Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Lynn Johnston, Part Two

OK, here's part two of my two-part feature on "For Better or For Worse" cartoonist Lynn Johnston. A small snippet of this interview ran in last Sunday's edition of the Patriot-News, but you, lucky reader, get the whole enchilada.

Q: I don’t want to rehash — you’ve talked quite extensively about why you’re scaling the strip back, but I am interested in learning about how you came upon this rather innovative approach.

A: I didn’t want the strip to run as it was entirely, because I wasn’t happy with a lot of the very first pieces I did. And I thought I would like to be able to integrate new material with it, so that people would be looking back in time.

I just wanted to challenge myself to do it. I was surprised that Universal Press would consider running it again. I thought this was an opportunity to give my readers new material as well as my being able to pick and choose through the original art and making it different, making it a new entity as it were.

Q: Along with that, what was behind the decision to halt everyone’s age?

A: There’s going to be a lot of looking back in time, and so I thought, if you’re looking back in time and you’re running material that has people growing older, and I also have today’s people growing older ... first of all there would be a lot of gaps. I wouldn’t be able to have any storylines, which people are interested in. But I would also have a strip within a strip. I would have the classic material in which everybody is aging, and I’d also be trying to age everybody as they look back in time, which I thought I just couldn’t do.

And I can’t do it for two reasons. One is that I’d never be able to tell a complete story. The other is that I’m just not in touch with a lot of things right now I feel. I feel that I’ve told a lifetime’s story to the best of my ability for the years that I did it and now I’m 60, I can write stuff about middle age and seniors. And yet I’m really not closely in touch with people in school, people in elementary school and newborns.

Everything’s changed. The vocabulary’s changed. The method of communication has changed. Schools have changed. A lot of things haven’t, which is why the parenting story will tell itself again quite nicely. But I didn’t want to subject myself to ignorance and also I think I’ve told a full cycle. A husband and wife who have children, the children grow up and now they have children. Michael has children who are the same age that he and Elizabeth were when the strip began, and I thought that’s a perfect time to bring it full circle. And then to continue in a new format.

Q: Have you been going over the old strips in preparation for the new sequences?

A: Yes and they’ll start running in September. I was going to bring the main storyline to sort of a significant conclusion while I was working my way into the new format, but that sort of tie-up is not going to happen in September. It’s just not time, the characters sort of won’t let me. It would be too soon. So I’m going to continue and put in some classic material and keep me and everyone else waiting for that moment of truth.

Q: So there’s not going to be a set deadline then? It’s going to be more of a gradual process?

A: It’s going to be more gradual, yes. I had planned seriously on making this in September because that was when my contract was going to be renewed. And yet sometimes you just can’t hurry things up. Especially since you only have one statement a day to tell the story; it tells the story far too slowly.

I’m interested and readers are interested to know what is going to happen with Anthony and Elizabeth. That resolution can’t happen too fast. They’ve only just started to see each other again after a long time apart. Both have had other relationships and now he has a child and some baggage and so does she. You just can’t wrap it up too quickly. So that’s why it’s going to extend further into the year.

Q: Getting back to the old strips, what’s it like to engage your old work? To review it again after having set it aside for so long?

A: The very first work was very tentative. I didn’t have the confidence, the lines were very scribbly, I didn’t do clear backgrounds. I think the writing for the time was OK. It was very negative I find. I’m surprised by that. Perhaps I was angrier in those days than I realized.

Q: Negative in what way?

A: There’s a lot more of Elly complaining bitterly about her lot in life. John as well. She’s actually a stay-at-home mom who wishes she hadn’t given up her opportunity for a career and grumbles quite a bit. There are a number of frowning faces, and I was surprised by that. I didn’t realize it was so negative.

Q: Are you worried at all about how the revamped strip is going to appeal to readers? Are you worried about alienating readers or newspapers by running old strips?

A: I hope not. From what I understand people are looking forward to seeing the old material. And there are many, many markets that never took the original material. It started with 150 papers, and now it’s in around 2,000 markets. So there are a lot of papers where the readers never saw those original strips. For them it will be all-new material.

There are many editors who are comfortable with that. There are some editors who have taken that material all along and are waiting to see what I’m going to do with it. So as yet we have not lost papers. We know there is competition for that piece of real estate. I’m certainly aware of that.

