Lynn Johnston and For Better or For Worse
Story from Issue No. 137, March 2003
We asked Lynn Johnston, the creator of For Better or For Worse, an interesting question: Cartoonists have known for a long time that newspaper syndicates haven’t been anxious to receive “story strip” submissions. They have claimed that the public can see a complete story in an hour on TV and won’t stick with a continuing story running for weeks on the comics pages. So how did Lynn manage to come up with a story strip that has been one of that genre’s very most popular examples over the years? Here is what she told us.
by Lynn Johnston
Like everyone else in this business, I receive many folios and comic strip samples. Some are rudimentary, some are professionally done, but almost all these artists have submitted their work and are wondering why they continue to receive rejection notices. All seem to have the same problem – they are working for themselves, not an audience. Like a new-age musician carried away by his own lyrics and discordant strum, they wonder why they are given polite encouragement and nobody buys their stuff.
I have written the same advice letter so many times, it’s number 36 in the computer.
You are working for an audience, people who know nothing about your characters or your story lines, and you have maybe ten seconds a day to convince them that it’s worth their while to take another look.
An editor can see immediately if a strip has a chance, and success depends entirely on the willingness of the artist to take direction. Most artists are not.
Most submissions give you the outlines of the characters, a sketch of each, and then plunge you into the middle of an actual story without introducing the players, showing clearly how they relate to one another and why they behave the way they do. Readers don’t get a chance to see your folio, guys; they don’t know and don’t want to know what’s going on if there’s no hook. The hook has to come right at the beginning!
Each strip has to have a reasonable punch line. Each one must be easy to follow, written as if you were writing poetry with an economy of words, carefully and purposely chosen.
Gag-a-day is difficult to write. I envy and admire all those who produce successful gag-a-day strips. Story strips must also begin with gag-a-day format. Even if the next day’s panels have a consecutive theme, it must be funny or meaningful or alliteratively clever or you lose your readers.
Going back to the submission. Most artists are so engrossed in their stories and characters they are unable to climb out of their fantasy world and look at their strip objectively. It’s difficult to hear “I don’t get it” when the meaning is perfectly clear to you! But the friend who’s honest enough to say “I don’t get it” is telling you what you need to hear. This is your editor, this is your audience, this is the reaction you’re getting from everyone outside your adoring family circle, and you have to listen.
I have given lengthy advice, gone over every strip, re-written punch lines, redrawn expressions, and asked for the changes to be sent back. Generally, I hear no more from my “student,” but the ones who do return their packages (after a very long hiatus) send me the same drawing with no changes and new strips with the same errors.
Without exception, my best students have been women – and men under the age of eighteen. They are willing to listen, to take direction, and to make changes. The others wonder why I’m not helping to promote them and seem agitated by criticism. In any business, criticism from someone whose [sic] been there is help!
I know there’s an edge to the way I’m writing this. I am actually angry as I express my real frustration with people who have great potential but throw it away because they won’t change. They are married to their dream world, it cannot be interrupted, and they’re stuck in a rut, submitting the same stuff over and over, eventually turning to self-publication and the Internet.
Something I’ve noticed, too, is that many people don’t think backgrounds are important. They are. If you can’t tell where the characters are, what their workplace, home, or neighborhood is like, how can you identify with them? Static figures, talking heads, can only survive if the punch line is worth the effort of looking at four equally interesting panels!
It’s worth, but make your characters act, draw them in different positions, show the staircase in the background, show the dashboard of the car. Make them come alive in a visible environment! It’s worth, but it’s going to bring believability to your characters and encourage your audience to come in to your fantasy world.
For Better or For Worse began as a gag-a-day strip. I was used to doing single-panel gags, so my effort when I first began was to produce something funny (if possible), every day about a family of four.
Because a strip would often beg the question “And then what happened?” I started to do consecutive strips but never more than three or four at a time. Real story lines didn’t happen until I’d been published for a couple of years, and by then I had a readership who knew the characters, had walked around their neighborhood, and even knew what kind of furniture was in each room.
I never started the strip with a soap opera in mind. The kids were going to stay small, and everything would be simply drawn. That didn’t happen. As the years went by, I kept my interest – and the audience’s, as well – by challenging myself to write about sensitive issues and revealing as much as possible in the backgrounds, so that each panel was a good piece of art in its own right (or as good as I could make it).
I use a lot of reference material. I have toy cars, chairs, animals, furniture, a wheelchair, and so on: things I can hold up and turn to the position they’re seen in the strip. I use a Polaroid camera and pose people the way I want the characters posed, so they look more realistic and the acting is believable.
It frustrates me to no end when I see a strip where a chain saw is being used, for example, and the machine looks absolutely nothing like a real chain saw. Sears still sends out catalogs and so do the big hardware stores. Know what the thing looks like and then turn it into a cartoon!
This whole agitated monologue was spurred on by Jud Hurd’s asking me to answer the question, “Why are there so few modern successful story strips?” I think I’ve answered the question. The formula I’d give to someone wanting to do a story strip is eightfold.
1. Be funny. Be honest, and accept “I don’t get it” as a clue.
2. Introduce your characters clearly and slowly. Let them sink in (you have ten seconds a day to do this).
3. Do a gag-a-day for at least three years. It takes this long to establish a faithful readership.
4. Do uncomplicated story lines, never longer than a week at first and still ending each panel with a good punch.
5. Challenge yourself to draw well. It’s time-consuming, but it’s so worthwhile.
6. Be professional. This means taking advice, changing something, even throwing out an entire page.
7. Listen to your audience and work for them. They are the ones who keep you in the paper. Respond to them, answer their questions, congratulate them on the birth of their children, acknowledge their correspondence, and a bond will exist between you that goes far beyond your daily four-panel insights.
8. Never let a poor strip go through. Even though it’s a ten-second read, make each and every daily and Sunday the best you possibly can.
I think I’ve learned to follow these eight steps. I haven’t always been open to criticism. I haven’t always taken my own advice, but at the age of fifty-five with over twenty years of practice, I’ve learned to write and draw a successful newspaper comic strip. Perhaps this information will be useful and encouraging to someone else. Good luck!
Cartoon Success Secrets: A Tribute to Thirty Years of Cartoonist Profiles
By Jud Hurd
Published by Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2004
ISBN 0740738097, 9780740738098