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The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston Part XVIII – Life in a Northern Town (Not as bad as it used to be be)

Lynn’s most extensive description of life in Lynn Lake, Manitoba came from her Suddenly Silver collection published in 2004, 25 years after her comic strip was started. At this point in time, Lynn’s 7-year contract with United Press Syndicate was over and she had to choose whether to accept their 3 year extension option or go back to Universal Press Syndicate or retire. Rod Johnston had sold his dental practice in 2002, presumably with the idea in mind that he and Lynn would retire together (although that has never been said directly). With Suddenly Silver, it’s clear that Lynn has decided not to retire and she jumped ship back to Universal. When Lynn is writing in Suddenly Silver, she shows a lot of regret over having abandoned family for career and this may have been because that decision showed another example of how her career took precedence over her personal life. The other element at the time was that both Katie and Aaron were living in Vancouver and showed no signs of returning home.

By the time we get to The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston in 2015, 11 years has passed and we see almost a complete reverse of this idea. Lynn has decided she liked Lynn Lake and that she was a good mother after all. I will compare the two versions after the cut.

Lynn:

For six years, we lived in the small isolated mining town of Lynn Lake, Manitoba. Rod was the local “flying dentist.” I produced my strips for Universal Press, took care of the kids, and, from time to time, went crazy. The nearest town was sixty miles away. My friend Nancy and I would sometimes drive there and back – just for donuts! Because there were no shops to speak of, no good restaurants, and no theatre, we new Northerners became an inventive lot. We made our own entertainment, we created our own events, we transplanted city slickers survived, and some of us even grew to enjoy the rustic, laid-back ambience of “the bush.”

Me:

2015 Lynn is adapting to northern life. 2004 Lynn latches on to anything from outside northern life.

Suddenly Silver:

When I look back at my earliest efforts, I see such negativity hidden beneath the humor. While Lynn Lake’s rugged northern atmosphere was friendly, it was not what I was used to. On the outside, I tried to appear content, controlled, and connected. On the inside, I was lonely for the friends I’d known in the south and missed the amenities and the (imagined) excitement of the city. Having grown up in Vancouver, the adjustment to Ontario had been hard for me. Now I was so far north, literally at the end of the road. Hundreds of miles of wilderness surrounded our little community, and the nearest neighboring town lay 60 miles of muskeg and moose trails away. We had two channels on TV, and one radio station; the paper came a day late because it came by bus. There were two grocery stores and one restaurant you’d willing trust with your health. The theater was about to be condemned, yet were so hungry for a taste of “outside” that movies were still shown and we went to them all, making sure our shoes were laced so they wouldn’t be glued to the years of gum, Coke, and popcorn embedded in the floor.

My first lesson in small-town etiquette happened when, newly settled in, I happened to make a rude remark about a woman to another woman I had met at the grocery store. By the time I got home the phone was ringing. It was the woman about whom I’d made the mean remark, asking for an apology. I admitted to the remark, humbly asked for her forgiveness, and she let go, saying, “You’re not in the city now, Lynn, here we all know each other.”

Katie:

Lynn worked from a small studio office in the basement of her split-level home. It was bright and quiet and had everything she needed to do the job – a desk and her drawing materials. The most difficult aspect of producing the strip was finding the time to do it. Aaron was thankfully in school by now, and Kate spent the mornings with a babysitter across the street. Lynn worked from nine until noon, and then again after the kids were in bed. The rest of the time she was busy being a mom and maintaining the household. With demanding deadlines to keep on top of and young kids running around, Rod’s parents were a boon; they would take the kids day or night, no questions asked.

Me:

2015 Lynn managed to do the strip with only a few hours away from being a mom. 2004 Lynn got out of Lynn Lake every chance she got.

Suddenly Silver:

For Better or For Worse went into syndication with 150 papers, and the number increased rapidly. With the growing success of the feature came an enlargement of my hat size. I was interviewed by all kinds of people and asked to do public-service announcements, to accept speaking engagements, and eventually go on promotional tours to sell the “collection” books that were published annually. I loved playing celebrity. It got me out of Lynn Lake, away from family and responsibility. I enjoyed the talk shows, the book signings, and interviews. It was all about me!

