Sunday, March 10, 2013

Beaucoup Arlo & Janis by Jimmy Johnson

Reviewed by Jeanne

It’s no secret that I’m a comic strip aficionado.  Every morning I drink my coffee and take a few minutes to catch up on the doings in my favorites: 9 Chickweed Lane, Rose is Rose, Mutts, Non Sequiter, and others.  Most of the strips I’ve been introduced to via our local newspaper, which is where a strip called “Arlo and Janis” debuted a few years back.  Since I read ALL the comics in our newspaper, even the ones I may not enjoy as much as others, I kept reading A & J. It wasn’t bad, it just didn’t stand out particularly.

At that time the paper also carried a syndicated column by Rheta Grimsley Johnson which I liked.  One column mentioned that she had been married to the A& J artist, so people asked her if she was Janis.  Her answer was, “I used to be.”  This made me pause and look at the strip anew, looking more at characters instead of gags.

Now it’s safe to say that I’m an Arlo and Janis fan.  Thinking back, I’ve wondered why it took me so long to become attached.  Was there really that much difference in the strips?  But short of going back through all that newspaper microfilm there wasn’t really a way to find out, and too much microfilm makes me queasy, as the motion of the film makes my inner ear think my body’s moving too.

The solution arrived just about Christmas time, when Johnson released a compilation of A & J strips.  Beaucoup Arlo and Janis takes the strip back to its beginnings, then continues to the near present.  I was shocked when I saw some of the early strips.  I’m not sure I would have recognized them as being from the same strip.  Johnson’s style changed over the years, both artistically and, to a lesser degree, in content.

I won’t try to describe the differences in the drawings save to say that now some of the faces are less moonlike and are more expressive to me. As for the writing, as the strip progressed the humor tends to be more character specific and less generic.  The biggest change, and the factor which probably drew me to the strip, is when Johnson began to run occasional storylines that took several days to complete.  I do enjoy single day gags, but I don’t really feel attached to a strip unless I find myself anxiously awaiting the next day’s offering to find out what happened next.

Oh, and the introduction of Ludwig the cat didn't hurt either.

The introduction is a lengthy essay in which Johnson muses about his background, his parents, and his childhood.  If you aren’t interested in the background, you can easily skip this section.  I enjoyed it, and it gave me greater insight into the strip itself.  There are some more reminisces at intervals throughout the book.  It’s by no means a complete biography.  At one point, Johnson writes, “I don’t know why people feel compelled to write memoirs.  Maybe they’ve told the same old stories so many times that nobody will listen anymore, so they write them down, hoping to find a new audience. I don’t know why I’m telling you all this, except I think about it more and more. Perhaps it’s just a function of growing older. . . .”

And I think that’s another reason why I like Arlo and Janis.  The characters have grown up, changed, aged.  We've seen their son Gene grow from an elementary school student to a married man and stepfather. Arlo has realized some of his dreams, or else discovered those aren't the dreams he really wants. Janis has loosened up, become more open to possibility. In some ways, we’ve aged together and we all feel the same sort of amazed bewilderment that here we are.

Finally, Arlo and Janis is a love story.  I’d always sensed that, but it was nice have its creator articulate that as a point of the strip.  After all these years, here are two people still in love with each other.  They may fight, they may fuss, but they still love passionately.

If you’re a fan, you’ll really enjoy this book.  If you’re not a fan but enjoy comic strips, by all means give this one a try. On the other hand, if you don’t like comic strips but are 50-something and feeling nostalgic, you’ll enjoy the essays. You can check out Johnson's website at

"Where are the strips with Ludwig?"

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