That’s why I’m looking at this as a real challenge so that I can have some time. I really want some time. I’m 60 and I want to travel and there’s other things I want to do. It really is a full time job. It has deadlines, and, as you know, deadlines are deadly, that’s why they have the word "dead" in them, cause they kill you.

If I can speed my way through a few weeks through here and there I would like to do that. But I would also like to continue to tell stories based on the stories that I told. If I can enrich those stories, make them more interesting, I look forward to that. By not having the characters grow and change, I can have more fun with spot gags and not have to tell stories in the present day. I can use those maybe attitudes and language and interactions and they won’t change. I won’t lose them to adolescence as I did before. So I’m looking forward to that.

Q: When you started the strip, it was in the midst of a very turbulent time in the '70s, especially in terms of the feminist movement. You’ve got your main character Elly, who through the past 30 years or more has seen a lot of change in the women’s movement. It’s been a vital time for Canadian and American women. I was curious as to your perspective on that.

A: I know that I relate to Elly in this one area, in that I didn’t personally take part in a lot of the early feminist campaigns and work for equality and a lot of other things, but I stood back and gladly benefited from it and became stronger because of it.

There were so many role models now to follow. And up until the '60s and '70s there really were very few. There were Indiri Ghandi and a few leaders that we were all proud of and thought about as being people we could aspire to be like. The women doctors were not that visible. Women cartoonists were mostly working painting cells and behind the scenes in animation studios and greeting card companies and ad agencies.

We didn’t see women rise to the top of the cartooning industry. It was a wonderful time for many of us who didn’t realize how much we were benefiting. And often we would make jokes about the feminists who were adamant about their being unisex washrooms for example. We laughed about that, but by golly they sure could put a few more flushers in the ladies room! We all benefited and now I think there’s still inequality here and there but we’re leaping forward and the changes are marvelous for everyone. Now I want to see equality amongst the races, that would be very nice.

Q: Along those lines, you’re one of the very few cartoonists working in comic strips today. I was wondering if you feel like that gives you a unique vantage point.

A: I don’t know. At the beginning I was unique, and there were several black cartoonists coming into the business, and we had our photograph taken as being the new look to the comic -- different nationalities and different genders. So we had our photograph taken and got a good laugh about it.

But there are a few women in comic art now. If you read the credits that go by in Pixar and some of these other places there are many more women who are taking pivotal roles in the industry. Jan Elliot is one of the best female cartoonists doing a comic strip today.

Q: What strip does she do?

A: “Stone Soup.”

Q: OK, I’ve seen that.

A: It’s very good. And then there’s “Between Friends” and there’s “Six Chicks” and Claire Bretcher from Paris is probably one of the funniest comic artists ever.

Q: Do you think For Better or For Worse has had any influence on comic strips? Particularly in the sense that your characters age and in that you have long story-driven strips about family life?

A: I don’t think so. I think what every comic strip artist does is what they do best. It’s like your handwriting. It’s like your signature. It’s your fantasy world and your dreams are different from anyone else’s dreams. So the thing that has really altered our style has been the size of the strips. Color has advanced, printing has advanced, but the comics have shrunk down to the size where something like Dilbert is probably much more easily read than mine because I have too much in my art. There’s too much going on.

Q: That’s one of the things I like about it though.

A: Well, I like that as well, but it’s very hard for people who don’t have good vision. It’s just not as easy to read the strips anymore. There’s not as much space for visual techniques or artistic license.

Q: But it also seems like most strips today are more gag-driven and less story driven or character driven than before. Do you think if you came today and said you had this new strip called “For Better or For Worse,” do you think you’d be able to launch it?

A: I don’t know. Lee Salem who was my editor for many years who’s now taken up a much more managerial position with Universal Press said to me that he didn’t think they would buy For Better Or For Worse as it is today. That it was for its time and is in itself unique and yet I think that if you begin anything with gags, which I did, eventually people get to know the characters well enough that they want to know more about them. I would like to disagree with him although Lee knows the industry much better than I do.

Once people have a sense of connection to the characters, they do like stories, they do want to know then what happened. It takes three years I find and others agree for readers to recognize certain traits in characters. For people to know for sure that Lucy is a crank and Linus very shy but philosophical and that Charlie Brown will never kick the football. Before you can take liberties with your characters you have to make sure that everybody knows them that well that you can write a little storyline and people will laugh because they know that’s what the character is like.

