Taking Creative Risks: The World of Lynn Johnston

I grew up with the Pattersons. The family showed up on my doorstep every Sunday. There was Elly and her husband, John, plus their three children, Michael, Elizabeth, and April. Elly told me all about her struggles with domestic life and motherhood. Laundry and tantrums. Sometimes things more serious. But always with humour that was innocent and kind, never caustic or mean.

For Better or for Worse appeared in newspapers from 1979 to 2008. Today the comic strip is syndicated to over 2000 newspapers in over twenty countries, including Canada and the USA. It reaches 220 million readers, and has been translated into eight languages. 

Its creator, Lynn Johnston, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, awarded the Order of Canada, and was the first woman to receive a Reuben Award for Cartoonist of the Year by the National Cartoonists Society in 1985. She also has a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame.

And now, For Better or for Worse: The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston gives new and old fans alike an inside view into the Canadian artist’s career. The book celebrates Johnston’s success, examines her early influences, and provides a behind-the-scenes perspective on her creative process. It’s a fascinating process, one that will interest fans, visual artists, writers, and anybody who pursues a creative life. After all, it’s one thing to tell a story; it’s quite another to tell a story for nearly thirty years. There’s much to be learned from Johnston, both good and bad.

It surprised me, for example, to read about the attacks Johnston has faced over the years. How does such an innocent depiction of family life attract negativity? Her experiences reveal the darker side of entrusting your creative work to the public, and left me with a keener understanding of three risks faced by any artist.

Risk 1: Your creative work will be nitpicked until mistakes are found. You see, what was unusual about Johnston’s fictional family was that we got to watch the Pattersons grow older in real time. So, when the strip ended in 2008, the Patterson children were grown and having children of their own. 

Now there is currently a group of people devoted to finding discrepancies in the comic strip over the years. Obsessively, these people pour over thousands of Johnston’s comic strips for no other reason than to find the mistakes—contradictions and continuity errors—that she’s made over the years, which they then share over the Internet with seething disdain.

Risk 2: Your fiction will be mistaken for your own real life. Granted, in the early days of the comic strip, the Pattersons were in fact based on Johnston’s own experiences as a mother in Ontario. Back then, Johnston asked her children for permission to include the events of their lives. However, even once Johnston stopped integrating her own life, many readers not only mistook Elly Patterson’s life as her own but continued to criticize the ethics of fictionalizing real people.

Risk 3: You will be shunned for taking your creative work into controversial areas. In 1993, Johnston had a character named Lawrence come out as gay. Over 100 newspapers replaced For Better or for Worse with a different comic strip that week. Additionally, she received angry mail from fans. People criticized her not only on their own moral grounds, but accused her of being controversial for the sole purpose of picking up the popularity of her comic strip.

After a long career of successes and criticisms, Lynn Johnston drew herself into the last comic strip in 2008. She thanked her fans. She knew it was time to end, and in For Better or for Worse: The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston, I learned that this was in part due to the death of her friend, Charles Schultz, creator of the comic strip Peanuts. She said, “When he died, a spark in me died too.”

A few years ago I met the renowned cartoonist Lynda Barry and she told an anecdote about meeting the son of Bill Keane, creator of Family Circus. In short, Barry embarrassed herself by bursting into tears. Growing up in a chaotic household, she’d found great solace in the innocence of Family Circus. She is not alone. For many people, these type of stories are comforting and humane, and For Better or Worse offered this same brand of entertainment and emotional connection for millions of readers.

For Better or For Worse: The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston by Lynn Johnston and Katherine Hadway is published by Goose Lane Editions, 2015. 

If you want to read this book, or purchase a copy for the creative person in your family, I strongly encourage you to support your local independent bookstore.