For Better or For Worse: Lynn Johnston’s Comic Art, Saturday, April 16, 11:45 a.m.-1 p.m., as part of the 17th Annual North Shore Writers Festival, April 15-16 at Lynn Valley Library. Free. northshorewritersfestival.com.
Lynn Johnston is happy to be home.
The celebrated cartoonist behind the beloved long-running For Better or For Worse newspaper comic strip lived in North Vancouver from age two to 20 before going on to spend close to four decades in Ontario, most recently North Bay.
In September 2015, the 68-year-old made a big move back to the West Coast and Johnston is currently pleased to be settling into her new home in Lower Lonsdale, the same neighbourhood she grew up in.
“I dream about the alleyway behind the houses. Some of the houses are still the same. Of course I remember the hills and riding up to Ridgeway school on my bike and riding down the hills - and pedalling for heaven sakes - and missing the corner and hitting fire hydrants and trees. We were reckless. I remember my brother, at the age of three, taking his pedal car and going all the way down to the Erection Shop. . . (He) was brought back by police, happy as a clam,” she reminisces, last week during a break from unpacking.
Johnston also recalls an early interest in art. Starting at age eight, she would walk down to Third Street and catch the bus to the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University of Art + Design), where she took Saturday morning classes. She remained a student into her teens, given some incredible opportunities, and officially started studying there upon completion of high school.
“By third year I knew that’s not what I wanted to do because it was a serious fine arts college and I wanted to draw funny pictures,” she says.
Johnston’s dream of creating “funny pictures” definitely became a reality and her For Better or For Worse strip ran from 1979 to 2008, earning the artist countless awards and accolades along the way, including being made a member of the Order of Canada in 1992 and receiving a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2003. Last year, Johnston released a retrospective, For Better or For Worse: The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston, co-written with her daughter Katie Hadway, and published to coincide with an international touring exhibition of Johnston’s work through the Art Gallery of Sudbury.
While Johnston is retired, her comics are still in circulation and the strip is being rerun from the beginning, currently appearing in approximately 1,500 newspapers worldwide.
“It’s pretty neat,” she says, explaining For Better or For Worse is among the few strips that have been rerun over the years, an honour bestowed on very few series – The Far Side and Peanuts included.
When Johnston embarked on the journey, she never imagined it would last so long.
“I just wanted to hold my space in the paper. I wanted to be good enough that I could be worthy of that space and see another day and another week and another month. When I started, I just wanted to be as funny as I could be every day and do something that was good every day. I had no future plans, I had no design, no method, nothing. And the only people I could draw over and over again was my own family and so it became a family story,” she says.
It’s that family story that has continued to attract fans as well as the normalcy of her subjects, the members of the middle-class suburbanite Patterson family - Elly and John and their children, Michael, Elizabeth and April.
“I tried to be as realistic as possible with the ups and downs. It was from a woman’s point of view so there was a lot of complaining,” Johnston laughs, “and a lot of women related to that, a lot of families. What’s fun now is that people who were children then are adults now reading it from an adult point of view and their children are reading it.”
While For Better or For Worse was grounded in reality, going so far as to see its characters age, and saw Johnston draw from experiences in her own life, she also enjoyed the opportunity the strip provided to rewrite history.
“You live in a fantasy world. Things develop the way you want them to develop. Even though in a writer’s experience one character might take off and do things you didn’t expect them to do, still you have total control. But in real life you have no idea if you’re going to get a cold tomorrow or fall down the stairs or your cat disappears. You just don’t know what ups and downs. And it’s very frustrating because you say, ‘Damn, if this was the strip I would write it differently, it would be a different ending,’” she says.
A source of personal inspiration throughout Johnston’s career was Peanuts, written and illustrated by Charles Schulz.
“One of the things that I loved about Peanuts when I was a little kid was the kids thought in adult ways. . . . My grandfather would say, ‘No child speaks like that.’ But as a little kid I knew that we thought that way.
Little kids have really profound thoughts, especially when it comes to what’s fair, and what’s right and wrong, and what’s mean and not mean, and things like that. You can’t put much over on a little kid. So I tried to do my work from a real little kid’s point of view and a real adult’s point of view,” she says.
In the wake of her own success, Johnston went on to form a friendship with Schulz and the pair remained close until his 2000 passing at age 77 in Santa Rosa, Calif.
“We were very fond of each other. I was honoured to be his friend because he didn’t make a lot of friends in the industry. He was gregarious, but he was also very private and he was very competitive,” she says.
As a professional cartoonist, Johnston continued to look up to Schulz, motivating her to produce quality work.
“I wrote and drew for Charles Schulz’s approval and I really appreciated the fact that he liked my work. He didn’t edit me and he didn’t advise me, but he considered me a peer, which was pretty wonderful,” she says.
Johnston will offer further insight into her work when she makes her debut at the 17th North Shore Writers Festival, an annual celebration of Canadian authors organized by the three North Shore public library systems. This year’s edition is taking place tonight and tomorrow (April 15-16) at the North Vancouver District Public Library’s Lynn Valley branch. Festivities will get underway tonight at 7 p.m. with the fourth annual Literary Trivia Quiz Night hosted by Grant Lawrence.
Saturday is the main festival day with events scheduled to get underway at 10 a.m. with How to Become A Successful Indie Author followed by a Local Author Book Fair at 11 a.m., Johnston’s presentation at 11:45 a.m., a Lunch Break Lounge at 1:15 p.m., The Power of Poetics: Jordan Abel at 2:45 p.m., The Art of Turning Personal Stories into Universal Truths: Camilla Gibb in Conversation with JJ Lee at 4 p.m., and a Writers + Readers Reception hosted by Lee at 5:30 p.m.