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Comics: Meet the Artist

Suzanne Tobin
Washington Post Comics Editor
Friday, October 8, 2004; 1:00 PM

Join Washington Post Comics page editor Suzanne Tobin online two Fridays each month to discuss the comics pages. From artists to writers to editors, Tobin is joined by a different guest for each show. This week, Tobin will be joined by "For Better or For Worse" cartoonist Lynn Johnston.

Tobin and Johnston were online on Friday, Oct. 8 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss Schulz's work and the art of cartooning.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Suzanne Tobin: Welcome, comics fans, to another editions of "Comics: Meet the Artist" with our guest, Lynn Johnston. Lynn is joining us from her studio in northern Ontario, Canada. Welcome, Lynn, and thanks for joining us Live Online.


Lynn Johnston: I'm very pleased that we're doing this today. I do enjoy speaking directly to my readers and answering any questions they might have.


Arlington, Va.: I've been reading your strip since I was a teenager and I've always appreciated the realism of your work. But I hear you plan to end the strip eventually. Is that true?

Lynn Johnston: Yes, it is true. I have three years left on my contract with Universal Press Syndicate, and I plan to stop the storyline, like the way you would end a novel, and then we have some pretty interesting plans for the future. I'm not sure exactly how it going to go yet, but stay tuned.


Orlando, Fla.: Lynn: I recently came across old newspapers from the early 1980's and was struck how much your drawing style had "matured" over the years. Can you comment on what factors you attribute those changes; does it come from increased artistic confidence? Thanks for your efforts, and by the way, I only read your strip, and don't bother reading anyone Lynn Johnston: Yes, it's artistic confidence and probably lack of confidence because I'm always feeling I'm not doing well enough. So I keep putting more and more into the drawing, instead of less and less, as I get more confident in the storylines. You're always afraid that you're not giving the audience your very best. I've turned something that used to be very freestyle into something very detailed. Before I draw anything, I draw floor plans for the house and I do research on all the topics that I work with.


North Bethesda, Md.: I am a big fan. Your strip is the first thing I check in the paper everyday. I am especially enjoying the storyline about Elizabeth's tenure as a teacher in Northern Ontario. Is the town in which she is located real? Is it based on a real town? What research have you done about Canada's first nations to prepare for these strips? Have you spent time in the area? Will you address the real problems of the first nations (poverty, alcoholism, etc.)? If you do, how do you achieve a balance between relating these problems and keeping the storyline relatively light and entertaining as befits a comic?

Lynn Johnston: Yes to most of the above. We've lived in the north for many years. My husband, Rod, worked in very remote villages, where just Cree and Chippeweayan were spoken. We now live close to a small village, one of the members is helping me with everything from language to community events. This is an Ojibway village and the storylines are going to be very light to begin with because I want everyone to see that this is like any other small community with the same concerns for health and family and good fun, but there are some storylines that are provocative and extremely important and I have the help of residential school survivors and survivors of what's called "the '60s snatch" in which native children were forcibly removed from their homes and adopted by non-native families. These children, now in their late 30s, are rediscovering their parents. This is a comic strip, it must be entertaining. So whatever serious story I do must take this into consideration and not overwhelm the reason for the strip's existence, which is to entertain. I have no fear of any of these topics and the reason is because of the help that I have, and if you'd like to go to our Web site, www.fborfw.com, look for Mtigwaki, you'll discover the research and meet the people behind it.


Virginia: What about Warren? Will Liz find happiness with him? I hate to think of her being alone. I do enjoy the strip so much, Lynn!;

Lynn Johnston: Warren is a very good friend of Elizabeth's. She herself does not know where the relationship is going, so the answer is, I don't know.


Woodbridge, Va: How far will you take the family into the future? As in real life will we see the eventual death of the parents, April getting married one day, and etc.

Lynn Johnston: No, because the strip will end in three years, so April will be 16, Elizabeth will be teaching, and Michael will have two children, and we'll end the story as it began. It's a full family cycle from childhood to adulthood to a new generation of children.


Washington, D.C.: Any plans to create an animated series/film?

