Toon Talk : Two Comic-Strip Artists Discuss the Craft They Love

Times Staff Writer

When Kevin Fagan’s newspaper cartoon strip, “Drabble,” debuted in 1979, the then-22-year-old former Saddleback College student was billed as the nation’s youngest syndicated cartoonist.

Now 33, the Mission Viejo resident recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of his popular cartoon, which appears in 220 newspapers. The strip’s hero is Norman Drabble--a shy, insecure and occasionally bumbling college student who lives at home with his parents, a younger brother and a pet duck named Bob.

When Ferd Johnson’s first solo cartoon strip, “Texas Slim,” debuted in the Chicago Tribune, he too was billed as the youngest cartoonist in America. That was in 1925 when Johnson, now a Newport Beach resident, was a mere 19 years old.

But it is for “Moon Mullins” that Johnson is best known. 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.”

Although they live only 25 miles apart and were familiar with each other’s work, Johnson and Fagan had never met. When Orange County Life called to set up a meeting between the two cartoonists, they were enthusiastic.

The summit took place late one morning in Johnson’s studio on the second floor of an office building on Coast Highway in Corona del Mar.

Johnson moved into the tiny studio in 1968 and, judging by the looks of it, hasn’t cleaned house since. Every corner of the room is cluttered with piles of original cartoon strips, old newspapers and magazines. (Smiling wryly, Johnson confesses, “I don’t know what’s underneath the first three layers.”)

A narrow path on the threadbare “brown and dirt” carpet leads the way to two side-by-side vintage drawing tables. The one on the left, once owned by Frank Willard, is where Johnson spends three hours a day, seven days a week, drawing the daily strips. The one on the right is where Johnson’s son, Tom, does the Sunday strips and helps draw the dailies.

For their visit, the soft-spoken Fagan--wearing a polo shirt, sweat pants and jogging shoes--sat at Tom’s drawing table.

Johnson, his trademark straw hat set at a jaunty angle, sat behind his drawing board in a swivel chair with a pronounced squeak. He perched his feet on the edge of a metal wastebasket, and for the next hour, the two cartoonists talked shop.

Johnson: So, you’re the youngest cartoonist in the business now.

Fagan: Oh, I don’t know about that. I don’t think that’s quite true anymore. I think “Calvin and Hobbes” (cartoonist Bill Watterson) has got a year on me, or something like that. I was for a little while anyway. . . . I brought you an original in case you collect such things.

Johnson, accepting an autographed “Drabble” strip: I’ll have to give you one.

Fagan: I’d love one.

Johnson: I like your stuff. You know, it took me years to get to liking it. But, hell, for the past four or five years, I think it’s great.

Fagan: Oh, I appreciate it. Thank you.

Johnson: You’ve got an individual style, and you should never try to improve it.

Fagan, laughing: I guess after you’ve been around for a while it’s “style,” but when you begin it’s just “strange,” you know. But it turns into “style.”

Johnson: You’re getting so you can draw real well.

Fagan: Yeah, thanks. (laugh) I use rulers now. That helped.

Johnson: What’s your studio look like?

Fagan: My studio’s in my home, and we just moved to a bigger house because we’re expecting our second child in a matter of weeks. So the home we moved to has a three-car garage, and my brother, who’s a carpenter as a hobby, came down from the Bay Area, where he lives, and built a studio in my garage. So it’s brand-new. We just got the carpeting laid and put up book cases.

Johnson: I used to work at home until the syndicate told me to get an office. I don’t know why--maybe too many distractions (at home). . . . I like to meet people. It’s like a family around here. You chew the rag, you might get a few ideas that way.

Fagan: Well, I’ve always worked at home. And it was great until I got married, and then it started to get a little crowded in there. There were a lot of distractions, and then when the first baby came along, it really got to be kind of a pain. So that’s when we decided to move. This studio I have now is great. It’s got a big heavy door between me and the inside of the house (laugh), so you can’t hear a lot.

O.C. Life: Ferd was 17 when he moved to Chicago from a village in rural Pennsylvania to attend art school, where he was “discovered” by cartoonist Frank Willard.

