Russ Johnson Sells a Gag

I’ve interviewed many old cartoonists over the years and one thing that ties the humorists together is their admiration for fellow cartoonists who knew how to “sell a gag”.  Like a stand-up comic who takes his or her time to build on a story, coming through at the end with an uproarious and unexpected twist, cartoonists of all generations aspire for that perfectly timed, perfectly delivered ending.  Bud Blake spoke glowingly about his peers who were able to create that build-up in a comic strip, coming through at the end with a gag that was exquisitely placed.  A number of other cartoonists spoke about Bud in a similar fashion, noting his ability to work his gags throughout his beautifully drawn Tiger daily strips and Sunday page. 

Russ Johnson (1893-1995) worked on his Mister Oswald Sunday page-style comic strip for 62 years, in the pages of Hardware Retailing magazine.  Throughout those six decades of work, Johnson developed a gag-delivery approach that worked more often than not.  And on occasion, it was perfection.  In this Mister Oswald page, circa 1957, Mister Oswald suffers mightily from a case of mistaken identity.  Johnson creates that perfectly built-up page, delivering the gag in a beautiful fashion:

While something seems slightly amiss, all appears okay in the first panel. Mister Oswald is a bit indignant about the idea that he has not been paying his bills, but it could be a simple mix-up.

Confusion starts to set in, from both parties. Something is going on, but we’re not yet privy to it.

This is a wonderful panel, in which Herman and Pearlie are reading about Mister Oswald, the bill collector not understanding what’s going on, and Mister Oswald himself oblivious to the action at left.

Now our hero knows that something is going on. As the towns folks talk about Mister Oswald, classic nervous flop sweat flies from his head. And just check out those wonderful coat patterns.

The picture starts to gain clarity, as we learn of a second Mister Oswald who moved to the area, one who is clearly a scoundrel.

Missus Oswald gives Mister Oswald the great news that the other Mister Oswald has left town. As she’s talking, we see Mister Oswald at the right, which exclamation lines replacing the flop sweat. But what could it be?

In the wonderful world of comic strips, a character can be in the Midwestern United States one second, and two miles from the Canadian border in the next. It must be the flux capacitor in Mister Oswald’s car. But we know that whatever he saw from the window hastened his exit.

And now the gag has been beautifully delivered. Mister Oswald clearly thought he was going to be forced into some sort of shotgun arrangement due to the other Mister Oswald’s scandalous behavior. Little did he know that this gentleman simply wanted to trade in his shotgun for a new gun.

And now, the full strip:

If you enjoyed this post, please consider checking out my website devoted to Russ Johnson and Mister Oswald, which I created last summer: You’ll find a good assortment of Mister Oswald pages on the site and can even listen to me chatting about the strip with Dan Tratensek, the publisher of Hardware Retailing.

Thanks for tuning in!

Rob Stolzer has been collecting original comic strip and cartoon artwork for over 40 years. He has written numerous articles for Hogan's Alley, the CFA-APA and other journals. Stolzer taught art at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point for 33 years, where he taught Art Seminar, Drawing, Figure Drawing, Graphic Narration, Illustration, and Painting courses.

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