Dr. Charles Johnson, UW professor emeritus of English, is a distinguished novelist, as well as a professional cartoonist. It is a pleasure to get to chat with him and consider a thing or two about the somewhat enigmatic comics medium and the creative process in general. In our conversation, we talk about the interconnections between comics, journalism, and creative writing. It is a subject I keep coming back to as it speaks to who I am, someone compelled to create with words and pictures. What is it that compels others to pursue both the comics medium and prose writing? It has to do with a desire to express one’s self. It is inextricably linked to journalism, an in depth reporting of one’s observations. And where does this all lead? It all depends upon the person, their temperament, and a number of other factors of luck and opportunity. In other words, it’s a fascinating topic for a good talk.
IT’S LIFE AS I SEE IT, cover designed by Kerry James Marshall
We spent a good amount of the interview discussing humor. We go over some samples from Johnson’s 1970 cartoon collection, Black Humor. This is a set of nearly 90 single panel gag cartoons. They are the kind you still find in a few magazines today, notably The New Yorker. But, back then, The New Yorker was not seeking to publish Black cartoonists. It was on one rainy night, after listening to a fiery talk given by Black activist poet Amiri Baraka, that Johnson set out on a mission to draw a whole book’s worth of gag panels, about and for the Black community. Johnson conjured up one joke after another. Over fifty years later, the gags retain a certain bite, perhaps more earthy than for today’s tastes. Some seem downright surreal. But Johnson dropped a key word into our conversation, a word that hinted at a far more expansive view. He spoke of the cartoon’s incongruity.
From the pages of Black Humor by Charles Johnson
This interview is in connection with Dr. Johnson’s work included in the show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the book published by New York Review Comics. In partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, New York Review Comics presents IT’S LIFE AS I SEE IT: Black Cartoonists in Chicago, 1940-1980, edited by Dan Nadel. Read my review here. This book focuses on nine Black cartoonists from the show at MCA: Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now, Jun 19–Oct 3, 2021, which includes over 40 artists.
Excerpt from Black Humor
A special note: Washington University in St. Louis recently acquired the Charles Johnson Papers, an archival collection of materials related to Johnson’s work as an author and illustrator. “Spanning nearly six decades, the collection brings together manuscripts, drafts, correspondence, artwork and ephemera, and serves as a testament to Johnson’s wide-ranging career as a public intellectual.”
Middle Passage by Charles Johnson
Also, of note is Johnson’s recent role as guest-editor and contributor to a special edition of Chicago Quarterly Review, “An Anthology of Black American Literature.” Johnson wrote the introduction and contributed a story to the anthology — the journal’s volume #33 — called “Night Shift,” which he penned for the 2020 Bedtime Story fundraiser for Humanities Washington. The volume contains work by more than two dozen Black writers. An earlier special edition of the journal was dedicated to South Asian American writers, and an upcoming issue will focus on Native American literature.
Be sure to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and view the Chicago Comics show!