Johnson: The owner of the school knew Willard and got him to teach a cartoon class up there. He did it for two weeks and couldn’t take it anymore. Meantime, he saw all the (student) work, and he thought I had something, and he invited me up to the Tribune. . . . I stood around there for hours watching him work. He finally turned around and said, “Ferd, if you’re going to hang around here all this time, I’m going to put you to work.” So I got a job as assistant at 15 bucks a week. I wrote home, and I said, “Don’t send me anymore money. I’ve got it made.”

O.C. Life: At the time, the Tribune, under the leadership of co-owner and editor Capt. Joseph Patterson, was a cartoonist’s mecca. Did you feel as though you were in exalted company?

Johnson: I sure as hell did. The Tribune had a bunch of cartoonists there. They were the best in the country at the time, so if I got into trouble, I’d ask them. They were great to me: Chester Gould (“Dick Tracy”) was one; Harold Gray--"Orphan Annie"; Sydney Smith--"The Gumps.” Frank King--"Gasoline Alley,” was right next to us.

O.C. Life: How long did you and Willard and the other cartoonists all work together on the same floor?

Johnson: Six, seven years I guess. But the guys couldn’t get any work done down there. There were card games, shooting craps--so they started working at home and then they started spreading out over the country. . . . A cartoonist can be wherever there is a mail box.

O.C. Life: Johnson was Willard’s assistant for 35 years, traveling around the country living in hotels, apartments and farm houses in such far-flung locales as Florida, Maine and Los Angeles. The strip ran in 350 newspapers at its peak of popularity in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and when Willard died in 1958, Johnson officially took it over.

Johnson: They put my name on it then. I had been doing it about 10 years before that because Willard had heart attacks and strokes and all that stuff. The minute my name went on that thing and his name went off, 25 papers dropped (the strip). That shows you that, although I had been doing it 10 years, the name means a lot.

O.C. Life: As cartoonists whose comic strips appear seven days a week, how do you meet the demand of having to constantly come up with ideas?

Johnson, laughing: Well, the bills come in.

Fagan: That’s enough to get the adrenaline going.

O.C. Life: Ferd, you’ve been working on “Moon Mullins” 66 years, and Kevin has been doing “Drabble” for 10 years. . . .

Johnson: He’s just a boy.

Fagan: You know, that’s true in cartooning terms. If a television show runs 10 years, it’s had a great, long run. A 10-year-old comic strip is still a baby, really.

Johnson: I think a comic strip--a good one--is good for 30 years before it starts going down.

O.C. Life: Do you ever hit dry spells, times when the ideas have simply dried up?

Fagan: Oh, yeah, but that kind of comes with the territory. Every once in a while I don’t feel very funny, but you just have to bear down. A change of scenery helps me a lot: to get out of the house, out of the studio, and just go somewhere for the day. I’ll just take a drive, and sometimes that will help. And I find that when I’m dry, as soon as I get one cartoon going then it kind of opens up the way for some more--one idea leads to another.

Johnson: That’s right. I mean, I go all week without an idea and sit down and in two hours you’ve got them all. That (coming up with ideas) is the hardest part of the job. The rest is easy, fun. It (the drawing of the strip) is like handwriting: You just go ahead and do it.

Fagan: I carry around a little binder-type thing, like a school note pad. I just take it with me to most places I go, and I just jot down things and come back and try to work it into a cartoon.

O.C. Life: The characters in “Drabble” are members of a suburban family. “Moon Mullins” started in the 1920s with a boardinghouse setting in a city. How do you define your cast of characters now?

Johnson, laughing: I’ll be damned if I know. When it started, Capt. Patterson wanted a tough man’s strip, and he heard that Willard was pretty tough. Well, he found that out because Willard used to submit ideas. . . . He’d turn them in and the comic editor would turn them down, throw them in the wastepaper basket. A few weeks later, they’d come out in George McManus’ strip, and so Willard went in and poked this guy (the comics editor)--he knocked him out. Willard expected to get fired, but he didn’t give a damn. Well, Patterson heard about this and figured he was the guy for this tough strip. Moon was named after “moonshine,” of course. That was a big thing back then. Capt. Patterson named all the Tribune comics. He had ideas for them all. . . . He was so interested in comics he’d come around two or three times a week and chew the rag with us, suggest things, or call us up to his office. He was really a genius that way.

