Eric Paul Johnson is not only a friend of Kittysneezes, he’s also a talented writer, cartoonist and underground newspaper editor. His comic, Loon News: The Comic Strip! (a/k/a Mike and Eric) has recently been compiled into the large omnibus edition Eric Paul Johnson… Strips For Your Pleasure — available in both eBook and dead tree editions. Sure, Eric’s a friend, but I’m not just being nice when I say that his strips are well done in a way that reminds me of the works of Berke Breathed. Part of the fun of Strips is the way you can track Eric’s evolution as a cartoonist, from his rough beginnings to now where he’s pretty dang good. Strips has a lot of bonus material, too — commentary, essays, scripts, unpublished strips (including the KDBX run where the strip was briefly re-imagined as a look behind the scenes of a small radio station) and, well, lots of other stuff that makes the book about as big around as a magazine and almost an inch thick. Eric agreed to this interview, about his comics, the Loon News in general, radio and his late kitty.
Part the First
KS: At this moment in time, what is your favorite song?
Eric Paul Johnson: Hitting me with the hardest question first. My favoritest song changes about every five minutes. At the moment “The Jones Boy” by the Mills Brothers is in my head, and I like it. But it was also the last song I heard.
KS: What’s your favorite band that you don’t think a lot of people would have heard of?
Eric Paul Johnson: Not so much a band as an artist. Lately I’ve been digging Django Reinhardt. He’s a Jazz guitarist from the ’30s and ’40s. I am absolutely A-gog at his abilities. He lost the use of two of his fingers in a fire but went on to play guitar better than anyone, ANYONE I’ve ever heard. And that he does it with two fingers is just a-freakin’-mazing!
Another person I really dig is Kat Crabtree. She has a singing voice that turns me into a puddle of butter. Her voice is so smooth, sultry, and classy sexy. That she’s my ex-girlfriend has nothing to do with it. Her singing would have the same effect on me even if I had never seen her naked.
If you really want a band, though, probably R. Crumb & His Cheap Suit Serenaders.
KS: What, if anything, is on any particular wall (your choice) in your domicile?
Eric Paul Johnson: Everything is on every wall of my domicile. I hate empty walls. Bare walls feel very lonely and empty, which transfers to me, and I feel lonely and empty.
One wall of my living room is covered floor to ceiling with mint-on-card Star Wars figures from 1995-2003ish.
Another wall is my autograph wall. Signed posters, albums, copy of the signed inside page of books from Dr. Demento, Bill “Wallace” Thompson, Eric Idle, Jonathon Brandmeier, Peter Himmelman, Bil Keane, Pat McMahon, Al Franken, Kevin Fagan, and the last surviving Mills Brother a year or two before he died. Autographed to me, by the way, not bought from other people on eBay.
KS: What’s the strangest thing you own?
Eric Paul Johnson: You mean besides my vast collection homemade gay Muppet bondage porn? I own many strange things. A radio hangs on my wall that looks just like a phone from the turn of the 20th century. Wooden case, turn the crank to ring up the operator, hold the ear-piece. It’s a 1956 Country Belle radio if you want to look it up. I have a 1926 Edison wax cylinder dictaphone, possibly a chunk of the Berlin Wall. The thing that gets the most cocked heads and stares of disbelief, though, is my life-size latex Empire/Jedi era Yoda. Can’t be that strange. “Weird Al” Yankovic has one.
KS: Of the things you’ve done, what’s your all-time favorite (however you want to interpret that, be it artistic works, actions, whatever)?
Eric Paul Johnson: I can’t pick just one thing, because it would be the things I’ve done with Cait. The pretend radio shows we recorded in junior high, the movies, The Loon News. We made a Christmas Videogram special last year (still waiting to be edited.) She’s smart, hi-larious, and creative. It’s always fun to work on things with her.
KS: Who’s your favorite visual artist (excluding yourself)?
Eric Paul Johnson: Berke Breathed. Damn he’s good. Especially when you see what his art looked like when he started out. “Frightening” comes to mind.
KS: What are the five most recent films you’ve seen?
