The Cartoonists by Susanna McLeod              


Interview with Jimmy Johnson, Creator of "Arlo & Janis"

March 25, 2012


Touching the hearts and minds of comics fans, "Arlo & Janis" brings big smiles and baby boomer perception to the funny pages. Creating a comic strip that engages both young and old, Jimmy Johnson's giggle-worthy gags and endearing characters capture readers by surprise. Arlo and Janis' love and continued desire for each other crops up often, while Johnson's political and social commentary through the eyes of his characters makes for a good read. More than 25 years after the strip debuted in 1986, "Arlo & Janis" is still going strong. Jimmy Johnson graciously squeezed time from his exceptionally busy schedule to chat with The Cartoonists.

Welcome, Jimmy Johnson, and thank you for joining The Cartoonists!

When and where were you born, Jimmy? Were you part of a large family?

I was born and grew up in Lanett, Alabama, graduating from Lanett High School in 1970. I have one young brother, Victor.

Did you grow up with apencil in your hand ready to draw? Was your family interested in humour and did they support your interests?

"Arlo & Janis" Comic Strip Logo
Logo Signature of Cartoonist Jimmy Johnson
I always enjoyed drawing when I was a child, but most children do. Adults seemed to think I had a knack for drawing and generally encouraged me, but I don't think my talent was exceptional. My parents were working-class people, but they believed in education, and they were supportive of my "art," especially my mother.

When and where was your first cartoon published, Jimmy? Did you have success with other comic strips before "Arlo & Janis"?

My first published work was in the college newspaper. I was a journalism graduate and drew occasional artwork for the several newspapers where I worked after college. My first full-time job as a cartoonist was as an editorial cartoonist in Jackson, Missippi. "Arlo & Janis" is my first and only successful comic strip.

Did something in particular spark your idea for "Arlo & Janis"?

At the time I sold "Arlo & Janis" to the newspaper syndicate United Media in 1985, there were a lot of "talking animal" strips. Newspaper editors reacted to this by demanding more comic strips about human beings, particularly young familites. So, it really was a market-driven thing.

How would you describe the theme of "Arlo & Janis"?

The theme of “Arlo & Janis” is simple. It’s a comic strip about a small family. However, it’s really a situation for me to write jokes about many different subjects, not unlike stand-up comedians do.

Do your readers appreciate your directness in the topics covered in "Arlo & Janis"? Has your sense of humour brought glee or thoughtfulness to fans?

All I know about how my readers like my work is what they tell me. The vast majority of people from whom I hear seem to like the strip a lot. Many of them go further, telling me I bring a small moment of joy or laughter into their everyday lives. Of course, that makes me happy.

"Arlo & Janis" by Cartoonist Jimmy Johnson

Was the strip picked up quickly or did you have to undergo a development contract?

I did not have a development contract. The first 24 “Arlo & Janis” samples I created to show the syndicate went straight into newspapers when the strip was launched.

"Arlo and Janis" has been a rousing success for over 25 years, Jimmy. How many newspapers carry the strip?

I'm told the strip appears in about 500 papers.


Moving on to your creative process, do you draw the delightful "Arlo & Janis" by hand or by computer? Do you have favourite supplies and materials, and is the strip coloured by hand?

I draw the strip with an old-fashioned pin nib and India ink on 2-ply Bristol paper. I scan the finished drawings for transmission to the syndicate editors. Colorists contracted by the syndicate color the daily strips; I have nothing to do with that. I do, however, color the Sunday strips myself, using Photoshop on the computer.

Do ideas come to mind at awkward moments, such as in the middle of the night or while you're driving? Do you outline gags in advance or stare at blank sheets until ideas come?

I don’t get many ideas at random moments. I usually have to sit down in my studio and think things up. I do a lot of staring at blank paper.

Do you work in a home office? Do you have an assistant or get help from family members?

I work at home. I don’t have any assistance on the strip itself.


Jimmy, which would you define as more important in cartooning - the writing or the art?

As far as a comic strip is concerned, the writing and the drawing ideally work together. Ultimately, I suppose the writing is most important, but remember that even a strip with no words has to be “written,” in a sense. What I’m trying to say is, a good idea is essential, and I suppose an idea is more akin to writing than to drawing.

Are you interested in other art froms or other kinds of work? Do you envision working as a cartoonist for the rest of your life?

I’m very interested in other forms of creativity: fine painting, music, drama, writing. I wouldn’t want to imagine a world without such activities. However, I’m content to be a cartoonist and hope to be one the rest of my life.

"Beaucoup Arlo & Janis" by Jimmy Johnson, 2011  

Do you volunteer with any charities or have a favourite cause?

I have helped raise money for disaster relief and for food drives, but I must admit I don’t have a “favorite” cause.

It's open mic, time, Jimmy. Are there any comments you would like to make about cartooning?

The biggest problem facing traditional comic strip artists is the state of the newspaper industry in general: declining readership, revenue and influence. There is, of course, the Web, where anyone can be a cartoonist, but it’s very difficult to achieve the popularity and the security that newspaper cartoonists have enjoyed for over 100 years. It’s a little scary, but I think as long as newspapers do exist, readers will expect comics.

Thanks so much for the interview, Jimmy. Best of luck with your new book, "Beaucoup Arlo & Janis," published November 2011. (Johnson's first comic strip collection titled "Arlo & Janis: Bop 'Til You Drop" was published in 1989 by Pharos Books.) We'll be watching for your great work in the Funny Pages!

Visit "Arlo & Janis" for a daily moment with the Day family. While there, check the updates on Jimmy Johnson's appearances, view his blog and maybe purchase his delightful new book, "Beaucoup Arlo & Janis". For another glimpse, visit "Arlo & Janis" at United Media's GoComics.

"Arlo & Janis" Art © Jimmy Johnson and United Media Syndicate.

© Susanna McLeod 2012