Lynn Johnston, Part One
For once I have a lot of stuff to post this week, beginning with a two-part story I did this past Sunday on Lynn Johnston's upcoming semi-retirement on her strip, "For Better Or For Worse." The main story's up on PennLive.com, but I thought I'd repost it here for archival purposes. Tomorrow I'll run the extended interview I did with Ms. Johnston, talking about the strip and her reaction to the debate over Anthony/Elizabeth budding romance.
My eternal thanks to Joe McCulloch and Tom Spurgeon for their help with this story.
After nearly 30 years, John and Elly Patterson are looking at retirement.
They’ve seen their kids — Michael, Elizabeth and April — grow up, join the work force, get married and have kids of their own. They’ve dealt with the death of their beloved dog, Farley, helped Elly’s dad recover from a debilitating stroke and, in general, handled the ups and downs of life with humor and tears.
Now their lives will come to a halt. Sort of.
The Pattersons, you see, aren’t real people but the cast of one of the most beloved — and at times controversial — daily comic strips, “For Better or For Worse.”
Cartoonist Lynn Johnston has been chronicling the ups and downs of Elly and her family and friends for almost three decades.
The strip isn’t going away. But Johnston is planning on scaling her work back. In September she will start running older material, which will occasionally be interspersed with new strips.
“I’m looking at this as a real challenge so that I can have some time,” Johnston said from her studio in Corbeil, Ontario. “I really want some time. I’m 60 and I want to travel and there’s other things I want to do.”
As a result, the characters, who have aged in real time over the past three decades — a rarity in the comic strip world — will put the brakes on the advancing years. Everyone will stay the same age they are now.
“I don’t want anyone to pass away, and that includes the pets,” she joked, referring to the storyline in which the family’s pet, Farley, died.
Another reason for the change is Johnston is suffering from some health issues including dystonia, a neurological condition she treats with medication.
She also said she has fears about being seen as clueless among younger readers.
“I’m really not closely in touch with people in school,” she said. “Everything’s changed. The vocabulary’s changed. The method of communication has changed. Schools have changed. ... I didn’t want to subject myself to ignorance.”
“For Better or For Worse,” which runs in more than 2,000 markets, began in 1979 in 150 newspapers. The Patriot-News started carrying it in 1980. It has been translated into eight languages and reprinted in 31 collections and books.
While the strip has delighted legions of readers with its portrayal of everyday family life, it has garnered its share of controversy, as Johnston has attempted to deal with more serious themes alongside the gags.
In 1993, Michael’s close friend Lawrence came out of the closet, and ignited a firestorm. Forty newspapers refused to carry the strip and 19 canceled it, Johnston said. When The Patriot-News decided to run the strips, many readers wrote letters praising and condemning the strip.
“I felt that I was being true to life and true to my work if I gave Lawrence the courage to tell Michael he was gay,” Johnston said. “I wanted to challenge myself, to see if I could broach a sensitive subject and write it into the strip with care and compassion. I included a bit of laughter, too.”
That blend of humor and drama might be one of the most unique things about “For Better or For Worse,” said comics critic Joe McCulloch of Carlisle.
“It harkens back to earlier strips like ‘Popeye’¤” he said. “That kind of strip really doesn’t exist anymore.”
McCulloch, who writes for the Comics Journal magazine, as well as the Web site Savage Critics and his own blog, joglikescomics.blogspot.com, said it’s Johnston’s close attention to the vagaries of family life that hits home with readers.
“The relationships strike folks as authentic,” he said. “That’s why it’s so resonant with families. It deals with universal family themes.”
Perhaps the only strip that bears any similarities to Johnston’s is “Funky Winkerbean.” Its creator, Tom Batiuk, recently began a storyline with one of the major characters dying of cancer.
To only think of the comic strip as a humorous and inoffensive medium is “a very narrow definition of what comics can be,” Batiuk said. “You can’t expect to go through life without being offended. [Cartoonists] want to do more substantial work and are challenging readers to go along with that.”
Though Johnston originally planned to bring all the current storylines to a decisive close in September, the change will instead be more gradual. She wants to explore the budding romance between oldest daughter Elizabeth and an old high school flame.
“I’m interested and readers are interested to know what is going to happen with Anthony and Elizabeth,” she said. “That resolution can’t happen too fast. They’ve only just started to see each other again after a long time apart.”
So don’t go sending those retirement cards just yet.
Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007