For example, Kramer in Seinfeld will never be anything other than Kramer. He was just such a wonderful, wonderful character. He was a cartoon. People want to know more, they want to see more, behind the scenes. It’s amazing how readers are captivated by characters. It becomes their fantasy as well. If you have drawn it and written it in a way that can be followed comfortably from day to day and year to year.

Q: How has the comic strip in general changed since you started?

A: They’re edgier. They move faster. People don’t have the patience for Mary Worth anymore or Tarzan. The Tarzan of today moves much more quickly than the one years ago. Many markets don’t take the Sunday page, they just take the dailies, and so it’s hard to continue a storyline through the Sunday comics, and Sunday used to be where you could really get a handle on the storyline because you had a lot more space to tell the story.

I see a lot more hard-edge stuff. I think there are a lot of strips that introduce and disappear very quickly, because of the very reason that people need time to get to know the characters and the artists don’t know the characters well enough themselves or try to introduce their traits too quickly before the characters have enough comedy and visibility for the readers to accept a storyline.

Q: What about your own strip? How do you think it’s changed in the years you’ve been doing it?

A: I’m much more meticulous. I do floor plans for every building. If there’s a window behind somebody with a certain kind of curtain that’s there day after day it’s sort of like somebody who makes sure on the set of a movie the coffee cup is always with the handle to the right. It’s that carefully done.

If I need to draw a machine I find pictures of a machine. If I want to do a story about a health problem I go to the health professionals and get my story straight before I do it, because readers are so particular and you want the readers to be well-informed readers. If I do a story about a stroke, for example, I know there’s a neurologist out there who’s gonna contact me and say “You didn’t get it right.” So I worked with a neurologist.

I enjoy that because it’s a learning curve for me. I get to know about all kinds of businesses.

Q: Have you been following any of the reactions to this summer’s storylines at all, especially the one about Elizabeth and Anthony?

A: Yes. Sure.

Q: It seems like there’s been a real negative reaction to Anthony.

A: Oh yeah. A lot of people didn’t like him. A lot of people did. But you see, Anthony has never really had an opportunity to be recognized and understood by everybody. He was just a shadow figure. And all they’ve seen is little bits and pieces. And so that’s another reason why the strip has to be extended, so that Anthony’s character can be more fully explored. And his marriage discussed and his relationship as a single parent and his business sense and the things he likes to do. He’s just not a complete character and it’s hard to accept that Elizabeth, who is a well-known character should be lost to someone that nobody really knows.

Q: Yeah, that’s the feeling I get when I read some of these critiques. It seems to come from a lot of women who are Elizabeth’s age who are upset because they’ve been following this character and they feel like she’s abandoned this exciting life she’s had to come home and marry her high-school sweetheart. I guess it rings false for them for some reason.

A: Yes. And it didn’t feel right for me either. There has to be a stressful period of time there between them. And that’s why I wasn’t able to bring it to a comfortable conclusion as a story within a story when I wanted to.

Q: That’s interesting that you say that. What didn’t feel right about it for you?

A: Well, if they were to get married it was not right, it was too soon. If they were to separate they had only just started to explore their relationship. The child was a very big question mark and also, what did happen to Anthony’s marriage? What really happened? All of those things I wanted to explore. I haven’t had a chance. I don’t know Anthony.

Q: I’m interested in exploring the decisions you made in "ending" the strip. In bringing Elizabeth back home, were you interested in making some kind of point about the importance of family in the modern world? What were you thinking about as you were winding things down?

A: The truth about a city girl going up into the North to work in a small, isolated community, is that it can only last for about three years. That’s the truth. It’s very, very difficult. Even if you fall in love with someone up there, for you to completely embrace the North and become a Northerner. There are just too many huge differences in the way of life. There are too many things you miss as a city person. And so almost all, I would say without exception, everyone I know that has gone to an isolated community, including myself, has wanted to go home. You have a sense of community and a sense of commitment and you get to know people extremely well because you’re in very close quarters. It’s like going on a camping trip with a whole bunch of different people and finding out who you are. It’s like those films where they put all those people on an island and sees who eats who.

Eventually you say “You know, it was a wonderful adventure and I need to go home, with my adventure having enriched my life.” That’s the truth. That’s what happens. I took her up north because I wanted her to experience that life, because I know that life, from a Southerner’s point of view and I embraced it and I know people intimately well who lived that life and who helped with the story. But I also know that you go home afterwards. And she’s gone home. Now is Anthony the one or is it someone else? But she’s gone home.

Q: Does it bother you when you read these negative reactions? To an extent its a backhanded compliment because these people are such fans of the strip that they feel like they own Elizabeth. But some of the ones I’ve read have been very negative.

A: Well, I guess I just don’t read them all. I don’t care because I’m doing the best I can do and I’m doing a story that has happened to someone somewhere. I haven’t finished it without the satisfaction myself of being comfortable with it. And that’s yet to come. I don’t know how long that will take quite honestly.

Q: There’s a rumor going around that you might be doing a collected For Better or For Worse collection, much like the Calvin and Hobbes and Far Side books. Do you have any plans for that sort of thing?

A: You know, I think that’s really completely up to the publisher, Andrews McMeel. I have a wonderful relationship with them. They’re very supportive and have given me tremendous freedom. That kind of book would be a good project perhaps, but I’m not collectible yet! I’m still working, I’m not dead!

I really honestly don’t know. I do know there will be a couple more collections that are the softcovers that you see [in stores]. There’s still more material in the archives that we haven’t put into books yet.

Ultimately that would be a huge, huge compliment, but it’s not something we’re planning today, no.

Q: You talk about bringing things full circle. I was wondering how Elly has changed and if you see the strip as having some kind of grand arc to it.

A: I’m building the storyline mostly around the grandfather, the oldest character and the youngest characters. I don’t want anyone to pass away and that includes the pets. Everyone is just in a holding pattern right now. Elly has just moved into a new house, which I’ve done. Not recently, but within the last three years. The whole sense of moving from a familiar territory to a brand new place — you know exactly where you put your photographs in the old house but you can’t remember which box they’re in the new one. It’s going to be that kind of thing in which it’s more of an adjustment to living as a senior citizen and being a grandparent.

So I don’t think there’s going to be any revolutionary life changes, there’s not going to be any major illnesses or new jobs or anything, because I think the story is with the younger generation now. And perhaps with the oldest.

Q: How do you account for the strip’s popularity? What do you think people are responding to?

A: I think things they identify with. I know my favorite movies are ones where I identify with the characters. My favorite books as well.

I hated "Bridges of Madison County" because I thought it was sappy. This woman is cheating on her husband with this itinerant photographer. What kind of crap is that? I thought it was awful. The movie was good, but I thought the book stank because I couldn’t identify with the heroine! Other books, even ones that are whodunits, if you can identify with the character you can get right into it and you’re a fan.

Q: Do you have a particular favorite storyline?

A: I think the two most challenging storylines are the one wherein Lawrence came out and the dog passed away by saving the child’s life. Those two stand out.

Let’s say I hope not. People say which is your favorite strip and the best thing is to say I haven’t done it yet (laughs). That’s not original, but hopefully that’s the best thing to say.

Q: You’ve dealt with a number of controversial or big emotional topics in the strip — Lawrence’s coming out, the death of a pet, I think you did one on spousal abuse at one point — is there any topic you wanted to explore but for some reason didn’t?

A: Perhaps because I don’t have enough space or time to tell the stories and one of the stories I really wanted to tell was the story of Annie’s relationship with her husband. Because he was a philandering traveling salesman who told her story after story that she would accept and of course, people around her would know that it was a crock. That was a story that I would have liked to have told.

Q: Are there topics where you felt like you had to watch yourself with? I’ll give you an example. A long time ago, you did a strip where the gag centered around Michael’s jock strap. I was stunned. I remember reading it and thinking “Oh my god, there’s a joke about a jock strap in the newspaper.”

Sometimes I get the feeling you’re chomping at the bit, that you want to say more but you can’t. you’re one of the few cartoonists I know of who gets away with more sexual material. I don’t mean that in a salacious way. Whereas a lot of cartoonists avoid the topic altogether.

A: Gee whiz, we can’t even show a butt crack. I mean now I think you can show cleavage, but not at the other end. In fact, I hid a naked character in the strip for four years and not one editor found it.

Q: Is that the little ....

A: Ned. It was funny. Because I showed Elly sitting on a bed flapping her nightgown and I showed just a hint of the other cleavage and there was hell to pay over that. They wanted to cancel that one daily and replace it and I said just use whatever technique you like to get rid of it. So in some papers she had panties on and in others they made a wrinkle in the sheet and covered her over. Others they just use white-out. I just thought that was so darned funny I created Ned to see if they would find this little mosquito-sized man who sometimes was quite large on the window. But as long as the main characters were not exposed, this little guy never raised an eyebrow.