Lynn:

Ruth and Tom looked after the kids and helped with the strip. They were there for me when my own parents became distant beyond miles. They read every strip and were my best editors. If Ruth didn’t get a gag, I knew that a huge percent of the readers wouldn’t get it either, and I’d have to change it. Changing anything was hard -- both because my ego would be bruised, and because I had a deadline to hit; any changes took time. Still, real “audience reaction” soon proved to be the best tool in my kit for making my work connect with readers. I never took my strips beyond pencil form before Rod and his parents had read them all and approved them.

Me:

First of all, I will note that Lynn can't resist getting a dig in at her parents, as she is in the process of complimenting Ruth. That said...

2015 Lynn always got Tom, Ruth, and Rod’s approval. 2004 Rod seems like he didn’t see strips until after they were done and mentions that a lot of them were direct attacks on him to the point where he used them as a way to judge Lynn’s moods. It doesn't sound very much like approval.

Suddenly Silver (from the Rod Johnston section quoting from Rod)

Of course, many things that happen to use become fodder for the strip. Often I would come home from the clinic and say to Lynn, “A funny thing happened. It might be a good idea for you!” Of course, she wouldn’t use it. However, if I did something dumb or said something embarrassing, guess what…it would become a great daily! If I said something she took offense to and blasted me for…it would end up in the strip! Luckily, I have a thick skin, and it is always fun to read the strips when they’re done. As a matter of fact, I can often judge Lynn’s mood by the strips she has just completed. With my usual man’s intuition, I need all the help I can get!

Katie:

Whenever Ruth thought Lynn was getting too much satisfaction from the publicity she was receiving, she would help to put things into perspective. Ruth and Tom kept Lynn’s ego in check, as did living in a small isolated town.

Me:

2015 Lynn and 2004 Lynn seem to agree about Ruth Johnston.

Suddenly Silver:

My mother-in-law was a rock and a realist. It was Ruth who shook me out of my period melancholy, and gave me both counsel and criticism.

Lynn:

I was, after all, just another mom who took the garbage out like everyone else. In fact, that’s why Lynn Lake was the best place I could possibly have been during the early days of the strip; it was far enough away from the city to keep me from accepting interviews, speaking engagements, and empty invitations, which took my time and affected my personality. I found out the hard way that any kind of celebrity, even a small amount, could be dangerous.

Me:

2015 Lynn thanks Lynn Lake for keeping her away from interviews and the like. 2004 Lynn thanks Lynn Lake for saving her marriage after she went on interviews and the like.

Suddenly Silver:

I got pretty good at looking like an idiot myself. I would do as many interviews as I could, often doing such a ham-up job, I’d lie in my hotel bed later wishing for all the world that I could erase the tape of rewrite the article that would be out there for everyone to see. I watched every show I was on, saw what worked and what didn’t, and eventually became quite at home with lights, camera, action.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, my family was getting past enjoying the kudos. The disadvantages of a mother and wife who came equipped with an invisible crown were becoming obvious. My willingness to play with my new role as celebrity was clearly pointed out by Aaron who, seeing me packing for another trip, said, “Do you have to turn into Lynn Johnston again?” There was also a long talk with Rod, who asked me what I really wanted, and I was aware of how much I was changing, and not for the better.

When I look back now, I realize that, much as it grated at the time, living in a remote mining community was the best thing that could have happened to me. Without the commonsense grounding a small town offers, I might have lost everything – my husband, family, my job, everything!

Art and affections are so easily destroyed by arrogance.

Katie:

By the third year of publication, Lynn’s strip had been picked up by over one hundred newspapers and had begun to receive international attention. As the spotlight on Lynn intensified, her time away from her family increased. Her remote location that had buffered her from celebrity early on did not pose an obstacle.

Aside from the presentations, eventually Lynn was often required to travel to promote her books. Once a year, a selection of strip from the previous year was packaged into a book and sold across Canada and in the United States. Each fall, Lynn would travel from city to city, store to store, signing books and speaking to the public. These promotional tours offered Lynn opportunities to connect with her growing number of fans, build relationships with Lee Salem and other key people at UPS, and provide an excuse to get out of Lynn Lake for awhile.

Despite the small population and relative isolation of her home community, Lynn did her best to fit in to “a town of colorful relationship. I was a town where ‘you can steal a man’s wife, but you don’t touch his woodpile!’” She did what regular parents do: attended school events, parent-teacher interviews, hockey games, and ice skating shows.

