A cartoonist for better or for worse
ANN FINLAYSON NOVEMBER 24 1980
Not long ago, in a flurry of media attention greeting the arrival on the funny pages of yet another accomplished Canadian cartoonist, Lynn Johnston was misquoted as lamenting, “Mea culpa is my middle name.” Bewildered when she read it, she looked it up. “I couldn’t have said it. I didn’t even know what mea culpa meant,” she says ruefully. “But I do now. And it’s true, it’s true.” The rush of interest that puts words in her mouth and causes television crews to follow her all the way home to Lynn Lake, Man. (population, 2,225) hasn’t exactly rattled her, but it has made her feel... well, a little guilty about the unexpected success of her family comic strip, For Better or for Worse, which delivers a daily message of domestic good cheer (with a feminist twist) to more than 40 million readers around the world.
My comment: This interview is barely a year after the comic strip started in syndication, so it gives you a very good understanding about just how fast For Better or For Worse became popular. Although Lee Salem is going to talk about it takes most cartoonists years (and Lynn made a similar statement during her recent LPBC breakfast talk), it sounds like Lynn was an instant success.
Fans of For Better or for Worse are perfectly right to identify the 33-year-old Johnston with the wistfully guilt-ridden, slightly frazzled Elly—wife and mother of two—who struggles woman-fully on the funny pages to exorcise, through goodwill, her sardonic view of marriage and motherhood.
“Lynn is firmly in the tradition of domestic cartoonists,” says Jim Unger, Ottawa-based perpetrator of the diabolical carryings-on in Herman. “I see her strip as a Dagwood and Blondie for the ’80s.” But Johnston’s self-doubts, fits of pique and tussles with changing roles blend tradition with introspection with the result that For Better or for Worse has attracted a mixed bag of fans— from teenagers who think it’s “funny” and housewives who identify strongly with Elly, to grown men who can see themselves in John, Elly’s well-meaning but beleaguered husband.
My comment: Right away the interviewer has gotten a comment from another well-known Canadian cartoonist in the form of Jim Unger. I like the way the interviewer subtly suggests that For Better or For Worse is not like Blondie.
“I do try to keep the situations real,” says Johnston. “I’ve never been interested in doing pigs that talk, that sort of thing. I take real-life situations and give them a little twist. Elly has all the problems any mother with a couple of little kids underfoot has. She is liberated, but it’s hard.”
My comment: Pigs that talk? Is she thinking Porky Pig? Pearls Before Swine was not around in 1980.
In her down moments, Elly brings to mind a saucer-eyed Woody Allen—forever coping, frequently misunderstood, puzzled that, in spite of husband John’s willingness to share the load, the burdens of family life inevitably fall on her shoulders. When John tries to help by washing the kitchen floor, that great symbol of female oppression, Elly is torn between gratitude and the nagging suspicion that the floor should never have been dirty in the first place—and it’s her fault that it is. When John surprises her by hiring a cleaning woman, Elly tears around like a mad thing, scrubbing and polishing in guilt-stricken anticipation—an old theme that clearly strikes a responsive chord among the millions of women who see themselves portrayed with uncanny accuracy as they negotiate the shoals of domesticity in times of liberation. Old guilt, new perspective. “Most of my letters are from women,” Johnston says, “and most of them are written as they would be to a close friend. There’s something there that makes them think we all share the same problems. And, of course, we do.”
My comment: Right away you see Lynn’s perspective on the readers who write to her as people who share her problems and from whom she gets empathy.
“In a way, Lynn and I are dinosaurs,” says Toronto Star columnist Gary Lautens, whose new book, Take My Family ... Please, is embellished with 33 Johnston illustrations. “We both believe in the traditional values of family life and we both use family experiences for inspiration.” But Lautens lives and works in downtown Toronto like many of the readers of For Better or for Worse, who chuckle over its big-city tone in every major market in North America as well as in Italy, Australia, New Zealand and even Japan. They would be surprised to learn that the strip’s domestic verities originate in Lynn Lake—a dot on the map 1,200 km north of the U.S. border.
