Lynn Johnston, Creator of For Better or For Worse

19 april 2002

   Lynn Johnston leads a double life. On one hand, she has an authentic life as a wife and mother. She has her work as one of the top cartoonists of our time. She lives in the small town of Corbeil, in Northern Ontario with her husband, Rod. He is a dentist, a pilot and model railroader and he has a not-so-miniature train set that chugs around their yard. They have two grown children, Aaron and Katie.

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   But then, Lynn Johnston has another life, one of complex fantasy.

   The comic strip, For Better or For Worse, has allowed Lynn the freedom to create a second family. Elly and John Patterson and their three kids, Michael, Elizabeth and April, (plus boisterous pets), live in a detailed imaginary town. It is appointed with well-rounded characters of relatives, friends and strangers. Johnston’s nameless town is placed somewhere in southern Ontario, with schools, businesses, parks and rivers. The setting is far enough from the bigger cities that characters Michael and Elizabeth must move to attend university.

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   Lynn Johnston has made her fantasy world come alive in the comics pages since 1979, drawing readers into realistic human stories that we can all relate to, no matter what age. Her cartoon may bring laughter or tears to the eyes of her fans and always brings them back for more. Let’s take a look at her exceptional cartooning career.

   On May 28, 1947, Lynn was born in Collingwood, Ontario to parents Merv and Ursula Ridgway. Her father was a watchmaker/jeweler, and her mother a calligrapher and bookkeeper, and both were artistic and creative. Unfortunately, Lynn’s childhood often took unpleasant turns when her mother was angry. Lynn has one younger brother who is a professional trumpet musician. The Ridgway family moved to Vancouver, British Columbia when Lynn was three years old. She always loved to draw and doodle, right from the start. She attended the Vancouver School of Art for three years, with a goal of working in animation. When finished school, Lynn found a job in the ink and paint section of an animation studio. She married a television cameraman and the couple moved to Hamilton, Ontario in 1969.

   There was no animation work available in Hamilton, so Lynn began work as a medical artist at McMaster University. She said she “gained a reverence for life and the human body that only one in a hospital environment can achieve.” *(1) During her pregnancy in 1972, she left her job to become a freelance designer at home.

   While expecting Aaron, Lynn’s obstetrician  challenged her to do cartoons for the ceilings of his patient examining rooms. She complied, creating over 80 comics. The collection formed her first book, “David, We’re Pregnant.” Shortly after, Lynn and her husband divorced. She was left a single parent, struggling to run her own business from a greenhouse turned into a studio.

   Rod Johnston was a second year dental student when he entered Lynn’s life. They married in 1975, around the same time her second book of cartoons came out, “ Hi Mom, Hi Dad.” The Johnston family grew to include baby Katie. The family prepared to move to a small town in Northern Manitoba in 1978 (to fulfill Rod’s dream of becoming a flying dentist) when Lynn received a letter from Universal Press.

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   Lynn did not seek syndication. Universal Press Syndicate sought her talents to do a daily comic strip. They liked her books and thought she would be a good bet for cartoonist. They requested samples of her cartooning, so she sent almost two dozen strips of a comic she called “The Johnstons.” