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.
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."
One question rippling its way through the industry is whether many newspaper editors will be willing to pay for "new-runs," especially since the core story lines will remain the same. (The Washington Post is dropping the strip in the paper but will continue to carry it online. )
"The descriptive 'new-runs' was new to us, but it does hint at the blend of new and old that she'll undertake," says Lee Salem, Universal Press Syndicate's president and editor. "It's quite a gamble on her part and much of this terrain will be new to her, too. Only time will tell if it's effective or not."
Johnston, whose strip is in more than 2,000 papers, has endured losing clients before, such as when a gay character, Lawrence, came out. Is she concerned about losing newspapers this time around?
As a cartoonist, "You know people are always going to drop your strip -- that's what editors do," she says. "Blondie" cartoonist "Dean Young and I joke that we keep taking each other's place [on the comics page]. . . . If you write for editors so that they will keep your work, you'll be losing clients and readers. It's just part of it: I don't want to lose papers, but I know that I will."
Sounding energized, she characterizes this experiment as a way to create a better, livelier, funnier beginning to the strip. Call it the Old Adventures of the New Lynn Johnston.
"In this business, you're a perfectionist -- you've got to be," she says. "My early work on the strip was freer, it was more spontaneous. But I want to combine the confidence and experience [I have now] with that freedom -- that's the best of all worlds."
Johnston downplays some elements of her early work, but in the '80s, "For Better or for Worse" soon found a commercial following and critical praise. She received the cartooning industry's Reuben Award in 1985 for the strip, and nearly a decade later, she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. And Universal Press Syndicate launched her feature at a time when women cartoonists were very few and far between on the funny pages.
Decades later, Johnston stands near the top of the syndication heap, which is why her ending of the current real-time stories is bound to disappoint her many readers worldwide. But the cartoonist speaks with conviction about this stopping point.
"The analogy would be like decorating a room: Once you've done everything you can do to it, you step back and [realize] you can't do any more. . . . I wanted to stop the story while it was still a reasonably good story. You can't fulfill everyone's needs. I've told the story -- I can't do any more . . . to redecorate this room."
Johnston sounds as upbeat as ever about producing the strip. She says she doesn't even use it to take veiled digs at her ex-husband. Well, except once.
"The only thing I've put in the strip with a sarcastic streak toward my ex-husband is John [Patterson's] potbelly, because my ex is very proud of his physique," says Johnston before pausing, again sweetly reflective in her approach. "Perhaps I made up my own husband and saw John Patterson in my husband."
She says she feels 30 years old again while drawing it, and relishes the joy that comes from returning to the comic's roots -- to a time when she herself was still newly married, raising small children and discovering her full talent through a newborn strip.
"It's going to be the best work I can possibly do. . . . It's going to be a lot more fun," she says. Then, recalling the beloved family sheepdog who died saving young April Patterson, she chimes: "And Farley is coming back!"