My comment: – Gary Lautens and his book, “Take My Family ... Please “ are completely unknown to me. It was published in January, 1980, which means Lynn had to have agreed to do the drawings for this book before her strip was published. Although Lynn has often commented about how she struggled mightily to get the strip ready for publication by the syndicate, this tells a slightly different story. Gary Lautens would not know Lynn Johnston from the comic strip. He would know her from her “David, We’re Pregnant” books and Lynn would have to do this artwork at the same time she was preparing strips for her syndication start. There is a story missing here I have never heard.
Four years ago, Johnston and her dentist husband, Rod, returned to his home town from Hamilton, Ont., where she had been working as a medical artist at the McMaster University School of Medicine. “I began there doing straightforward illustrations,” she recalls, “but occasionally I would do a cartoon if it seemed to make the point better.” A series on the joys and irritations of pregnancy, done “for fun” for her obstetrician, were collected into her 1974 book, David, We're Pregnant, and published in Canada. Two more collections followed—Hi Mom, Hi Dad and Do They Ever Grow Up? Their success caught the attention of the Universal Press Syndicate in Mission, Kan., which signed Johnston on for a daily strip with an $80,000-a-year, 10-year contract.
My comment: This isn’t the first time I have seen that the contract was actually a 10-year contract and not the 20-year contract that Lynn often claims. There was an early newspaper article reprinted in the one of the treasuries which said the same thing. Ultimately Lynn ended up working for Universal Press for 20 years, but I am not sure when she started saying her initial contract was for 20 years. I know that by the 10th anniversary collection, the biography says it was a 20-year contract.
The timing is off in a couple of ways. I like the way she expresses the idea that she went from working at McMaster University to moving to Lynn Lake, when she actually quit working at McMaster in 1972, 6 years before she moved in 1978. It says they moved to Lynn Lake 4 years before the date of the article, which would be 1976 and not the actual 1978 after Rod graduated from the University of Toronto. There was a similar thing in the 1980 CBC interview, when it said Rod started his dental business in 1977. However, University of Toronto Alumni newsletters listed Rod’s graduation year as 1978, and I would think they had it right. The reporter would have gotten the information about the move from Lynn, so I wonder what would have motivated her to fudge the year and say they moved earlier. In later biographies, we don’t have this problem.
The inflation calculator says: What cost $80000 in 1978 would cost $293653.54 in 2015. In other words, Lynn was not a multimillionaire in her first year, but that salary is incredible for a first-timer without any comic strip experience. By the way, Mission is a city in Johnson County, Kansas, United States, and part of the Kansas City Metropolitan Area. I guess Universal Press must have moved its offices since 1980, but I am pretty sure Lynn has called it nothing but Kansas City in all her biographies.
“We had been looking for a contemporary family strip for a long time,” says Lee Salem, who edits For Better or for Worse and also handles such funnies favorites as Garry Trudeau’s cerebral Doonesbury, Cathy Guisewite’s unhappily liberated Cathy and Jim Unger’s Herman. “When we introduced it a year ago last May,” says Salem, “Lynn’s strip was an instant success, mostly I think because of its air of reality about [moments of] conflict within the marriage situation. She handles those with real precision. She’s never saccharine and she keeps her material believable.”
My comment: Well, she’s not as saccharine as The Family Circus, but there are moments. I notice that Jim Unger works for Lee Salem, so he is probably the reason why this newspaper reporter called him for a quote.
Not surprisingly, Universal has plans to bring out a collection of the strips next year. A television special is a possibility for the future, as is a line of spin-off products. “Right now I’m not even thinking about all that,” sighs Johnston. “It was suggested that maybe I could introduce a dog into the strip. Well, I may do that—I had been considering it, in fact—but I would never do it just to sell a stuffed animal.” Beginning Nov. 11 the dog did appear.
My comment: This article is dated November 24, 1980 and it makes a reference to a November 11 comic strip with the first appearance of Farley. They didn’t mess around on getting this written and published. Sure enough the strip was collected in 1981 - I've Got the One-More-Washload Blues. The television special took another 5 years and it is interesting to see that the syndicate had this on their mind this early instead of the story Lynn tells about how it was all her doing, when she was inspired to write that screenplay and contacted that animation studio all by herself. It is with a certain irony that I note Lynn Johnston says she didn’t introduce Farley just to sell a stuffed animal, when the exact opposite was true with the reintroduction of Farley in her new-runs in 2008.
