By James Raia
Steven M. Johnson is a cartoonist with a fondness for the absurd, often when drawing cars, trucks and RVs. With astute detail, humor and poignancy, he’s a purveyor of futuristic ideas. It’s usually all silly, except for when it’s not.
Raised in Berkeley and Palo Alto, California, where his father was Editor-in-Chief of Sunset Books, Johnson, 82, has been an inventor and illustrator for nearly 60 years.
The UC Berkeley graduate and former city planner with a keen knack for precision has a new two-book commission for a publisher in China. Johnson’s 11th and 12th volumes are scheduled for publication later this year, although the coronavirus pandemic has delayed publication.
Although he’s addressed many subjects throughout his long career, Johnson’s favorite topics include the automobile and transportation industries. It was how he began his career at age 36 while employed as the editorial cartoonist for the Sierra Club Bulletin. It’s now Sierra Magazine.
“The first assignment that triggered the ‘inner inventor’ in me was in 1974 when I was asked to envision future RVs,” said Johnson, who now lives in Carmichael, a suburb of Sacramento. “The editor wanted 16 cartoons and I created 109. I could not stop!”
Reception to the article launched a career Johnson never imagined. The RV article and artwork were distributed nationally by the Associated Press, with Johnson receiving recognition rarely offered to cartoonists.
“I had spent the weekend drawing ideas,” said Jonson. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is like a latent desire, ability, whatever.’ I’d never been an inventor of anything before, so I got into doing whimsical, peculiar, not-thought-of objects.”
A long-time general assignment cartoonist at the Sacramento Bee, Johnson left the newspaper in 1995 for a research and development position with Honda in Southern California. His official title was “futurist,” a job description Johnson’s embellished with self-determined job titles like “whimsicalist” and “possibilitist.”
Several of Johnson’s bizarre ideas have proven prophetic. In 1975, he fashioned the idea of pre-torn clothing. He described a product similar to Google Glasses in 1992. Several ideas in the theme of Public Therapy Buses have been made. His auto panels include Road Office, Honest Commute, Tunnel Bus and Vacationeur, a multi-decked camper. Much of his cartoon career is archived on Johnson’s website, www.patentdepending.com. It describes the author as “searching for value in ludicrous ideas.”
Nearly a decade ago, Johnson became involved in the Maker Faire, the global gatherings of inventors and artists that begin in San Mateo in 2008. Johnson had a booth at the Faire in Xian China in 2017 and in Shenzhen two years ago.
The experience led to his contract in the world’s largest automotive market. Johnson’s books will again showcase the cartoonist’s fascination with the automotive world. It’s all wonderfully absurd. But sometimes it’s reality just waiting to happen.
James Raia, a syndicated automotive columnist in Sacramento, Ca., publishes the website theweeklydriver.com and its corresponding free weekly podcast and e-newsletter. Contact him via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.