Eric Paul Johnson: I don’t go out to movies much. They cost money, I don’t have a car, and I’m poor. I have to be with a group of friends, or it has to be a movie I REALLY want to see if I’m going to go through the trouble of leaving the apartment.
I think my five most recent are Get Him to the Greek, Jim Carrey’s 3-D A Christmas Carol, Star Trek, Coraline, and… I don’t know. If Coraline is on this list then clearly I have to think back to 2008. Oh, the last Batman movie. My ex’s dad was an extra in it, but they cut his scene.
KS: What’re your top three movies?
Eric Paul Johnson: A Night at The Opera/A Day at The Races, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, and… I dunno… Back to the Future III? I don’t watch a lot of movies. I’m like the guy who has six albums and that’s all he listens to. I like movies plenty fine, but I have to be in a theatre or have nothing else to do, because 20 minutes into the movie I start thinking, “This isn’t getting (tooning, writing, videograming, whatever project I’m working on) done.”
KS: Do you own any original artwork, and if so, whose?
Eric Paul Johnson: I don’t know if it’s full-on art, but in 1978 my dad got Bil Keane’s autograph and drawing of Billy saying “Hi, Eric!” for me. Same thing with Drabble cartoonist Kevin Fagan. Except I got that art/autograph myself at a 1997 book signing.
KS: What is your favorite game?
Eric Paul Johnson: Board: Deluxe Scrabble. Video: Pitfall II, which should tell you the last time I played a new video game.
KS: If you could say one thing to David Byrne, what would it be?
Eric Paul Johnson: Gimme back my damn oversized suit, already! 26 years and he hasn’t returned it. Never, ever loan anything to David Byrne!
KS: What are your five most favorite books in the world?
Eric Paul Johnson: Um… Mike Sortino’s Dastardly Communist Plot series? Complete Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, and Peanuts compilations? The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits? Do those count? I’m ashamed to say I’m not much of a reader. I used to read everything I touched when I was a kid. Sometime around age 12 that stopped. It was around junior high I stopped reading what others did, and started making up my own stuff.
Time is an issue, really. I’m always busy doing something, so I don’t have much time to do a lot of reading.
Oh, of course Eric Paul Johnson… Strips for Your Pleasure is the best book ever. Everyone should buy it.
KS: What is the most boring thing you’ve ever experienced?
Eric Paul Johnson: This interview. No, no, I kid! This is the second interview I’ve done, so I’m digging it. Someone’s pretending to be interested in what I do!!!
That’s a harder question than what’s my favorite song. I live in Phoenix. This is the hub of boring. Especially if you don’t have a car. Unless you like golf (which I don’t) the only thing to do is drink, watch your friends sweat, or start up your own underground newspaper, comic strip, record your own songs, or make movies and videos. I went the creative route. Being creative is a great way to fight off boredom. And living in Phoenix has induced A LOT of creativity in me.
KS: If you could name a child anything in the world, what would it be?
Eric Paul Johnson: In an episode of Seinfeld, Kramer said if he ever had a kid he’d name it “Isosceles.” I thought that was a great name for a girl! In ’97 I also thought “Myth” and “Fable” would be good girl names. I don’t have any boy names picked out. But I should get a date first before I consider naming children.
KS: What is your favorite meal?
Eric Paul Johnson: Pastrami sub. A good hot pastrami sub, though. Not the lame Buddig, or stuff you buy at the Safeway deli. The only place I’ve been able to find good pastrami like I had when I was a kid living in Boston is Streets of New York. As close to Boston pastrami as I can get to in Phoenix.
KS: What is reality?
Eric Paul Johnson: Believing in me. Just Yoko and me. And that’s reality.
Are you asking me to get philosophical? Um… I dunno. I never gave it much thought beyond if I’m not asleep and dreaming it must be reality. But I guess reality is all in your own head, ain’t it? The guy who took over the channel 10 news in 1982 thought Eddie Rabbit was a musical prophet warning us about World War III coming in 1992. That was reality to him. Wasn’t actual reality, as far as I know, but try telling him that.
