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I Did Some Funny Stuff: An Interview with Lynn Johnston, Creator of FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE

Lynn Johnston wrote and illustrated her classic comic strip, For Better or for Worse—about the travails and comedy in the life of the Patterson family—for 29 years. In that time, she gained a reputation for drawing great comics, executing sharp timing, and creating a genuinely funny, often sensitive picture of the idiosyncrasies of marriage and family. Even today, when reruns appear in the funny pages of thousands of newspapers, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of the strip.

It’s not really a surprise, then, that the Library of American Comics has included Johnston among their ranks, publishing all of her strips, in consecutive order, in handsome hardcover. The first volume, which includes strips from 1979 through 1982, came out in November. I chatted briefly with Johnston over email about the new books and revisiting her old work after nearly 40 years.

 

Lynn Johnston

SARAH HUNTER: What was your first thought when you were approached about publishing all of your strips with the Library of American Comics?

LYNN JOHNSTON: I was thrilled to have my work reproduced as it appeared from the beginning in a series of hardcover books. It’s an honor, as well, to be considered one of the classic comics creators.

 

What was your role in putting the collection together? 

I confess, I personally did very little to help with the editing and assembly of the first IDW collection book. Kurtis Findlay, a Vancouver- based cartoonist and editor, worked hard to assemble the cartoons with help from Katie Hadway, my daughter (and the executive director of Lynn Johnston Productions) and Stephanie Vandoleweerd, our web designer and archivist. Kurtis wrote the introduction and oversaw the project. He was great to work with and a pleasure to know.

 

What’s it like seeing your comic strips collected in these new editions? Did anything surprise you when looking back at your early work?

What surprised me was seeing work I had deleted from the early paperback collections. Some cartoons I didn’t think were good enough to be in books, so I simply removed them. In retrospect, they weren’t as bad as I thought they were!

Re-examining my work from the beginning, I see how I progressed as an artist and as a writer. I was doing the best I could do at the time under pressure from deadlines and from parenting two busy kids. I did some funny stuff. I can see that now, and it makes me laugh out loud. At the time, I looked at For Better or For Worse as a job and a challenge, and I crafted everything as if it was a performance. I’d look at it and say “that’s funny; that works,” but I was not able to relax enough to enjoy the gags and the artwork. I was scared and I was learning all the time. I wanted it to go out on time and to be worthy of the space it held in the paper. I wanted it to be good enough to last for awhile.

I’ve heard several contemporary women cartoonists credit you as an influence, and I can see your fingerprints in a lot of recent comics: I’m thinking specifically of Raina Telgemeier’s Smile and Sisters, which deal with the everyday realities of being in a family. They’re certainly not the only ones. Do you see that, too? What’s it like to see traces of your work among today’s cartoonists?

It’s a compliment, for sure to think that Raina Telegmeier was influenced by my work. Quite honestly, I think she has all the talent and all the drive she needs to do what she’s doing so well. It’s a pleasure to see young, new talented people cartooning for a living in this ever-changing electronic age. I think if I was starting today, I’d be working on a graphic novel! What I was and am, perhaps, is an example of a woman whose comics were able to compete in a difficult market. We all need to connect with people whose work we enjoy and to say to ourselves “If she can do it, then so can I!” If I see traces of my work in the work of other cartoonists, then they can see traces of Mad Magazine, Archie, Len Norris, Virgil Partch, and Jules Feiffer in mine.

Speaking of contemporary cartoonists, it seems like there’s a lot more room for stories centered around traditionally female experiences—not to mention more room for women writing and illustrating those stories, both about those experiences and not. Have you noticed a tide-shift in the field since you started creating For Better or For Worse? What would you like to see more of in cartooning in the years to come?

I think today’s cartoonists are much the same as cartoonists have been throughout history. We use satire and comedy to convey a point, but with the safety and convenience of our ability to draw funny pictures. Unlike stand-up comics who have the courage to tell the naked truth on stage, we are separated from our work by the publication it appears in. There’s a certain amount of comfort in that!

What I would like to see in cartooning is what’s happening right now: People are telling intelligent, worthwhile, and often very personal stories in graphic novel form, taking us into their heads and hearts as never before. Animation is becoming a totally new way to story-tell. The way art is created and reproduced is different. Comic artists today are inspired by the technology available to them and they are lighting up the sky. Literally! The more I learn about new technology and how cartoonists are using it, the more excited about the future I become. Daily doses of negative news aside, cartoonists of the future are going to blow the socks off everyone with insightful, intelligent, well crafted stories and the best comedy ever. Just look at Pixar. The future is here!

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About the Author:

When Sarah Hunter is not reading for her job as senior editor at Booklist, she's baking something tasty or planning trips to the Pacific Northwest. Follow her on Twitter at @SarahBearHunter.

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