For more than 30 years, Lynn Johnston made us laugh - and made us cry - with her groundbreaking comic strip For Better or For Worse. The comic ended its run in 2010, but continues on as reruns in newspapers around the world. This summer, a new book offers fans a behind-the-scenes look at the inspiration behind the characters and story-lines of the award-winning comic.
First of all, I am delighted that they have gotten the end year correct and they do not repeat the standard lie of how the comic strip is still in over 2000 newspapers.
On the eve of the publication of For Better or For Worse: The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston, we speak to the comic artist about the literary inspirations in her life and the books she has discovered on her many trips to the second-hand bookstore in her hometown of North Bay, Ontario.
Gulliver’s in North Bay? That was the one that was the inspiration for Lilliput’s. Actually as we go through this, we will see that quite a few of these books pre-date North Bay and it is possible that none of them were purchased from a book store in North Bay.
The first book she remembers reading
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. I think I read it about the same time the movie was out. It just took me away. I was the kind of kid who was susceptible to all kinds of imagery, so when I discovered there were other books in the series I read all of them. I think there are about thirteen books. Most people don't know that... My own copy was a hardcover book and it was fabric. It was one of the original books. I would go down to the public library in North Vancouver and get the other books as they came in.
And now there is a retired librarian in North Vancouver who suddenly realizes where all her copies of the Oz books went. I hope someone finally told Lynn that you don’t “get” books from a library, you “borrow” them or “check them out” and then return them. The movie came out in 1939. Lynn was born in 1947, so unless she went back in time, she read them after the movie came out. 14 is the actual number of Oz books by author L. Frank Baum, but Lynn is close for speaking off the top of her head. I like the way she considers herself special to know that.
The book that had the biggest influence on For Better or For Worse
The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank is one of several books of Erma Bombeck's that I've read. I love the way she commanded attention as a woman, as a wife and as a mother, and how she poked fun at all the business of child-rearing. It was funny. It wasn't caustic or mean. It was beautifully crafted comedy. What Erma Bombeck did for me was show me that a funny woman can also write a funny book.
The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank was first published on Feb 12, 1985 and this was about the time when Lynn started to enter her golden age of writing. It is very possible that this book did influence her to write stories that were not all about shaming her children and husband. Some of her jokes during her golden age are very Bombeck-esque. All the signs are there that she read the book and possibly even bought it in North Bay where she moved in 1984. We have a winner!!
Her favourite graphic novels
I think Raina Telgemeier's work is outstanding. She's written two books. One is called Smile and is about a teenage girl dealing with braces on her teeth. The other one is called Drama, which is about a teenage boy coming out. It's beautifully written and illustrated. It draws you right in and you are with the characters on every page. They're a fast good read and definitely something that would hook a youngster and get them away from the screen.
Don't watch movies, kids. Read Raina Telgemeier graphic novels.
In 2010, Telgemeier released Smile. In 2012, she released Drama. In August 2014, her second autobiographical graphic novel, Sisters, about her life growing up with her younger sister, was released. Why is Lynn unaware of this? It’s because her association with Raina is from her May, 2014 appearance at the Toronto Comics Art Festival where Raina Telgemeier was the moderator on the forum “In Conversation: Kate Beaton and Lynn Johnston”. Does Lynn know anything about Telgemeier other than what she learned during that forum? Doubtful.
Youtube of the forum, in case you missed it:
However, I do think it is good that Lynn recommended someone who is younger than she is and did not produce her work in a syndicated newspaper.
The book that made her cry
The Cry and the Covenant by Morton Thompson. It's a story about Ignaz Semmelweis, the man who pioneered cleanliness in surgery. So many women were dying after childbirth, and he proved that it was the doctors that caused it because they never washed their hands... It took years for him to convince these surgeons, who would wipe their hands on their lapels. And the more crud there was on their lapels, the more arrogant they became because it meant they looked busy. They just assumed that these women were dying of embarrassment at having been seen by men. Women begged to have their babies born on the streets because they knew the survival rate was much higher than in the hospital.
