Award-winning cartoonist Lynn Johnston (born 1947) took over where Family Circus and Blondie left off with her comic strip, For Better or for Worse, which presents a modern-day view of family life. The strip has apparently struck a chord, as it appears in 87 of the 100 largest papers in the United States and is consistently voted one of the top five comics by readers.
Lynn Beverley Johnston was born May 28, 1947, in Collingwood, Ontario, Canada, to Mervyn and Ursula Ridgway. Her father was a jeweler and watchmaker who loved comics and cartoons and instilled in his daughter an enthusiasm for those same things. He also taught her to analyze the value of timing and setting in comedy and cartoons. Johnston's mother was an illustrator and calligrapher whose talents inspired the young Lynn. Johnston's love of drawing and cartooning was a natural outgrowth of her parents' influence, and she developed her skills as a child, using art as an outlet for her emotions.
As a young adult, Johnston enrolled in the Vancouver School of Art. She left before earning a degree, having taken jobs as an animator and illustrator. She moved to Ontario after marrying her first husband, Doug, at the age of 20. In 1968, she found a job at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, as a medical illustrator. The University trained her, and she went through the first year of medical school, taking anatomy courses and dissecting alongside the medical students. She very much enjoyed her job, but her happiness was yet to be complete.
First Child, First Cartoons
In 1972, Johnston's son Aaron was born, but the joyous event was overshadowed by her crumbling marriage. Her husband divorced her and moved back to Vancouver six months after Aaron's birth. Johnston, who had quit her job at McMaster during her pregnancy, began working as a free-lancer. Johnston told Rob Colapinto in Chatelaine, "My life was in the toilet. It was up and down, dating these duds, having this kid who was a spinning top, and no money."
Somehow, Johnston managed to make enough to pay the mortgage. Her first work was for her obstetrician, who asked her for some cartoons to post on the ceiling above his examining tables. Eventually, she'd drawn enough cartoons for a book. That first book, featuring the 80 cartoons she'd drawn for her obstetrician, David! We're Pregnant! was very successful, eventually selling 300, 000 copies. She wrote two more books after that, as well: Hi Mom! Hi Dad! and Do They Ever Grow Up?
See You in the Funny Pages
More success was soon to follow. In 1978, the submissions editors at Universal Press Syndicate had seen her books and contacted her, proposing Johnston produce a four-frame comic. They accepted her initial submissions and gave her a syndicated strip that would appear daily. With their one-year development contract, she was able to create a year's worth of comic strips to be published the following year. At the end of that first year, she was given a 20-year contract.
Just before this career-energizing year with Universal Press Syndicate, Johnston met the man who was to become an important part of her life, and by extension, her comic strip. She had taken young Aaron to look at the planes at a nearby airport, and ran into John Roderick ("Rod") Johnston, a dental school student and amateur pilot. The two married in 1977, and Rod adopted Aaron. Two years later, their daughter Kate was born. About the time Lynn Johnston sent her first proposal to Universal Press Syndicate, Rod Johnston graduated from dental school and the new family moved north to Manitoba.
The Johnstons now live in a two-story log house in Corbeil, Ontario. In her spare time, Lynn Johnston enjoys travel, doll collecting, and playing the accordion, as well as co-piloting and navigating aircraft. Her husband, in addition to his love of being a pilot, is a train enthusiast and has a small model train that runs by Johnston's studio window where she works almost daily to produce For Better or for Worse. Their hobbies enrich not only their lives, but Johnston's imagination, and therefore, the comic strip.
Johnston plans her strip week by week by developing a script and story line before she begins drawing. The story line has continued to grow and blossom since its inception. Originally, the characters were based on her own family, with bits and pieces of extended family and friends thrown in.
The Pattersons, the family in For Better or for Worse, are Canadian. Elly Patterson, the mother in the comic strip, was initially based on a childhood friend who passed away. Some of Johnston's own traits, including a propensity for trying to "fix" people and situations, crept in as well. John Patterson, the father, is loosely based on Rod Johnston in that both are dentists and pilots. The Patterson's first two children, Michael and Elizabeth, are three years younger than the Johnston children. And, the Johnstons once owned an English Sheepdog named Farley. The characters have all taken on a life of their own, however, and that separate life is very real to their creator.
