CHICAGO — Charles Johnson has one of those careers, you know the kind, the ones where you start out at the Chicago Tribune as a political cartoonist, turn Buddhist and philosopher, make a huge splash as a novelist, win the National Book Award, grow so revered that literary societies are founded in your name, host a national PBS show for a decade, land a MacArthur “genius” grant, receive early tenure, have your face put on a stamp, publish collections of comics, children books and compilations of your wisdom, get inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, donate your papers to a university, become routinely included in literary canons and have your drawings shown by major museums.
That kind of career.
And yet — hmmm, wait, who’s Charles Johnson again?
If the name sounds familiar, the name is common, but only one Charles Johnson is from Evanston, Illinois and had a PBS series while still in college, and became a Buddhist at 14, then an accomplished martial-arts instructor, then had the 25th anniversary edition of his National Book Award-winning novel “Middle Passage” reissued with an introduction by the preeminent cultural critic Stanley Crouch, then himself wrote the introduction to the 2021 edition of Ralph Ellison’s “Juneteenth” — that Charles Johnson is unclassifiable.
So much so, 30 years after the Baltimore Sun wrote that Johnson was “hot, hot, hot,” he’s remained both venerated within the literary world and obscure to everyone else.
He’s 73 now and retired from University of Washington in Seattle, where he taught English for more than four decades. He’s also, of course, being that Charles Johnson, not finished: He just donated his archives to Washington University in St. Louis; he guest edited a new Black fiction anthology for Chicago Quarterly Review; Penguin included him in a canonical collection of modern American short stories (alongside Chicagoan Stuart Dybek); and if you go to the Museum of Contemporary Art’s new “Chicago Comics” exhibit, his comics are among the first things you see. He also wrote the introduction to a companion book for the MCA show, an anthology of Black Chicago cartoonists. Of course, the title, “It’s Life As I See It,” is taken from a Johnson comic.
In fact, despite decades of accomplishments and honors since Johnson got his professional start drawing illustrations for a Chicago magic company, he never quite left comics. He even has a new graphic novel in January, and rather than allow the MCA to simply display a handful of his old works, he redrew most of his pieces shown in the exhibit, tidying up ancient single-panel gag comics that he first made when he was 21.
Johnson slowed down the other day, just long enough to talk on the phone. The following is a shortened version of a longer conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Q: So, did you make anything today? Has anyone honored you since breakfast?
A: I have not created anything new today! Unless you count writing email.
Q: The comic of yours that people see when they enter the MCA exhibit — and also serves as the title of this new book about Black Chicago cartoonists — shows a Black artist explaining the black rectangle he painted. He says to a white patron, “It’s life as I see it.” The joke feels self-evident, but it’s not really, is it?
A: It could be read lots of ways. I mean, I made that cartoon in 1969 for my book “Black Humor,” which came out in 1970. And at the time, it spoke to the mentality of people in the Black Arts Movement in 1969 — and maybe the same kind of people today, the very Afrocentric and how they see the world. Which can be a positive thing, of course — the promotion of Black culture. But it’s also just an old cartoonist trope, an artist at his easel.
Q: At the risk of sounding obvious, I also see that comic as being about an artist, yourself, who is opposed to being assigned to a designated role in the culture.
A: I have been opposed to being put into boxes my whole life. Those boxes are artificial. A creative spirit is wider. It holds something one day, something else the next. I realize people identify me very simply as the award-winning author of “Middle Passage,” this adventure set during the North Atlantic slave trade, but I have also published 25 books. Anything that limits imagination or intellect I am opposed to. I’ve had to reinvent myself three times in 73 years. I started as a cartoonist and worked intensely seven years that way. Then I was seduced by philosophy. But at school we were told: There will be no jobs in philosophy. They warned us — when you’re done with this degree, there will not be a job waiting. So along the way I published my first novel, which led to teaching at University of Washington, which meant remaking myself again as a literary scholar.
Q: When “Black Humor” came out, what was the reaction? You poked a lot of fun at the Black Power movement — even now that seems a little edgy.
A: I remember when I first did the book, I went by the office of John H. Johnson, the Chicago publisher of Ebony and Jet, and showed him and he laughed. I was trained as a journalist, which was my undergraduate degree. I interned at the Tribune. One thing we were taught was that there were no sacred cows and you have to tell it like it is and while, when I would look at the editors to the letter and see that someone’s feathers were ruffled — well, that’s just too bad. We have a First Amendment here.
Q: Did you plan on being a cartoonist as a profession?
