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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 08/27/2008

The Interview: 'For Better or for Worse's' Lynn Johnston

By Michael Cavna


"I just want to be happy with my job," says cartoonist Lynn Johnston.Enlarge Image

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.



Lynn Johnston embarks on a new phase for the Patterson clan.Enlarge Comic

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.

By Michael Cavna  | August 27, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists  
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Comments

Glad to hear the Post will be dropping FBOFW next week. It's been cloying and annoying for too long, and the last thing we need is a recycled strip.

Can't wait to see what the replacement is.

Posted by: Stickler | August 27, 2008 11:19 AM | Report abuse

Why run the big article about it in the Style section and letting everyone know about the comic's new direction. And then drop it? WHA?

Posted by: Why? | August 27, 2008 11:32 AM | Report abuse

I am stunned to hear that the Post will drop FBOFW - the Best. Strip. Ever. I read some on line but its not the same as enjoying them over breakfast - the comics page is one of the reasons I keep my print subscription. I can't believe this!

Posted by: Dorothy | August 27, 2008 11:33 AM | Report abuse

I don't know, I never really got into FBOFW; so for me this really would have been like having a new strip. However, the Post is doing the right thing by freeing up some space for someone else - I'll just have to follow the "new" story online.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | August 27, 2008 11:33 AM | Report abuse

You kept Peanuts, and that's not even updated material! Why drop FBOFW? It's the best strip out there and the one I always save for last. At least give it a chance!!!

Posted by: Jan C | August 27, 2008 11:41 AM | Report abuse

No mention of Judge Parker, or did that get edited out....?

Posted by: JkR | August 27, 2008 11:54 AM | Report abuse

I'll probably update my online-comics-script to include FBofW this weekend. I've been meaning to add BC and Id just to see how they're doing anyway and to drop some dead wood (hear that, "Dinette Set"?). I didn't read the strip's early days and I like the strip enough to want to catch up.

Bad poll, btw. My answer is, it depends.

Posted by: f2 | August 27, 2008 12:20 PM | Report abuse

Going back to this morning's Goose.... It reminded me of the Smothers Brothers version of that song:

Dick: "I see by your outfit/That you are a cowboy"
Tom: "I see by your outfit/That you're a cowboy too"
Both: "We see by our outfits/That we are both cowboys"
Both: "If you had an outfit/You could be a cowboy too"

Posted by: f2 | August 27, 2008 12:22 PM | Report abuse

I think your poll question misses the point. The "new-runs" of FBoFW are TOTALLY new. I'm interested in seeing them because they are a new format, new approach to the same material. If someone wanted to use the same dialog but completely redraw the panels, that is NEW material, even if it's the same story-lines. It's completely different than continuing to run Peanuts years and years after the last new strip was created. Can't lump the two in the same category.

Posted by: Omaha | August 27, 2008 12:26 PM | Report abuse

fr Stickler:

>Glad to hear the Post will be dropping FBOFW next week. It's been cloying and annoying for too long, and the last thing we need is a recycled strip....<

So don't READ it! There! That was simple, now, wasn't it?

Posted by: Alex | August 27, 2008 12:33 PM | Report abuse

There's poop jokes and there's jokes about poop. It depends on the context. FBoFW could use the experience my family had in the 60's. We were making our way thru SEARS and found brother #3 sitting on a toilet in a display...

Posted by: MSchafer | August 27, 2008 12:35 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the good news about the Post dropping the strip. I think if Lynn wants me to keep reading something of hers, she can come up with something new, or continue the strip (won't Anthony and Elizabeth have a child of their own?). I think they should drop Peanuts, too.

Posted by: Hemisphire | August 27, 2008 12:35 PM | Report abuse

Mikie -- kinda disappointed you replayed the article from the style section in its interview form -- would have preferred a link to the article and more of your insight.

Posted by: NC2 | August 27, 2008 12:57 PM | Report abuse

If it's not new content I think it should be dropped for something current.

