Monday, January 26, 2015
Tragic News -- Cole Johnson Dead
I am sad to disclose that everyone's friend and my dear brother Cole Johnson has passed away.
He was incredibly knowledgeable about strips and contributed many items to these pages. He was also warm and witty, himself a great cartoonist, who seemed to know most everything about American history and popular culture. I loved him, God bless his great soul. His loss is a tragic waste.
I knew that Cole had health problems, but I did not know they were life-threatening. I was on the phone gabbing away for an hour or two with my good friend just a week ago, and he seemed to be in great spirits. I can hardly believe that he is gone.
Even though I never had the privilege of meeting Cole face to face, I felt that we were kindred spirits, and that I could consider us to be good friends. Our long telephone gabfests will always be some of my happiest memories. Though Cole occasionally mentioned health problems to me, he was much too eager to talk about other things to bother taking time to talk about them. He would much rather talk about newspapers, comics, movies, cartoons -- all with the same giddy fascination that he knew we shared.
I loved listening to Cole talk. He talked in a leisurely drawl, and his words were always impeccably well-chosen. He loved to set the scene for his stories, telling all the details and establishing atmosphere. He seemed like he was weaving a story as he talked, and his stories were always fascinating, funny, and smart. I enjoyed baiting him -- just mention an obscure cartoonist or a tabloid newspaper title, and more often than not he would start in on one of his stories, mixing together history, storytelling and sardonic wit. Cole should have been a writer, and I should have pressed him harder to write for the blog. But he was so modest and self-effacing, and so amused at his own fascination with popular history, that I think he couldn't imagine people would be interested. But I think that a weaver of stories like Cole could have made just about anything interesting, even the minutiae that we discussed endlessly.
One of the most endearing things about Cole was that he realized, and reveled in, the idea that being a newspaper comics expert is mystifying pointless and utterly ridiculous to 99.9% of humanity. He never took himself seriously, a trap many experts fall into. Even as Cole and I would spend an hour discussing something esoteric like the origins of World Color Printing, we were always at the same time laughing at ourselves, and how bizarre we would sound to an outsider.
Cole was also one of the most open-hearted, giving people I've ever met. His incredible collections were freely open to anyone who had an interest. As far as I know, he never once asked anyone for a fee, even when supplying material for publications that were expected to turn a profit. His delight was in the possibility that the material he collected, and shared freely, might attract new people to be interested in these things. You reading this blog are constant beneficiaries of his philosophy, as I have reproduced hundreds, maybe thousands of scans he produced to be shared here, not to mention all the knowledge that accompanied them.
There is without a doubt no person on this earth who knew more about newspaper comics than Cole Johnson. It is a shame that most of us care so little about history that Cole's death does not get wide reporting as a tragic loss to humanity's collective memory. A vast repository of knowledge has been extinguished.
Personal to Mark Johnson: Mark, you have my heartfelt condolences. I would greatly appreciate if you can get in touch with me, as I have no way to contact you directly. I'd like to know where and when services will be held, and get access to obituaries, as I never knew nearly enough about my friend's life -- we were always too busy talking comics.
No I don't think so. Hard to believe there would be two cartoonists named Cole Johnson, but those Sugar Free Days mini-comix seem to be by someone else -- at least the style doesn't match. According to Mark Johnson, Cole did do at least one comic book -- it was done for a Dr. Who fan club of all things.
"Cole Johnson is a near-mythic figure among comic strip
researchers. His articles in various fanzines of the 1970s,
often coauthored with his brother Mark, revealed a grasp
of comic strip history so vast and detailed that some
wondered whether he was human or some sort of divine oracle.
In the '80s and '90s he effectively disappeared from the
ranks, and I never thought to contact him until I eventually
met him around 2007, and we talked about his particular
passion, the Philadelphia syndicates. In the interim I had
indexed the Philadelphia syndicates myself, but I soon
discovered that his knowledge of these newspapers and others
still dwarfed my own. He was able to point me down essential
but previously unexplored paths and has provided much new
important information for the project. Amazingly, Cole's
real passion isn't newspaper comics but silent movies-
I can only imagine what a force to be reckoned with he is
in that field!"