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2014 Toronto Comics Art Festival: Part One

I know this is an item from last year, so it is not that current. While I was searching for the Lynn Johnston podcasts talking about John’s Canoe Trip, the video from the Toronto Comics Art Festival kept coming up with the shared interview with Lynn Johnston and Kate Beaton (Hark! A Vagrant). It was moderated by Raina Telgemeier, who just won the 2015 Eisner for Best Writer/Artist for her graphic novel Sisters (Graphix/Scholastic). It was her second Eisner. Looking back at the Foobiverse’s Journal, I could not find anywhere that we addressed this interview, so I figure, better late than never. It is long and so I am going to break it up into parts and themes. Here is the link to the video, in case you want to watch it and see just how often Lynn Johnston waves her hands around in the air. It happens a lot.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HoKuy5DE1r8

Impressions:

Kate Beaton says “like” so much, I almost started thinking of her as one of my kids. She also does this thing where she is about say something interesting and then just stops by saying, “Yeah.”

You can tell as presentation goes on that both Raina and Kate have been briefed on Lynn’s history and they both have moments where they cut Lynn off as she is about to head down the path to one of her standard unpleasant tangents. For the most part, Lynn Johnston stays on topic and when Kate is speaking she does respectfully listen to her, unlike Lynn’s behaviour in other prior panels where she tended to interrupt people and dominate the conversation. I got the distinct impression that she has been coached a little bit, which is something I thought needed to be done with Lynn a long time ago. If this is daughter Katie at work, then “Thank you Katie!” There are some new stories I had not heard before and a lot of the old favourites.

11 minute introduction by Christopher Butcher who mentions that Lynn Johnston did the poster for the festival.

Raina Telgemeier: Thanks, everybody. Wow, I’m used to being the person answering the questions not asking them, so this is super exciting for me! So Lynn, let’s start with you. Let’s maybe set the scene just a little bit and if you could tell us what the industry was like before you started “For Better or For Worse” in 1979 and you were publishing small books that somehow became best seller and really, really popular with your audience.

Lynn Johnston: As I first started going to the National Cartoonist Society events, I stood in a hallway next to Jim Davis who just started Garfield, and all of these seniors going by, Mort Walker and a lot of these people that were working with Mad Magazine and New Yorker, they went by kind of ignoring us and he said, “Yes, someday we’ll be the old farts.” And now I get to ignore all the young new people because I don’t know what they do, I don’t know their names. But, yeah. In ’79, there was still a lot of potential for syndication and that was the thing, cartoonists were hoping that they would get syndicated. And it’s a lot of hard work, but as I was saying before we sat down this evening, that our original contracts were 20 years’ long. So if you could hit the mark, you had 20 years guaranteed, so it was a great job. If you had over 300 papers, you could make a very good living. 150 papers was a really good run. You have to sustain your character, you have to sustain your work for three years before the audience buys in to what you’re doing. So it’s kinda tough now with students and younger people getting into the business. And they don’t realize what kind of pressure there is, and how much they have to produce in a short period of time, and most burn out in three years. So I think, that’s why there are a lot of collaborations, and comics are changing, it’s not the panacea it was when I got involved. As my editor told me now, they might hire one cartoonist a year as opposed to maybe three or four in previous years, so things have changed, and not necessarily for the better when it comes to syndication.

Lynn is sort of talking around this and looking around the internet, I can see that for many people, once a cartoon character was proved to work, a 10 or 20-year contract was not unusual. Lynn still may not get that her peers (including Jim Davis) went through a long submission and rejection and retooling time before they finally got a strip approved for syndication. Lynn does not seem to understand that getting handed a contract like that without having gone through that process is highly unusual.

Raina Telgemeier: And Kate, by contrast you came to prominence during the mid-aughts with web comics, and you were also doing them sorta for fun, and they also just caught on and became part of the Internet zeitgeist. So can you talk about your origins as well?