Lynn Johnston: Yes. This again is a future project that will be underway when the strip is no longer produced on deadline. We're looking forward to doing specials as opposed to 26 quickly written productions. It's something I love to do and my original aspiration as a child was to be an animator. I apprenticed at Canawest Films in Vancouver in the late '60s. I married and moved to Ontario and, where we were living, animation was not an option. I became a medical artist for McMaster University and I actually did animation for them, plus alot of comic art work, some of which is still used today. I started a small graphic art studio during the time I was pregnant with our first child. My ex-husband and I were expecting a baby and I wanted to work from my house. While I was pregnant, I created a book about pregnancy at the insistence of my obstetrician, who worked for McMaster University and that book led to two others. While I was producing the first book, the marriage dissolved and I was a single parent for three years. I continued to work at home. I had quite a good business produced two more cartoon books on parenting, which were sold through an American publisher. I met and married my good friend, Rod Johnston, while he was in dental school. The books were sent to Universal Press Syndicate, they offered me a 20-year contract to do a comic strip based on my family. I was packing and moving to northern Manitoba with Rod ad I was doing sample comic strips for Universal Press. The first strips were produced in Lynn Lake, Manitoba (the name is a funny coincidence) and so by living in a small town of 3,000 people it not only kept my feet on the ground when the publicity happened, but it also gave me an opportunity to be part of a town and all of its wonderful diverse population.


Monterey, Calif.: Do you draw on readers' suggestions for your plot lines--and if so, does that mean we can "vote" for preferred outcomes?

Lynn Johnston: No. Sorry. I prefer to do all of the creative work myself.


New York, N.Y.: Can Ms. Johnston give the fictional locale (in Canada?) of the Comic Strip.

Are there any other Foreign Comics that resonate w/ US readers as does your strip?

Lynn Johnston: The town is a fictional community close to Toronto. Whenever I name a community, I get into trouble. For example, I used the name London, Ontario, when Michael went to university and the result was wonderful, but I couldn't do what Londoners wanted me to do, like showcase their town in a very specific way. So I steer clear of that now.
As to your second question, I hope I'm not considered a foreign strip. Let's just call it a family strip.


Penticton, B.C., Canada: I know that you developed a great freindship with "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz. I am wondering if the two of you ever discussed your choices about characters aging? Did 'Sparky' ever admit that he wished he let his characters grow up? Do you ever wish that your characters had remained frozen in time? Is aging characters even a topic when comic creators get together? Thank you for providing me with a morning chuckle for all these years - I start my day with the Washington Post online comics section and FBoFW is the second strip I read (it's alphabetical, not personal - I start with Doonesbury).

Lynn Johnston: I'm so thrilled to hear your nice comments. That's absolutely what we work for, for someone to say something nice about your work is the gift that keeps us working hard.
Sparky did "Peanuts" the way he did everything--from his heart. That's how you do these things. And my characters grew up because they wanted to. Sparky himself loved to see the world through a child's eyes. There's a security in never changing anything. When characters change it changes everything from their looks to their height to their speech patterns to where they live. And I wanted that challenge. Yes, we did discuss it often. And his one concern was that I would have to kill off the dog, Farley, and he was very angry when that had to happen.
When cartoonists get together, we all talk about our work and we're actually very boring because it's intense conversation about abstract things. Most reporters would expect that a group of cartoonists would all be stand-up comics, but we're generally very reserved and analytical and like to grumble alot. We're also very supportive of one another.


Williamsburg, Va.: The Sunday strips rarely have dialog except for the last panel. Was that a conscious decision or just something that evolved? The ones with the dogs and the bunny getting into trouble are the best.

Lynn Johnston: Those are the best for me, too. I love drawing cartoons with no captions because I love the art of cartooning. There is no rhyme or reason. When an idea comes, I use it. If it requires words, I write the words. When it doesn't, it's just pure visual fun. Glad you enjoy them too.


Lancaster, PA: Hi Lynn,

How do you always seem to know what issues are affecting families? Have you been spying on my family?

Dave T.

Lynn Johnston: Many people ask that question. It just leads me to believe that we are all the same. By the way, there's dust on the top of your refrigerator.


Lexington, Va.: Hi Lynn,
My husband and I just love your strip--and it's always a race to get to the paper first to read "FBOFW." We're had so many good discussions on life, love, parenting, hard decisions, etc. just from reading your strip. I almost feel like the Pattersons are real, and I really wish you'd reconsider your decision to hang it up in three years, but I overall were are grateful for all the years of entertainment and thought provocation you've given us. My question is this: will April's band get together and try to perform in public again? I hate to see her give up after one broken string, while Grandpa's band is taking off.
Thanks again for all you have given us!;

Lynn Johnston: Thanks for your kind comments. April will definitely perform again, and do well, I'm sure...I don't know.


