A cartoonist for better or for worse

Ann Finlayson November 24 1980

A cartoonist for better or for worse

Ann Finlayson November 24 1980

Not long ago, in a flurry of media attention greeting the arrival on the funny pages of yet another accomplished Canadian cartoonist, Lynn Johnston was misquoted as lamenting, “Mea culpa is my middle name.” Bewildered when she read it, she looked it up. “I couldn’t have said it. I didn’t even know what mea culpa meant,” she says ruefully. “But I do now. And it’s true, it’s true.” The rush of interest that puts words in her mouth and causes television crews to follow her all the way home to Lynn Lake, Man. (population, 2,225) hasn’t exactly rattled her, but it has made her feel... well, a little guilty about the unexpected success of her family comic strip, For Better or for Worse, which delivers a daily message of domestic good cheer (with a feminist twist) to more than 40 million readers around the world.

Fans of For Better or for Worse are perfectly right to identify the 33-year-old Johnston with the wistfully guilt-ridden, slightly frazzled Elly—wife and mother of two—who struggles woman-fully on the funny pages to exorcise, through goodwill, her sardonic view of marriage and motherhood.

“Lynn is firmly in the tradition of domestic cartoonists,” says Jim Unger, Ottawa-based perpetrator of the diabolical carryings-on in Herman. “I see her strip as a Dagwood and Blondie for the ’80s.” But Johnston’s self-doubts, fits of pique and tussles with changing roles blend tradition with introspection with the result that For Better or for Worse has attracted a mixed bag of fans— from teenagers who think it’s “funny” and housewives who identify strongly with Elly, to grown men who can see themselves in John, Elly’s well-meaning but beleaguered husband.

“I do try to keep the situations real,” says Johnston. “I’ve never been interested in doing pigs that talk, that sort of thing. I take real-life situations and give them a little twist. Elly has all the problems any mother with a couple of little kids underfoot has. She is liberated, but it’s hard.”

In her down moments, Elly brings to mind a saucer-eyed Woody Allen—forever coping, frequently misunderstood, puzzled that, in spite of husband John’s willingness to share the load, the burdens of family life inevitably fall on her shoulders. When John tries to help by washing the kitchen floor, that great symbol of female oppression, Elly is torn between gratitude and the nagging suspicion that the floor should never have been dirty in the first place—and it’s her fault that it is. When John surprises her by hiring a cleaning woman, Elly tears around like a mad thing, scrubbing and polishing in guilt-stricken anticipation—an old theme that clearly strikes a responsive chord among the millions of women who see themselves portrayed with uncanny accuracy as they negotiate the shoals of domesticity in times of liberation. Old guilt, new perspective. “Most of my letters are from women,” Johnston says, “and most of them are written as they would be to a close friend. There’s something there that makes them think we all share the same problems. And, of course, we do.”

“In a way, Lynn and I are dinosaurs,” says Toronto Star columnist Gary Lautens, whose new book, Take My Family ... Please, is embellished with 33 Johnston illustrations. “We both believe in the traditional values of family life and we both use family experiences for inspiration.” But Lautens lives and works in downtown Toronto like many of the readers of For Better or for Worse, who chuckle over its big-city tone in every major market in North America as well as in Italy, Australia, New Zealand and even Japan. They would be surprised to learn that the strip’s domestic verities originate in Lynn Lake—a dot on the map 1,200 km north of the U.S. border.

Four years ago, Johnston and her dentist husband, Rod, returned to his home town from Hamilton, Ont., where she had been working as a medical artist at the McMaster University School of Medicine. “I began there doing straightforward illustrations,” she recalls, “but occasionally I would do a cartoon if it seemed to make the point better.” A series on the joys and irritations of pregnancy, done “for fun” for her obstetrician, were collected into her 1974 book, David, We're Pregnant, and published in Canada. Two more collections followed—Hi Mom, Hi Dad and Do They Ever Grow Up? Their success caught the attention of the Universal Press Syndicate in Mission, Kan., which signed Johnston on for a daily strip with an $80,000-a-year, 10-year contract.