Kate Beaton: Yeah, well I never had to impress as in the syndicate or anything like that. I got into comics because I did them at my university paper, and then I was looking for an outlet after university, where people would still read them because I missed having that audience and online was the answer. I met with some other cartoonists who were putting their work up and they said, “You should just make a website,” so I did. And it wasn’t a very good website, but it was enough to get the comics around, and it took off from there by word of mouth because it’s kind of a meritocracy on the Internet sometimes. And so I lucked out. I came in at a time when comics had already established themselves online, but there wasn’t this intense saturation of material that we have now, the BuzzFeed lists and the pirating of content from other places. And people still went to your website to read your comic instead of feeding them off at Tumblr, where there’s a million other things competing for everyone’s attention. So the mid 2000s were a good time to get into comics because there was an audience ready for it, but there wasn’t a million other things competing for their attention at the same time. So my content was one thing, but timing was another. So myself and my peer group were wedged in at that optimal moment.

It is interesting that Kate Beaton had a certain similarity with Lynn on the start of her career, where it was not something she actively worked at.

Raina Telgemeier: Lucky for all of us. So I’d like to ask you if you guys had role models growing up and particularly, if you saw a woman doing something you aspired to do, and whether that was important to you or not.

Lynn Johnston: The women that I was aware of were working for greeting card companies and animation studios and were hidden away. Some of them were magazine artists, and I didn’t learn about some of these people until a long time after I started seeing their work. My role models were Len Norris at the Vancouver Sun, he was their editorial cartoonist, and he was by far the best cartoonist on the planet as far as I was concerned. Because no matter what he gave you as a gag, there was so much more in the background and so much more going on and I loved his style. He had been trained as an architect, so of course the illustrations were just superb. And of course reading the comics all the time when comics were comics in the Saturday papers when you actually had a comics page and it really was big enough to read without a microscope. And then of course reading Peanuts and all those things in the paper, yeah, my role models were people that I saw out there, and I think that’s what all of us do if you do this type of work, you see what’s out there and you emulate the people whose work you really admire. And Doug Wright, he was another person that I just loved, I just loved his work. And my father was a real comics fan and he was the one who would point things out, say, “Look at this, no words, and it’s the best thing on the page.” Yeah.

Kate Beaton: I think that who you see is exactly what it is. Because growing up especially, I was from such a small place that my role models were very local, a painter in my town who was the only artists, and people like Bruce McKinnon who did and sold those editorial comics for the Halifax Herald. And on the comics page…And this is where I would cite you, Lynn, definitely because…Oh, I told you this before, but I believe that you look for a version of yourself when you think, “Can I do this or not?” And that I used to watch animated movies and I’d be like, “Maybe I’ll be an animator.” And I would stop the credits and count the names, and there were no women, especially lead animators on main characters, there are just no women. And you were like, “Oh” Like immediately something in your brain clicks and says, “No, that’s gonna be hard.” Or “Maybe it’s not in the books for you.” But you are a woman and you are Canadian, and it was very easily read as Canadian. The characters drink milk in a bag, so that kind of stuff. There were signifiers. And her specials were on CBC at Christmas and that kind of thing. And without even trying or without even realizing that you just… You were an influence because your presence on the comics page said to people like me, “You can do this.” And that’s huge. It’s huge. Because without you, there weren’t that many women that you saw, and it’s enormous. So, yes, right?

Lynn was not the first woman to do comics, but apparently she was unaware of or did not admire the women who preceded her. Kate Beaton does take advantage of this tailor-made moment to praise Lynn. I do understand this kind of mentality though. I have seen it with my daughter through the years where she doesn’t like to do something unless someone else she knows is also doing it. With the Boy Scouts, they would say, “You can come to camp by yourself and we will find a troop for you to hang out with.” With the Girl Scouts, they would say, “Come to camp with your best friend.” Treating a potential career search like this makes sense. Not everyone wants to be a pioneer.

Raina Telgemeier: Yeah. And so in 1985, Lynn won the Reuben Award which is the American National Cartoonists Society’s biggest honour and she was both the first woman and the first Canadian to take this award home. What was that like for you and did you have a feeling of how progressive that was at the time?

