In the early 1970s, Canadian cartoonist and former Western employee Gordon Johnston of London created the comic It Happened At Western, a campus history spinoff of his national comic success It Happened in Canada, launched in 1967 to mark the country’s centennial and published in more than 60 newspapers at its peak. The Western comic panels appeared regularly in the Alumni Gazette from 1971-79.
As a comic artist, 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. His artistic versatility was a function not only of his personal creativity, but also a response to the strained economic conditions of the time. 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.
Born in 1920 in Tillsonburg, Ont., 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.
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 cartoonist 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 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 1951. The couple had two daughters, Mairead and Lucinda.
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 John 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. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long enough to make a mark, fading out a little over a year after it first appeared.
Johnston moved with his family to London, Ont., in 1963 where his wife was employed by the Office of the Registrar at Western until 1990. He was an illustrator and co-developer for Programmed Learning at the university.
In 1967, inspired by the centennial celebrations of that year, Johnston devoted his full-time energies to the creation of his most lasting nationalist comics feature, It Happened In Canada.
Offering short illustrated lessons in Canadian history, the single-panel strip fed 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. Johnston borrowed the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! design and format for the single panel comic.
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, Winnipeg Free Press and the Calgary Herald. Taking references from a number of sources, Johnston made extensive use of the historical resources at Western’s D.B. Weldon Library.
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, remembers her dad had to always be thrifty, using both sides of any piece of paper. He recruited his daughter 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.
It Happened at Western covered everything from smoking habits of students to famous discoveries at the university.
The fact that Johnston persevered so long as a cartoonist, and managed to create some lasting strips along the way, is a testament to his character and commitment.