Growing up in suburban Chicago in the 1980s and 1990s, I read the comics pages in the Chicago Tribune every day in a very precise order, starting with the boring ones (“The Lockhorns,” “Peanuts” — sorry, Franzen — and “Cathy”) and working my way toward my favorites (“Fox Trot,” “Brenda Starr”). The very last comic I read every day was Lynn Johnston‘s “For Better or For Worse.”
“Fox Trot” was funny, but fundamentally gag-based, and the family never aged or grew; Jason scares Paige with his iguana over and over and over, and she never gets a clue. “Brenda Starr,” told stories about its “girl reporter” heroine, but Brenda, too, never aged, and the strip was dramatic, not funny.
But “For Better or For Worse” included both jokes and long, sometimes serious story-lines about its central figures, the Patterson family. When the strip began in 1979, daughter Elizabeth was a toddler. By the time the strip ended in 2008, she was a teacher and step-mother. Son Michael grew from a preschooler to a journalist and father. Over the course of those 30 years, parents John and Elly Patterson had another daughter, April. They saw the death of the beloved family dog, and tackled serious issues including divorce, sexual harassment, and a major character’s coming out. And yet even in the midst of these Very Special Story Lines, the strip remained genuinely funny, low-key, and warm.
“For Better or For Worse” wasn’t just good, it was wildly popular. Johnston became the first woman to win the National Cartoonists Society’s Reuben Award in 1985. The strip was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1994, and won Editor and Publisher’s award for Comic of the Year in 2001, among many other honors. In 2008, Johnston was inducted into the Canadian Cartoonist Hall of Fame. By the time “For Better or For Worse” concluded its run of original story lines, it was carried in more than 2,000 newspapers, making it one of the top comics in North America.
Johnston ended the strip in 2008. By then, the characters had become so real that it was only the second time for me that a strip’s conclusion felt like a death. (The 1995 end of “Calvin and Hobbes” was the first.) But it was a bittersweet occasion for another reason: In 2007, Johnston’s husband of 30 years, Rod Johnston, had left her for another woman. That development, which Johnston spoke frankly about at the time, cast a new light on the strip, which was about the same age as the marriage. If the Johnstons couldn’t make it “for better or for worse,” could Elly and John? Could anyone?
For a while, Johnston stayed busy reworking early strips for a tweaked second run of the Patterson family’s story. That plan didn’t last, however; now the strip is rerunning in many newspapers in its original form. Johnston, who lives in Northern Ontario, is now working a planned series of 15 collections of old “For Better of For Worse” comics. (The first one appeared in 2010.) When we were setting up our interview last week, she had to work around an appointment regarding her garden. She spoke with me from her home about her long career, her lead character’s shift from housewife to bookstore owner (and her uniform hairstyle throughout), and why many young people wouldn’t have the stamina for a 30-year career in comics.
On her early love for cartoons: “I loved, rather than to sit in woods and draw trees and rivers, to draw posters and illustrations. I was always interested in commercials, advertising, and billboards, and cartoons on television were spellbinding. Once we got a TV when I was 12, that was it.”
On working as a young animator in Vancouver: “I flew to Los Angeles with [a friend] and the two of us applied for a job at Jay Ward Studios, which did Rocky and Bullwinkle, Super-Chicken, and George of the Jungle. We were in love with all of those things and we were so excited to be accepted into the background department. The unfortunate thing was that our husbands could not get jobs in LA. If you’re a broadcaster there’s a million to one chance. The city is fuzzy with them. My husband was a TV cameraman. In those days, you followed your man. Neither of us had particularly happy marriages, but we didn’t want to leave them.”
On her first success as a cartoonist in Ontario: “I had been married for 7 years, and became pregnant. While I was pregnant, the head of obstetrics [at a hospital she was doing technical drawing for] agreed to take me as a patient. Every time I went in to to see him, I would complain about how there was nothing on the ceiling above the examining table. He said, ‘You’re the cartoonist.’ So every time I went in for a checkup I would bring some cartoons, and he’d choose the best ones. … He would copy them, put them on the ceiling, give them to other obstetricians.
“Then my [first] husband left me. I was on my own, freelancing for ad agencies, for the medical center, the obstetrician. I was so broke that if I spent more than $20 a week on groceries I couldn’t pay for anything else. I was on a shoestring budget.