Lynn Johnston: The most important thing about that day for me was going to Washington, meeting all of the cartoonists, and having Charles Schulz come up to me. I haven’t met him before, and he shook my hand, he put his arm around me, and he whispered into my ear, “I voted for you.” But the evening was a really stressful evening because Jim Davis, who did Garfield, was also up for the award. And there was an animosity between the Davis bunch and others, and I won, and I wasn’t ready to win. I hadn’t produced enough work. I didn’t feel ready to win. And that night, I felt as though I had won because nobody wanted Jim to win. And these things, they happen.

Kate Beaton: He must have won later though, or some other time.

Lynn Johnston: He eventually won.

Kate Beaton: Yeah, yeah.

Lynn Johnston: But it was like, “Oh, I guess we better give him the award.” But it was stressful because I think you have to feel ready for something like that. You have to feel as though you’ve really accomplished enough that your peers…I mean I won before some of the people from MAD Magazine won, and that’s not right. Mort Drucker, everybody knows Mort Drucker. If you like MAD Magazine, imagine, I won before Mort Drucker did. That’s not right. So…

Kate Beaton: It’s funny because you can say that and we’re all like, “These are all…It’s fine that you won before them.” And you became great friends with Charles Schulz afterwards, yes?

The Reuben Award in 1985. It is completely unmentioned in her Treasury #4 (where it should have been mentioned), but she does talk about it here. Jim Davis got his Garfield syndication in 1978 after about 5-6 years of trying different submissions to get a syndicated strip. While Lynn was very successful, Garfield was outrageously successful. Lynn paints the story of 1985 as if Jim Davis was not going to get any honor from the National Cartoonist Society, because he was not liked. The fact is that Jim Davis got the NCS Elzie Segar Award in 1985, the Best Strip Award in 1986, before finally being awarded the Reuben in 1989. Clearly he was liked. Mort Drucker, who is also mentioned, got the National Cartoonists Society Special Features Award in 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988 and got the Reuben in 1987. Lynn Johnston, in contrast got the Reuben in 1985 and then the Newspaper Comic Strip Award in 1991. You can see what she is talking about. There is no lead-in with lesser awards showing that she is moving up to the big one. It has the smell of an award given for reasons other than quality of work. We have seen her work leading up to 1985, and it is not nearly her best stuff. Lynn is trying hard not to say she got the award because she is a woman and the NCS was feeling the pressure to be more inclusive. She got the award before she thinks she should have, but she deserved it in the long run. She did have more than 2000 papers and she ran for 29 years and she had a top 10 strip. Kate Beaton's point is a good one.

Lynn Johnston: Absolutely. Yes, absolutely. That was the best part. And the thing about being a woman in the business, the only time I felt the pressure of being a woman in the business was when I became the president of the association, and all the old boys club were kind of expecting me to go make coffee for them, and really, I had a gavel and I made them shut up. And one of them… And one of them kept drawing nude cartoons of me until I drew a really good one of him.

Kate Beaton: Oh, man. She’s not kidding. I’ve seen pictures of the old National Cartoonist’s Society, and they just have like secretaries on their lap and bottles of wine and shit. It was like, “What the hell is this?” It’s insane.

Lynn Johnston: Well, it was an old boys club. It started out in a small place in New York.

Kate Beaton: Like cigars.

President of the National Cartoonist Society. There is a story here. The president serves 2 years. Bill Hoest was president of the National Cartoonists Society and was set to go from 1987-89, but he died of lymphoma in 1988. Then in 1988 Bill Rechin (Crock) took over, but did not make it to 1989 for reasons I do not know. Then Lynn Johnston finished out the term from 1988-89. There are some details missing in this story, but I have never heard Lynn talk about nudie pictures before and I really don’t remember any stories about her serving as president in her prior presentations. She was, however, the only female president of the NCS, so this could be another one of those things done for inclusion at a point where they get inclusion points but don't have to have her in for a full term.

