Comics: Meet the Artist
With Lynn Johnston
Creator, "For Better or For Worse"
Hosted by Suzanne Tobin
Washington Post Comics Editor
Friday, July 6, 2001; 1 p.m. EDT
Welcome to the Washington Post Style section comics discussion, hosted by Comics page editor Suzanne Tobin.
This week, Lynn Johnston, creator of the cartoon strip "For Better or For Worse" was online Friday, July 6 at 1 p.m. EDT to answer questions and take comments about her daily cartoon.
Johnston created "For Better or For Worse" in 1979. A touching chronicle about the Patterson family, which she based loosely on her own, the strip has grown into one of the world's most popular syndicated comic strips. Rod Johnston and John Patterson are both dentists, the Patterson children's names are derived from the middle names of the Johnston children, and Elly Patterson was named for one of Johnston's childhood friends who died at a young age from a brain tumor.
Over the past two decades, Johnston has earned several honors. In 1985, she became the first woman to win the National Cartoonists Society's Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year. She also won the award for Best Syndicated Comic Strip in 1992. Johnston was appointed to the distinguished Order of Canada in 1992 and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1994.
The transcript follows.
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.
Greetings, comics readers and thanks for joining us Live Online with Lynn Johnston, creator of "For Better or For Worse." Lynn is visiting with us from her studio in northern Canada, and I hope she's enjoying as beautiful a day as we are here in Washington. Lynn, you have one of the most informative Web sites for a cartoonist that I've seen so far. (To see it -- AFTER our Live Online chat, of course--just click on the "About Lynn Johnston" link on our "Comics: Meet the Artist" page.) Welcome, Lynn.
Lynn Johnston: Thanks for inviting me, but it sounds like you all have the better weather. We've had unseasonably cold weather, lately, but that's fine with, me it's less distracting--I'm not thinking of barbecues and beaches--and so it makes me work harder.
Dear Ms. Johnston:
I love the strip -- and I especially love your decision to allow the characters to age. It makes For Better or Worse far more dynamic and exciting than comics stuck in time. My question is this -- are you aware that you seem to draw Elly, who I think is the most sympathetic character, in more unflattering proportions and silly situations than the other characters? Is there a reason for that? I understand that she's in late middle age, but even her husband seems to get more attractive treatment. I figured as a female cartoonist you might go a little easier on the middle age spread thing.
Lynn Johnston: It's easier for me to hear people say "You're not nearly as ugly as you draw yourself," rather than "You certainly flatter yourself in your strip, don't you?" I draw her the way I feel. When I draw her looking thin and attractive, my husband knows he might get lucky.
Hi! As I plan my own wedding I was so excited to see the wedding storyline in your strip! With some of the "episodes" you hit the nail on the head on the parent/child dilemmas! Did you pull this from your personal life? and if so, any advice on how to get through all the stress a wedding creates?
Lynn Johnston: The wedding background information is provided to me by a wedding dress designer--it's not anything I've experienced in real life. Ramon Keveza, the dress designer, actually started in Washington. She tells me all the horror stories about all the things that can happen, which is why this wedding storyline is as colorful as it is. That's also why Michael's mother-in-law is such a villain. I don't have real villains in the strip and this woman doesn't realize that her "helpfulness" is driving everyone mad. I really have no advice, but Ramona does say to pick up your dress at least 10 days before the wedding, because she says those 10 days are when all the blowups happen. That's when all the tears fall. She advises preparing yourself for meltdown in those final days.
I just love reading your comic strip everyday. It's the first thing I look at when I get to work. My question is: What time of the year are Michael and Deanna getting formally married? I hope it is in the fall.
Lynn Johnston: They'll get married on September 15th.
Deanna will be wearing a dress designed specifically for the character by Ramona Keveza, who I mentioned earlier. Ramona is a well-known designer in both Canada and the U.S. Her wedding line has recently been featured in Saks Fifth Avenue's windows in New York and is regularly seen in Martha Stewart's publications. This dress actually exists, and it can be ordered, starting in February.
When we decided that this would be a fun project, I sent Ramona a number of drawings of Deanna with her arms up and turning around, 3-D, so that she could design the dress in 3-D. Ramona found it very frustrating because the character didn't like the dresses she was designing. She phoned me and said "I don't believe this, this is a cartoon character! But Deanna doesn't look happy in my first designs!" And she was overwhelmed that the character was expressive and had a distinct personality and that she had a sense that she understood what kind of a girl she was. I think it was the third or fourth design that the character finally "accepted." And she sent me pictures of the "muslin" stage of the dress and finally the finished dress. It's very different!
