SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL
MARCH 29, 2017
JUNE 14, 2003
'Here, have a look at Ned!" squeals Lynn Johnston as she leaps from her chair in her hotel room in downtown Toronto. Against one wall near the door, there's a pile of new books that she has recently published -- With this Ring, a collection of her famous For Better or For Worse comic strips about the largely autobiographical Patterson family; a small For Better or For Worse spinoff book called Graduation . . . Just the Beginning; and a self-help paperback for teenagers going off to university, Leaving Home, written by Andie Parton and illustrated by Johnston.
And then in a box, there's Ned, The Man with a Tan. He's a small, bendable doll, with an enormous, supercilious grin, a big fat nose, manic eyes and goofy, star-spangled beachwear. He's balding. His nipples are too close together on his skinny caved-in chest, and well, beneath his boxers, which Johnston yanks down for my closer inspection, he has a definite tan line and just as prominent a penis.
"He's not a symbol of fertility," Johnston instructs, her blue eyes as unblinking as Ned's. She peers at his private parts, running the pad of one index finger over his plastic lump. "He's anatomically correct," she continues. "But we had to keep telling the makers in China to make his penis smaller and not so red."
"Not so red? Really?" I say.Johnston is 56 and looks like a suburban housewife. Her blond hair is neatly coifed. She wears a conservative outfit: pants and a sweater, a beaded necklace and earrings. We could be talking about the shape and quality of chocolate chip cookies.
"Oh, yes. They must have thought we were really creepy, you know, making a doll with a penis. We would all stare into the computer when they sent the [prototype]images, discussing it," she says. "Should it be bigger? Smaller? Longer?"
Ned is not completely new. He makes periodic appearances in Johnston's 25-year-and-counting For Better or For Worse comic strip that runs in over 700 newspapers worldwide. He is often seen stuck to the window (with his bathing suit pulled up) in Michael Patterson and Josef Weeder's apartment and is discussed as a "futility symbol."
Okay, so maybe you had to have read those particular strips. The point is, Ned has become one more example of Johnston's brand extension, no pun intended. He's aimed at the teenage market.
In five years time, when her contract comes due, Johnson plans to give up her For Better or For Worse comic strip, considered one of the world's favourites. "It's not funny any more," she laments. "It's become a saga. I'm so tired of For Better or For Worse. It's like writing a TV show for years and years. I'm sick of capturing the nuance of family life," she says, adding that she also feels out of touch with today's youth.
Johnston, who has won the prestigious National Cartoonists Society's Reuben Award and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her controversial 1993 series about the coming out of a gay teenager, was recently given a Walk of Fame star in Toronto's downtown.
Johnston also admits that for eight years she has suffered from a neurological condition that causes her hands to visibly shake. She currently takes medication for it. Plus, her eyes are failing. "I can't drive any more. "I see double."
The "we" Johnston refers to in discussing Ned is her staff of eight people, seven women and one man. Among them, there's a business assistant, a licensing expert, an animator who fills in all of Johnston's sketches, a publicist, a graphic designer and a ghost writer, who answers all her e-mail.
Together, the staff works in a studio Johnston and her husband, Rod, who is a dentist, built lakeside on their property in Corbeil, Ont. Once every two weeks, Johnston retreats to her office inside her nearby home, where she writes her material. She produces a slice of Patterson family life 365 days a year on deadline. "I am beginning to resent the deadlines," she admits. "I can't go anywhere because of them. I used to love what I do."
But if the fictitious Patterson family is losing interest for her, other projects, such as Ned, are not. "His pubic hair was a problem, too," Johnston carries on in her matter-of-fact housewifely tone. "At first, there was too much."We wanted it cute, you know?" She throws me a wide-eyed innocent glance.
The interview didn't begin this way, I must tell you. This exchange about Ned's anatomy came at the end, as we were wrapping up. It popped out unexpectedly, like a, well, like a white butt cheek from a bathing trunk. It's a slice of Johnston's personality, though, a brief comic strip of what she's like. And it's far more revealing than the personality she displayed at the start of the interview.
Yup, this exchange with Lynn Johnston should be called For Real or For Publication.
We met in the lobby of a downtown Toronto hotel, where Johnston and some of her staff were staying for Book Expo. She had brought along her long-time friend, Andie Parton, who authored Leaving Home. The two women agreed to take me up to their shared hotel room to talk and quickly proceeded to list the merits of their new book, the fact that it's Johnston's first illustrated self-help book and the first published project for Parton.