The pressures of producing a daily strip leave little time for extra projects anyway. Johnston works every morning in a spare room in the basement of her Lynn Lake home, submitting about six weeks’ worth of material at a time. She mails copies to Lee Salem in Kansas, keeping originals at home for any revisions she agrees to in frequent telephone conversations. “Usually we don’t change much,” says Salem. “Occasionally I suggest tightening the dialogue, or once in a while I don’t think an idea works.”
My comment: A little different story from her later transportation stories using a courier service. As for Lee Salem, he expresses the attention to editorial detail that I kind of expected for a comic strip editor.
Ideas, ideas. “I’m always looking for ideas,” says Johnston. “Got any good ones?” Her own family is used to having private moments announced to the world, and most of her material originates at home with husband Rod (“He’s a walking Pollyanna: he almost never objects to what I do to him in the strip”), son Aaron, 7, by her first marriage (“It wasn’t great”), and daughter Katie, nearly 3. “Aaron used to ask what he was doing in the papers, but now he seems to identify less with Michael. And Katie is too young to understand that she is the model for Elizabeth. Besides, I don’t think my style is threatening anyway.”
My comment: (“He’s a walking Pollyanna: he almost never objects to what I do to him in the strip”). I love this line. The Pollyanna principle (also called Pollyannaism or positivity bias) is the tendency for people to remember pleasant items more accurately than unpleasant ones. Rod was seriously slammed in the first year of the strip via John Patterson, so it would take that kind of temperament to be Lynn’s husband. Doug only gets a "It wasn't great". While reviewing the 1980 CBC interviews, I did notice that Lynn made a comment that she and Doug get along better now than they did when they were married, so at this point in time, Lynn had not gotten around to the accusations of cheating and drunkenness she moved to later on in life.
What is threatening are the public appearances that have come to dominate her career. “I’m not surprised,” says Rod. “Lynn doesn’t do too well in public. I think she really needs me around as a buffer.” But the demands on Lynn Lake’s only full-time dentist (who also serves four remote villages on a regular schedule) are heavy, and this time the buffer stayed home. When they travel together, which is often, they do so in the Cessna 185 they bought in July.
My comment: Rod was Lynn’s buffer for her public appearances, eh? She could sure use someone like that now. I do like the way the reporter is a little snarky about Rod's buffer comment.
The Cessna 185 purchase in July, 1980 is confusing. This implies that Rod did not actually start his flying dentist business until 1980. He has the plane by the time of their CBC interview on September 23, 1980, but the claim by Lynn in her Lynn’s Notes is for a much earlier purchase when Aaron was 4 (1977) and the CBC interview said that Rod Johnston had hung up his dental shingle in 1977 (Rod did not graduate from dental school until 1978). Maybe they had a different plane then, but you would not know it from the Lynn’s Notes.
Tuesday June 25, 2013 Lynn’s Notes:
We had owned a small aircraft ever since Aaron was 4 years old, so he was no stranger to flying. With floats in the summer and skis in the winter, our Cessna 185 was like a flying carpet — which could take us anywhere we wished to go. We all loved to fly, and even the bumpiest trips were fun.
Johnston credits her earliest inspiration to The Vancouver Sun’s longtime editorial page cartoonist, Len Norris. But at' the Vancouver School of Art (now the Emily Carr College of Art), her former drawing teacher Ian Macintosh remembers that “her talent as an illustrator was always apparent. She was always serious about her art, always likable, always responded to a challenge—a bright-eyed, versatile, funny person.”
My comment: Lynn still credits Len Norris, but Ian Macintosh is not mentioned in even one Lynn Johnston biography. It’s interesting he has positive things to say about her, but it will be another 10 years before Lynn slams the heck out of the Vancouver School of Art for a poor education in her 10th anniversary collection, leading to her decision to quit school early.
