With Chicago’s “C2E2” 2012 ComicCon (http://www.c2e2.com/) approaching this week from April 13-15 at McCormick Place, it seems fitting that I do a piece on an aspect of comic books that everyone even remotely acquainted with the realm knows well – the Johnson Smith & Company of Detroit, Michigan. You may not recognize the firm’s name, but I’ll bet you know some of its wares, its advertisements, and have seen its influence on pop culture and graphic design. This is a company that’s been around since 1914 and after having had locations in Chicago IL, Racine WI, and Detroit MI, it continues to this day (http://www.johnsonsmith.com/) in Bradenton, Florida. Jean Shepard called the Johnson Smith Company catalog “the Rosetta Stone of American Culture”.
Anyone reading comic books from their inception and throughout the 20th century could count on the JSC full page advertisements that used every micro inch of printable space to list and announce their merchandise. Coming across their ad was like encountering an intricate wallpaper sample, but it was also like a friend that you could count on to appear in every issue with your favorite superhero or comicbook character. As early as 1955, Harvey Kurtzman’s #21 issue of Mad (they were still in comicbook format and hadn’t become a “magazine” yet) employed a Johnson Smith Company design for its cover. This may be the first time anyone was inspired to actually read the entire contents of a Johnson Smith Company (in this case a “Smith Johnson & Company”) advertisement ! Interestingly, Johnson Smith has an actual ad in the same issue. (When Mad became a magazine with issue #24 they discontinued actual ads and continued as an ad-less publication until 2001). During the 1980’s I became aware of the work of graphic designer/archivist Charles S. Anderson from Minneapolis MN. His work resurrected the old advertising graphics of the 1930’s-1950’s and swung them around for re-presentation in a modern (post-modern ?) way. He took old dusty and bankrupt stock art and illustration and made it seem cool. I can’t help but feel the presence of Johnson Smith in a lot of his work. The cartoonist and graphic designer Chris Ware has clearly been influenced by the Johnson Smith ads as well as other pop culture iconography. His “Acme Novelty Library” has been a remarkable leader in the alternative comics realm.
Here are some examples :
Johnson Smith Company has been a part of comic book history since the beginning – there’s a JSC ad on the back of Action #1, Superman’s first appearance in 1938.
Their ads are so much a part of the culture that they’ve been parodied for at least 55 years.
They’ve gone on to even influence modern graphic design.
Here are some examples from the 624 page 1940 Johnson Smith Catalog :
As an example of what you received when ordering something from Johnson Smith Company, below is the ad for item # 1264 “The Science Of Ju Jitsu” from the 1940 catalog, .
The following pics are from the actual book.
Here’s an example of how Johnson Smith Company employs 21st century marketing techniques : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qbu8nSuFGSY&context=C42d319bADvjVQa1PpcFP8gGpfKf9Ran_hZlwZUEIJnAPQeUuMOg0=
So here’s to almost 100 years of Johnson Smith Company advertising and pop cultural influence !
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