Lynn:

I was a good mom. If I hadn’t been a typical mom, I would never have been able to write from a mom’s point of view. Being hands-on was the stuff that went into the Pattersons’ everyday lives.

Me:

2015 Lynn got over 100 papers after 3 years, but the increased publicity did not keep Lynn from doing what regular parents do. 2004 Lynn started off with 150 papers and then after 5 years was a top 3 comic strip, and her ego got the better of her with her family.

Suddenly Silver:

From the beginning, FBorFW was received by readers with an enthusiasm that was both startling and enormously gratifying. Within five years, it was being consistently rated as one of the top three comics in both Canada and the United States. Considering the incredible quality of the competition, this was heady stuff.

I joined the National Cartoonists Society and took off with Rod to New York for the Reuben Awards, then held at the wonderful old Plaza Hotel, the backdrop for so many movies we’d seen. {…} I hadn’t expected to be so readily accepted into the inner circle of famous comic artists. The NCS membership gave me even more reasons to leave home, as I attended board meetings and helped with the newsletter.

The arrogant twit I was trying to suppress was resurfacing and, oblivious to the frustration of my family, I bounced along, convinced I was good at everything, thank you, and peel me a grape! Success is something everyone dreams of, but in reality, it’s a bit like a unicorn – the subject of great fantasies, but a troublesome beast to actually have around the house. Praise is seductive stuff. It’s appallingly easy to make the mistake of believing one’s own publicity!

Katie:

Lynn was able to find just about everything she needed in Lynn Lake. If she needed drawing materials for the strip, the local general store was able to order whatever she requested. If it was a friend she needed, there was always someone within a few minutes’ walk from her home. (Indeed, Lynn maintains some of these friendships to this day.) It if was inspiration she was after, Lynn Lake was full of unusual characters, each with a story to tell.

Me:

2015 Lynn got everything she needed from Lynn Lake. 2004 Lynn took advantage of the family plane and shopped in Winnipeg

Suddenly Silver:

Despite the warm friendships, humorous goings-on, and great material, Lynn Lake irritated me enormously. Professionally, I was lonely. Cartooning is a solitary business and I yearned to have more contact with people who understood the lifestyle, shared the “in” jokes, and knew the challenges of the job.

We owned a magic carpet. At least, this is how I saw our airplane. Rod was a careful and well-prepared pilot who never took chances. I saw this wonderful machine as a way out. We often went to Winnipeg with the kids to go shopping, or visit friends, and sometimes we flew as far as Kansas City where we would meet with the people at the syndicate and talk about the next book, the next project. Rod enjoyed the flying and involvement with the wonderful people I knew and worked with, but he had a busy practice in town and sometimes felt like a glorified chauffeur.

There were times when I had to make a meeting or had an event to attend, and often the weather wouldn’t be the best for small aircraft at lower altitudes. Still, I would insist, and Rod would fly me down to Winnipeg or wherever I had to be, dodging thunderstorms and possible freezing rain just to make an appointment. It’s to his great credit as a pilot and the grace of God that we were not killed on some of the riskier trips.

Lynn:

The tiny community of Lynn Lake provided great living resources when I need auxiliary characters. The philandering, chauvinistic Ted was a composite of two men I knew, and Elly’s neighbor, Annie, became more and more like my friend Nancy, which whom I shared both the outpost blues and the challenge of raising two small kids who were indoors much of the time, due to the harsh winters we endured.

Me:

Copied directly from Suddenly Silver Finally they agree completely.

We saw some of this transition of Lynn manifest itself in the comic strip in the period of time from 2004.

The infamous “grand in grandma” strip.

Hope the younger generation appreciates all they have done.

Another congratulation strip for motherhood.


Through those strips you can see Lynn working her way around to the idea that she was a good mom after all. Not only that, but Lynn Lake wasn’t that bad a place either. I expect the reality of the situation is somewhere between the two. Lynn has told us enough things about her life in Lynn Lake for me to believe she did actually go to Aaron's hockey games and attended the occasional school activity. On the other hand, I know the difference between a parent who attends something occasionally versus a parent who is there for the majority of it.

Next up, Lynn leaves Lynn Lake for Corbeil.
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