The Interview: 'For Better or for Worse's' Lynn Johnston
Nearly three decades after launching "For Better or For Worse" from the small Canadian community of Lynn Lake, LYNN JOHNSTON has decided it's time to tell her story all over again -- only with new art, unexplored cul-de-sacs in the storylines and hopes to have a lighter, funnier touch. As readers and editors await Sunday's panel -- the end-point in her strip's forward narrative -- they also wonder how the strip's new phase will look and read. We caught up with Johnston at her studio in Toronto, as she discussed her decision, her doubts and her renewed sense of play:
MICHAEL CAVNA: You've used flashbacks and the strip has also been in "hybrid" format. How do you describe, exactly, what "FBoFW" will be come Sept. 1?
LYNN JOHNSTON: It's going back to the beginning when Michael and Elizabeth were very young. I'm going to do it how it should have been done. Early on, I didn't have developed characters or a consistent storyline. I chose my family because these were the only characters that I could draw with any [familiarity] -- I had no idea how to begin something like this. Now I have a better idea of who's-who and what their marriages were like, and I'm beginning with all this knowslge, so it's a much more comprehensive beginning. I only have an insular world of characters [from 1979] to work with. I would not have been able to break away to auxiliary characters if I had stayed in that world.
MC: At what point did you think about ending the forward narrative of the strip?
LJ: Seven years ago, I realized that I wouldn't be able to sustain this past 60 -- my own age. I would not have the cross-section [of people in my own life] to connect all these different people.
MC: So what changed for you as you considered the strip's end?
LJ: I was married to someone who was uncomfortable being Mr. Lynn Johnston. I thought he would be happier if i quit. I'll say this now: The closer I got to the deadline of quitting the strip, the less happy he was. If someone does not divulge their feelings, all I could do was guess. I thought I would now be a retired woman with my Tilly hat and sitting on a cruise ship and going to the Galapagos. I really wanted to be happy as a couple and make everything right and things became more stressful. [The news of his affair] was a shock -- if it has to happen, it has to happen -- but it made me look again at my career.
MC: And what did you think when you took another look -- what did you think about continuing to be a cartoonist?
LJ: It's in your blood -- it's part of your life. I don't want to quit being a cartoonist. You're the best person to know this: 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. In this busines, you're a perfectionst -- you've got to be. 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.
MC: Did you think about what the response would be?
LJ: There were a number of editors who were concerned about whether people would pay for the same material twice. The earlier stuff is not good enough to run again. All of September will be brand-new material. 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. ... I'll keep working right on through until either I can't work anymore or the art isn't carrying itself. I'm a good worker and well ahead of my deadlines. I've never been one of those problem people -- I've already written well into November. I didn't have to research floorplans anymore. ...
It's going to be a lot more fun. And Farley is coming back!
MC: So who coined the term "new-run" to describe the strip's new phase? And can you speak to how you discussed your decision with [Universal Press Syndicate president] Lee Salem?LJ: I did. The syndicate has seemed wonderfully relaxed about giving me the freedom to let me do it how I want to do it. They were okay with how I wanted to do it -- they were very cooperative and supportive. I think it was one of the rare situations where they understand an artist. They were as supportive as anyone could ever be.
MC: For you, what's the litmus test: When should a cartoonist retire a strip?
LJ: When you can't do any more to do it. 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.
MC: Is there anything about the "new-runs" that will likely surprise readers?
LJ: My hope is that they won't be surprised. I'm using my original drawings. I'm even being sloppy like I used to. My problem at the beigining was that I had two little kids. ... I had a very busy life. But the new-runs will clarify things. I always knew [the character] Annie had an unhappy marriage, being married to a traveling salesman. He had more conventions than there were conventions -- the hotel bills weren't always related to the conventions. I've already written a bit of Annie and a bit of foreboding. I've had a couple of husbands. I can throw in some personal stuff there and I don't need to be bitter or sarcastic or maudlin. I can cover that territory, so that story will be entirely new.
MC: Once you decided you would "new-runs," what were the immediate challenges?
LJ: I knew I wanted to add new material. I didn't know how to do it. Nobody has done it before -- most people die or the strip ends. When someone takes over a strip, whoever takes it over wants freedom. ... I hope people will ENJOY coming back to the beginning. ... It's going to be the best work I can possibly do.
MC: You say many people thought [your ex-husband] Rod was the inspiration and model for [your cartoon husband] John Patterson. Since your marriage ended, have you mined that for any material?
LJ: The only thing I've put in the strip with a sarcastic streak toward my ex-husband is John's potbelly, because my ex is very proud of his physique. Perhaps I made up my own husband and saw John Patterson in my husband.
MC: You've said elsewhere that in a way, by doing this, you feel 30 years old again -- that this next phase let's you recapture or relive something. Can you speak to that?
LJ: Yeah, I remember very clearly what it was like to be a young mother, so to bring the story back to when I was young, I can be much more creative. I have no idea how a computer fits into kids' lives now in 2008. Nothing is the same. I can't even begin to be accurate. It's much easier to imagine myself as a young mother.
MC: You've endured some newspapers dropping the strip when, say, you had Lawrence come out in the '90s. At this point, do you have concerns about newspapers dropping the strip now, or is that not really a particular concern?
LJ: You know people are always going to drop your strip -- that's what editors do. ["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. And I Know that a young comic-strip artist [who takes my place] perhaps isn't going to hang in there for 30 years."
MC: Do you get as much joy as ever in creating each day's strip?
LJ: It's more fun now since I started doing the earlier style. I've had a LOT more fun. It was always a challenge and always rewarding, but it was not as much fun.
MC: Some cartoonists say that comics-page space is so limited that if a current tenant of the page isn't providing all-new content, she or he should step aside -- something you've surely heard. What're your thoughts on that stance?
LJ: Sure, there are people who have wanted me to step aside for a newer artist. People have said to me: 'At least when you quit, I'll have more papers.' They weren't too thrilled [with my decision]. Even friends who are cartoonists said this to me.
MC: "Family Tree" cartoonist Signe Wilkinson recently told us how she feels constrained over what syndicated cartoonists can even address. Have you felt so limited over the years?
LJ: I'm pretty much easygoing when it comes to content. The gay-character story and the death of the dog and such serious things as strokes -- some people don't even like me doing that. That's as far as I want to go. ... I dont' need sex and violence to retain my audience's interest. I get so tired of that in standup comedy. If I hear one more F-word or poop joke -- give me a break.
MC: Do you have a primary goal as you produce each strip at this point?
LJ: This is something that is serendipitous. It's a lot more fun to go back in time. I just want to be happy with my job. And give readers more laughs.
NOTE: As of next Monday, The Washington Post plans to drop "For Better or for Worse" from its print edition but continue to carry it online. In today's Style section, Michael Cavna writes about Johnston's new plans for the strip and Hank Stuever writes about 'Foob' and its anti-fans.
| August 27, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories: Interviews With Cartoonists
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