One of Johnston’s lingering difficulties is with her mother, Ursula Ridgway, who now lives in Hope, B.C. “We’re very proud of her now,” says Lynn’s mother, “but I do miss her letters. She used to write 20 or 30 pages about what she was doing. Now she phones a lot, but it’s just not the same. I know she’s very good, and we do enjoy the strips, but, really, ordinary was good enough for me.” Sighs Johnston: “My parents think I’ve changed. They seem to believe that I must have because of the money and everything. Really, I’m pretty much as I’ve always been: they’ve just changed their view of me. I worry about it, I really do.”
My comment: This reporter is so good. We actually have an honest-to-goodness Ursula Ridgway quote. Her residence in Hope, B.C. tells us that by the time of this interview, she had retired. The way it is phrased as “now lives in” tells us that the retirement was recent. The quote is completely fascinating. 20 or 30 pages in a letter sent to her mother or phoning a lot dispels the whole notion that Lynn despised her mother. You don’t write letters that long to people you hate. Ursula’s comment says a number of things:
1. She misses Lynn’s long letters and preferred them to the phone calls (indirect contact vs. direct contact – a Lynn Johnston standard).
2. She seems to be under the impression that the reason Lynn is doing the comic strips is because she is trying to please her mother and Ursula thinks it was unnecessary to do that to please her. This is so odd. How do you get to that point? Lynn’s syndicate contract was dropped in her lap through extraordinary good luck. How does that turn into something Lynn did intentionally in order to please her mother? We have seen in The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston that Lynn wanted praise from her mother that she felt she was not getting and deserved. It makes me wonder if they had a conversation where Lynn tried to extract praise from her mother for doing the comic strip in a sort of “Are you proud of me now?” moment. That would be so weird.
3. Lynn thinks her parents think she has changed because of the syndication deal. This is just 1980. She doesn’t think she has changed, but only her parents’ view of her has changed. By the time the 25th anniversary collection rolls out, Lynn will have a different opinion about this. It’s interesting that her parents have noticed a personality change this early into it, when you would think she would be the closest to her pre-syndicate contract personality.
4. Did Lynn’s personality change? She has 2 interviews with the CBC in 1980. In the first one in April 1, 1980, Lynn has a startlingly positive view of Lynn Lake. By the time of the September 23, 1980 interview Lynn and Rod are fighting over whether to stay in Lynn Lake in front of the reporter. This interview is after both those, so I can see why Ursula might have come to this conclusion.
5. This comment from Ursula kind of tells us that Lynn's extreme dislike for her mother may not have come until later in life and may not have been there since childhood as she has often described.
The toughest problem, though, is the question of new material. Unlike Dennis the Menace, who remains forever 6, Elizabeth and Michael will grow up in the strip as Aaron and Katie do so in real life, thereby providing a steady flow of changing situations. “A strip like Lynn’s can develop and change over time,” says Jim Unger. “It may seem limiting, but look at Doonesbury. At the beginning Michael J. Doonesbury was the central figure, but now he rarely appears. Lynn could branch out if she wanted to, or she can keep it tight. Whatever she does, I think she’s getting better and better as a cartoonist.”
My comment: Such great comments from Jim Unger and he’s right on the nose by comparing it to the other “aging in real time” strip” Doonesbury. While the strip is always Elly-centric, many storylines appear in the later years where she is just a tangential character and the main characters are the Patterson kids.
Welcome reassurance to a young woman who is still not quite able to believe her good fortune, who hasn’t entirely worked out the relationship between success and pleasing her parents and who worries about having enough ideas for the next nine years. But, as Salem points out, a 10-year contract looks longer than it really is. It takes several years to develop an audience, and in the end the creator has the upper hand: “A cartoonist can just stop drawing and there’s not much anyone can do about it,” she says. “But Lynn is handling it all very well. She’ll be all right.” Elly would be proud.
My comment: If Elly could be proud of anyone other than Elly, that is. Lee Salem is so right about the creator having the upper hand and it is obvious even at this point that he is not planning on a time where someone else would take over from Lynn. That notion must have come up when she switched to United Features and her hiring of Karen Matchette.