For the last several years, Leavenworth resident Jeff Johnson has had a secret identity.
Most of the time, he's a mild-mannered employee at Leavenworth's Cereal Ingredients, a husband and a longtime comic book fan.
But over the last seven years, Johnson has been featured in Wired magazine, in international versions of USA Today and in other publications in Germany and in the United States for one of his hobbies. Still, he's surprised when someone recognizes him.
“Some people have heard of me, and I always wonder how,” he said.
That's because in his other guise, Johnson tends to inconspicuous ―sneaky, even, and often in the background. But since 2006 he's been there, in more than 40 different comic books, part of a project that began when he started his blog, “Draw Me In.”
Johnson said his interest in comic books began more than 20 years ago, when his father bought issue 75 of Superman in 1992. The end of the blockbuster “Death of Superman” storyline, Johnson said his father bought that comic, along with other issues from that arc, with the thought of having them as collector's items. Johnson, however, was hooked.
“I always point the blame at my dad,” he joked. “It's been a crazy hobby since then.”
At this point, Johnson said his comic collection is in the thousands and he regularly visits area comic conventions.
The “Draw Me In” project stemmed from that love. He said he had seen a competition in FHM magazine asking comic fans to dress up as their favorite supervillain and photograph themselves for a chance to win a cameo in an upcoming X-Men comic.
“I thought that was a neat idea, but I didn't really want to dress up, and I didn't want to compete against other people,” he said. “So I said, OK, I'll just write to the artists.”
He created his website to serve as a focal point and drew up flyers to hand them out to artists he met at the nation's largest comic convention, the 2006 San Diego Comic Con. Johnson admitted he wasn't sure to expect any response, much less a positive one.
Months later, he received an email from Ryan Ottley, an artist for the Image title “Invincible.” He had his first appearance.
Ottley said he decided to make the idea a reality, if only because no one else had ever asked him before.
“It just sounded fun I guess,” he said of including Johnson's likeness. “If everyone was asking to be drawn in I wouldn't do it. But he was the only one asking, so I thought 'why not?'”
Page 2 of 3 - It's a concern that Johnson said he's had himself. But in the years since he's not heard of anyone else having a similar idea, which seems to be what allows his project to continue.
“I don't mind the fame so much, but I do try to keep it on the down low,” Johnson said. “For the longest time I was fearful of copycats, and I didn't want to be the guy who started the trend of emailing all these people to bug them to be in comic books.”
Within months of his first appearance, Johnson had several additional panels ― the next as a zombie getting hit by a car in “The Walking Dead,” before that comic was turned into a hit television show.
He's also appeared in issues of both mainstream DC and Marvel Comics titles like “Supergirl” and “X-Men” and independent books like “Space Sheriff.” He's been emergency room doctors, police officers, a zombie and part of the crew of the Starship Enterprise ― though in that instance he dies in the next panel. In addition to having his face in superhero books, Johnson has been drawn into comic adaptations of “Godzilla,” “Ghostbusters” and “True Blood.”
Johnson has also been rendered twice alongside his wife, Rachael.
For the most part, those appearances have come after Johnson has reached out to the creative teams of those respective books.
“I either just go for artists that I like or comic books that I like,” he said. “Of the 39 that I've been in, only two have been people who have been like 'I've seen this and I want to put you in my book.' All the other ones I've had to hunt down.”
Johnson has three additional appearances coming up – one in a book titled “Critter,” one in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and a third in the iconic “Archie Comics.” Johnson said the last of those is something of a dream come true.
“For the last two years, I've been trying to get into 'Archie,'” he said. “I don't read 'Archie,' but everybody knows it. It's iconic.”
Johnson said he's never appeared in a “Superman” title, but he has had close encounters with the man of steel he considers his favorite.
“I actually got rescued by Superman one time,” in a teamup book, he said.
Though he's had limited speaking roles, Johnson said he sometimes thinks of himself as becoming part of each of the continuities.
“For every new publisher or new universe where I show up, I think of it as I'm part of that universe in some small way,” he said.
Page 3 of 3 - As for how much longer he plans to pursue the mission of “Draw Me In,” Johnson said he doesn't know. While he said he'd like to hit 50 appearances, Johnson said he would like at some point to start making appearances on the other side of the pencil.
“I'm slowly trying to push my way into writing,” he said, having written a story for a horror anthology with Lawrence artist and fellow Leavenworth native Greg Smallwood.