It Happened in Canada! Gordon Johnston
(July 11, 1920-August 3, 1983)
by Jeet Heer
As a cartoonist, Gordon Johnston was a jack-of-all-trades. Never specializing or getting into a rut, he tried his hands at many different genres of cartooning ranging from political humour to a daily adventure strip to a single panel historical information series. He also had ambitions to be an animator. His artistic versatility was a function not only of his personal creativity, it was also a response to the strained economic conditions that Canadian cartoonists faced in the middle of the last century. Like his contemporaries Doug Wright and Peter Whalley, Johnston had to be flexible in order to survive, constantly re-tooling himself to in order to fit the niche markets that existed in Canada. His career is emblematic of the state of mid-20th century Canadian cartooning, when artists needed a hard-shell entrepreneurial spirit as well as drawing ability.
Born in 1920 in Tillsonburg, Ontario Johnston caught the cartooning bug early. In high school, he was reprimanded for ignoring his studies so he could spend more time drawing girls. Hitting adulthood just as the Second World War broke out, he served in the Highland Light Infantry.
His war years must have made England seem like an attractive second home to him. After briefly returning to Canada, he spent the early post-war years in England, initially hoping to work in animation but eventually finding a spot as cartoonists for the East Anglian Daily Times in Ipswich. He created two daily strips for this newspaper, “Ippy Switch“ and “Margaret Catchpole“, while also serving as their editorial cartoonist. His English sojourn was very much of a piece with the general tendency of Canadian writers and artists of that period, so many of whom found England and Europe to be more hospitable for creative work.
While in England, Johnston met his future wife, Patricia Rogers. They married in May of 1951. The couple had two daughters, Mairead (born in England) and Lucinda (born in Canada).
Johnston returned to Canada in the 1952, finding employment as an editorial cartoonist with the Ottawa Citizen, where he stayed until 1956. Subsequently he freelanced as a cartoonist, often appearing in the Ottawa Journal.
With his family firmly based in Canada, Johnston spent the remainder of his career launching cartoon projects of a nationalist bent. During the Diefenbaker years, he worked with newspaper columnist Gerald Waring on a syndicated editorial cartoon feature. In May 1960, during one of the tensest periods of the Cold War, he launched Jeff Buchanon, an adventure strip about a Canadian spy. Drawn with flair and confidence in a modified variation of Alex Raymond’s Rip Kirby style, Jeff Buchanon showed real promise. Ferretting out spies, the title character travelled all over Canada, from Cape Breton to Montreal to the Artic. Johnston’s gift for capturing the feel of different geographical locals shone through in this strip. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long enough to make a mark, fading out a little over a year after it first appeared.(The strip can now be located in the back issues of the Montreal Star and Winniipeg Free Press.)
In 1967, inspired by the centennial celebrations of that year, Johnston created his most lasting nationalist comics feature, It Happened In Canada. Offering short illustrated lessons in Canadian history, the single panel strip feed the growing national appetite for information about Canada’s past. Mixing anecdotes about famous Canadians with folklore and “amazing but true” facts, the strip was both entertaining and informative at the same time. As with Jeff Buchanon, the highlight of the strip was Johnston’s art: his solid sense of composition made the strip visually interesting, but he was careful to be accurate in showing how people dressed and looked in the past.
In its mixture of human interest stories with historical lore, the strip anticipated the expansion of popular historical knowledge which characterized Canadian nationalism during the 1970s.
At the height of its popularity, It Happened in Canada ran in more than 60 newspapers and was collected in five separate volumes. The newspapers that ran the strip included the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, The London Free Press, the Winnipeg Free Press, and the Calgary Herald. The success of the series is all the more remarkable considering the fact that for most of its run Johnston did not have a newspaper syndicate backing him up. His daughter Lucinda Johnston remembers that her dad had to always be thrifty, using both sides of any piece of paper. He recruited his daughters to help with the production of the strip: it was their job to make sure that every week the proofs of the strip were sent out to subscribing newspapers.
As a cartoonist trying to make a living in mid-century Canada, Gordon Johnston didn’t have an easy time of it: he had to constantly struggle to find venues for his work. To a large degree, he was working against a vacuum, since there was little institutional support or critical recognition given to cartoonists in Canada during those years. The fact that he persevered so long, and managed to create some lasting strips along the way, is a testament to his character and commitment.
Ralph Thompson, “It Happened…result of research, sheer hard work” London Free Press, August 2nd, 1975.
Family information from Mairead Johnston and Lucinda Johnston.
“Jeff Buchanon” information gathered by Ken Barker.
Text: Jeet Heer
Cartoons: Gordon Johnston
(This article was originally posted on the Canadian Comics website in 2006. Our thanks to Jeet Heer for permission to republish it here.)