howtheduck (howtheduck) wrote in binky_betsy,

The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston Part 1: Initial Impressions and The Information Age

My local library system has shown no signs that it will ever buy Lynn Johnston and Katherine Hadway’s book The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston, so I broke down and bought a copy off Amazon. The thing is a giant biography more expansive than any I have ever seen before and it will take a while to work my way through it and comment on all the material. I am going to start with my initial impressions and address the area of the book that talks about me and the fine folks of the FOOBiverse’s Journal most directly after the cut. I say that with the clear understanding that it might not be us she is talking about, but if it's not, I don't know who else it would be. I should also mention that I was very excited we were mentioned. Yay!

Initial Impressions

Don’t buy this book for the art. Contrary to the title, this is a biography and not a typical art gallery book. There are blue pages that have decent art reproduction of the comic strip on them, and they are grouped in 3 sets of 5 pages, 1 set of 3 pages and 1 set of 4 pages. There is not much of it. Most of the book is made up of white pages filled with biography with pictorial inserts in the text of strips that illustrate a point of the biography, many old pictures, Lynn’s old art before the strip, etc. The text has that same infernal font and commenting style of Katie’s that plagued the treasuries. Unlike the treasuries, it does not appear that she physically cut and pasted the pictures onto printed pages, so at least that is improved. Although the bulk of the book is devoted to Katie’s biography of Lynn, she quotes Lynn liberally on virtually every page of it by using an indentation, so you have to remember wide text is Katie and thin text is Lynn. Many of these texts from Lynn I immediately recognized as being taken almost entirely from her biographies in prior collection books, so there is some reuse of prior material.

The other question which is the key one for me was whether Katie would take the time to fix the errors in Lynn’s narrative. In particular, would she give a balanced perspective or show Lynn’s very biased opinion on the things that happened and why they happened? The answer is clearly a “No.” One time Katie directly answered a question from me in Lynn’s old Coffee Talk about the year when they moved from Lynn Lake to Corbeil and what grade she was in. She told me it was 1984 and she started Grade One. I was so happy to get a straight answer on what year that happened after struggling through so many of Lynn’s biographies where she could not get those numbers straight. Naturally, in the book, the move occurred in 1985.

The Information Age

This text is from pages 197-8 and is all about us “snarkers”. I will quote the text by author and then comment on it:


The information age was here. The Internet was changing the way people got their news, communicated with each other, and read the comics. One by one, newspapers were shutting down, unable to compete with the free information online. It was beginning to look as though newspapers and books would one day be obsolete. There was considerable fear in the industry about what was going to happen. A lot of unknown factors were at play, and it was anybody’s guess as to what the future held for the comics page.

Lynn had a well-established website. She was receiving daily messages from her fans through the Web. Handwritten letters seemed to be a thing of the past. The phenomenon of instant feedback had a strong impact on Lynn.


Along with the emails from the usual fans came the would-be writers who tried to guess how the strip would end. They came up with every possible conclusion, and of course, one of them was right. I stopped reading their online discussions long before I wrote the final chapter. I knew that no matter how close they came to guessing, my ending would still be my own idea, my own dialogue, my own scenarios – and in my own time. Nonetheless, they took some of the joy away. They sapped some of the excitement. Now, when I look at the way the online critics and the “end guessers” affected me, I wonder how the next generations of creative and talented artists is going to be able to share their gifts with the world, if they, and their creations, are attacked at every turn.


First off, thanks to Katie for the accurate, but uninformative analysis of the effect of the internet on newspaper comic strips in the first paragraph and the discussion of how Lynn was getting e-mail instead of handwritten letters in the second paragraph. Lynn’s quote is talking about how she used to read comments of on-line discussion groups like the FOOBiverse’s Journal. Katie's material and Lynn's are not really related. A better lead-in would be how the internet allowed for discussion groups to form where fans of Lynn’s work from all across the world could discuss her work and what they loved or hated about it on a daily basis. Katie could have mentioned that people were so anxious to talk about her daily offering that they pounced on it and generated hundreds of comments within minutes of the comic strip's daily release on the internet. That’s the sort of thing which should get an author excited, but not Lynn.

As for Lynn’s material, in the first sentence she insults people referring to them as “would-be writers”. Lynn Johnston is blissfully unaware that back in its heyday, the FOOBiverse’s Journal attracted published best-selling authors and professional comic book and comic strip artists. There was no “would-be” about them. Many of them work and make a living in the industry. Lynn may remember her good buddy Kate Beaton with whom she shared a panel in the 2014 Toronto Comic Arts Festival? Lynn may not know she was a snarker back in the finals days of Lynn’s strip and she snarked the predicted ending of the comic strip pretty hard.

In the second sentence Lynn talks about how people discussed how the strip would end. That is certainly true. There were many discussions about that subject and I hate to break it to her, but way more than one person got that right. You don’t have to be a brainiac to figure out that a comic strip entitled “For Better or For Worse” was going to end with a wedding and someone saying, “For Better or For Worse”. That was by far the most popular guess for the ending. Hundreds of people figured that out.

In the next part, Lynn talks about how the strip was her own, even if people guessed the very obvious ending. On that point, I am in complete agreement. There were some shocking surprises for me in that wedding and many people never guessed that the character of Iris would be the one to intone the famous final line.

