In the first few weeks of 2024, eagle eyed Lynn Johnston fans will likely have spotted hints of something new and exciting to come from the famous cartoonist. On Johnston’s website and social media pages were drawings, but not of John, Elly, Farley and the rest of the For Better or For Worse gang.
Instead they were of Johnston herself. One saw the artist slumped over her studio desk, daydreaming of a light blue robot and his mechanical canine friend. Another depicted Johnston wandering a nature trail, sketchpad and pencil in hand, drawing the sea of colourful robotic characters that surrounded her.
The sketches served as the first introduction to Alottabotz, the robotic world at the centre of a new series of children’s picture books written and illustrated by the artist.
“I’ve always loved children’s books,” says Johnston from her North Vancouver studio, a vibrant space where sofas come adorned with googly-eye shaped cushions, and cartoon aliens hang from the ceiling. “I love going into children’s stories, I love looking at the illustrations. If you’re a creative person like me, you want to take a shot at everything. I just wanted to give it a go.”
The first three books in the series, The Botshop, Marvellous Things, and A Dog With No Name, follow the adventures of Timothy Bot, a nine-year-old robot boy who moves to the sprawling ficticious city of Cyberland.
Johnston says she was always fascinated by robots and “can’t get enough” of the world of mechanics and animatronics, and so the robotic characters, unusual homes and futuristic modes of transport found within the Alottabotz world made their way to the page naturally.
Less easy to manifest was the actual narrative – writing a children’s book and putting together a comic strip aren’t as similar an experience as you might expect, she says.
“Often with children’s books, the illustrations are superb but the stories need some work. It was only when I took a shot at it myself I found that it really was quite difficult.”
Johnston found she was “more comfortable and confident” when writing in rhyme, an approach which has lent the stories a Seuss-like rhythm, and stories were easier to conjure when she made the decision to keep the narrative simple.
“There is a small message with each of them, but mainly they are just simple, charming little stories,” she says, adding how kids these days have "heard enough about recycling and climate change" and she doesn't want to be forcing lessons down children's throats.
All three books are geared towards children between three and five years old, but longtime fans of Johnston’s heartfelt comic strips, likely their parents and grandparents, will no doubt garner equal amounts of joy from being gifted fresh Johnston material.
“The people who have been reading For Better or For Worse are wonderfully loyal, many of us have actually been writing back and forth for many years,” Johnston says of her ever-dedicated fan base. “So I wanted to open this new project up to the readers first, if anything just for their feedback. I’m hoping that some of my readers will get the books and then let me know what they think, and we can have a dialogue there.”
It was certainly a blow for longtime fans when Lynn retired from writing and drawing the family-based saga in 2008 – by that point the strip had been running for 29 years, appearing in more than 2,000 newspapers worldwide.
The cartoon currently lives on in a republished format on Johnston’s website and in certain newspapers across North America (heads up: fans who mourned the loss of family dog Farley the first time around should bolster themselves for his soon-to-be second departure), but Johnston is adamant there will never be any further new For Better or For Worse material.
Prior to Alottabotz, the artist had in fact planned to retire officially, but putting down the pencil, it seems, is out of the question for an artist like Johnston.
“I tried to retire … I really did, but I just can’t. I don’t really know how to stop," she says, noting the friends who are cartoonists, painters and writers who have also found it impossible to put down their craft. “I mean, you really can’t. If you’ve got a gift, you can’t waste it, you don’t let yourself waste it."
The first three books in the Alottabotz series will be followed closely with the release of another three later this year. And if they're a hit? Johnston promises we’ll be seeing much more of Timothy Bot and his lively gang in the future, whether that be in the pages of more books, or emblazoned on backpacks and T-shirts.
Either way, retirement certainly isn’t on the cards just yet.
Mina Kerr-Lazenby is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.