For Better or For Worse:
How Lynn Johnston Became One of the World’s Most Read Comic Strip Artists
Who could have imagined that drawing comics on the ceiling above an obstetrician’s examining tables would lead to the creation of one of the world’s most successful comic strips? Certainly not Lynn Johnston.
Today, her strip, For Better or For Worse, is syndicated in over 2,000 papers in the United States, Canada, and 20 other countries, has been translated into eight languages, reaches over 220 million daily readers, and has been collected in over 30 books.
And Johnston’s readers want more. Approximately 1,500,000 people visit her website (www.fborfw.com) every month to get a “strip fix,” browse the cartoon archives, play character-related games, read monthly letters written by the characters, shop for merchandise, and see what’s new in the world of “For Better or For Worse.”
Johnston was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in the editorial cartooning category in 1994 and was the first woman to win the Reuben Award as top cartoonist from the National Cartoonist Society. She lives and works in Northern Ontario, Canada.
WRR: Why do you believe your work has such universal and lasting appeal?
JOHNSTON: I ask a lot of questions and try to be accurate in everything I do.
WRR: How did you become a cartoonist?
JOHNSTON: I went to the Vancouver School of Art hoping to make a career as an artist. I was interested in animation; and after three years of college, I took a job in an animation studio in Vancouver where I worked in the ink and paint department. But then my husband and I moved to Hamilton, Ontario where there was no work in animation, so I got a job as a medical artist at McMaster University.
It was a wonderful experience. I gained a reverence for life and the human body that only one in a hospital environment can achieve. When I became pregnant with my son, I left McMaster to work at home. My obstetrician challenged me to do some drawings for the ceiling above his examining tables, and in time, I did over eighty drawings for him about my view of pregnancy. These were published in a book called David, We’re Pregnant, which has sold over 300,000 copies. It’s now out of print.
WRR: How did you move from publishing your cartoons in a book to becoming a syndicated cartoonist?
JOHNSTON: Shortly after the book was published, I got divorced. I was a single parent free-lancing from a greenhouse I turned into a studio. These were hard times, but a real education. I did everything. I pasted type, designed cereal boxes, created billboards, leaflets, posters, flyers, and book illustrations. I learned a great deal more about commercial art than I ever learned at school.
In 1975, I published a sequel to ‘David’ and met and married my current husband. Then I published a third book in the David series and continued to freelance doing serious, comic and medical art from my studio. Several years later, Universal Press Syndicate wrote to me and asked if I was interested in doing a daily comic strip. I sent off twenty examples of The Johnstons – a series based on my family – since we’re the only people I knew I could draw over and over again with some consistency. I expected to be politely turned away, but I received a twenty-year contract and the work began.
WRR: How did the name change from The Johnstons to For Better or For Worse?
JOHNSTON: My editor suggested the title and it seems to have been a good choice. The comic strip is not all roses.
WRR: What about the characters – did they remain the same?
JOHNSTON: Yes, but the names were changed, except for Elly who was named for a dear friend of mine who had passed away.
WRR: Do you have a special place where you work?
JOHNSTON: My writing place is in the living room of my house, in a spot from where I can see the lake and the refrigerator.
WRR: How do you get your ideas?
JOHNSTON: The drawing usually comes easily, but without any ideas, there aren’t any drawings. Imagine a lazy Saturday morning when you’re lying in bed. You drift in and out of sleep and there’s a space where fantasy and reality become one. Are you awake, or are you dreaming? You see people and things. Some look familiar; some are strange. You talk, you feel, but you move without walking; you fly without wings. Your mind and your body exist, but on separate planes. Time stands still. This is the feeling I have when ideas come.
WRR: What happens when you get stuck?
JOHNSTON: Because I have so many characters, there are more ideas than space. Ideas aren’t a problem. Drawing is getting difficult, however, because my hands shake now and my vision gets blurry!
WRR: How do the characters come to life?
JOHNSTON: Sometimes I become the characters themselves. I think their thoughts and feel what they feel. I always wait for things to happen. I wait for them to speak and to be spoken to. I can’t always predict what the characters will say or how their world will evolve around them. And I’m often surprised by their conversations. There are times when they seem to take charge and to take the stories where they want them to go!
WRR: You said, “All of us reveal more of ourselves in the work that we do than our readers will ever know,” and that characters are projections of yourself. What have you revealed through your characters that holds special meaning for you?
JOHNSTON: My relationship with my family. We work things out as a family. We admit our failures and try to make changes. It’s a partnership. That comes through, I think.
