was largely just another work day drawing "Moon Mullins," the newspaper cartoon strip he's been associated with for 61 years.

"I'm lucky to be around," said Johnson with a grin, seated at the vintage drawing board once used by Frank Willard, the originator of "Moon Mullins," who hired Johnson, then 17, as his assistant two months after the Chicago Tribune Syndicate strip made its debut in 1923.

Sixty-one years later, Johnson, who took over the strip as his own in 1958 when Willard died, is still at it. As Johnson wryly observes, "I'm the oldest working cartoonist in the business, and I'm trying to keep it that way."

"Moon Mullins," which is considered one of the all-time classic humor strips, achieved widespread popularity as a satire of family life. Set in a boardinghouse owned by Lord and Lady Plushbottom, "Moon Mullins" features a colorful cast of characters led by Moon himself, a street-wise pool hall regular who owns a taxicab that his little brother, Kayo, won in a raffle. (The name Moon, Johnson explained, is short for Moonshine, which was a popular word during Prohibition.)

During its heyday in the '30s and '40s, "Moon Mullins" appeared in about 250 newspapers. "That doesn't sound like much these days, but they were all big papers," noted Johnson. "It's now down to about 100 papers, but it still pays its way."

With his trademark wool hat set at a jaunty angle--"I forget to take it off--except in the shower"--and smiling wryly, the white-haired and bespectacled Johnson looks not unlike one of the characters that might populate his cartoon strip.

The imperious Lady Plushbottom, however, would, no doubt, never stand for the studio's perpetual--and overwhelming--state of disarray.

"Fer chrissake, I cleaned it up for you!" joked Johnson when the clutter was mentioned: piles of old magazines, newspapers and cartoon originals and proofs "from way back when"--the flotsam and jetsam of a cartooning career that began in 1917 when, at age 13, the son of a Spring Creek, Pa., railroad station agent sold his first cartoon to Railway Station Agent magazine.

At the age of 17, Johnson enrolled in the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, where he met Frank Willard, who was teaching a weekend class in cartooning. Impressed with the boy's drawings, Willard invited Johnson up to his office at the Chicago Tribune.

"I went up and hung around and watched him draw," recalled Johnson. "He finally said, 'Well, if you're going to hang around here I'll put you to work.' "

The pay was only $15 a week, but a novice cartoonist couldn't have asked for more: Willard's office was on the same floor as a handful of the era's other great cartoonists--Frank King ("Gasoline Alley"), Harold Gray ("Little Orphan Annie"), Carl Ed ("Harold Teen"), Sidney Smith ("The Gumps") and, later, Chester Gould ("Dick Tracy").

Dropped Out of Art School

"It was quite a group, and they were wonderful with me," said Johnson. "In fact, I had four or five top men in the business as my teachers. Needless to say, I dropped out of art school after two months."

As might be expected, life with a gaggle of cartoonists wasn't all work and no play. In fact, according to Johnson, the play often got in the way of the work.

"Oh, they were a lot of fun," he recalled, then grinned: "It got so everybody left there and worked at home. They couldn't get any work done. They'd always be partying, playing cards and just having a ball."

Two years after he became Willard's assistant, Johnson was being billed "as the youngest cartoonist in the business" with the debut of his own Sunday cartoon, a western strip called "Texas Slim and Dirty Dalton." Although it was dropped after 2 1/2 years, "Texas Slim" was revived in 1940 and Johnson continued drawing it "on the side" for 18 years until he gave it up to devote full time to "Moon Mullins."

When Johnson took over "Moon Mullins" in 1958, his artist son, Tom, became his assistant. Tom, 52, a communications director for a computer firm, works on "Moon Mullins" on weekends. Sitting at the studio's other antique drawing board, which once was used by "Barney Google" creator Billy DeBeck, Tom produces the color Sunday "Moon Mullins" strip, helps ink in the daily strips and, together, the Johnson and Johnson team go over and edit strip ideas.

Although he believes his son could take over the strip--"He's a good artist, has good ideas and is a good editor"--Johnson has no plans to relinquish "Moon Mullins," explaining that, "I still want to keep my finger in it."

Indeed, when asked what motivates him to keep returning to the drawing board after 61 years, Johnson laughs and says, "The rent . . . . No, I want something to do."

Actually, it's a combination of the two.

"I always thought I'd like to wind up and retire as a painter, but that's no deal. That's why I stick with Moon: I have to make a living. But mainly I want something to do."

Despite his years of experience at the drawing table, Johnson acknowledges that producing a daily newspaper cartoon strip is indeed work.

"Sure it's work, because you sweat on the ideas," he explained. "The drawing part you can do, but you don't know you're going to get another idea."

Johnson works on the strip about three hours a day, coming into the office four days a week and working at home the rest of the week. (Home is in Newport Beach, where he and Doris, his wife of 54 years, have lived since 1968.) Sunday is "idea day," a time when Johnson "parks in a corner" of the house with a sketch pad and comes up with ideas for the coming week's batch of cartoons.

"Once in a while, they come out of the air, but generally you have to dig for them," he observed. "When they're coming good, it's wonderful, it's fun. When they're not, you suffer."

Johnson, who exercises by walking a couple of miles a day, takes a break from the drawing board by spending his afternoons at the easel. His oil paintings of local landscapes, which he describes as being done in a Southern California French Impressionist style, have been sold in galleries in Laguna Beach and Corona del Mar.

Doesn't Believe in Retiring

"I don't think of being old, I really don't," Johnson said. "I get tired, but when I'm sailing--when the work is going good--I feel as young as I ever did. I can't see these people that retire with nothing to do. That must be boring as hell."

With his old pal Moon Mullins and company around, Johnson needn't ever worry about being bored.

"It's a delightful occupation," he acknowledged with a grin. "I've got to admit, it's a fun thing."

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