But right after the Lawrence story, when everybody was shaken by the really much more volatile response than we expected. After the dust cleared and everyone was taking a breath of fresh air, I called my editor Lee and said “I’m going to do a story about abortion.” (laughs)

Q: Does that frustrate you?

A: No, because it’s an entertainment medium really, and there have to be laughs. There has to be easygoing fun, easy family stuff. Stuff about going to the mall and buying stuff for Christmas. There has to be the easygoing, I’ve been there and done that laugh. You can’t keep putting one serious storyline after another. First of all, it’s not life. I’ve had some awful things happen to me and I can laugh. People will say how can you laugh about it, but that’s how I survive. That’s probably why I became a cartoonist because I can laugh about stuff that maybe others don’t laugh about but when they see it in a comic strip they realize it’s trivial and something that will go away.

Q: I was talking with Stephen Pastis of "Pearls Before Swine" awhile back and he was saying how there’s certain words that are OK on television, but he can’t use in the newspaper.

A: I kind of agree with that. I really get frustrated with the comedians who four-letter words are a crutch for them. The audience laughs but it’s a crutch for them too. To be really honestly funny takes talent and skill. If we can’t use certain words, we’ll get around it and get the funny out there in another way, and I think that’s fine. I’m not going to push the editors to do something that forever they have refused to do.

It’s always been a medium in which civility and good grammar was appropriate at all times. I think the editors want to engage young readers and you don’t want young readers not able to read the comics page. That’s where people learn how to read often. That’s where young Canadians and Americans learn English, on the comics pages. Why insult them with four-letter words when it’s not necessary. It’s a wonderful challenge to be funny without the crutch.

Q: Do you think the strip has a legacy?

A: Well my kids are going to have a lot of junk to deal with when I go. Paper, paper, paper.

Everybody likes to think they’ve left something behind that they’re proud of. I’m hoping that people will pick up my books in 20 years and laugh and enjoy them. I hope that happens. I have all these books and I never thought I’d have one, so I’m just lucky and I’ve had wonderful opportunities.

Q: I wanted to address your art style, because most comic strips these days aim for the minimal and simple, and yours is really detailed. Most strips do three panels and you’ve got five. I think that’s a benefit, because it never feels weighted down or overly talky.

A: It’s timing. It’s like anything else that requires that space before you make the final statement.

Q: How conscious are you of your art style and how it’s developed over the years?

A: Very conscious. And I think the style has developed because I’ve developed as an artist. I would get bored if I wasn’t constantly challenging myself with things like putting stuff in the background and making it realistic. I think it draws me into the art. You have a sense of where the person lives, what the lamp looks like, what their dog looks like. It’s an illustration of their room rather than well, it would be nice to put a window here. Some strips there’s never a door in the same place twice. I used to do that too, but as the characters became real, so did their quarters became real. When I draw the back of a dress I like to say “Where do the seams go?”
I like to do life drawing so that you know where the fabric bends. It always frustrated me when I went to do life drawing and the darned characters were nude all the time! How often am I going to draw a nude person? Give me someone with clothes on.

Q: Do you use models at all?

A: I used to. What I use is a Polaroid camera and I take pictures of myself and everyone else in the studio in different poses. I don’t use an electronic camera because it takes too much time. A Polaroid is fast. I’ve got a box of Polaroid photos that are just hilarious.

Q: One of the only other strips that I can think of that may be similar to your own is "Funky Winkerbean." What do you think of the current breast cancer storyline?

A: Unfortunately I don’t get a chance to see it on a regular basis, so I would have to look it up and tell you. But I do know he has tremendous integrity and a huge following and works very hard and is very well respected.

Q: What are some of your favorite cartoonists out there right now?

A: I gotta tell you that "Zits" is one of my favorites because Jim Borgman draws so well. I think "Speed Bump" is great fun. There’s a lot of stuff. I love "Mother Goose and Grimm" because I love Mike Peters and his editorial cartoons are so wonderful. There is so much out there you can’t see because the comic strips are what most people see, but the editorial cartoonists are doing fabulous stuff. There is stuff in Playboy that is just great. I have a friend who works for Playboy and I have a couple of his originals and they are the most beautiful full color art. If people could just see the art that’s out there. Comic strips in the paper are just one of a million choices of comic art.

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At 7:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great interview, Chris! You really got her to open up about some interesting issues. I'm glad you were able to post the whole thing here, too.

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