Posted by: EricS | August 27, 2008 1:07 PM | Report abuse

There's nothing wrong with retelling a familiar story, with each retelling adding some new details and glossing over others, offering new insights, etc. It's just that I'm not sure that this particular story (over life in the 1970s) is one that people would find interesting now. Sometimes, once is enough.

Posted by: Seismic-2 | August 27, 2008 1:17 PM | Report abuse

This is the only cartoon I read each day. I don't mind the old, but really enjoy the changes that have occurred in the series. Especially love Grampa and all that he has gone through with humor intact. I'm sorry to hear that WP will no longer print it, but I will check it out online.

Posted by: Marlene | August 27, 2008 2:15 PM | Report abuse

I've always liked For Better or for Worse. Even when it is annoying (which it definitely can be), I keep reading. I, too, am a little surprised that the Post is dropping the "new-runs" but continuing the re-runs of Peanuts. FBOFW's continuing narrative has allowed me to really invest in the characters in a way no other strip has achieved.

Since I wasn't even born when FBOFW began, I'll happily read from the beginning, even if I have to do so online. Thanks, Lynn.

Posted by: Julia | August 27, 2008 2:31 PM | Report abuse

I love FBoFW, I did become a bit annoyed with the interjection of the beginning stories in the past few weeks, but I looked forward to the continuing episodes of Elizabeth and Anthony. Deana's mother's snobbish ways and Francie clashing with Elizabeth as Step mothers and daughters do. What about April? she's got to get a chance to do her thing. I read four strips on-line and the main one is FBoFW, please continue going forward.

Posted by: Marilyn | August 27, 2008 3:10 PM | Report abuse

I have loved FBoFW for years and was upset when I heard it would be ending. I was thrilled initially by the story this morning that it would go one, but upset that it would no longer be in the print edition. I have not carried on with the strips I like that have switched to online. I wish heartily that it could stay in the print edition.

Posted by: Elizabeth | August 27, 2008 3:19 PM | Report abuse

NC2: Actually, I'd say he took the interview and re-packaged it with some fluff thrown in for the Style Article - Did you notice he wrote the article too?

Posted by: Ollabelle | August 27, 2008 3:43 PM | Report abuse

Off topic, but...f2, the Kingston Trio did it as well ("Laredo?" on the "College Concert" album):

John Stewart: I can see by your outfit/That you are a cowboy
Bob Shane: I can see by your outfit/That you're a cowboy too
Bob and John: We can see by our outfits/That we are both cowboys
Nick Reynolds: Geeeet yourself an outfit/And be a cowboy too!

Posted by: SportzNut21 | August 27, 2008 3:52 PM | Report abuse

I've always been involved with the characters in FBoFW--enough so that it almost seemed like I should send a condolence card when Ellie's mom died. But so far, I don't like the back and forth of the "little kids" and "grown kids" stories. It interrupts the narrative. I can understand the cartoonist's point of view that she's taken this story as far as she can, but I really want to know what's going to happen to Elizabeth and Anthony and to April and to all those new little kids as they grow up. I'm going to miss the strip, but I'm not sure I'll read the new-runs.

Posted by: MJ | August 27, 2008 4:26 PM | Report abuse

Please, please, stop turning the comics page into a mausoleum.

Dagwood.
Dennis the Menace.
Peanuts (as overrated when it was new as the emerald-diamond vision of baseball for bowtie-wearing columnists).
Beetle Bailey (stuck in the Korean War).

For heaven's sake, even if you want wholesome and family friendly, there must be someone born after the Eisenhower administration who's drawing a strip.

Posted by: Dead Strip Walking | August 27, 2008 5:28 PM | Report abuse

This sucks. Now I have to see Farley die all over again.

Posted by: NoVA | August 27, 2008 5:30 PM | Report abuse

This (expletive censored). Now I have to go through Farley dying all over again.

Posted by: NoVA | August 27, 2008 5:34 PM | Report abuse

Younger cartoonists need the chance to tell their stories the right way--the first time. Time for Lynn to go.