KS: Can you go into more detail about the guy on the channel 10 news?
Eric Paul Johnson: On May 28, 1982 Joe Gwin walked into KOOL TV 10 with a gun, took over the 6:00 newscast, and forced the anchor, Bill Close, to read his statement. It was, uh… quite a journey. Among the things Joe wanted to tell us was that Johnny Cash, Eddie Rabbitt, and Tanya Tucker were musical prophets telling us that Ted Kennedy would become President in 1988, and thus World War III would start. There would four new states in America. They would be states populated by gay men. Oh, and the Muslims, through mind control, turned kids in the ’60s into hippies, and are working their magic turning ’80s kids into punks.
It’s, uh… it’s quite a thing to hear. If you’d like to learn more about the Bill Close hostage situation, please visit your local http://kjzz.org/news/arizona/archives/200602/hostagesituation.
Part the Second
KS: Why’d you name your paper “Loon News“?
Eric Paul Johnson: Back in February 1981 Jonathon Brandmeier started doing the morning show at 104 FM KZZP. Listeners would call in with bizarre bits and songs. One day John said, “You guys are loons!” And the name stuck. His fans identified themselves as “Loons.” Mike and I were big Brandmeier fans, and as such we were Loons. For us it was a no brainer to call our newspaper The Loon News. It did feature occasional stories about Brandmeier, but it was clear from the start this was not going to be a Brandmeier fanzine. It was a great source of creativity. It was a lot of fun to vent frustrations in a humorous way, let our secrets slowly seep out, and turn reality into something absurd and hilarious. You’re making me misty. Now I wanna do a new issue!
Sure, Brandmeier came up with the term, but I think we took “Loon” and made it our own brand name to cover what we did, and the creative types we hung out and worked with. Most of whom only learned about Brandmeier through me. Maybe we were sort of like how the Beat poets had Kerouac and Ginsburg. The Loons had Sortino, Brennan and Johnson. Although, our movement hasn’t really caught on. Despite 28 years of persistent creative output in music, toons, writing, and film.
Or maybe we were like Kids in the Hall. Sometimes I’m not quite sure what I’m talking about.
Brandmeier went to Chicago in 1983 and after all this time I still call myself a Loon.
KS: For folks unfamiliar with him, can you explain a little bit about Jonathon Brandmeier’s style?
Eric Paul Johnson: Hmm… lemme try, because like really great pizza, John was better experienced than described.
Erratic, unplanned, unpredictable? At the Farewell to the Loons concert with his band in February 1983 he closed the show by saying, “You people always had it. All you needed was someone to open it up.” In another interview he said, “There are a lot of amazing, creative people out there.” He had this ability to bring out such bizarre and funny creativity in people. People would call his show doing characters they created, others would call or send in funny songs they recorded themselves. He didn’t ask them to, people just did. I think that was part of Brandmeier’s appeal. Besides being amusing, listeners were free to take part in, and add to the show. He wasn’t just a “listen to me be funny” DJ. It was more like he was the radio ringmaster of an open-mic circus. He was entertaining, funny, quick, and a talented musician. A DJ who can actually play and sing… quite a rarity.
The best I can do is say go to my Brandmeier archive blog and take a listen.
KS: Between your Brandmeier fandom and the KDBX strips, what appeals to you about radio?
Eric Paul Johnson: For one thing, you can do other things while listening to the radio. It’s not like TV or a movie where you have to sit there and watch.
My interest in radio is simple… fun. Jonathon Brandmeier, Rush Limbaugh, Tim & Willy, Randi Rhodes, they sound like they’re really enjoying themselves. Even the perpetually angry political screamers sound like they’re having fun. And it’s a job where you’re aloud to be creative. I know there are program directors and other people getting on you about things, but it’s defiantly a more creative and fun environment than sitting in a windowless, beige cubicle doing data entry.
I’ve had office jobs for years, and I sit quietly and do my thing for fear of saying the wrong thing or cracking the wrong wise. Offices are so uptight. Seems radio rewards rude, witty, or just smartassiness. Don’t violate any FCC regulations and you can pretty much let it fly.