Spartanburg, SC: I too am a big fan. I love FBFW. It has made me enjoy comics again, the way I did as a kid in the 1950s and 60s when I first started reading.

I am also a big fan of graphic novels. Mostly European ones. I follow the Soledad series by Tito, Max Friedman by Vittorio Giardino, Les Carnet du Sud by Jacques Ferrandez and le Crid du Peuple by Tardi. Do you have any plans to do graphic novels?

Lynn Johnston: Actually, no. This is my graphic novel. For 25 years, I have been doing a graphic novel. And I thoroughly appreciate those artists whose work is in graphic novel form!


Washington, DC: I love For Better or For Worse because it is the only comic where the characters age. Why do you think this is? It seems like it would be easier to write a comic where the people go through life, rather than existing in a comic realm where nothing changes. Also, do you think you will do anymore Christmas specials? I used to love the one where Elizabeth lost her rabbit, and would love to see more cute specials like this now that I have children of my own.

Lynn Johnston: For me it would be harder to keep my characters static. Because I would be regurgitating the same stuff over and over again. The same age Christmas, the same age graduation, the same age everything. This way I have a constanly changing of chorus of people to work with, which is both difficult and rewarding.
Well the answer to the specials is yes. We have already done eight specials that were only seen in Canada. We also did 16 shows through Funbag Studios in Ottawa. These are, I believe, available online, through Teletoon Canada. Again, I'm not sure.
But I'm definitely planning to do more specials when I retire from the daily strip.


Brookhaven, Miss.: Why do you make Elizabeth look so old when she's teaching? She'd be much cooler and "normal" with her hair down!

Lynn Johnston: Elizabeth feels that she has to have a certain look. It's part of her being comfortable with her status as a teacher. She will relax as time goes by.


Arlington, VA: You mention you are ending the comic soon. Do you feel any pressure from your readers to leave the characters living happily ever after?

Lynn Johnston: Yes. And I'm not exactly sure how the end will occur. That process happens while you're writing it.


arlington, va: when you had the character lawrence come out of the closet you got alot of grief from a variety of sources. do you still get that much grief for having a gay character or has the furor pretty much died down?

ps. love your show, babe!;

Lynn Johnston: If I was to really focus on the subject of Lawrence and his partner in a descriptive way, talking about their lives as a gay couple, yes, I would receive a lot of flack. Somehow just knowing that these two men operate a successful landscaping business, offends noone. So they are a happy committed couple and more will be written about them in the future.


Washington, DC: If you were to make a feature film today from the strip, do you have any current actors in mind to play the parts?

Lynn Johnston: We don't have any plans to do live action, so the answer is no. In animation, sometimes it's important to have certain actors' voices available to you. So the people at the syndicate who are planning the animation are hoping to have some well-known voices involved, but it's too far away right now for me to think about that.


Fort Myers, FL: How do you decide which character to focus on? It must be difficult as you have an "ensemble" cast where I'm sure many people are waiting for the next thing to happen to one of the characters who they might not see for several weeks.

Lynn Johnston: That's a very good question. It's a juggling act. Charles Schulz used to bark at me for having too many character and for having too much going on. And he was right. But I enjoy the craziness of it, and I do my best to showcase everyone equally. I have to focus on the main characters, however. And sometime auxiliary characters come forward and sometimes they disappear.


College Park, Md.: I understand that your stories are at least based on real experiences. Do your children get upset when you chronicle their real life foibles? I would think that, especially as teens, they would be very sensitive to public scrutiny.

Lynn Johnston: I have never chronicled my children's daily exploits. The characters are independent. They even look different. Their jobs are different. And when they were children, I asked permission whenever I used a real story. The only actual serious story I ever used, with permission, was when Michael photographed Deanna's accident and then realized it was someone he knew.


Baltimore, Maryland: What are your favorite comic strips?

Lynn Johnston: I love "Zits." I think "Sherman's Lagoon" is very funny. I think "Rose Is Rose" is unique. Oh, gosh, there are too many people that I know well doing this work that it's hard to choose. I love "Mother Goose and Grimm" because of the way it's drawn and the humor. I loved "Calvin and Hobbes" and, like everyone else, wish Bill was still working.


Rochester, NY: Would you say it's more difficult today to become a successful than it was when you began your career?