Thanks for taking my question.
Are the Pattersons married? Clues from the strip indicate both. The fact that they have the same last name would indicate that they are married.
Lynn Johnston: Yes, they are married and a very in-depth story of their lives can be found in my book, "The Lives Behind the Lines," which was published by Andrews and McMeel two years ago.
Lynn, the Pattersons seem pretty cool with Elizabeth moving in with Eric. Are they supporting her financially?
Lynn Johnston: Yes they are supporting her financially as long as she stays in school.
It's so great that you're giving a chat here today. Your strip, along with Boondocks and Liberty Meadows are the three that I try to read everyday. The storyline about the wedding planning really hit home, since I got married in October myself. Luckily, though my Mom was extremely helpful and energetic in making all the reservations and appointments, she left all the decisions up to my husband and myself. And what Grandfather said that ended the discussion -- that was perfect.
Is it just me, though, or is Liz getting in a little too deep with her boyfriend? He's talking with his friends about them living in the same room eventually, and doesn't even inform her of the tight living situation before she moved in! His approach in the laundromat seemed a little suspect to me as well. Has Liz made a poor decision? Say it ain't so!
In any case, I hope to keep reading this strip for years to come!
Lynn Johnston: Elizabeth will learn from her mistakes. That's all I'm going to say.
First, I love the family that you have created. Even before I had children your strips made my refrigerator time and again. Even now the story of Farley saving April's life in that cold river brings tears to my eyes. Thank you for telling such wonderful stories of family love instead of illustrated tales of cynicism.
Where did you get the idea to have Michael and Deanna elope but still get married?
Lynn Johnston: Being on your refrigerator is the highest praise any cartoonist can get.
So I thank you for that.
Knowing Deanna the way I do, she did not want to live with Michael before she was married. Neither of them wanted the elaborate wedding her mother insisted on. So in order to fulfill their own wishes, which was to have a private ceremony, with only their closest friends, they decided to get married twice. It was Deanna's suggestion. The idea came to me because that's what I would do if I was Deanna.
And since the story has run, I've received a number of e-mails of people who had done the exact same thing. They got married before they moved in together, and then went through the elaborate wedding for the sake of the family.
It's not new that Canadians have come to entertain us Americans, but it's rare to have a piece of work that so obviously Canadian playing so large in the U.S. When you were being syndicated in the U.S., how much pressure was there to Americanize your strip, and how did you resist it?
Lynn Johnston: There was some pressure to Americanize it, and the way I resisted it was to say, "Then I won't sign the contract." Because something like this--it was a 20-year contract--it's like telling someone to write 20 years worth of material about Australia even though they've never lived there. It's not to say that the U.S. is as remote to us as Australia, but there are different terms for things, different expressions, different holidays, different colored money. There's just an ambience that's there, I find it's interesting that you would point the strip out as being Canadian because I think it's more universal than "Canadian."
Well, apparently it IS seen as universal since it's syndicated in 2,300 papers worldwide and it's in eight different languages, including Spanish, Danish, German, Japanese and French.
Ms. Johnston, I always look for you and Patrick McDonnell ("Mutts") first!
I was wondering if you know the current artists of "Gasoline Alley" or ever got to meet its creator. As far as you know, are you two the only ones to have people aging in your strips? I like the concept very much and wouldn't mind seeing it in more strips (though I never read the soap strips).
Lynn Johnston: Yes, I do know the present cartoonist for Gasoline Alley. His name is Jim Scancarelli. He, I believe, is the third or fourth artist to work on Gasoline Alley. He told me it was very difficult to work on the strip while he was working with his predecessor, because comic strips of any kind are very personal, especially those about families--and it wasn't until his predecessor passed away that he had the opportunity to delve into the characters the way he wanted to.
There are several strips that do develop, most of them are very slow to change, one of them is "Luanne" by Greg Evans, and the title character has gone from being a young girl of about 13 to being about 16. There are others as well. There's one that comes to mind, "Jump Start" by Robb Armstrong. It's about a black policeman and his wife and children, and before he had the children, nothing changed. When they had their little girl, I told him, "She's going to grow up, you know." And he said, " No, she's going to stay a baby in the strip," but she did grow up. And then they had a second child and that child grew up too. And sometimes it just happens, you want to keep everything the same, but if you're basing your work on your family, the characters tend to grow up even if you don't want them to.