O.C. Life: The 1930s are considered the golden age of newspaper comics. Ferd, how do you view the ‘80s in terms of comic strips?

Johnson, laughing: It’s great for young guys.

O.C. Life: In comparing the work of cartoonists in the ‘20s and ‘30s, there is a great difference in drawing styles. Today’s style is much simpler.

Johnson: Well, in the old days you were supposed to know how to draw to get a strip started. Nowadays, anything goes as long as it’s readable. The ideas are the most important thing.

Fagan: The other thing is you had more space back then, too.

Johnson: Six columns (wide).

Fagan: And today the cartoons are shrunk so small, it doesn’t allow a lot of room. I mean I don’t have the talent to do what Ferd does. . . .

Johnson: That’s why your style is great for this.

O.C. Life: How do you describe the drawing style of today’s cartoonists?

Johnson: Simpler. I think (Charles) Schulz started this (with “Peanuts”). Everybody put thousands of lines in--a lot of drawing. He came along and, well, you know what the characters are.

Fagan: He (Schulz) was able to just capture the essence of what they were with just a few lines.

O.C. Life: Being able to draw is obviously a prerequisite to doing a comic strip, but how important is the ability to come up with funny ideas?

Johnson: Ideas, by far, are the most important.

O.C. Life: Does the ability to come up with humorous ideas just come natural to both of you?

Fagan: I think so. I don’t know if you can train or teach someone to look at life in a strange perspective. . . . I’ve been drawing all my life just for the fun of it and always drawing goofy things--it’s like it’s just kind of a natural thing.

O.C. Life: Is it the same way with you, Ferd?

Johnson: Ever since I was a kid I sketched. Frank King (“Gasoline Alley”) told me, “If you want to learn how to draw, get a sketchbook. Go out and sketch everything. Come back and try to repeat it from memory. If it doesn’t work, keep going back and forth.” Those old-time cartoonists could do that. There’s a guy named Gaar Williams who had an office next to ours. He could draw anything. If I was stuck, I wouldn’t have to go look up anything. I’d show it to him, and he’d draw it for me.

O.C. Life: How much time do you spend in the studio? Is being a cartoonist a seven-days-a-week proposition?

Johnson: It is for me because it’s easier. I work two or three hours (a day). I get in around 9 or 9:30 and leave at noon. That’s just the drawing part. The ideas are at home, wherever I am.

Fagan: Actually, about the only time I really spend in my studio is when I’m ready to sit at the drawing board and ink it out. But most of the time when I’m writing I’m anywhere. Like I said, I go out and sit at a local restaurant for a few hours and get some ideas that way or just sit at the couch and things like that. But it is a full-time job, seven days a week. I can sit down and force myself to think of ideas, but I think the best ideas just come out of the blue.

Johnson: Out of the air, that’s true, without even thinking of them.

Fagan: What really frustrates me is when they come that way I sometimes don’t have my note pad with me and I don’t write it down immediately. It happened just last night. I was doing something, and I said, “Boy, that would make a funny cartoon, I better write that down,” (but then I thought) I’ll remember it, and not 15 minutes later I had forgotten it.

Johnson: That’s true. And you dream about them. (laugh) You wake up with a great idea and write it down and (the next morning) you can’t read it.

O.C. Life: How old were you when you began thinking you’d like to become a cartoonist?

Johnson: I think I was 11 years old. And then I won a newspaper cartoon drawing contest, and I think the prize was two or three tickets to “Peck’s Bad Boy,” and that got my dad to thinking, and he gave me a $28 correspondence course. I went through that and worked on the high school (year) book all the time. I did lots of drawings there. At 13, I sold my first cartoon, for money, to a railroad magazine. It paid me $10 a month for years and years.

O.C. Life: Did you have the same kind of experience, Kevin?

