Until Lynn moved to North Bay, the business aspect of creating a daily comic strip series was relatively straightforward. She would regularly send her work via courier to UPS in Kansas City, and once a month they would send her a paycheque in exchange. If she turned in her work late, which wasn’t often, she would be charged a penalty free for each day a strip was late. It was up to the syndicate to negotiate with the new different newspapers that carried her strip. Her wage was based on a percentage of the overall income of the strip. As the number of newspapers carrying For Better or For Worse increased, so did her monthly wage.
Because North Bay had regular air service and was just an hour’s flight from Toronto, I had more reason to accept invitations to speak, to market my books, and to see my editors at the syndicate. I loved to travel. I could sit on a quiet plane for several hours and read – guilt free. “Doing nothing” was a rare treat for me. I was always busy doing something. My life was divided up into time-slots: family, kids, social, work, work, and more work. I was driven by deadlines. I would get a huge amount done in a day because, in order to meet my deadlines, I had no choice – I had to produce. With all of the time I was spending away from home travelling, I soon realized that I needed help. I hired Karen Matchette, a talented artist who had worked for Hank Ketcham on Dennis the Menace, to help with the drawing of the strip.
I think this is the first time I have seen Lynn Johnston mention Karen Matchette in one of her biographies before. We had to find about her second hand. This is from the Lambiek comiclopedia listing comic strip artists’ description of Karen:
Karen Matchette worked as the Hank Ketcham studios from 1980 to 1993. There she drew 'Dennis the Menace' comic books and drew, inked and colored the 'Dennis' Sunday pages of 'Dennis the Menace'. From 1994 to 1998 she both wrote and drew the 'Flintstones' strip. In 1998 she moved up to Canada where she became Lynn Johnston's art assistant on 'For Better or For Worse'. She even wrote a few of the gag-driven Sunday pages. She did this until the year 2000 when she moved back down to the U.S.A. Since that time she has kept her hand in the comic strip business as a gagwriter for the daily and Sunday 'Dennis the Menace'. She also has kept busy doing DC's 'Scooby Doo' comic book and opening up a business doing house portraits and currently lives in the Buffalo, NY area.
She was indirectly mentioned in the book Lunch with Jan Wong:
Johnston (the “t” is pronounced) even persuaded a young woman, who drew for Dennis the Menace and The Flintstones, to move last year from Carmel, California, to North Bay, Ontario, 320 kilometres north of Toronto. The young woman now does all the colouring and lettering for the strip. She’s one of five hired hands, including a publicist, a business assistant, a Web-site designer, and an intellectual-properties manager.
The way The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston is written, you would think Karen Matchette was hired when Lynn moved to Corbeil in 1984. As you can see, she was hired 14 years after Lynn was in Corbeil. In Lynn’s 1994 Hogan's Alley interview, which was 10 years after Lynn moved to Corbeil she said:
Heintjes: What is your daily schedule like?
Johnston: I work 9 to 5 every single day. I have a deadline, and I make sure I am so many weeks ahead of that deadline. If it means that I work late one day so I can take off early another day, I do that. I almost never take a morning off. This is the first morning I’ve taken off in more than two years. It’s a full-time job. I have an assistant who comes in three days a week, and she does the Zip-a-tone, she colors all my Sundays, files and helps with the mail and she does our business. She doesn’t do any drawing. Between the two of us, we have a full-time job here.
Lynn had hired friends in the past to do some of the colouring of the Sunday pages and to answer fan mail, but never before had she trusted anyone to work on the drawing of the strip. To entice Karen and her family to move to North Bay from California, Lynn bought a house on the lake, just down the road from her own house, and rented it to Karen. It wasn’t long before they had their routine down: Lynn would do all the rough drawing in pencil and draw the characters in ink; Karen would then draw in backgrounds and the lettering and apply the screentone (clear adhesive sheets covered in dotted patterns, which before Photoshop, gave black-and-white cartoons depth and texture).
This worked like a charm. Karen was wonderful. Together we hit the deadlines at a reasonable pace. With Karen working full-time, I had more time for friends, family, and freedom.
