Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Mild Screwballism of Russ Johnson's Mr. Oswald Hardware Comics

Mixed Nuts Wednesday

Russ Johnson's Mr. Oswald is one of my all-time favorite obscure comics. Continuing with our Original Art Week theme, here's a gallery of originals that are great fun to read, all from the collection of  Rob Stolzer, who conducted a great interview with Johnson that was published in Hogan's Alley, and which can be read online here.

Russ Johnson was a sort of real life $alesman $am. He actually owned and operated a hardware store in Vermont. For a jaw-dropping 62 years, Russ also wrote and drew Mr. Oswald,  a jam-packed, slightly screwball, highly intelligent comic about hardware retailing that was regularly published in a trade magazine called, appropriately enough, Hardware Retailer.

Admittedly, Mr. Oswald may be the least screwball comic to be published so far in The Masters of Screwball Comics. That being said, it does actually have a mild screwball sensibility, with patterns of escalation, dense visuals, and a wry humor that belies the stiff competency of the drawing. 

You wouldn't think that reading a regular comic about selling hardware would be much fun, but in Johnson's hands it's deeply compelling. He has a sort of Carl Barks approach, with logical story structures and rock solid drawings of a seemingly endless supply of objects. There's a Barks Halloween story in which he depicts bags of candy and treats with such absorbing detail that I studied those panels for hours when I was a kid. Similarly, Johnson's panels offer us a plethora of objects and details to study. While he rarely drops in a background gag, as George Swanson does in $alesman $am (another strip set in an overcrowded general hardware type store) Johnson's drawings add the same level of intensity and compression to his comics that we find in some other screwball comics. Russ even created inventory books in which he meticulously drew every item in his store... this was a guy who loved drawing objects!

Russ Johnson's Mr. Oswald is stuffed with background details in the best screwball tradition

Russ Johnson holding an original of his
great Mr. Oswald comic
(photo by Rob Stolzer)
Besides the Barksian detailing, Johnson also creates a rich cast of characters and invests every strip with conflict, the fuel that drives every story forward. Mr. Oswald is hard-working, but comically grumpy and driven by human weaknesses -- he's a surprisingly complex character for a trade journal comic strip. It's good reading, folks.

There's an undercurrent in Mr. Oswald that tells us life can often be pretty chaotic and nutty, filled with curve (or screw) ball picthes. Johnson flowed the eccentricities and frustrating craziness of his world into his comic -- it was probably what kept him sane. This is very similar to Rube Goldberg's comics, which revolve around the theme of inanity on everyday life.

I first discovered the arcane joys of Mr. Oswald when I read a small article in an early issue of The Comics Journal in the early 1980s. The article announced that Russ had copies available of a small press collection of his comics -- and it sounded fascinating to me. I could tell by the way the writer gushed that this could be good stuff. As luck would have it, just days after reading the article, I unearthed a copy of the book, Forty Years With Mr. Oswald (National Hardware Retailing Association, 1968) in the backroom of Jelly's, the huge legendary comic book/trading card/gaming/CD/toy/book store that I helped manage in Honolulu, Hawaii. I took the book home, read it, and feel in love with the world of selling small objects to crazy people. I could really identify with the comic, since I worked in retail, too. I'm sure that Mr. Oswald was a powerful tonic for hundreds of folks working the front lines of retail.

My much-loved copy of this great book
My copy, now tattered and read to death, has a Russ Johnson drawing on the flyleaf, unfortunately smeared, but still a treasure:

Russ Johnson's hand-drawn inscription in my copy of his book

I've only seen 3 copies of this book in my life -- and I go to a LOT of bookstores. However, currently, someone is selling a copy on Amazon for about $30, which is a bargain since this book has a ton of comics and holds up to re-reading, quite well.

But the book, as generous a collection as it is, just scratches the surface. What we have here is a treasure trove of great comics, most of which have never been reprinted and are next-to-impossible to find. I have spent years searching for back issues of  Hardware Retailer to no avail. The search goes on. Someday, someone will get a pile of these great comics together and share them with the world.