The last part is really sad. Somehow because someone guessed her very obvious ending, Lynn lost some of the joy and excitement of creating the very obvious ending. Instead of rejoicing that her fans were super smart to guess the ending and still appreciated the ending in spite of that, Lynn was disappointed that her fans could not have been so stupid they couldn’t guess the ending. This is just silly. It’s not like Lynn was writing a whodunit with a fabulous twist ending. When you write romances, the ending is almost always going to be with the couple ending up together. Did she expect her readers to think, “Oh just this once, we are going to expect the couple won’t make it to the altar. Oh, they got married. What a surprise!”

Then Lynn goes on to speculate how on-line “end guessers” are going to affect the next generation of creative and talented artists if they are attacked at every turn. Lynn is not getting it. There is no such thing as bad publicity. If an artist is not getting attacked or have people interested enough in their work to try and guess the ending, then that artist is not going to sell. If we said, “Ho hum. I suppose I could try to figure out if Liz and Anthony are going to get married, but I don’t care,” then that syndicate would not be talking reprints for 7 straight years after the modern strip was done. The current generation of artists rely on internet buzz.


There is another group of people that Lynn and her staff have come to call “the snarkers.” They appear to be a relatively small group, but they proved to be quite destructive and distracting. They take pride in combing through the years and years of strips, looking for inconsistencies and errors and then happily point out their findings online.


As a panic- and deadline-driven new comic strip creator, I cared more about the gags (if I was lucky) and the drawings (if I was sharp) than recording birth dates and other time-identifying landmarks. I had no idea that this kind of stuff would ever be important! Nor did I think there would come a time when explaining who the characters were, how they came together, and what had shaped their personalities would be of interest to anyone but me.


Sorry Katie, but the term “snarkers” did not originate with Lynn and her staff. As a snarker, I can tell you that finding inconsistencies and errors in Lynn’s strip was only a small part of snarking. I can also tell you that Lynn's staff did not view us all the way Lynn does. Members of Lynn's staff used to follow my old Howard Bunt Blog and responded very positively to it.

As for Lynn’s part, the text is complete lunacy that I hope she doesn’t expect anyone actually to believe such absolute and utter nonsense. Lynn wrote the “Lives Behind the Lines” book to sell to her public and it is filled with nothing but explanations and motivations of character specifically intended for the public who might be interested in such things. If Lynn's statement is to be taken as truth, then she wrote that book just for herself.


What is fascinating is that “the snarkers” consider themselves fans – super-fans – but they don’t seem to realize there is a person with real feelings behind the work.


At a comic art event in Pittsburgh in 2013, I was asked what made me stop writing the strip. I gave the usual reasons: I felt the story had ended and I was afraid to let the work decline, so best to end the story while it was still popular. But one of the reasons I had not revealed was my anger and frustration with the trolls, snarkers – whatever you want to call these folks – who love to send out mean, cruel, and totally useless criticism about everything you do. Anonymously, they tear your work to shreds, and if you respond they feel rewarded. If you ignore them, they are undeterred.


I am going to comment on Katie’s line along with Lynn’s last line. Katie implies that we snarkers are not super-fans and yet, if you have a group of people that, as Lynn says, feel rewarded if the author responds to them and are undeterred if the author ignores them, then what better definition of a super-fan are you going to get? Those other fans of Lynn’s stopped reading her comic strip back in 2008. We snarkers all get it that Lynn is a real person with real feelings, but what in the world does that have to do with us getting together on our own to talk about Lynn’s work?

For Lynn’s part, the excuse she gives for stopping the writing is not the one she has given in any interviews I have seen. She seems to be using Bill Watterson's reason for stopping Calvin and Hobbes. And in fact, even in the book at another spot she trots out the usual “bad vision and shaky hands” excuse that I have seen her most commonly use. The idea that she does not criticize the trolls (I have never heard her use the word “snarkers” until this book) in public venues is silly. It would be a nice change for her to do a presentation where she doesn’t lash out at the trolls.

As for the “totally useless” part of the criticism, it weren’t for the snarkers, how would Lynn have known that in the new-runs she had a Nichols boy born in 2008 before he was born in the reprints of 2010? Sometimes people who pay attention to details for you are useful because it prevents you from embarrassing yourself later on. Sometimes snarkers are being nice to Lynn.


It was evident there was no way to please everyone, so why even try.


I look at my work every day and wish it was funnier, better drawn, more meaningful, but it’s the best I can do and it’s part of me. It’s a story that’s grown from rough sketches and four-panel gags to something beyond my control.


Katie’s part. Really? Is that the objective of art – to please everyone? This is not something I would expect anyone who graduated from art school to say. Katie graduated with a degree in art from the Emily Carr School of Art and she should know better.

Lynn’s part. I agree that Lynn’s comic strip is a part of her, but the rest of it is silly. The comic strip was always under Lynn’s control. She never farmed it off to someone else or gave creative control to any other person. Whatever she did right or wrong is all Lynn. And by the way Lynn, your artwork started with one-panel gags in David, We’re Pregnant, not four.

Looking back over this, I really did tear Lynn and Katie's work to shreds with this one; but fair is fair. In this case, their work tore my work and the FOOBiverse's Journal to shreds. If you give it, then expect to get it.

I promise my next analysis of this book will not be so negative.


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