Professor, Novelist, and MacArthur "Genius" Charles Johnson on His First Career: Cartoonist
We think in pictures. Like music, the content of a drawing can be universally recognized; it cuts across language barriers and can be ‘worth a thousand words.’ –Charles Johnson
Drawing is not what one sees but what one can make others see. – Edgar Degas
Professor Charles Johnson (Photo by Mary Randlett)
Most readers probably know Seattle’s Charles Johnson, the retired UW English Professor, as a celebrated scholar, beloved teacher, and literary icon. He has written four acclaimed novels including Dreamer and the National Book Award-winning Middle Passage, as well as numerous essays, short stories, screenplays, and studies of race, culture and eastern religion such as his book Taming the Ox. He is also recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and is recognized as an influential public intellectual.
After earning a doctorate in philosophy (emphasizing phenomenology and literary aesthetics), he then served for more than 30 years as a professor of English at the University of Washington where he taught literature and creative writing, directed the creative writing program, and held an endowed chair, the S. Wilson and Grace M. Pollack Professorship for Excellence in English. Students remember him for his encouragement, academic rigor, attention to individual needs, and devotion to excellence as a teacher.
Charles Johnson’s reputation in the world of writing and books thus is well established. And the prolific retired professor continues to write and speak for audiences around the globe from his home in Seattle’s Wedgwood neighborhood.
However, many readers may not be aware that Johnson loves visual art and his first career was as comic artist. As he puts it, he’s been “addicted” to drawing since childhood.
Johnson’s early cartoon work recently gained renewed attention. A selection of his cartoons from 50 years ago is now on exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art along with the work of other Black Chicago cartoonists from 1940-1980. He wrote the introduction for It’s Life as I See It, the exhibit’s catalog. That title comes from his caption for his vintage cartoon that depicts a Black artist describing his painting of a pure black rectangle to a white observer. And next year, the New York Review of Books will publish a collection of more than 200 of Johnson’s cartoons in a volume called All Your Racial Problems Will Soon End: The Comic Art of Charles Johnson.
Professor Johnson recently sat down at a northeast Seattle café and generously recounted his fondness for visual art and his lifelong, near obsession with making cartoons, a passion since childhood that he continues to indulge at age 73—among his many other interests.
Thinking in Pictures. Since childhood, the cerebral Johnson has always first thought in pictures. “Images and ideas fill my head where nobody can see then. I have to externalize them on the page. It could be a drawing. It could be a short story. It could be an essay. . .In these [creations], you can see through my eyes.” His universally admired vivid description and convincing characterization in his novels and short stories attest to his strong visual sense. And this ability to picture scenes in his mind enhances his artistic talent.
Professor Johnson’s First Love: Art. Johnson recalled that he began drawing in elementary school in his hometown of Evanston, Illinois, and never stopped. Drawing “was something I loved to do.” He described the sensual delights he still enjoys: the texture of paper, the smell of ink or paint, experimenting with various pens, pencils and brushes. He especially appreciates the process of coming up with ideas, then creating images and sharing them with others. And he likes the opportunity to play as he draws. He said, “Playfulness is an element of all art.”
His mother, a voracious reader who loved music, admired his drawings. His father also enjoyed his son’s creations but was skeptical about Johnson’s dreams of becoming an artist. At the time, his father worked two or three jobs at a time to support the family. Nonetheless, he bought art supplies for his son and even gave him a drawing table one Christmas. At twenty-five dollars, the table was a big splurge for his family and Johnson is still grateful for his father’s generosity. The drawing table “became my place of worship,” Johnson said, where he spent hours exercising his imagination as he sketched and drew almost daily.
Distance Learning. “Drawing was my passion all the way through middle school and high school,” Johnson said. “I drew everything I possibly could.”
At the nationally renowned Evanston High—a temple for youthful scholarship— Johnson made cartoons and comic strips for the student newspaper and gave cards and other drawings to friends.
When he was just 15, about the time he began studying Buddhism and meditation, Johnson came upon an ad in Writer’s Digest for a correspondence course in drawing offered by prolific cartoonist and writer Lawrence Lariar, then the cartoon editor for Parade magazine and editor of the series Best Cartoons of the Year, as well as a former idea generator at Disney.
