Veteran cartoonist Ferd Johnson always planned on retiring. Someday.
At 85, he figured he still had a few good years left to draw “Moon Mullins,” the classic cartoon strip featuring the colorful residents of Lord and Lady Plushbottom’s boarding house at 1323 Wump St.
But after 68 years, “Moon Mullins,” a strip that came into being when Calvin Coolidge was in the White House and speakeasies and the Charleston were the rage, is coming to an end.
Last month, Tribune Media Services, the syndicate that has always carried “Moon Mullins,” informed Johnson that the strip had been canceled.
The last “Moon Mullins” will appear Sunday.
“Sixty-eight years is a long time to be doing one thing, but the next 68 years I’m going to concentrate on painting,” says Johnson, a longtime Newport Beach resident.
Johnson was 17 when he became assistant to the strip’s originator, Frank Willard, two months after “Moon Mullins” debuted in the Chicago Tribune in 1923. When Willard died in 1958, Johnson inherited the cartoon featuring a roughneck pool-hall regular named after moonshine whiskey.
At its peak during the Depression, “Moon Mullins” appeared in 350 of the nation’s largest newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. But as upshot young cartoonists with names like Schulz, Trudeau and Larson increasingly took over the comic pages, the number of papers carrying “Moon” dwindled to around 50.
“They just kept dropping off because it’s so damn old,” Johnson said. “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.”
In April, the Chicago Tribune, where it all began, decided to drop the strip. That was the death knell; shortly thereafter Johnson was informed by the syndicate that it was over.
“I miss it very much, especially the money,” said Johnson with a chuckle. “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.”
Johnson, who for years has been able to describe himself as “the oldest guy in the business,” moved to Newport Beach in 1968. For the past 20 years, Johnson’s son, Tom, who works for a computer firm, has served as his father’s assistant, drawing the Sunday strip and helping with the dailies. Doris, Johnson’s wife of 57 years, whom he met in art school in Chicago, died four years ago.
Because the daily strips are drawn six weeks ahead of publication, Johnson had a chance to send Moon and the gang off in style.
The final six daily strips show everybody moving out of the old boarding house. (Moon carries his little brother Kayo out in the same dresser drawer in which Kayo has always slept.) But like the man who draws them, the characters remain upbeat until the end.
In one of the last strips, Lord Plushbottom points to the sky and proclaims, “After 68 years, to that great comic page in the sky!” And Kayo jumps up and down, saying, “Hey, great! I can catch up on ‘Prince Valiant’ and ‘Mutt and Jeff’ and ‘Texas Slim’ . . . “
The final daily strip gives Moon the last laugh.
It’s a single panel of the sun setting and Moon, eyeing a curvaceous girl walking out of the panel, says to himself: “I planned on marching off into the sunset, but she’s going in the other direction.”
Johnson said he is looking forward to devoting more time to his painting. And, he admits, he really won’t miss having to meet those deadlines.
“It’s nice to get up in the morning and know I don’t have to sweat an idea,” he said. “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.”
DAVID MURONAKA / Los Angeles Times