Friday, March 23, 2012

The Caricature Art of John Johns

Sid Caesar by John Johns

The late illustrator/caricaturist John A. Johns (1921-2005) might very well be the textbook example of a "big fish in a small pond", the small pond being Pittsburgh (not to disparage Pittsburgh). Johns was born in Pittsburgh and worked and remained there his entire life. Aside from perhaps Andy Warhol, Johns was the most renowned artist ever born in that city, although unlike Warhol, outside of Pittsburgh he was virtually unknown.

In 1952, Johns became an in-house "staff artist" at the Pittsburgh Press, drawing caricatures, spot drawings, even maps, all on demand. Beginning around 1960, towards the end of each week, finally came the big perk for him: creating a full color cover image-- usually a current TV star,  for their Sunday TV GRAPHIC magazine. Johns usually had little time to render these covers, perhaps several hours from start to finish, and in some cases less than an hour, yet for the next decade, he somehow managed to turn out over 500 beautiful covers, vivid, lush and funny images, some far more weirdly distorted than others. In fact he was a master of distortion. It became a ritual for many in Pittsburgh to look forward to the John Johns TV caricature every Sunday.

Johns ended his tenure with the Pittsburgh Press in 1970, which was also the year he made his single contribution to MAD magazine, illustrating a 3 page piece written by Larry Siegel  (scroll down below). MAD would often test potential contributers (including me) with an initial assignment and then decide whether the artist was worthy to join the ranks of "the usual gang of idiots". Similar to his fellow illustrators Sanford Kossin, (who wound up doing a total of 2 assignments for MAD), and Bruce Stark, (who would do 3), Johns would only appear in MAD once.  I'm not up on the facts, but speculate that his finished art for the piece was perhaps a bit too similar to Mort Drucker's in style, and MAD didn't need another Mort Drucker.

No matter, John Johns went on to be an (and according to many, a much loved) art instructor at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh for the next 30 years, even becoming it's president for a decade. 
The renowned caricaturist Zach Trenholm is a walking encyclopedia on caricature and it's history and recently introduced me to the amazing work of John Johns who I had never heard of (although I did vividly recall his lone MAD piece from 1970, especially his Sammy Davis, Jr. faces!) Many of these John Johns images come from Zach's collection. Check out his caricaturist site to see more great examples of current  and forgotten caricaturists:
http://www.zachtrenholm.com/celebrity_caricaturists.html

Howard Bender's great post on Johns' Pittsburgh
Comic Book Club Caricatures:
https://www.facebook.com/CaRiCAtUrESbyHowardBenderArt/media_set?set=a.866855110007743.1073741829.100000497855014&type=1

Sid Caesar, the printed cover

Imogene Coca
Bob Hope
Danny Kaye
Fred Astaire

Joey Bishop

Burl Ives

Barbara Stanwick
Bing Crosby

Chuck Connors
Ernest Borgnine
Art Carney & Harvey

Mike Douglas

Ozzie & Harriet

Shirley Booth

Jonathan Winters

Vince Edwards as Ben Casey
Carol Burnett
Jack Benny

Ernie Ford
Fred MacMurray
Raymond Massey & Richard Chamberlain: "Dr. Kildare"
Dean Martin

Jimmy Dean
Jackie Gleason
James Arness: "Gunsmoke"

Ed Sullivan
Don Knotts & Andy Griffith
Raymond Burr
George Burns

Bill Cullen

Frank Sutton, Jim Nabors
Lloyd Bridges
Henry Fonda
Mike Wallace

Red Skelton
Alfred Hitchcock
Lucille Ball
Richard Boone
Jack Webb
Dennis Weaver, Rickey Der: "Kentucky Jones"
Johnny Carson
Barbra Striesand
Charles Bickford: "The Virginian"
Bill Cosby, Robert Culp: "I Spy"


Joan Blondell: "Here Comes the Brides"
Mitch Miller

Dick York
Sid Caesar & Imogene Coca
Hugh Downs: "The Today Show"
Jonathan Harris, Robot, Billy Mumy: "Lost in Space"
Merv Griffin
Lee J. Cobb
the cast of "Mission Impossible"


Eddie Albert

Raymond Burr/Ironside

article about Johns from the Pittsburgh Press:


a montage of Johns images created for the National Cartoonist Society,
 including Tennessee Ernie Ford,
top right

A recent display of Johns original art


1968 Pittsburgh Press interior cartoon by Johns
Pg's one and two of John Johns' only piece for MAD magazine, from 1970, issue #133 (click to enlarge)
Pg. three

A later sketch of Prince Charles by Johns
montage of various friends of John Johns, including Johns himself
 (on lower right with bow tie) and "Famous Monsters"
editor Forrest J. Ackerman
directly above him.