Johnson told his father that he'd decided on what profession he wanted to pursue, that of an artist, and his dad said, “Chuck, they don't let Black people like do that. You need to think of something else.” But his father eventually gave Johnson the money for the two-year course. Johnson noted that his hardworking father wasn’t familiar with the art world and also had grown up under unrelenting segregation and limited opportunity in the Jim Crow South.
Before starting the correspondence course, Johnson wrote Lariar about what his father said about Black people being precluded from art. To Johnson’s surprise, Lariar wrote back within a week, and he told Johnson that “your father is wrong.” He added, “You can do whatever you want with your life. All you need is a good teacher.”
Lariar became an important mentor for the aspiring cartoonist. Over the next two years, Johnson religiously submitted drawings for each correspondence lesson and Lariar responded with thoughtful critiques and encouragement.
Bus Trips East. In the summer breaks during high school, Johnson took a Greyhound bus from Chicago to visit his relatives in Brooklyn. He also made a point of seeing Lariar at his home on Long Island where Lariar would treat him to lunch and discuss art and stories of many of his friends, well-known cartoonists and artists who Johnson admired. Lariar, a liberal Jewish American, was quite open-minded with a special sense of humor. Johnson said, “I think he delighted in surprising his white neighbors by having Black guests.”
Pounding the Pavement in the Big Apple. On those summer trips to New York, young Johnson made appointments and visited publishing houses throughout Manhattan where he’d share samples of his illustrations and cartoons.
Along the way, he met beloved comic artist Charles Barsotti, who eventually became a regular cartoonist for The New Yorker. Barsotti offered support and praised Johnson’s work. He also mentioned the need for more young African American cartoonists to share their perspectives. He believed Johnson could tackle issues about race that white cartoonists were reluctant to even consider. Later, Johnson took that comment to heart.
The First Art Sale. Johnson made his art first sale to a Chicago magic company in 1965 at age 17. He illustrated a half dozen magic tricks for one of the company's catalogs. Johnson proudly framed a dollar from that initial sale and it still hangs in his home study.
As a high school senior, Johnson won two second-place awards for his work, a comic strip he called "Wonder Wildkit" he co-authored with a friend, and a sports cartoon, in a national contest for high school cartoonists sponsored by the Columbia University School of Journalism. He only learned of the awards, however, during his first year of college when he returned home and saw a news story about it in his hometown newspaper, The Evanston Review.
College: Majoring in Journalism. As high school graduation approached, Johnson was set on studying art in college. “All I wanted to do was get out of high school and go to art school. And I got accepted in art school but, at the very last minute, I bailed out. I wondered then, in the spring of 1966, whether or not this would be a marketable degree.”
Thanks to the advice of a practical high school counselor, Johnson decided against art school and instead chose to major in journalism and, as it turned out, journalism was a “good fit,” he said. “In journalism school I could draw and write at the same time.”
Johnson started college at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale in 1966, a tumultuous time. During that year, tens of thousands of US troops headed to Vietnam, the Black Power movement gained momentum, Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton founded the Black Panther Party, James Meredith was shot and wounded at the outset of his March Against Fear, and racist thugs threw rocks at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he led civil rights marches in the Chicago area.
In his first year of college, Johnson illustrated for the college paper and other publications. In his courses, he studied and wrote about the great cartoonists of America and Europe such as Nast, Daumier, Hogarth, Cruikshank, and Rowlandson,
During his undergraduate years, Johnson said, “I made every kind of drawing you can imagine. Editorial cartoons, single panel gag cartoons, comic strips, design work, illustrations, and even a commemorative stamp.” He also published cartoons in newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and Southern Illinoisan, and magazines including Jet, Ebony, Players, Negro Digest, and others.
Intern at the Chicago Tribune. Johnson eventually worked as a summer intern in 1969 at the Chicago Tribune as a cartoonist and writer for that newspaper's "Action Express" public service column. After returning to college, he was a stringer for the paper at SIU. “I didn't really file any news stories at all until the following spring of 1970.”
The one big news story Johnson covered for the Tribune concerned peaceful demonstrations in May 1970 at SIU to protest Nixon’s expansion of the Vietnam War with the invasion of Cambodia. An editor added his opinion to the story that the protest was prompted by “outside agitators.” Johnson objected strenuously. That wasn’t true but, to Johnson’s chagrin, the paper printed the editor’s misinformation in the published story.