WRR: After penciling your thoughts onto paper, you ink the drawing, an experience you describe as magic. Explain.
JOHNSTON: A cartoonist is a writer, an actor, a director and an artist. We write, act and direct every scene. The drawing is the final stage of the productions and the time when I can touch the imaginary images, feel them, and bring them to life. I pencil my thoughts first, frame by frame, expression by expression, and act out every movement. I picture every scene and project that image onto the page in pencil. The pencil line is fluid and ghostlike. Then I ink the drawing; it’s like watching a ghost come to life. I use an old flexible nib pen, (C-6). The ink is permanent; and by reaching out, moving my pen around its form, touching it, pressing against its face, its body, feeling it, I make it real. This part of my job is pure pleasure!
WRR: Why is it important to begin with the eyeballs when you ink your character illustrations?
JOHNSTON: I’m not sure. Mike Peters (creator of Mother Goose & Grimm) begins with the eyeballs too. I guess it’s to establish the expression. The pencil line, however, begins as circles – ovals, lines – a life-like sketch.
WRR: You stated your silly streak “more often than not” has gotten you into trouble and that For Better or For Worse lets you put it to good use. Explain.
JOHNSTON: Growing up, I loved to draw funny pictures. If they got me into trouble, it was worth it. If they made people laugh, I was high. I’ve always been a “ham” – a performer. By the time I was in my teens, I knew I’d be a cartoonist. I’ve done some stand-up. I wouldn’t be able to do it for a living. I tried music – same thing. The strip allows me to write, perform, direct, compose and have my studio at home. I never imagined that I would have the great fortune (and awesome responsibility) of producing a comic feature that would be read daily by millions of people worldwide.
WRR: How long does it take to create For Better or For Worse?
JOHNSTON: It takes about 6 hours to generate one daily comic from start to finish, and the Sundays take longer. Most people don’t realize that when they read the comics. It takes them about ten seconds to read one strip. I write between six and twelve daily comics at a time. Sometimes it takes me half a day, sometimes three full days. Although the writing is the most creative part of my job, it’s also the most stressful. When the drawing begins, the ideas or dialogue change, sometimes a new daily is added or one is removed. Sometimes I’ll omit a completed work if a better idea comes along. All told, a complete week of comic art from start to finish requires about 55 hours of work.
WRR: At the beginning of your comic drawing career, did you envision your phenomenal success, and how has your career lived up to or surpassed your expectations?
JOHNSTON: I always knew I’d make my living as an artist. I wanted more than anything to have my audience not just pleased with, but proud of the work I did for them. Quality first.
WRR: What advice can you provide to other cartoonists to help them achieve success?
JOHNSTON: We’re all born with wonderful gifts. We use these gifts to express ourselves, to amuse, to strengthen, and to communicate. We begin as children and explore and develop our talents, often unaware that we’re unique. So work hard. That’s all. It doesn’t happen by chance – it’s all hard work. And you need to be able to work for an audience; many ‘artists’ work to please themselves and then wonder why their stuff doesn’t sell. You need to be a good performer and produce. Be ambitious without being arrogant. There’s always someone out there better than you. Learn from them.
WRR: : You experiences include sailing, flying a plane, and skydiving. What new adventures await you?
JOHNSTON: I want to travel! To see new sights and sounds around the globe. What awaits me? I don’t know. That is the truly good thing about this life. I can’t write one chapter and have it happen as written. I just hope it’s all good.
Janice Gable Bashman is the Bram Stoker nominated author of PREDATOR (Month9Books 2014) and WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE (w/NEW YORK TIMES bestseller Jonathan Maberry) (Citadel Press 2010). She is publisher of THE BIG THRILL (International Thriller Writers’ magazine). Her short fiction has been published in various anthologies and magazines. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Mystery Writers of America, Horror Writers Association, and the International Thriller Writers, where she serves on the board of directors as Vice President, Technology.
All Articles by Janice Gable Bashman:
For Better or For Worse: How Lynn Johnston Became One of the World’s Most Read Comic Strip Artists
From Tragedy to Triumph: New York Times Bestselling Author L.A. Banks
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Connie Dover – Singer-songwriter and Trail Cook: Home on the Ranch
Kathryn Ball – Fire Watcher: On Buck Rock Lookout
Thrill Ride: The Dark World of Mysteries and Thrillers:
Thrill Ride: An Interview with Lawrence Block and Steve Hamilton
Thrill Ride: An Interview with Barry Eisler
Thrill Ride: An Interview with Bill Kent
Thrill Ride: An Interview with David Housewright