And even if you’re not the loudmouth star of your own show, and just a plain old jock, Garrison Keillor said it’s an easy job. Introduce records, give the time and temp, and while the song plays you can write.
There’s so much freedom in radio as far as what you can do. That “theatre of the mind” thing Stan Freberg talked about. You don’t have to scout out locations, build sets, or manufacture props. You just turn on the microphone and go. Wanna destroy the evil Zygorthians on their homeworld, you buy a $3.50 laser sound gizmo at Target for sound effects, and you’re good to go.
Oh, and there isn’t a dress code.
Radio has the fantastic potential to be better than TV. It’s just a matter of the right on-air talent and giving them free reign to do their thing. Which of course, very few DJ’s have. Sadly multibillion dollar media corporations seem to think that because iPods are popular, radio should sound like an iPod. Personalities and the individuality of stations across the country is what makes radio fun to listen to. I remember when in two hours I could be in Flagstaff and hear a different kind of radio than what I heard in Phoenix. Now I go to Flagstaff and it sounds just like Phoenix radio. Radio is being smothered by filthy rich executives who know nothing about what makes radio fun. If they did know, they’d behind a mic instead of behind a desk.
KS: Will the Loon News return?
Eric Paul Johnson: There is only one constant in the universe… as long as me or Cait are still alive The Loon News will always come back. It’s died and rebirthed itself more times than Chris Elliot did on Get a Life. It petered out in ’83, 84, 89, 93, 2000, but came back in ’85, 90, and 95. The most recent issue was the 25th anniversary issue in 2008. I don’t think we have plans to do another issue, but I have no doubt a wave of nostalgia mixed with a burst of creativity will produce a new issue of The Loon News one day.
LoonNews.com is still there, even if it’s only being used to show my Brandmeier 20th anniversary story.
KS: Any plans to put more Loon News archives up at LoonNews.com or anywhere else for that matter?
Eric Paul Johnson: No, but that’s a good idea. I’ll run it by Cait. She has all the passwords and Internetrola page-making know-how.
KS: Do you think there’ll ever be a book of scanned Loon News issues?
Eric Paul Johnson: Um… maybe. It’s the next big book project I’d like to do. But it’s sort of like releasing WKRP on DVD. Hopefully the statute of limitations has expired on this so I can say it, but we were fast and loose with obeying copyright laws. We clipped pictures and comic strips out of the newspaper and put them in our paper, reprinted stories from newspapers, obviously without permission. I’m sure we were able to get away with that back in the simpler days of the ’80s because we were so small and insignificant. But I think there would be issues if we put them in a book to sell all over the global world wide webs.
Plus, there are stories with real, not famous people in them. To track down these people and get them to sign releases would be pricey, and almost impossible to track down all the people we haven’t seen in 25 years. If that’s something I’d have to do. I’m a 41 year-old Lego-loving cartoonist, not a lawyer.
What I might do, and am leaning more towards, is a book with the better original stuff from The Loon News with stories behind the stories, and the behind the scenes events and troubles. Like the time we were almost expelled from high school for doing The Loon News.
KS: You almost got expelled for doing The Loon News?
Eric Paul Johnson: Well, not expelled. I spoke wrong. We were staring down possible suspension for doing The Loon News.
KS: What did the real Cindi think of her portrayal in the strip?
Eric Paul Johnson: For half a minute Cindi thought it was cool. When I gave her a stack of the first issue of Loon News: The Comic Strip! to give out at school she was really reluctant. She thought it would make her look like an egotist to give out comic strips starring her. I convinced her to do it anyway. I know she went on to regret ever agreeing to let me keep her cartoon counterpart in the strip. If someone did to me what I did with her character I know I would. I wasn’t able to woo a girlfriend until I was 27, so all my frustration with women was laid on the Cindi character. I changed her last name in 2003 to try and put some distance between the real Cindi and toon Cindi.