"What I did for her," Johnston, says, with an small, earnest smile, indicating her friend, who perches on the arm of her chair, "is what Dr. Murray Enkin did for me," she explains, making reference to the obstetrician who unwittingly kick-stared Johnston's comic-strip career back in 1972.
Born Lynn Ridgeway in Collingwood, Ont., to a jeweller father and a mother who worked as a calligrapher and bookkeeper, Johnston was pregnant when Dr. Enkin challenged her to create some drawing for the ceilings in his examining rooms. Over the course of her pregnancy, she drew over 80 comic scenes.
What was born was more than her first child, Aaron. The drawings were later published in a book, David, We're Pregnant, which has sold over 300,000 copies. Johnston later divorced and while a single mother, developed her freelance career as a commercial artist. In 1975, she published Hi Mom, Hi Dad and a few years later, Do They Ever Grow Up? In 1978, remarried to her current husband and with a second child, Katie, she was offered a daily comic strip by Universal Press Syndicate.
Johnston presents herself, at least initially, as calm, businesslike, and a little boring, to be honest. She would have talked at great length about her husband's porcelain veneers that he makes for dental patients, given the chance. "These are all his," she says, bearing her pearly whites at me. "He's a real artist." The couple frequently offer his service, which is costly, to people they know for free. "There's no worse tragedy than not being able to smile," she says, sounding like an irony-free Hallmark card.
Asked about her lifestyle -- she says only that she earns an annual income similar to that of a plastic surgeon (and rumoured, incidentally, to be in excess of $1-million U.S. a year) -- Johnston declares that she seldom buys herself extravagant things. They recently rented out the log house they lived in for years on their property and built a larger house overlooking the water on the same lake. That's one of the only concessions she has made to her wealth, she says. "The most precious thing I own is this ring," she says, holding out a hand with a gold band on it. "It was made out of dental gold," she explains sweetly.
Maybe she wants to be viewed as the humble millionaire. Her family gives away more money to charity than they keep, she says. Or maybe her grab bag of assorted personality traits -- charitable, funny, professional, earnest, saccharine and downright odd -- are the real Johnston. She is clearly a bit eccentric.
"The other purchase I made recently was a bra," she says, out of the blue. Oh? "It was a 52H," she explains, leaning forward in a confessional manner. "It was in one of those outlet places. Boy, they carried some underpants that could cover a row boat!" she guffaws. "I think it should be bronzed and used to hold those melon balls."
The big question unanswered here is why she feels she wants to keep working. She must be a millionaire several times over. "Yes, but I'll be really pissed if you write that down," she glowers.
What is it then that keeps her interested in pursuing so many different opportunities? She puts out greetings cards and calendars. Teletoon did a 16-episode animated series based on For Better or For Worse in 2001 that fizzled. On her Website, among other items, she sells fridge magnets, clothing, games, colouring books, candle holders and a porcelain version of April, one of the characters in the comic strip. "I do it because it's there," she says enthusiastically about her various ventures.
But doesn't she worry that she might be losing some of her brand integrity, if you want to call it that, by making so many spinoffs?
"We could sell April in a Toys R Us. We could sell her in a Wal-Mart. But we don't want her there," she says by way of response. "We only break even on her," she continues, as though to prove she is in it for the artistic challenge. Her husband became intrigued about making miniature clothing, she explains. Then, they met a U.S.-based dollmaker they liked, named Robert Tonner, and they wanted to give him a chance.
Isn't it possible that people try to take advantage of her, shilling their average-looking dolls off her popular Website, just for example? "We've been taken advantage of several times," she says. "But there are daisies among the weeds."
Johnston's charitable streak is the one consistent theme that ties together the tangents of her mind. She encourages her husband to donate his veneers. She makes someone's forgettable dolls. In a discussion about her now-adult children -- Katie, 25, is a ski instructor in Whistler, B.C.; Aaron, 30, produces television programming in Vancouver -- Johnston admits she has supported them financially for years, and that it hasn't always worked out well.
She once had to cut off her son, who is single, because he "mismanaged his funds." She later found out he was lined up at a soup kitchen to eat. She has since resumed his allowance. "If I give them too much, they're spoiled. If I don't give them any, they're resentful. And you don't want your children looking forward to when you die," she explains solemnly.
As I leave the hotel, clutching the Ned she gave me and copies of her books, I think it's Johnston, alone, who should be featured in a comic strip. Boy, that story is rich. And who would need other characters when there are so many in her?