This isn't a question; merely a comment. My parents recently bought their first computer and started using e-mail. To help encourage them in this, I sent short thank-yous for specific things they did while I was growing up, as Mother's Day and Father's Day messages.
When my father received his, he referred me to your Father's Day strip in response ("Just when you think you have everything, they give you what you really need"). I just wanted to thank you for summing things up in a way that he wouldn't have been able to express otherwise. You always manage to strike that chord. Thanks.
Lynn Johnston: Well, that's beautiful, thank you. That's sort of a Father's Day card to my father, who passed away about nine years ago.
Where did you get the idea to make Elizabeth and Candace, formerly high school rivals/enemies, eventual best friends?
Lynn Johnston: They were never real enemies. Candace was a tough kid with a tough life, who expressed herself by not eating, by smoking, by hanging out with other kids who just didn't fit in. So Elizabeth and Candace drifted apart, not so much because they were enemies, they just didn't hang with the same crowd.
When Elizabeth signed up for a room at college, it was a computer generated arrangement, which is what happened to my daughter when she went to college. So Elizabeth's roommate was a surprise, and the relationship continued with the two of them being very different, with Candace appearing to be much more eccentric and more of a risk taker. But here we have Elizabeth who is surprising me by moving in with her boyfriend, while Candace stays with her aunt so she can help her in her corner store.
Bear with us a minute, we're looking for some hate mail to even things out here.
Why, since it is a daily comic that is suppose to entertain and just lighten our day, do you have to broach such subjects homosexuals, and living together without the benefit of wedlock?
Lynn Johnston: I wish you knew how many letters I have that say the very same thing in the very same words. It's as if the same person with the same mind is writing with the same pen.
I write about what I know and what is real about the people in my neighborhood, the people I care about, good people, people who make decisions for themselves, people who live differently. My work is more about honesty than it is about masking life with stories that are more ideal than realistic.
Washington, D.C. 20009:
I've always admired your strip for the mature way it dealt with coming out and the fact that Lawrence, while certainly a peripheral character, was never tokenized. You stood by this portrayal in the face of a lot of bigotry and several cancellations of the strip, which was pretty great.
Do you still get letters of vitriol from readers angered at a realistic portrayal of a gay character? Did any papers that cancelled ever pick the strip back up? And lastly, what's been the response to the recent storyline of Liz moving in with her boyfriend? Any resentment from the same self-appointed moralists?
Thanks for being realistic.
Lynn Johnston: Yes, I still get people from who object to Lawrence, but I can only guess that they don't have very much in their lives to do.
The funny thing about the papers that dropped me is that although we lost about 19 papers forever, we picked up 53 more. And some of the papers that dropped me were bombarded with requests to reinstate the strip but could not get the strip back because a rival paper in their same market had picked it up, thereby gaining the exclusivity.
I believe you lived in a remote part of Canada at one time. Now I think you live in Ontario. What town do you live in now?
Lynn Johnston: I live outside of North Bay, Ontario, which is 3 CDs and a good conversation north of Toronto.
We love the strip!
My wife also has torticollis. Do you anticipate your difficulties with it influencing any future events in the strip?
Lynn Johnston: For the readers who don't know this about me, I have a neurological disorder that affects my head and neck muscles, which causes my head to turn to the left in a very tight spasm. I'm one of the 1 in 100 people who has this happen only when they lie down! It's more common to see people with their head in motion when they are upright and it's exhausting, because the pulling is relentless and painful.
So it has made me appreciate what people go through when they have a chronic illness. I have to give in to it and take medication and get as much rest as I can.
And, no, it will not appear in the strip, because it's too personal, but I have made public awareness appearances about the disease. I don't wish to be a spokesperson for the disease, but I participate whenever I can in Canadian dystonia awareness events.
White Salmon, Wash.:
To the last commenter, if you disagree
with Ms. Johnston's approach, you are under
no obligation to read her comic.
Lynn Johnston: I love that. Yeah!
Which strips do you enjoy reading? What were your must-read comics when you were growing up? And what do you think of "Zits?"
BTW, I started reading FBOFW when I lived in the D.C. suburbs as a teen. I've always enjoyed it, and thank you for the pleasure your work has given me over the years.
Lynn Johnston: I'm glad you enjoy the strip.
Toledo, Ohio again:
Also, will Michael's old teacher, Mrs. Hardacre, ever reappear?
Lynn Johnston: I don't know if Mrs. Hardacre will come back. I never know. The comics that I read as a child were comics books more than comic strips, and I loved anything that had a strong female character, like Little Lulu and Dottie and I also really enjoyed Peanuts because of all the strong female characters. The guys were all wimps and Charles Schulz himself enjoyed spending time with assertive women.