Lynn Johnston: I think so. Because the nature of newspapers is changing and a whole new medium is being explored. And the Internet is free, which makes it very difficult for people to make a living through it. And until newspapers, syndicates and the people who provide the talent, including music, know how to work with the Internet so that they can afford to produce the work people want, it's going to be an unusual time in our lives. If you have a comic strip you want to showcase, there now is a wonderful way to do it. Go to comicssherpa.com, explore it, see who's doing what, see if you can compete, and put your work up. This is where editors are going to look for new artists. Good luck!


Washington, DC: I've heard that lots of comic "artists" don't draw their own strips anymore, but also don't credit the artist as being a co-author. I assume you still draw everything. What do you think of this practice?

Lynn Johnston: I still draw everything, but because I can't see very well, and my hands shake, I work with another artist who finished all of my drawings. I draw everything in pencil, including the lettering, but I only ink the principal characters. Laura Piche, does the rest.
The practice of other people taking over a comic strip from the originator stems from the time when syndicates owned all the rights, up until about 10 years ago. And they could choose whomever they liked to continue a strip if the author retired to passed away. Also, some comic strips which do not change with time required the help of artists and writers to keep the strip fresh and exciting. I don't criticize anyone for producing something this way, because it's such a difficult thing to do. A comic stip is so time consuming and is under such scrutiny by so many people, no matter how you produce it, it has to be good enough to retain that piece of real estate in the newspaper.


Delightful Deanwood, Wash. DC: I read two things faithfully everyday, Our Daily Bread and For Better or Worse. My question is about Iris and Jim's future together. Jim's health is failing just as Iris is finding fulfillment in sharing her life taking care of him. Could you please consider getting Jim a hip replacement and improving the quality of his life for years to come? I actually get anxious for him!; He's a sweety and so is Iris.

Lynn Johnston: Jim's health, like every other part of the strip, is dealt with as the ideas come to me. So thank you for your concern, I'm sure Jim would be thrilled by your interest.


North Carolina: Lynn -- What a great pleasure having you in a discussion today. Do you still get much feedback on the passing of Farley? Although I was "shocked" at the time when Farley went to his great reward, I felt so much better about the way you continued him "in spirit" in later storylines. I think you did a great service to everyone who has pets and to parents who need help in explaining these facts of life and death to our children. I actually framed the Sunday Strip where you had the children from Family Circle contemplating whether the Grandfather and Farley played together in Heaven. Loved the fact that it was a cooperative effort with the Family Circle, too. Anyway, thanks so much. And I don't know what I'll do when you stop the strip...

Lynn Johnston: Thanks to you for your very kind remarks. I still hear from people who wish Farley had not left the strip. Mostly it's when I meet them in person and they tell me very emotional stories about their own family pets. Because the strip deals in lifespans, the loss of a pet is inevitable. The challenge for me was to do a story that was a good one. It was used by people in Edmonton, Canada, to keep children out of the waterways during the spring runoff. It also happened at the time of the Oklahoma City bombing, which meant that people's hearts were already wrenched with grief. And so this was either an extra-sad addition to the paper or an opportunity to teach and talk openly about death.
Bill Keane called and asked me if I would participate in a Sunday panel by drawing Farley catching a frisbee in the clouds with the grandfather from "Family Circus" and it was a great compliment from someone I dearly love and greatly admire.


Waterloo, Canada: What was the best advice that Charles Schulz ever gave you?????

Lynn Johnston: Do the best you can possibly do every day, no matter what.


Cape Breton Island, Canada: Ms. Johnson,
Over the years you have tackled some tough subjects (death, getting old, physical abuse, homophobia, etc.)in your strip. Of these, which was the most difficult and which produced the biggest outcry from the public. Which one was the most rewarding?

Thank you for creating such a wonderful world!;


Lynn Johnston: The most difficult and the most rewarding was Lawrence's story, the coming out of a gay teen. And hello Cape Breton, I have everyone of Harry Hibbs's albums, and I play the button accordion very badly.


Washington DC: Hi Ms. Johnston-

I grew up with FBoFW and always identified with the Patterson Family, so this is a thrill!; Keep at it!;

You've tackled alot of big subjects: abuse, homosexuality, growing up too fast, infidelity etc without pulling any punches since the beginning. Thankyou for that.

Clearly the subject of sex has come up with Michael, as he is now married and has a child. Will you ever cross that gap about premarital sex with Elizabeth, her friends, or with April (in the future hopefully)? Do we assume that Elizabeth has "crossed over" so to speak?