First Book of Cartoons: Black Humor. Also in 1970, Johnson published his first book, Black Humor, a collection of 89 cartoons that drew on Black history and culture as they targeted bigotry, hypocrisy, cruelty, liberal guilt, hate from any source, and more.
Johnson skipped classes to create Black Humor in just one almost sleepless week. Amiri Baraka sparked frantic work. At a reading Johnson attended, Baraka, by then a leading Black Nationalist figure, urged Black students to bring their talents back to their communities. Charles Barsotti had offered similar advice to Johnson a few years earlier. The result was this first book of biting and revelatory cartoons.
Thanks to a suggestion from acclaimed writer and book editor Bob Cromie at the Chicago Tribune, Johnson brought his Black Humor manuscript to Johnson Publishing (no relation), where Ebony and other periodicals of Black interest were produced. The publisher accepted the book and brought out Johnson’s debut humor collection.
Johnson finished other books of cartoons, including Half Past Nation Time in 1972. Unfortunately, a fly-by-night publisher never got this book to market. He also created a collection of cartoons on slavery, I Can Get Her for You Wholesale, and another on Buddhism entitled It’s Lonely at the Top.
You sure you got the right retreat?
Johnson’s cartoons reveal the breadth of his interests including Black culture and racial reckoning and far beyond to philosophy, religion, science, the academic world, art, and every aspect of the human comedy. In a recent profile of Johnson in The Chicago Tribune, reporter Christopher Borrelli described Johnson’s wide range of literary work as “unclassifiable.” The same applies to his visual art.
A PBS Drawing Show: Charlie’s Pad. During his college years, Johnson even worked as an admired television performer.
In 1969, he called his local Public Broadcasting Station on campus at SIU and asked if they would like a program where he would teach drawing on the air. The local producers were enthusiastic because they needed content and the two-camera show with a host stuck at a drawing board would be cheap to produce.
Over the next year, Johnson taped fifty-two 15-minute episodes of Charlie’s Pad. The program was broadcast nationally and in Canada and rebroadcast for a decade. Often, Johnson would tape three shows, back-to-back on days when he wasn't attending his classes.
Charlie’s Pad received wide acclaim. Viewers sent him their drawings and notes of gratitude for his lessons. Johnson recalled hearing from one viewer in recent years who said he learned to draw from the program and, since then, he had taught his child to draw.
Charles Johnson hosting his PBS drawing show, Charlie’s Pad.
Despite favorable response to the show, Johnson tired of his performance role as a TV drawing teacher. “It had totally exhausted any interest in being on TV. I didn’t care about it and I wasn’t interested in looking at myself on television. Being in front of the camera wasn’t creative to me. It wasn’t fulfilling” But, he added, he has enjoyed working behind the camera and he has written screenplays for television and film projects such as the award-winning PBS film Booker.
On to a Doctorate in Philosophy. In addition to journalism and literature classes, Johnson attended “lots of philosophy courses” as an undergraduate at SIU. By his senior year, he said, “I was interested in writing and philosophy. I wanted to finish my undergraduate journalism degree and study philosophy.”
He was admitted in 1973 to the philosophy graduate program at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and received his PhD in philosophy in 1988. His emphasis evolved from the study of the philosophy of Marx and his adherents to the abstruse realms of existentialism, aesthetics and phenomenology.
Becoming a Novelist. Johnson also began more creative writing in undergraduate school with his mentor, the legendary SIU Professor John Gardner, an acclaimed novelist (Grendel and The Sunlight Dialogues) and critic (On Moral Fiction). Gardner worked closely with Johnson on his fiction writing and the elements of storytelling. The two became friends and kept in close touch until Gardner’s untimely sudden death in a motorcycle accident in 1982.
In his years working with Gardner, Johnson produced six apprentice novels, all of which he discarded. His first published novel, Faith and the Good Thing, came out in 1974 to favorable reviews for its inventive storytelling and evocative prose. On reading Faith, his cartooning mentor and accomplished writer Lawrence Lariar wrote to Johnson and told him: “You have the touch.”
