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Lynn Johnston's Drawn-Out Adieu to Cartooning

Cartoonist Lynn Johnston will retell her "For Better" story.
Cartoonist Lynn Johnston will retell her "For Better" story. (By Ed Eng)

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By Michael Cavna
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Cartoonist Lynn Johnston can't bring herself to abandon her fictional family. For years, the "For Better or for Worse" creator mulled retirement, then lightened her workload by creating flashbacks and repurposing the archives of her popular comic. Finally, she knew she needed to conclude the Patterson family's 29-year saga.

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This Sunday's cartoon is an adieu of sorts to readers, but not a final farewell. She announced this month that she would retell her strip's narrative, beginning Monday, by taking her continually aging characters back to 1979, but creating new artwork and some dialogue. Her syndicate says it's the first time a mainstream cartoonist has set out to tell the same story twice.

What the reflective Johnston, 60, realized was that after decades of her identity and creativity and livelihood being linked to a comic strip, she wasn't ready to give it up.

"It's in your blood -- it's part of your life. I don't want to quit being a cartoonist," Johnston says by phone from her Toronto studio. "It's tough to put it down -- you still think of gags. And at the same time, I knew I'd be looking at material that I'd want to improve."

She will keep scrawling dialogue into a pad, keep inking her fluid lines, keep living in the intricate world of her characters. But this is not life as she would have drawn it up.

"I thought I would now be a retired woman with my Tilley hat and sitting on a cruise ship and going to the Galapagos," Johnston says. But that was before the recent dissolution of her 32-year marriage to the man many readers chose to see as John Patterson's inspiration and doppelganger.

"I really wanted to be happy as a couple and make everything right, but things became more stressful. . . . It made me look again at my career."

Which is why, on Sunday, the strip's fans will read Johnston's heartfelt salute as she comes to the endpoint of her characters' lives. (In the final chapter, for example, the original Patterson kids, Michael and Elizabeth, will forever remain grown and married.)

And which is why, on Monday, the strip will time-travel back to 1979 and do it all over again, but with new drawings, new conversations, new wrinkles. (And in some cases, fewer wrinkles -- John and Elly Patterson will return to parenting tykes.)

"It's going back to the beginning when Michael and Elizabeth were very young," Johnston says of the approach, which she is dubbing "new-runs." "I'm going back to do it how it should have been done. . . . I'm beginning with all this knowledge, so it's a much more comprehensive beginning. I only have an insular world of characters [from 1979] to work with."

As far as Johnston knows, "new-runs" -- in which a strip's continual story line is retold -- have never been attempted by a syndicated cartoonist ("Nobody has done it before -- most people die or the strip ends," she says).

"All of September will be brand-new material," Johnston explains. "In October, it will be [a ratio of] 50-50. The color Sunday comics will be all-new material. . . . I think it will be 50-50 for the first year, at least."


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