'Arlo & Janis' delves into the funny things about family and marriage

Cartoonist Jimmy Johnson says he's always a little nervous about the Sunday installations of his comic strip Arlo & Janis.

"Sunday is the gold standard in comics. The difference between doing a daily strip and doing Sunday is kind of like the difference between doing standup comedy and writing a play."

Arlo & Janis will join the St. Petersburg Times' Sunday comics section on Jan. 23, along with Bizarro and The Flying McCoys. The strips will not appear during the week.

Johnson, who has homes in southern Alabama and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, has been writing and drawing Arlo & Janis for more than 25 years. The domestic comedy's title characters are a long-married couple, baby boomers with a son, Gene, and an imperious (is there any other kind?) cat named Ludwig.

"Every new strip was about young families" when Johnson, 58, began doing the strip in 1985. "In the '80s, everyone was having babies."

Unlike some other strips whose characters remain permanently young, the family in Arlo & Janis has aged. "They haven't exactly aged chronologically. I figure it's about one cartoon year to every three calendar years."

Although the decision to let his characters age "didn't seem like a big deal at the time," Johnson says he's glad he made it. "If I hadn't, I'd be writing for a demographic I no longer had any relationship to."

Speaking of relationships, although the strip is about an enduring and affectionate (if sometimes contentious) marriage, Johnson isn't married. "Not right now. But I do have good relationships with all my exes." He doesn't have children, but says that didn't matter when Gene was a little boy in the strip. "You can draw on your own experiences. Childhood is universal.

"But you can't fake it with teens," he says, which is one reason Gene became less of a "daily player" in the strip for a while. Now that the character has aged into young adulthood, he's become a bigger presence.

But the core of the strip is its title couple. Arlo, Johnson says, is named for a friend from his days on the staff of the Plainsman, the campus newspaper at Auburn University, from which Johnson graduated in 1974. "His name was Pat, but he had this long, curly hair, like Arlo Guthrie, so we called him Arlo."

When he was developing the strip, he says, "I just thought, what goes with Arlo? Janis! So it's not exactly the tribute some people think it is" to singer-songwriter Guthrie and singer Janis Joplin. "Well, maybe it is."

Johnson says he always loved cartoons, both print and animated, citing as influences Peanuts, early Dennis the Menace, the Hanna-Barbera cartoons (which included The Flintstones, The Jetsons and others) and Warner Bros.' "Bugs Bunny cartoons, as they're collectively known, particularly the humor, which was actually very adult."

Johnson studied journalism in college and began his career as a reporter and editor at the Jackson Daily News in Mississippi, where for a time he was an editorial cartoonist. "I thought cartooning would be a perfect marriage between my interest in current affairs and my interest in drawing. But I found after a while I didn't have anything else to say. I never had the answers to the problems."

Turning to a comic strip suited his temperament better, he says. "I'm thrilled to still be doing it."

Many of his strips deal with the everyday joys and struggles of marriage, but Arlo & Janis is notable for its occasional references to the couple's sex life.

"I'm well known for that. I get way too much credit for it," Johnson says with a laugh. "It's not naughty or crude or anything. But I found it difficult to write about marriage without writing about sex."

Now, he says, readers look for subtly sexy references in the strip — whether they're there or not. "I hear from people who say, 'Wow, I saw that strip today. How'd you get away with that?'

"And I'll think, that has nothing to do with what I meant. It's a Freudian thing, I guess."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/critics.

.Fast facts

Comics to join Sunday lineup

Look for three new additions to the Sunday comics pages beginning Jan. 23.

Along with Arlo & Janis, you'll find Bizarro, Dan Piraro's twisted commentary on everyday life. Example: A TV reporter broadcasts from the scene of a "quadruple environmental tragedy" in which a whale, tangled in a net full of dolphins, has beached itself on egg-laying turtles and been hit by an SUV.

The other new addition is The Flying McCoys, by Glenn and Gary McCoy. The artist brothers trade off writing and drawing duties to produce this single-panel comic. In a recent Sunday gag, an artist walks someone through an art gallery, saying, "And I call this my blue period, because frankly I had gobs of leftover blue paint."

'Arlo & Janis' delves into the funny things about family and marriage 01/15/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 14, 2011 6:37pm]

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