Lynn Johnston: Well I think that you could assume that she's crossed over since she lived with her boyfriend for well over a year. But like the Mexican novelas, which I love to watch, I've discovered that no matter how hard to imagine it is, everyone wants the heroine to remain pure as the driven snow. So people can read into the storyline what they want to read into the storyline.


Farifield, VA: My wife and I both love FBOFW, so thank you for all your hard work. In fact, she loves it so much that she gets angry when bad things happen to them, or they make bad decisions like Elizabeth's bad boyfriend in college. I like those stories even more because they show the problems every person and family has.

Is it hard to write about the Patterson's problems, especially ones which can't be resolved quickly?

Lynn Johnston: No, it's not. Because to me it's honest. If everything has a quick and easy resolution, it's not realistic.


Baltimore, MD: Hello Ms. Johnston!; My name is Meghan and I love FBoFW!;!; I read it every single day!;!;!;
I just got married three weeks ago. What, in your opinion, are the keys to having a happy and successful marriage?

Lynn Johnston: Look at yourself and all the little things you do that are irritating. Because you always think it's the other person's fault. Stay best friends, and never go to bed angry.


Acton, MA: I have truly enjoyed your amusing, tender and amazingly accurate portrayal of all aspects of life, and appreciate your ability to resist pressure to Americanize your strip.

One can easily identify with each of the characters, and you've made so many of them multi-dimensional. How do you manage to render their personalities - particulary those characters who appear only occasionally - with such depth in just a few lines?

Lynn Johnston: I use photographs from Sears catalog and I imagine with every ounce of imagination I have what these characters would be like. It's as if I was playing a part in a drama. And I'm glad you think I'm doing okay.


Tokyo, Japan: Even though we have yet to have kids of our own, my wife and I have long enjoyed your cartoons. I was curious to what extend your characters represent real people in your own family vs. archetypes of your own mind. Thank you!;

Lynn Johnston: I really want people to go to my Website, www.fborfw.com, because it reveals so much about myself and my family. We have held nothing back, really. We hope that questions you haven't thought of asking will be answered.
Some of the characters are based on real people, and I think about those people as I draw and write. The only characters in the strip that are truly like our family are Ellie, John and Grandpa Jim. These people have traits that are undeniably us!


Alexandria, Va.: After the long buildup in the strip, don't you think you were dishonest to arrange things so that Ellie didn't have to personally fire the bad employee at her toy store, but had a subordinate do it when she was away? I think you just didn't want your character to look like a bad guy by doing the job herself. In my opinion, this weakened the important message that there are some people in the world who just won't take advantage of a second or even a third chance and even nice people have to deal with them accordingly.

Lynn Johnston: Thanks for your honest opinion. Perhaps you're right, but I think Ellie has handled many other serious community and family crises with diplomacy and strength.


Washington, DC: Is Michael's MIL ever going to chill out?

Lynn Johnston: Probably when she is chilled from head to toe forever.


Charlottesville, VA: I admire your stealth infilitration of the American comics pages with references to Canada. I was especially happy in a recent strip where Elizabeth is at the airport, about to head up North, and you had penciled in the names of Canadian cities in tiny, tiny type on the video display terminals you drew. Do you see yourself in any way as an Canadian ambassador to the United States, a country that goes out of its way to ignore Canada?

Lynn Johnston: I absolutely love this question. I don't think of myself as an ambassador, I think of myself as a Type A artist who has to include tiny little names on television monitors so that wonderful readers like yourself will find them and think they're interesting. Thanks so much for your comments about Canada. I have never been more proud to be Canadian.


Lynn Johnston: I can't see all the people who read my work. I try not to imagine how many people; it would be terrifying. But the ones who contact me and the ones I meet make me feel welcome, make me feel that my work is worth reading and make me feel like a friend, and that's an extraordinary thing to have in one's life. I'm grateful to everyone who wrote today, I wish I could have answered more questions, but as I said, the Internet is changing and maybe that will change too. Thank you, Suzanne, for your mile a minute fingers in doing my typing and for your patience.


Suzanne Tobin: Thank you so much, Lynn. It's a pleasure doing business with you. Especially since you slow down your speech to accommodate my typing. We'll be back here on Nov. 5 with another edition of "Comics: Meet the Artist," and I hope all your fans will be back here too.


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