“We had been looking for a contemporary family strip for a long time,” says Lee Salem, who edits For Better or for Worse and also handles such funnies favorites as Garry Trudeau’s cerebral Doonesbury, Cathy Guisewite’s unhappily liberated Cathy and Jim Unger’s Herman. “When we introduced it a year ago last May,” says Salem, “Lynn’s strip was an instant success, mostly I think because of its air of reality about [moments of] conflict within the marriage situation. She handles those with real precision. She’s never saccharine and she keeps her material believable.”

Not surprisingly, Universal has plans to bring out a collection of the strips next year. A television special is a possibility for the future, as is a line of spin-off products. “Right now Pm not even thinking about all that,” sighs Johnston. “It was suggested that maybe I could introduce a dog into the strip. Well, I may do that—I had been considering it, in fact—but I would never do it just to sell a stuffed animal.” Beginning Nov. 11 the dog did appear.

The pressures of producing a daily strip leave little time for extra projects anyway. Johnston works every morning in a spare room in the basement of her Lynn Lake home, submitting about six weeks’ worth of material at a time. She mails copies to Lee Salem in Kansas, keeping originals at home for any revisions she agrees to in frequent telephone conversations. “Usually we don’t change much,” says Salem. “Occasionally I suggest tightening the dialogue, or once in a while I don’t think an idea works.”

Ideas, ideas. “I’m always looking for ideas,” says Johnston. “Got any good ones?” Her own family is used to having private moments announced to the world, and most of her material originates at home with husband Rod (“He’s a walking Pollyanna: he almost never objects to what I do to him in the strip”), son Aaron, 7, by her first marriage (“It wasn’t great”), and daughter Katie, nearly 3. “Aaron used to ask what he was doing in the papers, but now he seems to identify less with Michael. And Katie is too young to understand that she is the model for Elizabeth. Besides, I don’t think my style is threatening anyway.”

What is threatening are the public appearances that have come to dominate her career. “I’m not surprised,” says Rod. “Lynn doesn’t do too well in public. I think she really needs me around as a buffer.” But the demands on Lynn Lake’s only full-time dentist (who also serves four remote villages on a regular schedule) are heavy, and this time the buffer stayed home. When they travel together, which is often, they do so in the Cessna 185 they bought in July.

Johnston credits her earliest inspiration to The Vancouver Sun’s longtime editorial page cartoonist, Len Norris. But at' the Vancouver School of Art (now the Emily Carr College of Art), her former drawing teacher Ian Macintosh remembers that “her talent as an illustrator was always apparent. She was always serious about her art, always likable, always responded to a challenge—a bright-eyed, versatile, funny person.”

One of Johnston’s lingering difficulties is with her mother, Ursula Ridgway, who now lives in Hope, B.C. “We’re very proud of her now,” says Lynn’s mother, “but I do miss her letters. She used to write 20 or 30 pages about what she was doing. Now she phones a lot, but it’s just not the same. I know she’s very good, and we do enjoy the strips, but, really, ordinary was good enough for me.” Sighs Johnston: “My parents think I’ve changed. They seem to believe that I must have because of the money and everything. Really, I’m pretty much as I’ve always been: they’ve just changed their view of me. I worry about it, I really do.”

The toughest problem, though, is the question of new material. Unlike Dennis the Menace, who remains forever 6, Elizabeth and Michael will grow up in the strip as Aaron and Katie do so in real life, thereby providing a steady flow of changing situations. “A strip like Lynn’s can develop and change over time,” says Jim Unger. “It may seem limiting, but look at Doonesbury. At the beginning Michael J. Doonesbury was the central figure, but now he rarely appears. Lynn could branch out if she wanted to, or she can keep it tight. Whatever she does, I think she’s getting better and better as a cartoonist.”

Welcome reassurance to a young woman who is still not quite able to believe her good fortune, who hasn’t entirely worked out the relationship between success and pleasing her parents and who worries about having enough ideas for the next nine years. But, as Salem points out, a 10-year contract looks longer than it really is. It takes several years to develop an audience, and in the end the creator has the upper hand: “A cartoonist can just stop drawing and there’s not much anyone can do about it,” she says. “But Lynn is handling it all very well. She’ll be all right.” Elly would be proud.