Cartoonist looks back on career

Arts and Culture
John Rose ('86) - cartoonist

SUMMARY: John Rose ('86) uses humor to give readers an escape from the pressures and worries of daily life.

By Sabrina Moreno (’19), Office of Alumni Relations intern

The road to establishing John Rose’s (’86) career as a cartoonist was paved with a lunchtime meal of Cocoa Puffs—which he’d one day choke on following a phone call from Fred Lasswell, the cartoonist behind the renowned Barney Google and Snuffy Smith comics.

He’d sent Lasswell a packet of work samples, expecting to receive rejection. It was common in the industry to face multiple “thanks, but no thanks” responses.

This one would be different.

“John, this is Fred Lasswell,” the caller said. “I really like the way you draw big noses.”

Rose became his inking assistant in 1998 and remained under his tutelage until Lasswell’s death in 2001, when Rose was chosen to take over the Snuffy Smith comic strip. He became just the third person to ever draw it, which Rose says is “the greatest joy of his professional career.”

June 2019 marked the comic strip’s 100th anniversary, an accomplishment Rose attributes to its character development of the Smith family. This includes Snuffy, the title character known for being an endearing hillbilly with quirky antics.

“After a while, the characters become like family,” Rose said.

As a result, Rose finds himself speaking in their Southern accent after being in the “Snuffy mindset,” especially with the comic’s weekly schedule of six daily cartoons and the Sunday cartoon. But his work producing three to four editorial cartoons per week for the (Harrisonburg) Daily News-Record helps keep it fresh.

“Being a cartoonist is just being a good listener,” Rose said. “I can hear something in the booth behind me at a restaurant and think, ‘Oh, that’s something I could use in a comic strip.’”


Three days out of the week are spent in the studio tucked in the corner of his L-shaped family room. His two-legged drawing table with unfinished Snuffy Smith comic strips is surrounded by decades worth of cartoon memorabilia, such as a Donald Duck hat from his first trip to Walt Disney World in 1971, framed comic strips of Garfield and Snuffy Smith salt shakers from the 1930s.

The Flintstones plays on TV in the background, only a few feet from shelves filled with nearly every Disney movie ever made. On the right is a photo illustration by his daughter, Sarah Rose (’17), of a cartoon Snuffy looking back at John as he sketches. Daughter Meredith Rose Carter (’13, ’14M) is also a JMU alumna.

“It’s a little bit messy, but it’s a lot of fun,” Rose said of his workspace. “I think that helps fuel the creative process.”

Rose has come a long way from drawing on his parents’ living room walls. Awards line every studio corner, including one from Walt Disney for his contributions to cartooning through the Snuffy Smith comics.

Whether it be drawing sports cartoons in Manassas, Virginia, or working for The Warren Sentinel until finally landing at the DN-R in 1988, Rose says his family’s support has been the most important aspect of his career.

John Rose cartoonist yearbook

He met his wife, Karen (’84), on the second weekend of his freshman year. He’d later surprise her with pizza in the stacks of Carrier Library while dressed as a pizza delivery man.

Rose said, “She enjoyed that. She’s a really, really smart woman. She just had that one day where she had that lapse in judgment and said, ‘I do.’”

Karen still laughs at the gesture, recalling the time he also made a heart-shaped pizza for Valentine’s Day for her and their daughters.

“There’s a theme of pizza,” she said. “He loves pizza.”

Karen says that after 31 years of marriage, Rose hasn’t changed from being the thoughtful, creative man he was back in college.

“He cares so deeply for all of us, and with that ability to bring that sense of humor and help to lighten when the times might not be the best times … that helps,” Karen said.

The family—all JMU graduates—supports the university as sports fans. They’ve had season football tickets since 1993 and have traveled to each National Championship game.

John Rose drawing Snuffy

Although editorial cartoons and comic strips keep him busy, Karen said the jokes don’t stop there. His “thinking cap” is always on.

“I think I’ve got a pretty good sense of humor, but my daughters and wife would probably say I’ve got a pretty dad-type sense of humor,” Rose said.

He thinks back to the last joke he read and continues.

“Where do apples go hiking?”

He pauses.

“The Apple-achian Mountains,” he said, laughing. “See, that’s a dad joke right there.”

Sarah, who works at The Walt Disney Co. in Orlando, Florida, said her dad is just a fun-loving guy.” With her love of graphic design, she was able to partner with him on an upcoming Popeye comic strip and other work for the comics.

Her father directly influenced her decision to apply to the Disney College program. Sarah said he’s the first person she told of her acceptance into the program because of their mutual love of Disney.

“He became an annual passholder and comes down any time he can,” Sarah said. “Sometimes he’ll just come and watch me work. He loves it.”


Along the way, John published a variety of books and caught the attention of the Robertsons from Duck Dynasty and Dolly Parton after featuring them in the Snuffy Smith cartoons.

It’s moments like those when he realizes he can’t imagine doing anything else. He’s living out his lifelong dream of being a cartoonist.

“That’s really all you can hope for,” John said. “To make somebody, just for a second, take their mind off the worries and pressures of the day and just get a chuckle. … I’m bodaciously blessed I get to do this.”

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Published: Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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