Posted by: Wisconsin | August 27, 2008 7:15 PM | Report abuse

FBOFW has a story line and didn't just recycle the same jokes as a lot of the comics (that should die) do. I think replaying the story is great. I came in the last 10 years of the strip, I'd like to be able to start from the beginning. And I bet a lot of those people who started reading 30 years ago would also like to replay from the beginning. What is the Washington Post going to put in its place? It better be good!

Posted by: jEN8 | August 27, 2008 7:22 PM | Report abuse

I get my dose of FBoFW online, as it is not in my daily newspaper. It is in the Sunday edition. I also have to read Mark Trail online. FRoFW and Mark Trail are the best strips. I do wonder about Ellie's Dad. My granddad like Ellie's Dad had a stroke and was unable to speak. This strip truly hits home for me.

Posted by: fanof24jg | August 27, 2008 7:24 PM | Report abuse

I read two strips online - For Better or For Worse, and Gil Thorp. I'm sad that the strip will no longer go forward, but I'm interested in seeing what the past will look like. I remember when this strip launched, when I was 4 or 5. They made a big deal about it in the Chicago Tribune. I've always appreciated how it mixes comedy with the tragic. I also appreciate how the art-work has become more detailed over the years.

Should it still be in the paper? I don't really care, given that I haven't bought a Sunday paper in five years.

Posted by: Sean Tubbs | August 27, 2008 10:09 PM | Report abuse

I only read All in the Family and Zits. I am truly sorry to know I won't be hearing about the marriage of Elizabeth and Anthony, it won't be smooth sailing since he's divorced with two kids. Also, Elizabeth was hurt when he married, I thought they were a couple and he jilted her. Am I wrong? The Washington Post has ticked me off many times. I hate the Sunday TV guide as well as the daily one.
Also, I'm still angry at the picture they published of Lolo Jones on the front page August 20. If the Post ticks me off too often, I will cancel my subscription.

Posted by: Margot | August 28, 2008 1:05 AM | Report abuse

"Bring it on" you write today (Thursday).

How? There's no comment link.

Posted by: f2 | August 28, 2008 9:31 AM | Report abuse

I've been reading For Better or For Worse since its beginning. After Doonesbury, its the first strip I read. I am not happy that the Post is dropping the strip, even it if will be available on-line. I find that I never follow the strips to on-line.

Posted by: Bruce James | August 28, 2008 10:14 AM | Report abuse

Margot, Anthony did not jilt Elizabeth. They had dated in high school and gone their separate ways. When they reconnected, Elizabeth had started to hope there might be a relationship, but then he announced his engagement. She wasn't really hurt at his wedding, more annoyed at a missed opportunity and befuddled that his bride seemed so suspicious of her.

She had two other previous relationships broken up by the guy cheating, however.

And Anthony has one child, not two.

Posted by: FAC33 | August 28, 2008 11:33 AM | Report abuse

I would love to see it in the paper. I will miss it terribly. Most of the comics today are stupid. Zits is great and Pickles and Judge Parker. Years ago we had Terry and the Pirates, adventure stuff. Keep the newruns in the paper please.

Posted by: Dot | August 28, 2008 3:18 PM | Report abuse

I'll drop the paper then.

Posted by: Bev | August 31, 2008 10:53 AM | Report abuse

I'll double my subscription if you drop Peanuts too.

Posted by: buggit | August 31, 2008 2:42 PM | Report abuse

Argh - can't believe the WP will be dropping FBOFW. As a 37 yr old mother of 2 this was by far my favorite strip, and I think the new/rerun content will be as good if not better than the past few years of the strip. What a disappointing decision.

I've signed up to get it delivered to my email. Just another way in which an online provider is replacing the Post's content for me.

Posted by: mkeller | September 1, 2008 8:10 AM | Report abuse

A truly nauseous comic strip that needed to go away years ago. My hats off to the Washington Post for getting this one right.

Posted by: bk | September 3, 2008 6:20 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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