Lynn’s Family Christmas
Cartoonist Lynn Johnston’s famous family turns tears to Christmas cheers in the first For Better or For Worse animated special
For better or for worse, Lynn Johnston’s life imitates art.
On the eve of her television debut, she is juggling the laundry, a burgeoning pile of ironing and a “casserole I’m expected to burn for dinner.” She can’t answer the ringing phone until she lugs helpless, hopeless Willie, the family mutt, in over the doorstep before he runs away.
Even in 1985, Lynn is trying to pretend she is like Elly Patterson. If you are doing a phone interview, you arrange the time in advance so you don’t have these kinds of distractions.
In Johnston’s real-life family, nestled far from the glare of public acclaim in a smallish log house outside North Bay, the hectic ups and down of the fictional Pattersons who cavort across the comic pages of almost 700 newspapers in the cartoon super strip, For Better or For Worse, are instantly recognizable.
Only 700 papers in 1985, and what is this business about a “smallish” log house? With Jan Wong, she called it “huge two-storey log house” and mentioned an indoor pool the “size of Westminster Abbey.” She is clearly trying to play humble here.
For Johnston’s 60 million readers, Christmas comes early this year with The Bestest Present, a half-hour animated film starring John and Elly, Michael and little Lizzie, and Farley, the brainless woofer in a touching tale of the true meaning of Christmas joy and goodwill to all.
Doing the math, 60 million / 700 papers means the circulation of each paper averaged 85,714 readers.
Like all the family fables concocted by Johnston, this slice of ordinary life has just the right mix of humor, pathos and hearthside drama to make its message both endearing and enduring. Three-year-old Lizzie loses her favorite stuffed bunny; big brother dreams up a scheme to retrieve it and before Christmas dinner is over, tears are turned to cheers by a lonely widower who is drawn into the family circle and rediscovers the Christmas spirit.
Helen Bullock! Way to spoil it! What kind of journalist are you?
As befits someone who has turned chronicles of everyday catastrophe into a stunningly successful comic strip, Johnston kept much of the work in the family: the television voices of Michael and Lizzie are the voices of her real-life children, Aaron, almost 13, and eight-year-old Kate.
In December, 1985, Aaron is 12 and won’t be turning 13 for a few more months. Katie doesn’t turn 8 until close to the end of December. It’s like the author is writing for a January, 1986 audience.
Husband Rod, a dentist like his cartoon alter ego, is the voice of the postman. Johnston herself is the only member of the family circle without a speaking part. But who cares, she says, when she got to direct the production and have her family pay attention to her at last?
The internet movie database credits Sebastian Grunstra with the directing. Lynn Johnston is credited with writing the screenplay.
Although Johnston insists the strip is not a diary of her day-to-day dilemmas, she admits, “I can’t write anything unless I experience it; that’s the way I put feeling into the strip.”
Little did Johnston know that she would write Lynn’s Notes 29 years later which would make a liar out of her in 1985.
“The characters in For Better or For Worse behave the way my family behaves and there are similarities between my husband and Elly’s on paper: both are loveable, warm men prone to puns and one-liners. But I create the situations for the strip family. I don’t get my two families mixed up.
The fact Lynn needs to say that tell us everything we need to know.
“The only character I have an identity problem with is Elly – damn it all, she’s me. I even cut my hair to break away from her.”
The real reason Elly never changes her hair style.
But the close identification brings some advantages. “I can be as sarcastic and kidding as I like about someone or something through Elly,” Johnston says. “I make fun of myself through her, too – like me, she moans a lot about being 10 pounds overweight even when she’s sitting around eating butter tarts.”
Yes, the 10 pound overweight thing with Lynn goes all the way back to 1985.
Johnston’s reaction to success hasn’t changed since Universal approached her to do a daily comic strip after the success of her first book, David, We’re Pregnant. She was expecting Kate and preparing to move to northern Manitoba when Universal asked her for 20 strips right away. She knocked off 20 on her family situation and, much to her amazement, they loved it.
