On Saturday afternoon I went to VanCAF to attend the talk given by Lynn Johnston, the creator of the comic strip For Better or For Worse. She spoke of various times in her career and the problems she encountered in producing her strip and other projects. She told the audience - many of whom, like myself, were in their fifties - of her early experience as an illustrator. In one instance a publisher, pressed by a deadline, demanded drawings that she had promised, but he hadn't paid her for some other drawings that he'd already published. "What can I do to get those drawings from you?" he asked desperately. "Mow my lawn!" she replied, and right away he did just that.
She said that she was in a "state of panic" during the first three years she produced her strip. The problem, she said, was to get readers interested in her characters, and at first that could be done only by producing gags independent of one another, not by a continuing story. If a reader missed the strip on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, he would be puzzled by Thursday's strip if it referred to events in the previous three strips, and as he couldn't be bothered to read the older entries, he'd just give up trying to follow the strip. First establish the characters' personalities, Mrs. Johnston said, over several years if necessary; then, after readers have become devoted followers of the strip, you can involve your characters in stories that run a week or two, and establish themes in their lives.
She also touched upon the animated specials that have been made of her characters. I don't recall much of what she said in detail, but I gather that she wasn't entirely happy with the products. As I recall, she found that she needed to let go of control of production, which she had found a drain on her energy and a distraction from her strip, and to let the animation company do as it saw fit, however far it might drift from her own vision.
Of course her work had its rewards, one of which was the chance to meet cartoonists whose work she admired. She was particularly in awe of Charles Schulz, whom she met not long after her strip began appearing in newspapers, and who, to her surprise and delight, admired and encouraged her work. On her first visit to his studio she noticed that the surface of his drawing board was heavily worn - so much so that at first she thought that it must have taken some unusual abuse. “What happened to it?” she asked her host in astonishment. “Hard work!” was Schulz’s reply, and that impelled her to work harder on her own strip.
She talked about her divorce, which came after she found her husband had been having an affair for three years. As all fans of the strip know, the Patterson family in For Better or For Worse is modeled on Mrs. Johnston's own family and their activities, and she didn't want to relive the end of her marriage on the drawing board, so in 2008 she ended the strip’s run, typing up loose ends in the final strip with a synopsis of the Pattersons' ensuing lives. She did say, however, that she had an idea for disposing of John Patterson, the head of the family and the analogue of Rod Johnston, Lynn's ex-husband. It was somewhat complicated and I don't recall all the details, but it involved a deadly freak accident brought on by an inordinate fondness for fried chicken. Mrs. Johnston figured that she could have gotten four weeks of material out of that goofy chain of events, but she was pleased to share it with her audience at VanCAF instead.
After her divorce, she moved to North Vancouver, where she had been raised, and soon the prospects of her new life took an interesting turn. One day, as she and her daughter sorted her belongings, she stepped outside her new home as her daughter remained inside, and she ran into a friend she had known since Grade 5. This fellow and she fell to chatting, which went on for some time, and soon he proposed moving their chat over to a nearby pub. She agreed and forgot all about sorting, and there the renewal of their acquaintance continued into the afternoon and then into the evening. Near midnight, still chatting in the pub, they were interrupted by the frantic beeping of Lynn's cell phone. On the other end of the line was her daughter, who cried "Where are you?!" And there we have the promise of new love, the reversal in the channel of concern between parent and child, and what could have been at least two weeks of swell material for a comic strip.
Near the end of question period, one man in the front row gave his name and told Mrs. Johnston that he had been the organist at her first wedding. (That was to another man, to whom she was married just long enough to produce a son.) She was excited and ran up to him to give him a hug. The audience applauded the meeting of old friends reunited, and the two promised to meet each other again soon. And on that note the talk ended.