I heard from her a few months ago. She said, “I’m surprised you haven’t killed me off yet.” Naw, I can’t kill off Cindi. She’s become a great source of humor and stories coming from conflict. She’s the Lucy Van Pelt, the Gerald Springer (Wallace & Ladmo,) of the strip. Everybody else is great friends, but Cindi is the snotty irritant that won’t go away.
Anyway, that’s what the Cindi Snow character has become. I have no idea what the real Cindi is like. I’ve only heard from her three times since 1993. Which may be for the best. We don’t jibe together very well.
KS: What’s your favorite comic strip story arc?
Eric Paul Johnson: The one where my cartoon counterpart finally gets a girlfriend and loses his virginity. It involves time travel, which I’ve always been fascinated by. There’s love, romance, a fully thought out story, and subplot where Eric has to choose between his loyalty and fidelity to his girl Jasmine, or his life because a girl from his past is pointing a gun at him demanding an affair.
Was nice to see Eric as the romantic lead for a change. It showed he was the good boyfriend he always knew he could be, and he was partnered with a good match. It was magic. Hated to write her out of the strip when the time came. I enjoyed drawing her. But Jasmine may come back. I never know what’s coming.
KS: Did you and Cait ever have disagreements about Loon News comic strips?
Eric Paul Johnson: Can’t think of any. She’d offer up suggestions for stories, or how to make the art better, but if she ever had an issue with any of the strips I’d done she never let on.
I think Cait is bright enough to see that, even though there is some place of reality where Mike and Marielle come from, that they are cartoon characters. She knows these are just pencil and ink actors playing out absurd stories that come into my head. A trait I wish more people had. I once had a girl yell at me because toon Mike said he had a date with her. She said I was spreading rumors about her. Um… outside of Toontown, are there many flesh-and-blood humans dating cartoon characters?
Plus, Cait’s a creative genius, too. Her Dastardly Communist Plot series of books in 8th grade featured a character based on me with my name. She gets it. She knows it’s all just for fun.
KS: For the printed issues of Loon News and the comic, what was the schedule?
Eric Paul Johnson: Oh, that’s a good one! Schedule?!?!?!?! Thank you, I needed a good laugh!
Actually, when I ran things there was a schedule. For the most part, when I did the paper The Loon News, it came out on the third Monday of every month September through May. When I returned from a year-long break in 1990, it was moved to the second Monday of the month. I kept up that schedule until 1991, when ideas started to dry up and issues were further and further apart until it petered out in 1993.
When Cait did The Loon News in 1983, and then 1995-2000, the schedule was, um, sporadic to say the least. Sometimes it was 6 months to a year between issues. But I think her issues were way better than mine.
As for issues of Loon News: The Comic Strip!, well that was all me. I mean, it was just a double-sided page of my toons, so things weren’t held up waiting for stories from people. And I would draw a season’s worth of toons over the summer. All I had to do was shrink, cut-and-paste, and Xerox when it was time for a new issue. From 1989 to sometime in in ’98 they came out on the fourth Wednesday of the month September through May. And when I started posting them on the Internetrola, there’d be a new one every Wednesday throughout the year.
KS: Did you get to see any copies of the skateboarding magazine Loon News: The Comic Strip! appeared in? What did you think?
Eric Paul Johnson: Oh, yes, I saw it. I have three copies.
To me I thought it was like the negative of Jimi Hendrix opening for The Monkees. Grinder (Hendrix) was full of skater punk anger, and profanity, including free usage of the Queen Mother of dirty words. And in the middle of all that was my sweet little comic strip (The Monkees.) Plus, I’m no skater. I’ve ridden a skateboard once. 1976. Fell flat on my ass, and haven’t attempted it since.
But I thought it was great to see my toon in a publication with a circulation bigger than 25, and amusing to see it in such a non-Loon News: The Comic Strip! setting.
KS: Why was Mike originally blonde in the strip?
Eric Paul Johnson: HA! Right, that…
So, Mike was based on my lifelong best friend. In 1984 he bleached his black hair blonde. With real bleach, by the way, not peroxide. Over the next two years it went through a series of home dye jobs. Ranging from blonde to dark reddish. When I created his cartoon counterpart in late 1986 I didn’t know what color to make his hair, so I went with blonde.