They flew her to Kansas City to sign the deal, but all she felt was shock. “There were all these people with pinstripes and warm handshakes and capped teeth and I felt like a kid from the bush, “she recalls. “They left me alone in the boardroom with the contract and it was like an out-of-body experience, watching my right hand sign it.”
Capped teeth? Lynn, with a dentist husband, there is no way your teeth are going to look worse than theirs.
She rejoices in the fact her family moved to the Manitoba wilderness just as the whirlwind of fame struck, “because it made us inaccessible. I had a brush with celebrity and it’s hard to keep your head. People tell you that you’re wonderful and eventually you start believing it.”
No mention of how moving to Corbeil has affected her, but this does give her an extra reason for disliking Lynn Lake. No one in Lynn Lake was telling her that she was wonderful, which we know is something Lynn thrives on.
Home and family have always come first to the 38-year-old Vancouver-born artist, perhaps because that’s where her own gifts were nurtured. Her mother is artistic, two aunts are painters and her father is the family vaudevillian, full of jokes, she says.
Mistake here. Lynn was born in Collinwood, Ontario and not Vancouver. I did not know two of Lynn’s aunts were painters. She mentioned her Aunt Unity as a painter in her 10th anniversary collection. In her 15th anniversary collection, she mentions an Aunt Mildred, who was helping take care of her father who was in his final days with cancer in 1990, but she does not talk about Mildred as a painter.
Creative at nine on the dot
After the Vancouver School of Art, her career began in an animation studio, then switched to being a medical artist for five years at McMaster University in Hamilton after her first marriage. As soon as son Aaron came along, she quit and freelanced, but separation from her husband forced her to take a full-time job in an ad agency.
I notice she doesn't mention dropping out of the Vancouver School of Art. As for the full-time job, it was not an ad agency. Layout department of a packaging firm is what she says in the 10th anniversary collection.
She was hopeless. “I couldn’t be creative at nine on the dot. I used to fall asleep on the job and I was unhappy with Aaron in daycare in a seedy part of town. I quit and freelanced again, going door-to-door with the baby on my back.” She then met her present husband and along came Katy and Universal. Her domestic affairs have caused chuckles in a dozen different languages ever since.
According to the 10th anniversary collection which will be published in 4 more years after this article, the daycare with Aaron didn’t bother her at all and her issue with the job was that she was too much of a clown and the work there started at 8:30. Also she quit her job because her book was successful. The “door-to-door with the baby on her back” is a story she likes, but it is talking about how that was her method of trying to get freelance work from ad agencies. I am not sure she gets that the government-provided daycare for Aaron would not be contingent on her being employed. Also, she met her 2nd husband while she was still married to her 1st husband.
In some ways her success doesn’t surprise her: “If you’ve got the gift of humor you can always make a living because people want to laugh, want to be uplifted,” she says.
Yes, there are no starving comedians.
But it doesn’t impress her, either. The imminent launch of The Bestest Present means she’ll have to face a “smozzle” as she calls the party planned for her in Ottawa by the film’s producers.
smozzle - To smoke marijuana through a bong, having a session.
I think Lynn was saying she would have to smozzle to get high enough to get through the party, unless she is saying the party is a drug party.
“I’ll wear the one elegant dress I own,” she says, as only one who lives in jeans can say it. “But I always feel I should be out trick or treating. It’s not me.”
She’s honest here. Lynn is not the elegant dress type.
The understanding mom who appears as Elly is the real Lynn, as is Elly the harried Christmas shopper, the exasperated referee of her children’s squabbles and the tender interceder on Lizzie’s behalf to the gods that look after little girls’ lost bunnies.
Every parent watching will recognize the part of the Patterson household that is also part of theirs and that, for better or worse, keeps it all in the family, as Johnston well knows.