Wednesday, April 17, 2024


Obscurity of the Day: Herbert Johnson's Daily Cartoon Panel


Fame can be fleeting; just ask Herbert Johnson. Or, actually, don't bother because he's quite dead. But if he were alive, he'd no doubt be flabbergasted at the nearly universal response of "Who?" should you ask even dedicated cartooning fans about him. On the other hand, the average reasonably literate man on the street in, say, 1930, would have been able to ID this ink-slinger with no trouble.

Johnsons's cartoons were folksy; the writing calling to mind H.T. Webster while the art resembled that of Clare Briggs. He came onto the cartooning scene out of nowhere, having never taken an art lesson in his life. Yet he was able to bounce around the country in his early years readily finding work on newspapers and having magazine submissions, even cover drawings, accepted on a regular basis. 

His real fame came when he became the in-house cartoonist of the Saturday Evening Post, which is a position he apparently landed in the early 1920s (information is murky). The Post was a nearly universally read magazine, and that made Johnson a household name. For the Post he branched out from his folksy material into editorial cartooning. Johnson was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican and by the time FDR got into office his Post editorial cartoons had lost most of their folksy charm and were stridently anti-Democrat. He seems to have retired by 1942, having perhaps finally gotten fed up with spitting into the wind about FDR as the president's third term was in full swing. 

Here on Stripper's Guide we have commemorated Herbert Johnson once back in 2009 for his only Sunday comic strip, Eph Jackson, which ran in 1905-06. The only other series we can offer up in his memory is his best one, a daily panel series that had a cadre of running titles (I really have to come up with a term for these things). The series was syndicated through the cooperative syndicate Associated Newspapers. It debuted on January 3 1921*, and evidently Johnson's name already had plenty of clout because the series was picked up by an impressive number of papers. 

I really wish I knew when Johnson got his permanent berth at the Saturday Evening Post, because it sort of stands to reason that it was in 1922 but I have no hard evidence, just circumstantial. Johnson's daily newspaper panel seems to have sputtered that year, with it being reduced to a frequency of 2-3 times per week. This would make sense if he was getting busier with Post work. It sure doesn't seem like the problem was lack of newspaper clients. The series becomes so sporadically printed that I can only offer my best guess as to when it was finally cancelled. I think it was in December 1922**, though I have seen a goodly number of his panels printed later, but generally by papers where printing material late was a typical thing.

* Source: Boston Globe

* Source: Boston Globe and Calgary Herald,


Hello Allan-
For a genré title, how about "Fake H. T. Webster?" Or possibly "Briggs Knockoff?"
I have a collection of his SEP editorial cartoons from the 1930s. Strident, and afflicted with label-itis, and this is from someone who is no fan of the New Deal.
In doing a little digging, I found an article from the May 20, 1914 edition of the "University Missourian" of Columbia, Missouri, which has a front page article on Johnson, then 35 years old, and which describes his work for the S.E.P. already at that time. The article says he came art editor and cartoonist of the SEP "about a year ago," i.e., about 1913. The Delaware County Daily Times of February 13, 1913 notes him as being an SEP cartoonist. The Kansas City Star, April 6, 1913, calls him a cartoonist for both the SEP and the Philadelphia North American. So there's some evidence he was with the SEP for a number of years before 1922, and was also working for the PNA at least as early as 1913.
Many May 7, 1913 newspapers carry an ad telling readers to look out for "Herbert Johnson's great flood cartoon" in the upcoming SEP issue.
The Altoona Tribune, November 19, 1941, says he joined the SEP in 1912. The May 26, 1946 edition of the Billings (MT) Gazette carries an account of a lecture by him, noting that he was with the SEP from 1912 to 1940, and "for 14 years before that was a cartoonist for eastern newspapers and magazines." His obit in the December 6, 1946 Philadelphia Inquirer pins down his date of joining the SEP as December, 1912, and notes he relinquished his post as art editor at the SEP in 1915 to devote himself full time as editorial cartoonist. Edmund Duffy, by the way, would succeed Johnson in 1948, after a gap of 7 years when the SEP didn't have an editorial cartoonist.
To me, the art resembles Webster's more than Briggs's. More realistic, less cartoony, and with expressive body gestures.
Thanks EOCostello for digging up that info. I wonder, then, why the newspaper series withered on the vine like it did. Perhaps Johnson just realized that the newspaper gig was not all that lucrative, and lost interest? --Allan
At this distance, and without any quotes from the man himself to rely on, you could speculate that Johnson might have figured that his prominent position at the SEP was enough, both in terms of prestige and money; I think you put your finger on it regarding the lack of lucrative nature in the side gigs. I see these are (c) to Johnson himself, but by any chance did the Philadelphia North American have anything to do with distribution? He did work there directly before the SEP, and both the PNA and the SEP were based in Philadelphia. One side note: I have a small card signed by Johnson with a self-caricature. Would have made a nice additional bit for this article!
(Ach, dummy. I see Associated Newspapers, in which the Philadelphia Bulletin was a major player, distributed the strip. Well, similar point. Johnson was working for the SEP and for a syndicate that had a major player in Philadelphia.)
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