John's handwritten bio from the 1980 National Cartoonist Society Album
A nice blog post on John Johns...
Special thanks to Zach Trenholm, John Wendler, Howard Bender, Don Rogers and Richard Greene

18 comments:

  1. Wow, this is great work!

    I find myself commenting on this blog over and over, "I've never seen this before" or "this artist is new to me." At this point, it has lost all meaning. Obviously, I know nothing.

    Thanks for introducing me to the rest of the world I knew nothing about.

    By the way, his Fred MacMurray really does look like Captain Marvel. I see it now.

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  2. Along with examples i sent you, nice to see new stuff on him as well, like the Mad piece (which I'd never seen before/ knew of) & that great pic of him at a desk (ditto). Great find....

    Also much appreciate the thanks, kind words regarding my contributions to the 'exhibit'---made me all warm & fuzzy when i read it ;-)

    Somewhere these artists (Wach-Steter, Johns, etc.) are smiling broadly over the attention...

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  3. Holy crap. Thank you so much for sharing this guy's work. Wow, you're right: never heard of him. But man, he was great. One wonders how many regional talents over the years have flown under the national radar. Johns was pretty stellar.

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  4. Exactly Bob. If he had worked out of New york for example, he would have been very well known nationally. but he was quite content to stay in Pittsburgh.

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  5. I had seen a couple of these a Loooong time ago, but never knew who did them. This guy's work is amazing!! Talk about capturing the essence of these stars!! Wow, there needs to be a book devoted to him. That Raymond Burr is out of this world! Thanks for sharing this.

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  6. I lived in Fox Chapel in the late sixties and I (vaguely) remember some of these. But all I can say now is...WOW!

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  7. I went to the Art Institute when he was the President. Every new student got a John Johns caricature of themselves.

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  8. John A. Johns was as wonderful a guy as he was a caricaturist. He had a sonorous speaking voice and a jovial, gentle presence... Hard to miss a very tall bald gentleman with a white handlebar mustache and always wearing a polka dot bow-tie. Like Ike says, he drew everybody (somewhere i still have mine) who went to AIP back then. He was also amazingly fast--- and he always got a spot on likeness... He could occasionally be persuaded to put on a slide show of his copious work, great to see so much of it here again 35 years later.... We were lucky to have him at the school as President...

    Thanks Drew & Zach!

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  9. Bob Fingerman took the words right out of my mouth. The Ernest Borgnine and Raymond Burr covers alone qualifies him as a genius. Invaluable post.

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  10. Great post. His work was absolutely lovely, and spot-on.

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  13. hehehe....really hilarious portrait I can't help but to laugh all over . . .thanks a lot for showing it to me..
    vapor recovery unit

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  14. John Johns taught me the art of Caricatures. He was one of the most memorable people I ever met in my life. After leaving his class I remember a switch had been turned on.. I was never able to look at a face the same way. I have done caricatures many years and made money at it. Thank you John Johns.
    I will never forget you.

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  15. I agree with Leo about the "Switch" being turned on. I'm About to do caricatures for my 31st year at the 3 Rivers Arts Festival in Pittsburgh. It all started with John (so nice they named him twice) Johns in 1982.

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  16. I was fortunate enough to be taught by John way back in 1982 when he traveled between art institutes give trainings. I had these plans on just being an illustrator but he took the time to take me and one other student off to the side and really helped solidify caricatures as a career. He said to me"kid I'm going to show you how to make money for the rest of your life. Well he was right because while he was in town he set up some gigs for the two of us, no money just some food and exposure and after that I was hooked. That was 32 yrs ago and its still what I do for a living. Many times I have serched the internet trying to find him so I could say thank you for the gift he gave. This is the first real info I have found. Thank you for this post.

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  17. I have a marker sketch by John Johns that I found in a Goodwill in Pittsburgh. How do I authenticate it?

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  18. wonderful artist and an inspiration to me...

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