#124, Cartoonist is auto world’s wacky, witty futurist

James Raia

Steven M. Johnson is an automotive futurist

Steven M. Johnson is a cartoonist with a fondness for the absurd. With astute detail, humor and poignancy, he’s a purveyor of wacky, futuristic product ideas. It’s all silly, except for when it’s not.

Johnson, an editorial cartoonist and illustrator for nearly 60 years, is our guest on this week’s episode of The Weekly Driver Podcast. The 81-year-old author of 10 books lives and works in Carmichael, California.

Steven M. Johnson is an automotive futurist
The Honest Commute (above) is among Steven M. Johnson’s Patent Depending panels about the auto industry. Below, left to right, a cover of one of Johnson’s books and two additional examples of Patent Depending series. All images courtesy of Steven M. Johnson.

A former city planner who attended Yale but transferred and graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Journalistic Studies, Johnson was a long-time general assignment cartoonist for the Sacramento Bee. He also had a weekly panel at the newspaper with future ideas called A Step Ahead.

Feature reporters were fortunate when Johnson was assigned to illustrate their stories. We didn’t work together often, but more than 35 years ago, I wrote an article about taking “gambler’s buses” for the newspaper’a long-ago defunct section called Out & About. It was a glimpse into the popular transportation method of many pensioners who enjoyed making the trip from Sacramento to Lake Tahoe.

Johnson’s illustration showed the bus, newly equipped with arms and legs, sitting a poker table playing card with other patrons. It one of my brief moments into the cartoonist’s world.

On another occasion, during the major long-distance running frenzy in the 1980s, Johnson illustrated an article I wrote for the same outdoors section on newfangled running gear.

The cartoon showed a runner burdened with all kinds of contraptions, some of which were included in the article. Johnson added other ideas for embellishment, hilarious doses of worthy, light-hearted sarcasm about some of the ludicrous products.

The former high school and collegiate runner had already accomplished much before his 17-year career at the newspaper. And much has happened since.

Johnson’s favorite topics include the automobile and transportation industries. It was how his admirable career began at age 36 while he was employed as the editorial cartoonist for formerly titled Sierra Club Bulletin.

“The first assignment that triggered the ‘inner inventor’ in me was in 1974 when I was asked to envision future RVs,” Johnson recalls. “The editor wanted 16 cartoons and I created 109. I could not stop!”

Follow his tenure working for the Bee, Johnson was hired as a “futurist” for the research and development division of Honda. It’s part of Johnson’s collection of employment titles, some self-determined like whimsicalist and possibilitist.

Some of Johnson’s bizarre ideas have proven prophetic. In 1975, Johnson fashioned the idea of pre-torn clothing. He described a product similar to Google Glasses in 1992. Several ideas in his theme of Public Therapy Buses have been made. His auto panels include Road Office, Honest Commute and Tunnel Bus. Thousands of his ideas abound in cartoons.

Nearly a decade ago, Johnson began his involvement with the Maker Faire, the global yearly gathering of inventors and artists. He had a booth in Xian China in 2017 and in Shenzhen two years ago.

Johnson’s involvement resulted in a contract with a publisher in China. His current two-book project is scheduled for publication this year in the world’s largest automotive market.

Please join co-host Bruce Aldrich and me for our interview with Johnson. We discuss the artist’s long-time fascination with automobiles and other transportation matters, all wonderfully absurd.

The full spectrum of Johnson’s work is available on www.patentdepending.com.

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Article Last Updated: March 3, 2020.

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