By Rheta Grimsley Johnson
The question I’m most often asked after speeches is not “Where do you get your ideas?” or “What writers influenced your style?” or any of those common things you might suppose readers would wonder about a columnist with three decades in the business.
No. The question I’m most often asked is “Are you Janis?”
I always answer, “Not anymore.”
My former husband and forever friend Jimmy Johnson is the creator of the wonderful comic strip “Arlo and Janis.” It is – I’m trained in objectivity – the best-written comic strip in existence. It runs in about 400 newspapers, including The Boston Globe and The Seattle Times (the Daily Journal on Sunday) and many in between.
If my youthful insecurities and jealousies during our life together helped inspire a single idea, I’m proud to have been of service. Jimmy, like most good writers, gleans material from whomever and whatever he can. So, yes, I see myself in a few of the earliest strips.
But that’s not really the point here. Jimmy has published a new collection, the first since the first year of the strip nearly 30 years ago. The big book is called “Beaucoup Arlo and Janis” and contains more than 1,000 cartoons and a brilliant introductory memoir that reminds me why I fell for him in the first place.
He writes about his parents, Lera and Harold Johnson, two heroic and humble beings if ever there were such. Born in Alabama, they both grew up poor, and life didn’t get much better when they became young adults.
Harold landed on the coast of Normandy six days after D-Day, and as Jimmy succinctly puts it: “He came home from the war a very nervous man.” After the war, he worked a lifetime in a textile mill, often seven days a week.
Lera’s beginning was equally tough. “She was 5 years old when she held the hand of her own dying mother. I can’t tell you why the woman died. My mother didn’t know. At that time and in that place, you didn’t need a good reason to die. My mother’s family was from Chilton County, at the geographical middle of a state which was, rightly or wrongly, often mistaken for nowhere.”
But theirs was a love story that somehow made up for rough beginnings. Or, as Jimmy writes: “I’m not here to tell you everyone who worked in a Southern textile factory lived a happy life. I’m just here to tell you we did.”
Jimmy’s writing is like a combination of Bill Mauldin and Russell Baker, funny and poignant and – as in the strip – restrained. His fans already know this.
He doesn’t need my help selling this book. I’m in 40 papers to his 400. His website, arloand janis.com, gets thousands of hits a day. But if I can sell just one book, again I’ll be proud. I suppose I like to bask in reflected glory.
Not to mention, selling books is a tough business for everyone, except maybe a John Grisham or Sue Grafton. People who’ll blow $50 on lunch and not bat an eye will pick up a book in front of its author and say, “Whoa. You get $25 for this?”
It’s demoralizing. And I simply don’t want this fine, Alabama-born writer of the best comic strip in America to become demoralized. I want him to sell millions of copies and invite all his old friends to the movie premiere.
Syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsley johnsonbooks.com.