An association publishing department is a great place to
explore hidden talents — as long as you are willing to follow wherever it
By Dan Cohen
At Association Media & Publishing’s Aug. 21 Lunch &
Learn session on the multiple hats association publication professionals wear,
Kerry Johnson, art director and special publications manager for the American
Physical Society, told the story of how he ended up signing comic books for his
association at Comic-Con, the annual highlight of the comic book industry held
in San Diego.
The comic books featured Spectra, the Original Laser
Superhero, but you couldn't be faulted for thinking Johnson is a real
With a background in graphics and editing for newspapers, Johnson
was hired by the society, a membership organization devoted to promoting the field
of physics, to build an in-house design and editing department. Soon, though, Johnson’s
assignments began to extend his responsibilities to aspects of art direction he
had not worked on previously.
His experience had been in publications, but his new job
required a little more flexibility, allowing him to tap artistic talents that
never came to the fore at previous jobs.
For example, one assignment called on Johnson to design
promotional banners for each of the society's departments. Later, the society's
membership department asked him to draw caricatures of attendees at the annual
convention. His stint as a caricaturist then turned into a tradition of providing
retiring APS staff members with a parting gift — an original illustration by Johnson!
The next assignment that came Johnson’s way was doing the
artwork for APS's first comic book, "Nicola Tesla and the Electric Fair.” The
comic book, an initiative originating in the society's outreach department, was
a companion piece to an activity workbook with scientific experiments for
middle-school students about the lives of famous physicists. The society sends
more than 10,000 of the kits annually to classrooms around the nation.
The success of that effort, and the need to highlight laser
science, led the outreach department to develop an original comic book
character for middle-school students. Thus was born APS's Spectra comic book
series, conceived and written by the head of the outreach department and
illustrated by Johnson. As a laser superhero, Spectra can do anything a laser
can do, including traveling at the speed of light, cutting through solid metal,
and diffracting into multiple copies of itself. Johnson, who based Spectra's
look on the author herself, also helped develop some of the comic book's other
Spectra was well received by teachers and students and has
now appeared in five issues. The comic book's success reached even greater
heights when the creative team responsible for Spectra appeared at Comic-Con, a
move to broaden the audience for the comic book series and the pursuit of
Any way you can apply your talents — especially ones that
you didn’t even know you possessed — to benefit your association is a good
thing, Johnson told the session's attendees.
However, he said there are other lessons as well that can be
gleaned from his career arc. For one, cultivate relationships throughout your
association. And while wearing many hats can be overwhelming, Johnson
concluded, it's important to be patient when trying new skills. Most important:
Don't be afraid to make mistakes.
Dan Cohen managing editor at the Association of Defense Communities. Dan’s volunteer
coverage of this event is greatly appreciated.