There’s a scene in the first Johnny Graphic book, Johnny Graphic and the Etheric Bomb, in which Johnny—in his capacity as a newspaper photographer—is shooting the Minister of War as she testifies in a parliamentary committee. She is one of the villains in the book and Johnny, a thorn in her side, waits until she sets eyes on him:
Patterson didn’t budge from her chair, waiting for the questioning to resume. She surveyed the standing photographers with an expression about as friendly as a rattlesnake’s. Her hooded eyes suddenly moved down and locked on Johnny. A look of volcanic hatred erupted across her face as she recognized him. Her blubbery lips formed a distorted scowl. Her eyes widened. Her nostrils flared. Her brow furrowed.
But only for a few seconds.
In a single, smooth motion, Johnny lifted his camera, framed the shot, and pressed the shutter. The flashbulb dazzled the whole room.
Instantly Mabel Patterson’s face shriveled up, like a deflated balloon.
For the next few days Johnny’s picture of the furious ex-minister of war appeared on front pages around the world. No one else had gotten the shot.
I was reminded what inspired this scene when I recently came across the catalog of a long-ago photo show devoted to the work of the portrait photographer Josef Karsh. In our era, Annie Leibowitz is probably the most famous portraitist. Well, in the mid-20th century, if you were anybody important, you were photographed by Karsh.
His most famous picture, the shot that inspired Johnny’s little gambit, is of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill when he was visiting the Canadian Parliament in the midst of World War II.
Churchill was smoking a cigar and refused to relinquish it for Karsh’s shots. The photographer approached Churchill and pretended to take a new light reading. Suddenly, he snatched the cigar from the Prime Minister’s mouth, hopped back to his camera, and snapped the shutter. This is the iconic result.