Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Lynn Johnston

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Ten Questions, with Lynn Johnston

Lynn Johnston, author of the internationally beloved comic strip For Better of For Worse, talks to Open Book about her new collection, Something Old, Something New, which will be released in Canada with Simon & Schuster on December 28th. Find out about her early days as a cartoonist, the growth of the Patterson family and her sage advice to young artists.

Enter to win one of three copies of this great new collection! Click here for more details.

Open Book:

Something Old, Something New is a new collection of For Better or for Worse that blends the classic comic strips with some of your newer work. Will you tell us a bit about this collection?

Lynn Johnston:

We decided to do a treasury because the material is not available in the collection books, now — many of them having gone out of print. I also wanted to make the work more meaningful and personal by including some of the photos I used as reference and by writing about the strips themselves. Some cartoons have stories behind them and I thought it would be fun to explain.

New material was added to the “classic strips” because I wanted to improve the original storyline. Doing the strip was very new to me. My first year or so was a real learning curve, so when I realized there was a possibility it would run again, I wanted to make it better! I tried to draw in my original style, filling out storylines that were not clear, making characters more defined. Adding new material was a challenge I enjoyed and I hope it helped to improve the story for new readers who would be seeing it for the first time.

OB:

What has the experience of revisiting the early years of For Better or for Worse together been like? Did you want to add material to the storylines, or is that less important to you than giving the characters the opportunity to express themselves?

LJ:

I didn’t bring anything new into the strip. I just added strips, hoping to clarify and round out the already released material. In the beginning, I wasn’t consistent; the stories were unfinished. I was just learning how to do this. Nothing is more important than having the characters express themselves. Dialogue is the essence of comedy — visuals then illustrate the dialogue.

OB:

For Better or for Worse has followed the lives of Elly, John, Michael, Elizabeth and April as the family grew and changed. Do you have a particular time period that you remember most fondly?

LJ:

I think the best time for writing For Better or for Worse was when April was a baby and the other two kids were just feeling their way past the confines of home. There was more comedy, just because it was a simpler time — not so many characters, not so many storylines to juggle.

OB:

The characters in For Better or for Worse were originally based on the members of your own family. How closely do Elly's children resemble your own, especially as they grew older and developed their own personalities in the strip?

LJ:

The characters in the strip don’t look like my children — except for April, who was Katie as a baby. I made the characters as separate in appearance from my children as possible and kept them three years in age behind my kids before allowing them to grow up. My own children have different careers and their private lives are quite different from Liz and Michael. The characters are all “ME”. Some of their expressions, personality and body language might be similar to my children (as one always needs reference material!) but in reality, all of the material was out of my head and quite separate from them. Their privacy was more important than my work!

OB:

Did you think about how you would change the way that you drew the characters as they grew older, or did that come about organically?

LJ:

Originally, the characters changed organically…then, I started to plan for the changes. It was always a big adjustment when I changed a character. It meant giving up a “look” I was comfortable with and could draw easily. Still, the challenge of drawing a “new” face, hairstyle and slightly more mature body was exciting and I soon adjusted to it. Staying “static” would have made writing and drawing far too confining for me.

OB:

What storylines have you received the most memorable feedback from readers about?

LJ:

The most memorable feedback came from the death of Farley, the family dog, and from the “coming out” of Lawrence Poirier as a young, gay man.

OB:

Who are your favourite cartoonists?

LJ:

My “favourite” cartoonists are the people I know best, personally. I am blown away by so many peoples’ work: animators, editorial cartoonists, comic strip artists, alternative comic artists…I really don’t have favourites — I just love to enjoy what I think is great art, funny art, meaningful art. To like one artist's work, one style alone would be like eating the same thing every day for the rest of your life.

OB:

Did you develop your style and skills on your own, or did you have training and mentorship during your early years as a cartoonist?