Critic Arthur P. Davis described Johnson’s groundbreaking novel Faith as “a fascinating mélange of classic philosophy, scholasticism, occult writings, folklore (including Southern superstition and Negro tall tales), surrealistic dreams, flashbacks, and down-to-earth realism.”
A Job at the UW. The University of Washington Department of English hired Johnson to teach creative writing and literature in 1976. He taught legions of grateful students at the UW for more than three decades.
As Johnson focused intently on academic affairs and on his students who admired his wide knowledge and caring instruction, his drawing also continued. He published cartoons widely in literary journals and magazines with themes from philosophy and current events to eastern religion and culture. Several of the cartoons on Buddhism appeared in a collection from Tricycle Press, Buddha Laughing.
Which comes first in cartooning—the idea or the image? In response to this question, Johnson immediately mentioned his admiration for Seattle-based editorial cartoonist and journalist David Horsey. “He's one of the best draftsmen I've ever seen and one of the best caricaturists. I compare his work to Mort Drucker who was spot on with every caricature he did for Mad magazine.”
Johnson and Horsey discussed cartooning, and both agreed that, “The most important thing for any editorial cartoon is a good idea to start with.” Johnson added, “And the same thing goes for other forms of cartooning and commercial illustration. Now that idea might come to you as an image, but the idea is the starting point.”
Beauty, Wonder and Mystery. In his fiction writing, Johnson has strived to create works of wonder and mystery, and he has encouraged his students to do the same. (See his guide to writing, The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling.)
Johnson still expresses some dismay that many of the writers and artists he met in his career have been “some of the most unhappy people I knew. If a person can create beauty, that means the person should be the happiest person in the world.”
He added, “To me, if you can create beauty as a gift to others, what more do you want? No riches can surpass that gift.”
The Ongoing Work. Johnson emanates serenity and contentment in his busy retirement as he continues to write and juggle projects, speaking engagements, and requests for essays and interviews and lectures. And he inevitably returns often to his deluxe, glass-topped drawing table in his booklined study to create more art.
After retirement from the UW, Johnson with his artist daughter Elisheba created and published three books in their series, The Adventures of Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder. The books are illustrated by Johnson and recount the adventures of a curious and science-enthralled African American school kid. Beyond sharing compelling stories featuring an inquisitive and daring young boy, the books are an effort to spark young Black students to consider STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) studies.
In his 2020 book Grand: A Grandparent’s Wisdom for a Happy Life, Johnson offers a series of heartfelt essays to inform and inspire parents and grandparents alike, as well as the children in their lives. He dedicated the book to his grandson Emery, now age nine. He wrote, "I feel hopeful that Emery will come to appreciate the unpredictable serendipity of life when it goes against our plans and delivers delightful surprises."
Recent projects keep Johnson occupied. In the past few months, he has written a preface for the late Ralph Ellison’s novel Juneteenth; edited an anthology of stories and essays by Black Americans for the Chicago Quarterly Review; worked with author Steve Barnes on a graphic novel, The Eightfold Path, due out in January 2022; sold his papers or literary archive to Washington University in St. Louis; and is at work on his first collection of cartoons in forty-nine years, the new book for next September, All Your Racial Problems Will Soon Be Solved.
Striving to Unite, to Enlighten. Johnson observed that “we’re a very divided country now. We live in dangerous times.” He cited recent reports on an increase in hate crimes against African Americans and Asian Americans, now at the highest level in the last ten years.
He lamented that many of his cartoons from the early seventies on race and bigotry are still timely. “Some people think that these are historic problems and that all have been settled. But we haven’t solved them. We haven't evolved in certain ways.” He suggested that America is far from a post-racial society.
Johnson sees the extreme polarization in our nation as harmful to everyone. “For moral reasons and because I’m a Buddhist, I’m not going to use art to stoke division or feed hatred.” Instead, his work will advance a more just and compassionate society and celebrate the interconnectedness of all humans.
As the late poet and UW Professor Theodore Roethke wrote: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” Now, in our troubled time of division and unrest, Charles Johnson offers art to restore us, to illuminate the dark.
Robin Lindley is a Seattle attorney and writer, and features editor of the History News Network (historynewsnetwork.org).
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