Few Canadian icons are as beloved as Lynn Johnston. Most everyone has read her Pulitzer Prize nominated comic strip For Better or For Worse, finding their own lives reflected in the everyday activities of the Patterson family. Unlike most comic strips, however, the characters aged and faced real-world issues that other popular forms of entertainment ignored. People, and I include myself here, were (and still are) emotionally invested in the characters and its creator Lynn Johnston. Now we have For Better or For Worse: The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston, and with it, a much richer portrait of the artist and woman behind the comic strip.
Published to coincide with an international touring exhibition of Lynn Johnston’s work (organized by the Art Gallery of Sudbury), For Better or For Worse: The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston is a retrospective of her best-loved strips, but beyond that, we are treated to her artistic development as a cartoonist and comic writer, or as Lynn puts it, “Fifty years of drawings, doodles, sketches, and scrawls”.
Johnston’s father was a mild-mannered student of comedy, especially the slapstick shenanigans of the silent comedy era.
“We didn’t watch these films like an ordinary audience; we studied them. He would run scenes back and forth to show us how gags were set up, how everything was choreographed exactly to look spontaneous or to look like an accident. He wanted to see how comedy was created. If there was a formula to ‘funny’, he wanted to find out what that was.”
Nothing in the Ridgeway household was taboo, other than the expression of serious emotion and MAD Magazine, which her mother thought was crude. (Lynn read it anyway.) And still, growing up Ridgway had its challenges. Though generally supportive of her daughter’s early artistic explorations, her mother withheld praise and affection, and in combination with episodes of physical abuse, instilled a deep sense of insecurity and a combative, authority-averse impulsivity. An eccentric household steeped in the opposing forces of a passivity and dominance was the incubator of a great, if troubled artist, but as Lynn states, “If you can’t say it right out, joke about it.”
Of her early life and career, so much of it reads like the evolution of a woman destined to become a comedic artist: class clown, obsessive doodler, observant, irreverent, socially aware, outsider, genetically inclined to laugh at life. All of it poured into the comic strip that would make her famous, For Better or For Worse, which debuted in September, 1979.
When For Better or For Worse first appeared in the newspapers, I read it not just as someone invested in the life of the Patterson family, but as an artist, enthralled (and more than a little jealous) of the beauty and fluidity of her line. The nuances and quirks of body language revealed at least as much (and usually much more) about the character’s emotional state as did the dialogue, deepening the humour and adding a layer of relatability unusual for a cartoon family.
The complex narratives captured in a few panels and a swish of her pen seemed effortless, but it’s a style that evolved over years of personal and professional illustration, samples of which are happily included in this book (and in the exhibition). As a Canadian, I was particularly pleased to see homegrown locations and place names show up in For Better or For Worse, which is a bold move for a Canadian comic strip with international aspirations.
On a personal note, I had the great pleasure of meeting Lynn Johnston on multiple occasions as a employee of a large, independent bookstore in Edmonton. She was always gracious and funny, easy to talk to, with large, beautiful blue eyes. She gave me a great piece of artistic advice which I adhere to – keep your originals. I sent her a personal thank you letter after one of her visits, and she replied – in her unmistakable handwriting. For several years we exchanged Christmas cards. Above my drafting table hangs a framed, personalized autograph with all the Patterson family. It is no word of a lie to say that Lynn Johnston is one of my artistic heroes, but with For Better or For Worse: The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston, she has become something better – a brilliant, messy, complex, and entirely original human being.
The first woman and the first Canadian to win the National Cartoonist Society’s Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year, retired from creating new cartoons for the strip in 2010, but For Better or For Worse continues on in syndication, revisiting the early days of the strip for a new generation. In 1992, Lynn Johnston was made a Member of the Order of Canada, our country’s highest civilian honour
For Better or For Worse: The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston by Lynn Johnston and Katherine Hadway, published by Goose Lane Editions and the Art Gallery of Sudbury, 2015