A: It’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to work for Marvel. I even sent stuff to DC (Comics). I was publishing anywhere I could. I just wanted to get through high school to get to art school. I got accepted to art school but then I was talking to my art teacher (at Evanston Township High School), who was a dour fellow, and he said artists have a hard life and the life of a cartoonist — that’s going to be rough. He suggested a four-year college. I thought, ‘Oh my God, and I’m going on my dad’s dime’ — he was paying for the first two years — ‘but what school would still accept me now?’ It was May. I went to my advisor and she opened this big book and ... ‘Oh, OK, Southern Illinois University is still accepting.’ Because I was writing and drawing comics for newspaper at ETHS, she suggested journalism. I had already won two national awards for high school cartoonists from the journalism school at Columbia University. When I was done I handed my degree to my dad and said, ‘OK, now I’m going back to school to major in philosophy.’
Q: You’ve written your father was not sold on you pursuing a life as a cartoonist, and then you followed that by saying you also wanted to study ... philosophy.
A: Which were very alien to him. He didn’t understand the arts. But he supported me. He paid for my art lessons. He supported me on something he didn’t understand and to me, that’s real love — supporting someone because you can see how passionate they are. I mean, he didn’t think Black people were allowed to be cartoonists.
Q: You were Buddhist as a teenager?
A: I first practiced meditation when I was 14. Which was a profound experience. I knew it was a powerful thing I had done, but I had no teacher. So I spent literally my undergraduate years and beyond studying Eastern philosophy. Everything I could read in translation. The first time I spent in meditation on my own, it was an experience I had never had — I was not thinking of the past or worrying about the future. I had such feelings of compassion for my parents and friends. And I’m 14! I knew it was powerful, whatever it was. When I came across Buddhist paintings or poetry, I would think, not only is this beautiful, ‘I somehow knew this once. How did I get away from this?’
Q: Did you intend to be as prolific as you became?
A: I admired artists who were prolific. I always have ideas and feelings and want to express them. I keep workbooks and put in something almost every day. The goal is you would like to have so much work done, and if you are blessed to live a long time, you become inescapable in the culture. But again, I was trained as a journalist — you don’t always judge what you are doing that day, you just do it. The artists I have known well and been close to — Jacob Lawrence, my colleague here at University of Washington, August Wilson, another good friend — they worked until the last days of their lives. Jacob was painting until the last week. And August: When he finally finished his famous cycle of 10 plays, he planned to start a novel. It’s not a job, it’s a way of being in the world.
Q: As a student, you were so prolific you wrote other student’s papers for cash?
A: As an undergraduate, I did. Someone might want to go out and party and I would say: ‘Here’s the deal, I’ll write your paper for five bucks. You’ll get an “A” or your money back.’ I never had to give anybody money back. It was cheating, of course. But here’s the difference: I became a writer and they didn’t. Around 1970 I started writing novels. I wrote six in two years. I call them apprentice novels now. I was teaching myself to write.
Q: Writing novels, your goal was to expand Black philosophical fiction?
A: I showed a lot of interest in doing that, yeah. I was thinking of Ellison. Of course, Richard Wright. But also Jean Toomer, who kicked off the Harlem Renaissance. My goal was to deepen that tradition of novel. But understand, early in the 20th century, most colleges and universities had requirements for philosophy. This is an old statistic now, but the last time I saw, only about 17 percent of universities require it now. Even the journalism program at Southern Illinois required you to do a philosophy course on logic.
Q: How did you end up with a PBS show around this time?
A: Here’s what happened: While in college, I was bored in my dorm room one day and I called (the local public broadcasting station) and offered to do a show based on the art lessons I had received. I didn’t expect to hear back. But they said sure. We did 15-minute drawing lessons — actually 52 of them. The year before, Congress formed the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and stations all over the country needed content and what I proposed was cheap — me at a drawing table, two cameras. I have people asking constantly how to get an agent, how to get people to look at their work. And the truth is, at that time at least, during my own time of ferment, things were more open.
Q: If you started now, considering your long career, would you still draw comics?
A: Well, how many TV series and movies now are based on graphic novels and comics? It’s even better to do this now. Abrams (the publisher) is doing a graphic novel of ‘Middle Passage’ with filmmaker Reggie Hudlin, whom I’ve known for years (and grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois, directed “House Party,” produced “Django Unchained”). We tried to shop a movie of ‘Middle Passage’ to studios. I wrote the script, which is Reggie used it for the graphic novel. Yeah, I still read comics all the time. Comics people were my first tribe. Comics are beautiful now. Even the superhero stuff, there’s a literary component to the storytelling that wasn’t there before. When I look at any art, I want mystery and wonder. I don’t care where it comes from. This is a universe of mysteries — we still don’t know what gravity is, man! I want that from a novel, or a short story, or a painting, an essay, a comic. I don’t care which. I just hunger for it every day.