As for the pictures of secretaries in laps and bottles of champagne, the NCS does not have that picture on their website, even though they have several very old pictures on there.


Raina Telgemeier: Well, that’s within the industry. What about your readers? Did your readers ever say to you, “Well, you’re a woman and you shouldn’t be drawing comic strips.” Or were they like…

Lynn Johnston: Never. No, never, never. What about you?

Kate Beaton: No.

Raina Telgemeier: I mean, Kate, you’re also kind of no stranger to sexism and sexist reactions to your work. How do you handle it?

Kate Beaton: it surprises you at first because you don’t consider yourself anything but like, “I draw comics and I put them online.” And then you get reactions that surprise you. And it takes a while to acclimate to that, I suppose, and to learn what is worth responding to and what’s worth ignoring. And the answer is most of it is worth ignoring. But if you…Like things come at you sideways when you begin and you’re in your early 20’s, and you’re like, “What?” and you get your back up over there or you get upset, and…Not without cause because there’s no reason for anybody to single anyone out based on any part of their person that way. And for the most part, I mean there are certain things that you can respond to. It’s a difficult subject because it’s all kind of case based. I don’t deal with the same kind of things as say someone in the DC/Marvel universe does when they write about, like, “I don’t like the new 52’s treatment of whatever character.” And then they have to deal with just like this onslaught of sexist sludge that takes over. Because they had an opinion. Like in the indie comics world, it’s really not so intense. It’s there, but it’s not…I mean you are part of the indie comics world as well. And there is lots of more women, and there is lots of girls. I meet so many girls who are coming into comics and so excited, and you know that they are just going to take over in a couple of years. So, you are just like, “Well, those guys’ time is nearly done.” And you hope for the best, for the future of comics. It’s like we have to deal with, as like including…Like getting rid of sexist notions and racist notions and all that stuff. Like it’s gonna happen because you see more and more coming in with a fight, but it’s coming, and eventually things will even out. So, I know it’s a big topic.

Raina Telgemeier: It is a big topic. And I always say, just let the work speak for itself. And in your case, I think both of you, it really does.

Kate Beaton: Yeah, yeah. That’s it, exactly.

The topic is sexism in comics and we get our first moment where Lynn Johnston jumps off subject to one of her favourite tirades – trashing an ex-husband. Watch as Raina takes control of the situation before it gets too maudlin.

Lynn Johnston: My husband did not like the way I treated John Patterson.

Raina Telgemeier: Tell us more.

Lynn Johnston: Well, he ran off with a woman he…

Raina Telgemeier: What was that like?

Lynn Johnston: A woman he hired to run my company and that had been going on for years and years and years. And so a lot of the anxiety that was deep down inside, knowing that the marriage wasn’t that solid, worked its way into the strip. So, I often did show him in a rather critical light from time to time. I tried to make him loving and warm, and he was very funny. But there was an awful lot of meanness to John and the character in the strip, so…

This is the second time Lynn has made a point of Rod hiring the woman with whom he would have his affair. The first time was her Lynn’s Notes from Wednesday January 30, 2013 where she said he hired her studio manager. Her actual title as part of the Toon Team was Executive Director. Given the nature of Lynn’s very controlling relationship with hiring/firing all of her other employees and the many stories she has told about how she was involved in and had the approval of the hiring of women for Rod’s office, it seems highly unlikely that this woman was forced on Lynn Johnston by Rod. Rod couldn’t even hire for himself without getting Lynn’s approval. Raina is going to point out that she was mean to Elly too, which is true. She was also mean to Phil and Michael, so the shaky marriage excuse is not cutting it with them or with me.

Raina Telgemeier: But you were mean to Elly as well.

Lynn Johnston: Well, yeah, I was.

Kate Beaton: Yeah, yeah.

Lynn Johnston: I was mean to everybody perhaps. But, yeah, he complained. He was my, yes, my worst critic, and probably next to me, my worst critic.
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