In Authors and Artists for Young Adults Rod Johnston is quoted on the blurring of reality his wife often experiences with her characters. "You can ask her what Elly's wearing today, and she'll tell you. If you ask about their house, she'll describe the sun room at the back and the driveway and all the junk in the garage."
In the fall of 1996, Johnston was diagnosed with torsion dystonia, a neurological disorder, the symptoms of which include involuntary muscular spasms. Johnston told Colapinto that her illness was hereditary and isn't likely to get worse. "Luckily, " she said, "my rendition of The Exorcist's demon child mainly happens when I'm lying down." While her illness has not found it's way into the comic strip, many other events and concerns in her life have.
"I use my life and surroundings as a source of inspiration, that's all, " she told Colapinto. "[At the same time it is] a fiction where I can undo wrongs that have been inflicted on me or others."
Controversies in the Comic Strip
In 1991, when Johnston wanted another child, but realized that at the age of 45 it wasn't a high probability, she instead created a new baby April in For Better or For Worse. She also dealt with the death of the Pattersons' family dog, Farley, much to the chagrin of fans. The strip was true-to-life as ever, though. Farley was old, growing deaf, and slowing down. In the spring of 1995, she had the beloved comic strip pet die of a heart attack after rescuing little April from a river.
Perhaps her most controversial story line in the strip occurred in 1993, when she addressed the subject of homosexuality through the strip's character Michael, the high-school age son, and his best friend, Lawrence Poirier. In the series, Lawrence tells his family that he is gay. His parents don't accept the news and eventually kick him out. The story is based partly on Johnston's brother-in-law, Ralph, who is gay, and partially on a homosexual friend of Johnston's who was murdered. The reports of the murder, Colapinto pointed out, emphasized her friend's homosexuality as if that was all there was to tell about his life and that bothered Johnston immensely. "There were so many other ways to describe him, " Johnston commented.
The story line ran from March 26 to April 24, 1993, and stirred up a great deal of controversy among both readers and newspaper editors. While the strip was canceled permanently or temporarily at several newspapers, over 50 more picked up the comic strip as a result of the publicity.
"Peanuts" cartoonist Charles M. Schulz defended his friend's controversial series in Editor & Publisher: "I thought it was quite mild and handled with great taste. We should all have the flexibility to experiment once in a while. I'm glad that she tried it."
Johnston told David Astor in Editor & Publisher, "People should be judged by how kind and honest and trustworthy they are, not by their sexual orientation." The series itself had more supporters than detractors, however, and in the end it earned Johnston a 1994 Pulitzer Prize nomination.
On September 29, 1997, Johnston left Universal Press Syndicate and began work for United Feature Syndicate Inc., who offered her a seven year contract with a three year option. Johnston's Universal contract would have expired in March 1998. Johnston told Editor & Publisher, "More than anything, United's enthusiasm for my work rekindled my enthusiasm for my work. I needed a change. I wanted to be new again."
Sid Goldberg, president of United Media, the conglomerate to which United Feature Syndicate, belongs, shared Johnston's enthusiasm. He told Editor & Publisher, "We're absolutely delighted. 'For Better or For Worse' is one of the greatest comics of all time."
In 1986, Johnston became the first woman to win the Reuben Award presented by the National Cartoonists Society for "Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year." In 1992, she was appointed to the Order of Canada. Five years later, she became one of a few living comic creators to be inducted into the International Museum of Cartoon Art's Hall of Fame in Boca Raton, Florida.
Further Reading on Lynn Beverley Johnston
Authors & Artists for Young Adults, Volume 12, Gale, 1994.
Contemporary Authors, Volume 110, Gale, 1984.
Chatelaine, March 1997, p. 41.
Editor & Publisher, April 3, 1993, p. 32; April 10, 1993, p. 34; March 11, 1995, p. 40; June 17, 1995, p. 34; September 30, 1995, p. 30; September 13, 1997, p. 36.