Redrawing the history of ‘comic books’ and celebrating the creative joy of all ‘outsider’ artists

Could a family member or neighbor be an unheralded light in our world?

Click on this cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

In my half century as a journalist covering religious and cultural diversity, I have profiled hundreds of “outsider” artists whose unique creations in music, visual arts, filmmaking, poetry and sculpture have been a rich part of global cultures for thousands of years. I am continually looking for those overlooked men and women who are spreading joy—or are sharing their laments—through whatever art-forms they can envision.

I once profiled an Appalachian artist who constructed his entire two-story home to look like a gigantic duck (covering the entire duck-shaped home in shingles that looked like feathers) as his tribute to the birds he loved. In Asia, I profiled an artist who created an enormous shrine to his ancestors made entirely of seashells and beautiful stones he found along the ocean shore. I profiled an Appalachian coal miner who recreated the entire book of Genesis in wood-carved tableaux that eventually wound up at the Smithsonian. And, perhaps my personal favorite: I profiled an Appalachian woman who fashioned musical instruments from gourds so that she and her friends could play gospel tunes.

So, you can see right away why I was so eager to read and review this beautiful, fascinating, 634-page tribute to the comic books created by the until-now-unknown comic pioneer Frank Johnson. The debut of this selection of Johnson’s comics now will redraw our official history of American comic books. That will take some time, but that rewriting is sure to come—especially since this book was produced by the highly respected Fantagraphics and includes extensive opening essays by curator and historian Chris Byrne and fine artist and graphic novelist Keith Mayerson.

At this point, though, Frank Johnson does not even have a Wikipedia page—although that is certain to change over the next year or so. And Wikipedia still sums up the official history of American comic books pretty much like all the other history books, to date:

The term comic book derives from American comic books once being a compilation of comic strips of a humorous tone. The first modern American-style comic book, Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics, was released in the U.S. in 1933 and was a reprinting of earlier newspaper humor comic strips, which had established many of the story-telling devices used in comics.

This new Fantagraphics volume contains examples from half a century of the comic books Frank Johnson drew in blank, bound notebooks that were available in stores for students and office workers from the 1920s until his death in 1979. In other words, Johnson was creating full-fledged comic books a decade before Famous Funnies. His own private creative instincts led him to envision, plan, write and draw what is now considered an important American art form—years before there was any example on the market.

What could possibly have kept Frank Johnson going for so long in this private pursuit?

Minnie Black’s All-Gourd Band: ‘A Joyful Noise Unto the Good Lord’

I remember interviewing Minnie Black, the Appalachian gourd artist who created an entire band’s worth of instruments from gourds. She eventually appeared nationwide on radio and TV and had a sampling of her work collected by the Smithsonian—but in her early years as a gourd artist, her friends thought she was a bit eccentric even by Appalachian standards.

“Minnie, you created the first all-gourd band anyone has ever heard,” I said. “What made you think of this? And what kept you going even when no one seemed interested, at first?”

“I just wanted to make a joyful noise unto the Good Lord and I saw a gourd one day that was shaped like a dulcimer—and the next thing I knew, I was seeing gourds that looked like other instruments, too,” she said.

Minnie was a full-fledged artist—the Smithsonian would call her a “folk” or “naive” artist—for years before the world discovered her body of work.

‘Cautionary humor’ about life’s great challenges?

What’s so fascinating about Johnson’s body of work, beyond his pioneering creative vision, is that—like Minnie Black’s gourds—his comics reflect the challenges of his life.

The book opens with selections of Johnson’s Bowser Boys comic books, whose “heroes” are a group of homeless alcoholic friends who pursue booze with clever twists and turns every day of their lives. They rise to the challenges of daily life—even though their clothes are rags, they are covered in grime and Johnson draws them with flies buzzing around their heads.

As it turns out: At one point in Johnson’s real life, he was an out-of-control alcoholic himself and clearly these comics are a kind of wildly satirical exorcism of that raging addiction. Eventually, he became a devoted member of AA, but that era seems to have remained in his mind and heart for the rest of his life. We don’t know for sure, because Johnson left few biographical details when he died, but these comics could have been cautionary humor to share with friends Johnson got to know at his AA meetings. Perhaps some surviving friend will surface, now that Johnson is receiving more publicity, to fill in that biographical gap.

However, the majority of this book focuses on his decades-long Wally’s Gang series of comic books. This series feels like a first cousin to Archie and Gasoline Alley: a small-town gang of friends forever facing challenges in their relationships—and often pulling pranks on one another.

Some outsider artists—notably Minnie Black, who eventually appeared on Johnny Carson’s late-night talk show—attain a measure of fame in their lifetimes. In fact, I helped with her ascent into the public eye as a journalist, publishing one of the first major profiles of Minnie for a national wire service in the 1970s. She thoroughly enjoyed all the attention she received until she eventually died in 1996 at age 97.

But far too many “outsiders” only shine posthumously. Keith Mayerson captures the bittersweet truth of Frank Johnson’s career in this haunting line: “Frank Johnson laid out the future of comics for an audience of no one.”

No one was aware of his astonishing lifetime output until his descendants realized there was value in all those notebooks he had stored away.

If you would like to glimpse what the other kind of outcome for an American outsider artist can look like, you can watch a marvelous 4-minute video of Minnie Black uploaded to YouTube in 2023 by the Appalshop Archive.

For Frank Johnson, the creation of his body of work was enough to keep him going for many decades. The sheer joy he found in creating these stories is obvious in the glee shared by members of Wally’s Gang. And, now, his family can celebrate the true creative genius of their patriarch.

And—Here’s Minnie Black


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