The first time Brandon Johnson got paid to draw, his illustrations appeared on flyers for punk bands appearing in Las Vegas—that is if, by “payment,” you mean free admission to performances by Agent Orange, Bad Religion, Seven Seconds and Social Distortion. Johnson, who is also known by the alter-ego Ragnar (his middle name), had watched his father make a living as a fine artist, but was more drawn to the commercial end of the spectrum.
No surprise, given a childhood spent watching Tex Avery cartoons, reading Mad magazine, and devouring Marvel titles like Fantastic Four, X-Men and The Hulk. Years later, major Hollywood studios including Disney, Sony, and Warner would pay him to dream up characters for prospective animation projects, and he’d get regular assignments from House of Secrets—a well-known comic book store that’s a stone’s throw from Disney’s studios. But like most creatives, he started at the bottom rung of the ladder.
“My first full-time gig doing design and illustration was in a screenprinting shop during the second birth of Vegas—the early to mid ’90s when it was all about getting families to visit, to broaden the appeal,” he says. “I’d lived in Vegas as a young teenager, and back then there was still so much of the old Vegas that people loved—the Rat Pack and young Elvis—which always appealed to me, but it was starting to disappear as the old casinos gave way to the The Mirage, Treasure Island, and The Luxor.”
Johnson spent his time slapping logos on shirts, bags and sunglasses, and quickly found himself yearning for more. So he applied to Art Center in Pasadena, and was accepted. And although he left Vegas behind, the diamonds, starbursts and other kitschy mid-century modern graphics stayed with him.
“As a kid, mid-century design always appealed to me, even though it existed years before I was born,” he says. “A lot of it comes from the hopeful outlook of postwar America, which runs counter to dark, dystopian idea of the future that we see so often now. Everything was so bright and promising—the colors, the architecture, the films, the fine art, the advertising, the design, the typography—all of it.”
You can see that optimism and brightness in Johnson’s illustrations of robots, aliens, ray guns and space ships—subjects that seem to be torn from the sketchpad of a teenage boy. And tacked to that teen’s bedroom walls, you might find selections from Johnson’s Fragmentia series: scantily-clad women posing in space-age living rooms, who possess the innocence of pin-ups from another era.
“Sometimes I think I’m stuck in this pubescent teenage fantasy of what’s cool and the way things should be, and I think that I really should have moved on by now,” he says. “But on the other hand, it’s authentic to me, it’s honest. “I’m not thinking ‘Oh, people will dig this, so this is what I’m gonna do—it appeals to me and it’s what I enjoy doing. I like to think my work has evolved over the years and matured, but I don’t want it to feel too manufactured, either. I try to let the work be what it is, so that it’s sincere.”
As you’d expect, Johnson has found a healthy audience of fans at Comic-Con and Designer Con—a smaller gathering that began with urban vinyl community and now spans a much broader landscape. In recent years, he’s moved from two-dimensional art to three-dimensional projects, creating and licensing products for the home.
“Whenever I get an opportunity to experience something new, I just can’t pass it up,” he says. “I want to know what it’s like to design bedding or a chair or a car. It’s not about ego or even making more money, it’s just the creative aspect—I want to do the widest possible variety of projects.”
For a long time, Johnson found it difficult to turn down any opportunity that came his way, working 70-80-hour weeks, and even feeling guilty on vacations. Until one day, he recognized that he had to slow down. Much of his animation work for Cartoon Network, Disney, MTV, and Nickelodeon contributed to his exhaustion: Johnson says it wasn’t unusual to get a call from a studio on a Friday afternoon asking for characters in time for a Monday pitch meeting, which meant working nonstop through the weekend. After seeing too few of those projects actually come to fruition, he decided to step back from the animation projects, and only recently returned to them. (Much of the work appears in his book, The Art of Fiction.)
“Finding balance is always difficult for me,” he says. “If I’m doing something, I want to do it 100% all in, all the time, and think about nothing else. I envy people that can find balance so effortlessly. But for me it’s a lot of hand-wringing and second guessing: Should I be working more? Taking time off? In the past, I’d get away from the office, and really enjoy it, but after a couple days, I’d start thinking about projects I wanted to work on when I got back—now I’ve found when I’m away, I can completely shut off work, and I don’t think about it at all. So hopefully, I’m making some progress.”
Johnson now recharges his batteries by going fishing with his kids whenever he can and visiting national parks with his entire family. But he still manages to stay pretty busy. His to-do list following our interview? Create a character for a band’s album cover and merchandising sales, design a poster for House of Secrets, dream up some new color palettes for one of his best-selling textile patterns, and illustrate a movie poster for the sequel to a recent comedy hit that’s still under wraps.