Can we have a memorial service for Farley down by the riverside sometime?
Lynn Johnston: I've already done that, I think. Certainly there's a new book coming out called "All About April" which will revisit the Farley story from her point of view. It's new material in addition to some of the strips that have already been published. It should be out by September.
I think your subject is universal, but the flavour to me is definitely Canadian -- it's just a politer, more considerate view of the world. I'm so glad they couldn't talk you into changing. We HAVE American stuff here, in surplus, what we need is other ways of looking at the world, too. (Going sock-foot in the house is a dead giveaway for Canadian -- might as well fly a maple leaf flag!)
Lynn Johnston: Really, right now I'm wearing shoes. That's funny.
White Salmon, Wash.:
I love your strip, Ms. Johnston and I also
like the idea of the characters aging.
But is it just me or did April's growing up
seem a lot faster than Micheal and Elizabeth?
Also, when you do age the characters, do you do it in real time or do you have a special
Lynn Johnston: This is a really good question. When I started the comic strip, my children were the same age as the characters in the strip. In order to protect my children, really emotionally, I delayed the aging of the characters in the strip by three years, so that my own children would be separated from them. So after three years, the characters developed pretty consistently year by year, three years younger than my children.
Hudson, Quebec Canada:
In real life, how old are Michael and Elizabeth now?
Lynn Johnston: Elizabeth is now 20 and my daughter is 23. Michael is 25 and my son is 28.
Lynn Johnston: April is growing up in real time. There may be a slight discrepancy because I am trying to tell stories,one statement a day, so a story that happens on one day, may take a week to tell. So if April's age in not precisely 11 years to the date of her birth, it's because of this--having to use several days to tell the story of one day.
Since all of your main characters are based on real life people, except April, is it more difficult to understand her character's motivations and keep her storylines and dialog "real?"
Lynn Johnston: No, because all of the characters are me. There are elements of the characters that come from friends and family, but all of the characters are me. April is my way of having my daughter Kate grow up again. But really her behavior is more like me as a child.
Oklahoma City, Okla.:
Ms. Johnston, I look forward to the further adventures of the Pattersons every day, although my local paper sees fit to censor some episodes... sigh.
One of my last great memories of my dad, who was dying of cancer, was when he met the paperboy to find out how Farley was doing after he rescued April... we both cheered (prematurely, as it turns out) and shared a great moment, thanks to you. Your strip gave him great joy.
Lynn Johnston: How wonderful! I love to hear stories like that. It makes me feel I have an extended family.
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.:
I was on your Web site today and I saw there are newsletters from all the characters. Who is actually behind the newsletters and e-mails sent out?
Lynn Johnston: I write all the character pages, as we call them. That's why they've been "late" recently, because I've been so darn busy. I get a huge amount of e-mail, more than I can personally answer, but I do read it, but I have help answering it.
How can our family send you fan mail?
For years -- ever since our 20-year-old daughter and "Lizzie" were two-and-a-half... and ever since our 10-year-old son and "April" came along in the spring of '91... our household has been walking hand-in-hand with For Better or Worse. I think we may even have some material to send your way!
Lynn Johnston: Thank you for your kind message. Unfortunately, I don't allow myself to read material that is unsolicited--gag ideas for example--it's usually returned unopened or with a letter from one of my staff. I want to write everything myself. I'm very territorial.
I feel that when I need to use other people's material, it'll be time to quit. There's also a complication where copyright comes in.
Please keep a diary of your wonderful stories for your family to read later. And thanks for thinking of me.
Well, folks, we've run out of time, unfortunately. I'm so sorry we weren't able to get to all your questions. There were just so many! I wanted to ask Lynn one question, and since I'm the host, I get to have my way! Lynn, what's going to happen when you decide to retire? Will you allow someone else to take over the strip?
Lynn Johnston: I plan to retire when my present contract is up. That's in about six years. I've thought about having someone else take over the strip, but I know it's not possible. As long as I'm alive, I would not be able to leave them in peace! So I think that when I do retire, it will be a good thing. It will be a story about a family in full cycle, from early childhood to adulthood, and marriage and coming back to childhood again. So it will have run its course, I think.
For those of you who didn't get your questions answered, you can go to Lynn's Web site, which is www.fborfw.com, and send them to Lynn that way. Thanks to you, Lynn, and to all the readers who joined us live online.
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