International Women's Day: Lynn Johnston Discusses Her 'For Better Or For Worse' Careerby Caleb Goellner
When Lynn Johnston created For Better or For Worse in 1979, she was a pioneer -- one of small number of women cartooning from their own points of view and under their real names. This International Women's Day, we caught up with Johnston for her perspective on the evolution of comics under her tenure. We wanted to find out how history shaped her early experiences as a professional cartoonist, and how her ongoing success shaped history and contributed to a more inclusive comics page. Read on for a reflection on her career and to catch up on her current exploits.
Lynn Johnston: So far 2017 has been busy and happy and exciting. We are all enjoying the fabric patterns so much. Our team of 4 continues to learn and experiment. We have some fun and funny designs, but ultimately, they are softly and attractively colored. Something different in comic art. I enjoy spending time with my two grandkids, Ryan, 3 and Laura, 5. Every so often, I take them on an "adventure". Last weekend, I took them on the bus up to the Grouse Mountain gondola. There weren't too many people in line, so, up we went to the top; a truly spectacular trip - no matter how many times you go. It was a snowy wet day at the top, but both kids wanted a Popsicle -- and nothing else! It was fun to see them eating an icy treat on the balcony in the snow, watching the boats in the harbor far below.
GC: You were a successful woman creating comics in a predominantly male field in the late '70s. Did this present any challenges in the early years of your comics career or later?
LJ: The only cartoonists who gave me a hard time as a female in a male-dominated field were the old guard. Guys my dad's age wanted me to serve them coffee rather than do the job of National Cartoonists Society president, which I had been elected to do. A couple were supportive but most were rude and dismissive. George Wolf, a magazine cartoonist, drew naked pictures of me as I conducted the meetings and was surprised by my drawings of him in return... wearing nothing but a smile. In contrast, the NCS members my own age were respectful and welcoming. It was a job that required a certain skill set, so anyone who was successful in any way, was part of the crew; a unique group of people with some extraordinary gifts. Today everyone is an equal, I'm proud to say!
GC: The syndicate side of comics is still male-dominated in some respects, but there's growing gender parity in the digital space and elsewhere. How do you feel about having contributed to representing success in the field for so long?
LJ: I'm proud of what I did during the years I produced FBorFW. The characters grew and storylines happened... to keep ME from getting bored. This was the only way I could sustain the strip for so long. When I was ready to let it go, I felt I had said all I could say and that it was time to end everything as best I could. I am almost 70 and though many of my contemporaries keep up to date with what's happening o n the internet, I do not. I have other things to occupy my time now. I do have a young friend: Sean Karemaker, who is doing some wonderful work as a graphic novelist. It's people like Sean who are making the best use of the incredible technology available to us now.
GC: Sustaining a narrative for 30 years seems like it could have been daunting personally and professionally. What were some of your biggest challenges as a creator while working on For Better or For Worse?
LJ: The biggest challenge a syndicated cartoonist has is doing your best work on a deadline. It's more than a full-time job and you have to be the best you can be -- even when you don't have an idea and don't have a clue. There is no taking time off. It's a demanding job. Your audience demands the best and you have to try and deliver. Many new artists cave after 3 years. It takes 3 years for your audience to care about your work enough to look for it... and it takes less than 30 seconds a day to read! Think about it; you have 30 seconds a day to create a dedicated audience, some of whom only read you on the weekends. So, you'd better have something to say, an engaging drawing style and likable characters, or your strip will die a sad and unhappy death!
GC: You meet a lot of fans -- including creators in comics and other media. What's been the most surprising feedback you get from younger generations?
LJ: The feedback I get from younger generations is great. Many who read FBorFW as children are reading my work from a parents' perspective, now and enjoying it all over again. There is no surprise, really. I'm glad they see my work as having merit after all this time. Their response is just plain wonderful.
GC: What do you consider to be the most striking changes in the world of comics since you began For Better or For Worse?
LJ: I read very few comics today, so I'm not able to answer this well. I see enormous talent in illustration and color thanks to technology. I see experimentation and great leaps into fantasy. I also see open and honest forays into very personal and private lives. Making a living is the biggest concern. I have no idea what the Holy Grail is now. In my day, it was syndication. Now, perhaps, it's a best-selling graphic novel and a movie based on it. This is what I would aspire to if I was starting now.
GC: Do you still keep up with comics and cartoons? What, if anything, has excited you lately?
LJ: I don't keep up with anything! I meet wonderful people at comic art events, marvel at what they are doing and go home! I'm focused on fabric designs now and my energy is going into that. I never thought I'd give up "cartooning"; captioned illustrations... but here I am starting a whole different career.
GC: What comics (or other media) would you recommend to creators who might want to follow in your footsteps?
LJ: I'm afraid I have no advice. Right now, I'm on the learning end, not the teaching! Technology has outdistanced me. All I have is paper, pencil, pen, ink and a gift for drawing funny pictures. At my age, this is all I need!