LJ:

I went to art school — but cartooning is a skill similar to handwriting. You develop your own way of expressing yourself through trial and error. You can copy, you can take all the classes you like, but cartooning is similar to writing. You can either do it or you can’t and no amount of trying will get you an audience. This is a performance! You outline the story, write all the lines, design the stage, manipulate the backgrounds, direct the camera angles, create the characters and then — play all the parts! If you don’t have these combined skills, you won’t be able to create a cartoon that sustains an audience. Some wonderful artists work with a team — and as a group can produce such classic marvels as Toy Story and the original Sleeping Beauty. Animation requires such excellent teamwork. A static comic strip requires YOU to be the team!

OB:

What advice do you have for novice cartoonists hoping to make it in the business?

LJ:

Cartoonists are at their most receptive and creative when they are young. Copying is not a bad thing — as long as it leads you to a goal of creating your own look and style. You automatically gravitate to the art that turns your crank, so check out the internet and see what’s out there. Eventually, you’ll connect with a few amazing people and you’ll become a fan. Study the work that’s being done by your favourite artists and copy enough to learn something. Take writing seriously. Write poetry, because all dialogue, all good short story writing has an economy of words. Your writing has to flow. Sing. Listen to the lyrics. The choice of one word over another is critical. Words are as important as drawings — often, MORE important.

Always be aware of your audience. Comic art is a journey into your own head and you want others to follow. They will not follow anything if they don’t fully “GET” what you’re doing. Watch the sit-coms and see how new characters are introduced. Look at the blocking, the stuff in the backgrounds…cartoons are all about information. Decide what info you want your audience to have and make it clearly understood. Just because MOM says you’re clever…doesn’t mean you ARE! Clever is knowing what your audience wants and needs in order to buy into your private world!!!

Act. Act out all kinds of situations. Make faces. Check out everything around you and be on “record” wherever you are. If you’re a cartoonist from birth, I don’t need to tell you this. You are already acting, singing, mugging and on record anyway. Read! Listen to the news. Listen to others — your opinion isn’t important if you don’t know what others are talking about. A good cartoonist reads. He/she is smart enough to know what’s happening globally as well as what’s happening at home. Have a great vocabulary and learn how to spell!!! Be aware of your talent but be cool about it. Bragging about your talent means you’re satisfied with where you are and will never improve. There is always someone out there more talented, funnier, more inventive than you are. Celebrate their gift with your admiration and learn from them!

As far as getting into the business of selling cartoons goes, plan on a career in commercial art so you can support yourself while you build up your cartoon skills. Work for free. You pay for an education, don’t you? Well, working for free is your education and seeing your comics in print is great for your folio. Offer to do posters, book marks, invitations — anything that will get your work to a printer. Check out how stuff looks on the finished item and know how to improve the next. People who refuse to work for free make me laugh! Again — THIS is your education!!!

When you do get a job: show up on time, do the best work you can do, give more than what’s expected of you, charge a reasonable fee, be honest, be pleasant to work with…and you’ll never be out of a job!!! I have offered opportunities to a number of people and the thing that surprises me most is…they don’t show up on time! I don’t care how talented you are — if you don’t show up, you’re no good to me or any other employer! Excuses might work in school where the real world is hidden behind lax discipline and “mom”. But when it comes to a job…there’s no room for laziness, arrogance or greed. I sound like a super crank…but honesty is sometimes a sharp smack in the head — wake up out there!!! You MIGHT have talent, but that’s not going to get you in the door. Trust me! RELIABLE wins every time!

OB:

Do you foresee yourself developing a new cartoon series in the future, once you are finished revisiting For Better of for Worse?

LJ:

No. I have retired from doing comic strips. My next endeavour — when I find out what it is — will be something completely different!


Lynn Johnston was born in Collingwood, Ontario, and grew up in British Columbia. Today, she lives in Corbeil, Ontario. Johnston was the first woman to receive a Reuben Award for Cartoonist of the Year by the National Cartoonists Society in 1985. She has also received the Order of Canada and claims a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame. For Better or For Worse has been syndicated since 1979 and appears in more than 2000 newspapers in the United States, Canada and 23 other countries. In 2008, Lynn was inducted into the “Giants of the North,” the Canadian Cartoonists Hall of Fame.

For more information about For Better of For Worse please visit the For Better or for Worse website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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