There is part of this story which is not mentioned anywhere in The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston or in any other Lynn Johnston biography that I have seen. In 1998, Lynn’s 20-year contract with Universal Press Syndicate came to an end and Lynn showed her loyalty to them by signing with another syndicate. For those familiar with Lynn, this would come as no surprise considering for both her second and third cartoon books after David, We're Pregnant, Lynn jumped to a different publisher in order to get a better deal.
Johnston left Universal Press and signed a contract with United Features Syndicate, the same syndicate used by Charles Schulz. She had a 5-year contract with a 3-year extension option and somewhere around this time she announced she would retire in 2004, which I remember, but I cannot find anything on the internet to support that memory. Sometime after this Lynn would go back to Universal Press, but I can find nothing to tell me when this happened in my internet searches. Ultimately United Features would turn into United Media which would get picked up by Universal Press (now Universal Uclick), but all that happened after Lynn retired in 2010.
It is at this point of switching syndicates Lynn hired Karen Matchette, the first and only person to work with Lynn Johnston that actually had experience in the industry. What Karen actually did is unknown as Lynn, Jan Wong, and Karen (via comiclopedia) seem to have differing opinions on the matter. What Lynn and Jan Wong both agree on was that Lynn had to entice Karen to work for her.
Before long, Lynn hired another employee to answer the phone, help with the bookkeeping, and do a variety of office jobs. Initially, the two women worked out of Lynn’s basement studios space in the log house, and Lynn made a new spot for herself on the main floor, just off the kitchen.
When Karen and her family returned to the States because her husband had difficulty finding work in the area, Lynn hired two local artists: a talented graphic designer and an expert computer colourist.
I couldn’t work with all these people coming into my house every day, so we built a lovely little studio on a piece of property across the road. For the first time in a long time, I was working outside of my house. With the four of us working together, we began to take on all kinds of projects aside from the strip. I did artwork for various non-profit groups in town, we did a series of little books, made calendars and greeting cards, and cover art for the collection books. We kept busy.
The bookkeeper is Liuba Liamzini who did Lynn’s bookkeeping up until last year. Lynn met her when she was taking Spanish lessons at Canadore College in order to operate as a translator on Rod’s medical mission trips. The talented graphic designer was Laura Piché and the expert computer colourist was Jackie Levesque. They both graduated from Canadore College with degrees in graphic communications. Laura was hired in 2000. After doing some casual work with Lynn, Lynn handed her a Post-It note asking if she could draw. Laura hired Jackie to be her assistant about 2 years after that. In the Toon Team article for Canadore College Alumni in 2005, it spelled out that neither Laura nor Jackie had any experience in the comic strip industry. Laura was working as a graphics technician and part-time faculty at Canadore College. Jackie was doing interior design work. The big difference between them and the assistants hired before Matchette, was that Laura and Jackie were allowed to do some of the art. Laura inked and Jackie added grayscaling to the dailies and coloured the Sundays.
The Toon Team article hinted about that Lynn hired them because they lived local and thus they were less likely to leave the north as Matchette did. Given that Matchette settled in Buffalo, NY, it does not appear that it was the snow of North Bay which drove her away. Laura Piché and Jackie Levesque were married and their husbands were already employed locally, which could be what Lynn really meant, given her excuse that Karen left because her husband couldn’t find a job.
However, another conjecture was that Karen Matchette had been brought in to take over the comic strip when Lynn retired. If Lynn truly planned to retire in 2004, then Karen Matchette would have been a good person to replace Lynn. She had almost as much experience as Lynn on comic strips with work going back to 1980. Lynn has said in other interviews (that I can’t find) she considered passing on the strip to someone else, but realized she could not hand off her baby. She did not say Karen was that person, but I can think of no one else who worked for Lynn that her syndicate would trust to be able to do the job. So another possibility is that Karen left Lynn not because of the issue with her husband’s job, but because after being there for 3 years she and Lynn came to the understanding that the comic strip would never be hers and there was no reason for her to stay.
The takeaway from The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston is that in hindsight Lynn liked working with Karen and she is finally willing to admit both that she existed and that she did do part of Lynn’s art. Things did not go well with the people Lynn hired after Karen, so maybe Lynn has gained an appreciation for Karen she did not have before. We will discuss those staff issues in the next part.