“The doctor helped me put together 101 cartoons about pregnancy. It was called ‘David, We’re Pregnant.’ My husband’s name was Doug and he had left me! It was the first of it’s kind; we were living in 1950s era of quiet embarrassment about all things pregnancy. No one wanted to talk about labor and delivery and the pains and the shaving and the stitches. It was all too private, and too taboo a subject. So this little book came out when there was a lot more liberal thinking. The book became popular and I made a little more money. I did two more books on pregnancy, childbirth and raising young children.”
On the difference between her new “For Better or For Worse” and previous family comics: “What Lee Salem [of Universal Press Syndicate] was looking for was somebody to rival ‘Blondie’ and ‘Hi and Lois.’ Those were [family-themed] comics that were done by men, but from more optimistic, rainbow point of view. Women are right there in the trenches, changing diapers, juggling your day and perhaps not as enamored of the whole situation as the guys. For them it’s all clean and tidy, and they come home to a hot dinner.”
On the evolution of the strip’s humor: “I started out wanting to do a gag a day, but that’s terribly difficult. It doesn’t last long unless you have writers helping you. … So my stories started to develop through a process that was based on asking: ‘And then what happened?’ If you do a strip about a kid bad-mouthing his mother, surely there are repercussions. The next day, readers want to know what happens: Was Michael sent to his bedroom? Did mom feel guilty?”
On aging her characters in real time, an unusual technique for newspaper comics: “I didn’t plan on that. In the beginning, I was planning to keep the kids the same age, but my kids were growing up and they were becoming more interesting, and provided much more material for me. So I was given the opportunity to change the looks of the characters in the strip, which injected more enthusiasm for writing and drawing, for me. … It was hard to do. I measured everyone, compared to the parents’ height, and changed hairstyles.”
On why Elly Patterson, the family’s mother, never changed her long, straight hairstyle. “That enraged people because they said she looked like a frump! But Lucille Ball never changed her hairstyle. You need that identifying element to a character; it’s like a signature. You can change hair in a sitcom because faces in live action are so unique. But in a comic strip my drawing of Elly might be close to another character.”
On Elly’s career path from housewife to library volunteer to bookstore owner: “I had Elly taking English in university when she met John. She quits to support him; the whole routine is very familiar. The joke is you go for an “Mrs.” degree. Unfortunately, the woman often quits her career to be a responsible parent, and then you’re left saying, ‘What about me?’ With her background in literature, for her to volunteer at a library seemed to be a likely thing. … I also wanted to show that through volunteerism you gain tremendous educational experiences. People tend to not want to work for free. But my dad always said you pay for an education, so by working for free you’re investing in yourself.”
On deadline nostalgia: “I used to work 8 to 5, plus evening and weekends. [With a daily comic strip], the deadlines are there no matter what and you can’t fudge your way though it. I hated those deadlines but I now realize I would never had done what I did without the pressure. Being self disciplined is not good enough. You just do not produce as much when you don’t have to.”
Her advice for young cartoonists: “Before the Internet, I would have had a totally different set of rules. But now people are putting their work up on the Internet and getting a response, so that might be the way to go. Can you discipline yourself to turn out work on a regular basis?
“Many people can’t do a syndicated strip for more than three years. People not my age are programmed to want change, to want excitement. They’re not embarrassed to leave a job to move to a new city. They’re not likely to stick with the same thing for 30 years. With that kind of itchy-feet need for change, it’s difficult work. It’s not like you do a doodle in the morning and then you’re free. They realize the pressure is on. You’re working evenings, weekends, in hotel rooms, on airplanes. And you can’t turn out work that’s not your best, because you have to fight for that real estate in the paper. A lot of people can’t do it more than three years.
“But if you can do it every day for a year online, disciplining yourself, getting honest feedback from readers — well, some miserable dough-heads don’t deserve a voice, but you’ll also get good feedback from honest readers. If someone says, ‘I don’t get it,’ that’s your best reader.”
On writing what you know: “You can’t write about what you don’t know. If you look at standup, comedians always talk about what they know. New parents talk about diapers, overweight comedians talk about those issues. Do what you know. And don’t settle for work that isn’t your best.”