Back to the oldies with The Cry and the Covenant written in 1949. When would Lynn have learned about this one? My guess is this book was popular with the obstetrician Lynn worked with during her days at McMaster University.
Her favourite comic strip
One of my favourites was Marjorie Henderson Buell's Little Lulu. She would go into a fantasy world, which I often did as a child, so I identified with her. She had a rug in her bedroom next to the bed with concentric circles of blue and she would lean over the bed and look into it. She would then jump into this rug and go deep into the water and swim to some adventure. I was just taken away by that... Years later, a friend of mine sent me the book that had that particular story in it, and as an adult it was like I was on the outside looking at something flat and hard. It was like knocking at that magic door and saying "let me in," but I couldn't get in anymore...
Lynn is consistent here. She also mentioned Little Lulu and this story during her Hogan’s Alley interview:
Heintjes: Did you enjoy Wonder Woman comics?
Johnston: No. Wonder Woman was perfect, and I was fat and ugly. I knew I could never look like that, so I didn't want to look at her. I loved the Little Lulu stories, where she would fantasize that her bedroom rug would turn into a pool of water, and she could dive down into the center of the world.
In this description, Lynn seems to have gotten this was a particular Lulu story and did not represent the majority of Lulu stories. I wonder if Lynn read more than one Lulu.
The books that every Canadian should read
One is Joseph Boyden's The Orenda. I thought it was powerful, graphic, necessary and very believable. I think that there's not enough serious Canadian history that is available to us. I thought that it was an excellent book. I know a lot of people are angry about it and believe that it's very wrong, but I have a feeling that there is more truth to it than people wish to admit.
The Orenda is a historical novel by Canadian author Joseph Boyden published in 2013. This is an interesting choice for Lynn, but her phrase “serious Canadian history” makes me wonder if she’s read the book or just heard people talking about it. As near as I can tell from its description on-line, the story is set in 17th century Canada, but the story and the characters are all fictional.
The other book is Chris Hadfield's An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth. I think that he's set the bar high in terms of integrity, personal knowledge, how he presents himself to others and his kindness. He's wonderfully talented and capable, but what you have to do to become an astronaut is unbelievably hard. So, the fact that he could come out of that a wonderful neighbour-next-door-kinda-guy is unbelievable. His book is a journey into the self. It really teaches you how to be humble, proud, kind, forthright and stellar in your achievements.
Another book from 2013. Reading this description, I got the impression that Lynn’s comments were less about the book and more about the man. So, when did Lynn Johnston meet Chris Hadfield? Hadfield and Johnston donated their own artwork for Sarnia's annual Celebrities on Canvas fundraising auction at the Lambton Inn in Sarnia, Ontario (Hadfield’s home town) in November, 2013.
The book that was snatched from her hands
When I was in my teens and reading a lot, my father had a book called Mandingo by Kyle Onstott. He saw me looking at it and he took it out of my hand and burned it before I could read it. I've never read it, but I have since learned that it was about cruelty to the slaves, that it was a terrible story about how slave owners treated the slaves and bred them like cattle. It was a horrific book and my father would not allow me to read it.
Mandingo was first published in 1957, so Lynn could have been a teenager when she almost read it. I find it completely fascinating that Mervyn would own the book or would consider burning it as a way to keep Lynn from reading it. You would think that just putting the book in a safe place would be sufficient and Mervyn never struck me as a book burner.
The book that had a profound effect on her life
This is a book that I found quite by accident in a book store in Hamilton, Ontario. It's called Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery and it's by Richard Selzer. He was a surgeon who was so impressed by the human body and how spiritual every part of it was. He became very reverent after looking inside the bodies of living, breathing people. He brought them hope and made them healthy again... I get emotional when I talk about it. He's a wonderful writer. After I read his book, I sent him a letter and he wrote me a great letter back. I've treasured that letter. It's folded in a book and I will keep that forever.
Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery was published in 1976, so this is after her time working at McMaster, but while she was still living in Hamilton. This could be the only one of these books that she actually got from a book store, but it would not have been second hand. Lynn left Hamilton in 1978.