Fagan: Pretty much, yeah. I was 10 or 11, too. I thought, boy, it would be fun to be a cartoonist. But as I was growing up, I didn’t really pursue it because I didn’t know how you became a cartoonist. I had no idea how you did that for a living. It all happened kind of by accident at Saddleback College. A friend of mine knew that I doodled and drew pictures just for fun. His sister was the editor of the school paper. They were looking for a cartoonist, and so I was nominated. When I started drawing in college, that’s when I really started to give some thought to, “Gee, I could do this,” because the reaction was really so positive and people were saying you really ought to look into this.

Johnson: Somebody told me that (the late cartoonist) Virgil Partch encouraged you or something like that.

Fagan: My mom worked at the Ivy House (restaurant in Laguna Beach) for many years, and Virgil used to come in all the time, and they were good friends. When I was starting out--before my work had actually debuted, but after I had signed my syndicate contract--the syndicate was saying, “You’re going to have to do something with this artwork. This is too weird.” I didn’t know what to do with it, and my mom was talking to Virgil Partch one day, and he said, “Why don’t you have him come down and talk to me. Maybe I can help him.” So I went down to the restaurant, and we sat for a good part of the day, and he showed me a lot of his work and gave me some very useful suggestions, such as the lines don’t all have to connect and be sure (the lettering) is all spaced properly and things like that. He definitely was a big help to me when I was starting out.

Johnson: I’ve never known a cartoonist yet who wouldn’t help a young guy. They are all very liberal with their time and advice.

O.C. Life: You’re both fortunate to have taken what are undoubtedly the right career paths for you.

Johnson: Oh, sure. Most people retire at 65. I wouldn’t think of retiring. It’s something to do. It’s fun.

O.C. Life: Kevin, have you ever wished you had pursued another line of work?

Fagan: Oh, no. I can’t imagine what I could be doing that could be more fun or rewarding than what I do now. I mean being a cartoonist is kind of the best of both worlds because you have a degree of celebrity status and yet nobody knows you when you’re walking down the street or bothers you or things like that. But you get fan mail. I mean, that’s terrific.

Johnson: You get a lot of money when you’re hot, too. (laugh) Unfortunately, I’m not hot anymore.

O.C. Life: Although the popularity of “Moon Mullins” is not what it used to be, is it nevertheless hard to imagine that the strip is still going after 66 years?

Johnson: It’s most unusual. . . . It’s the oldest one that one person has been on all the time. “Gas Alley” and “Jiggs” and some of those others are older, but they had several guys doing it.

O.C. Life: Ferd’s characters were established when he took over the strip. You inherited six of them and have added maybe a dozen more over the years. Do any of your characters resemble you or share any of your personality quirks.

Johnson, laughing: I don’t have a good-looking guy in my strip.

O.C. Life: Norman Drabble is not Kevin Fagan, but is there a part of you in Norman?

Fagan: Yeah. There’s probably part of me in all the characters in the strip. . . . Norman’s always been kind of on the shy side, which has been me growing up. As I get older, I think I start to come out of it a little bit, but when I was in college I was a complete mess, particularly with girls. So there’s a lot of me in Norman. There’s also a lot of me in Norman’s dad. He kind of fancies himself maybe as being something greater than he is. He likes to come home and relax in front of the TV. Patrick, Norman’s little brother, is a lot like me as well because I was the youngest of four boys. . . .

Johnson: Do you find you think like your characters?

Fagan: Yeah.

Johnson: I think so. Every one of my characters is the same way. I know how Moon thinks. It’s not like Plushbottom thinks or all the other characters. It’s like a stage play almost.

Fagan: In fact, you just think of a situation and put in the characters and they each act differently, and you know what each one would say.

O.C. Life: Do you view drawing a cartoon strip like doing a stage play or TV situation comedy?

Fagan: Yeah, it’s very similar. The cartoonist, though, has to be the actors, the writers, the director, the wardrobe person, the set decorator. . . .

Johnson, laughing: I didn’t know we were so good.

Fagan, laughing: Yeah, we should all be paid a lot more.