Frank Johnson, Secret Pioneer of American Comics Vol. 1: Wally's Gang Early Years (1928-1949) and The Bowser Boys (1946-1950) (Paperback)

Frank Johnson, Secret Pioneer of American Comics Vol. 1: Wally's Gang Early Years (1928-1949) and The Bowser Boys (1946-1950) By Frank Johnson, Chris Byrne (Editor), Keith Mayerson (Editor) Cover Image

Frank Johnson, Secret Pioneer of American Comics Vol. 1: Wally's Gang Early Years (1928-1949) and The Bowser Boys (1946-1950) (Paperback)

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An astonishing historical and artistic discovery: a 2300 page proto-graphic novel begun by a “weekend cartoonist” in 1928 and continuing over the next 50 years!


When Frank Johnson, an itinerant musician and shipping clerk, died in 1979, he left behind a startling discovery: more than 2,300 notebook pages of comics and 131 unbound drawings, among them a massive, continuous story line beginning in the earliest surviving notebook dated 1928 — before the existence of comic books! — and following the exploits of his own cast of characters across 50 years until Johnson passed away. During this lifelong project, Johnson invented in private many of the conventions and tropes that define comics storytelling, effectively enacting an alternative secret history of the comics medium.

This debut publication of Johnson’s work is the first of two 600+ page volumes that will collect the best 1200 pages of his comics, including Wally’s Gang, his 50-year magnum opus chronicling the humorous, cliff-hanging adventures of a group of bachelor friends; The Bowser Boys, a seamy, darkly slapstick depiction of bohemian street life that could be considered the first underground comic series; and, coming in Volume 2, Juke Boys, absurd, self-reflexive graphic experimentation.


Curator and historian Chris Byrne and fine artist and graphic novelist Keith Mayerson have brought this astounding work into the light of day and provide historical background and analysis.



Frank Johnson was born in Chicago on November 7, 1912. During the 1940s, he worked as a shipping clerk. Johnson married in 1968 after meeting his future wife, Kay, at the Paragon Ballroom on Lawrence Avenue. They lived on the North Side of Chicago until his death in 1979.

Chris Byrne is the author of the graphic novel The Magician (Marquand Books, 2013), included in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Byrne is the owner and founder of the Elaine de Kooning House in East Hampton, NY, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. He was the former chair of the American Visionary Art Museum.

Keith Mayerson (b. 1966, Cincinnati, OH) has professionally exhibited his art in galleries and museums since 1993. His exhibitions are often installations of images that create larger narratives. His long running non-linear narrative “My American Dream” has been presented in separate exhibitions as “chapters” and the ongoing series continues through today and has recently been published as a 428 page “wordless novel” and monograph by Karma. His graphic novel Horror Hospital Unplugged, a collaboration with the writer Dennis Cooper, is well known among graphic artists and the queer community. A graphic-novel biography of James Dean is forthcoming, to be published by Fantagraphics.
Product Details ISBN: 9781683968993
ISBN-10: 1683968999
Publisher: Fantagraphics
Publication Date: February 6th, 2024
Pages: 634
Language: English
Series: Frank Johnson, Secret Pioneer of American Comics
This eccentric archival collection introduces outsider artist Johnson (1912–1979), a shipping clerk who secretly produced more than 2,000 pages of original cartoons in composition books dating back as far as 1928. Classic comics aficionados won’t want to miss this gem.
— Publishers Weekly

[Johnson’s work is] distinguished by robust penciling and a cumulative air of obsession. ... That obsessiveness made him a fascinatingly dutiful chronicler of mid-20th-century life; in this hefty omnibus, tidbits of a bygone way of life accumulate into something sad and strange and huge.
— The New York Times

Utilizing a voice and talent all his own, Frank Johnson is an American original, a folk cartoonist hero for the century that birthed American comics.
— Keith Mayerson

Frank Johnson was a working stiff with a drinking problem who secretly created a decades-long comic strip better than almost anything that ran in a daily paper in the 20th century.
— Hyperallergic

It's a fascinating project ... a sprawling graphic novel, of surprising skill.
— Boing Boing

A fascinating look at an unknown cartoonist and a great celebration of the medium.
— Bluto Review