When I wrote Stolzer and asked his permission to reprint these scans in my blog, he responded: "Absolutely. Please share, share, share any of Russ's art. The more who know about him the better." That's the sort of appreciation and devotion that these comics can inspire.

With Rob Stolzer's blessing, here's a gallery of scans of Mr. Oswald comics from the originals. Enjoy!

Your Grumpy Neighborhood Screwball Retailer,
Paul Tumey


  1. I have a copy of this book myself, I treasure it, great stuff. Nice to see these, I've never seen the original magazine!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Bill. There are only a few happy owners of this book out there. I've never been able to get my hands on issues of Hardware Retailer, but I'd sure love to read more of Mr. Oswald. The book, as hefty a portion as it is, represents only a small fraction of the comics that Russ Johnson made! I dream about someday finding someone's scrapbook of Mr. Oswald!

  2. Mild Screwballery is every bit as dangerous/outrageous/hilarious as full blown Screwballishness and must be brouht to the same light if we're ever to find a cure for NON=Srewballiciousness in out life time!

    Yer jes' da man ta do it!

    1. I like yer thinkin' Jeff! Let's bring screwballism back, mild or strong!

  3. I bought the ebay copy because I loved these so much.

    1. Hey David, I'm so glad to hear that. I hope you enjoy the book as much as I have!

    2. Did a post on it here:

    3. Great post on your blog, David! I appreciated your analysis or Russ' work. I hope folks click the link and read this fine article!

  4. Thanks for the article.

    My father was a traveling hardware salesman for Orgill Brothers & Co. of Memphis for some twenty-four years. (He was not particularly like Hottair, and he was not, as far as I know, /the/ traveling salesman.) He subscribed to "Hardware Retailing", and I grew up reading "Mister Oswald"-- and a bunch of other stuff about hardware and selling it. My brothers and I still have in-jokes that came from Mister Oswald.

    "Mister Oswald" is a truly great work-- as a comic strip, as an alternate world, as a time capsule for technology, fashion and the way things were done, and as a record of the concerns of America during the years it ran.

    Bravo, hats off, and Hear, Hear!

    1. Well put, David! You totally captured what is important and valuable about Mr. Oswald and the comics of Russ Johnson. In-jokes among friends and family is a true mark of love for the comic. So cool that your Dad was a hardware salesman. Maybe he and Russ ran across each other's paths at a convention. Say... do ya happen to have any of those old issues of Hardware Retaining laying around? I'd love to see more Mr. Oswald comics!

  5. It's wonderful seeing your piece on Russ, Paul. I'm glad for any converts to the Mister Oswald cause! I've been out of touch with the Hardware Retailer folks for sometime now, but at one point we discussed putting up a website devoted to Mister Oswald. Hardware Retailer has all of the strips, so the archive is ready to go. I own the domain name, and am just waiting for the opportunity to go forward with the project.

    You mentioned the Mister Oswald book. I usually pick up any cheap extra copies that I can find, and give them out to friends who are unfamiliar with Russ' work. It's a sure way to create new fans!

  6. Paul - Mister Oswald is a true gem. I first learned of the strip when I worked in a Hardware/Houseware store in Brooklyn in the late 1970's-early 1980's, my first full-time job. The store was run by the same family for decades and had the appearance of a 1930's era business. Being a comics fan I noticed Mister Oswald in Hardware Retailer and was amused by how much it mirrored the real world of retailing, from the boss, his family and workers to the oddball customers we sometimes dealt with. I wish I had the foresight to have asked for those mags and kept the Mister Oswald strips!

    One day I noticed an ad for Forty Years with Mister Oswald in the Buyers Guide. I soon sent a check and a letter to Mister Johnson telling him of my job and how very amusing his strip was. I got a personalized note back which I still treasure, as I do the book. Johnson was quite a storyteller and this "unknown" artist is well worth rediscovering.