By the time I redesigned his character in 1988 it was dark brown/black and I went with Mike’s natural black hair color.
KS: Which is your favorite ELO album?
Eric Paul Johnson: Time. I dig the sci-fi of it, and I have very fond memories of 1981 and 1982 when I listened to it every weekend.
KS: Were there any story arcs you wanted to do that you just couldn’t get to work?
Eric Paul Johnson: Ha, not being able to get an arc to work never stopped me.
One poorly thought out arc that sticks out in my mind is the one based on the whole Mayor Marion Berry thing in 1990. I even flat out stated in the strip that I went into the story without an ending. At which point it just stopped without resolution or explanation of why Eric’s out of prison in the next strip like the whole thing never happened.
KS: Do you keep up much with the webcomic scene? Are there any out there going that you particularly enjoy?
Eric Paul Johnson: I don’t really keep up with the webcomic scene. There is one webtoon I stumbled across a couple years ago and like. It’s called “Snap Crackle Pop.” It’s sort of like Loon News: The Comic Strip! from a female perspective. The cartoonist stars in her own strip working out her issues and fantasies in the toons.
Plus, I have a toon crush on the main character. She’s adorable!
KS: If there is a saving grace for the newspaper industry, do you think it’s comics? And what would comics need to do to save newspapers?
Eric Paul Johnson: I don’t know if there is a way to save the newspapers. Which bums me out. I like newspapers. I like turning pages, and being able to cut out and save things. Paper doesn’t crash, doesn’t take forever to load, and paper doesn’t become outdated as technology advances making it impossible to open anything you saved from your e-paper.
But technology is a cruel bitch goddess. It doesn’t care what gets in it’s way. It will crush the old and you just gotta suck it up and be dragged along with it.
Sadly, I don’t think anything, not even the awesome healing powers of the comics (am I overstating Andy Capp’s powers?) will save the papers. They’re fast becoming cylindrical records in a CD age.
Although, it wouldn’t hurt if the syndicates weren’t such cowards and started signing funny cartoonists instead of perpetuating the safe, stale old jokes and bad puns crap. And it would help if the papers didn’t reproduce them in such submicroscopic size that the only way to be legible is to draw it in such a bland Dilbert fashion to keep it from looking like an ink smudge with a balloon when it hits the page.
KS: What are your favorite newspaper comics, today and of all-time?
Eric Paul Johnson: I’m not too hip on today’s strips. Sadly I’m contributing to the downfall of the newspaper by not subscribing. My choice is either eat or buy a newspaper. When I do get my hands on a paper I do look over the toons. What new strips I see don’t impress me much. I think I’ve been spoiled by Bloom County.
My favorite strips are the first 25 or 30 years of Peanuts, Calvin & Hobbes, Mutts, Non Sequitur, The Far Side. Bloom County tops ’em all, though. Beautiful art, brilliant and crazy stories. Dig it, man, dig it!
KS: What’s your favorite Wanderlust story?
Eric Paul Johnson: My former cat?
Well, one day I was watching TV and noticed he was sitting on the floor staring up at the air conditioning vent. I looked up from where I was and didn’t see a thing. I asked him what he was looking at. Usually he’d turn his head and look at me if I said anything to him. Maybe even meow. I think he just moved his ear, if that. He never broke his stare. He sat there just looking up at the vent for 20 minutes or so. A couple more times I asked, “What do you see?” No reaction.
Then he whipped his head around as if a bird flew out of the vent, across the room and through the door.
Then he got up and casually walked to his dish and ate.
I still have to wonder, what did he see!?!?
KS: Do you have anything else you’d like to mention?
Eric Paul Johnson: Yes. Don’t throw away your money to the filthy rich and buy tickets to their bad movies, BUY MY BOOKS! I need the cash. Watch my video work as “LoonNewsLoon” on the YouTube. And for God’s sake, somebody give me a job where I can use my creative talents!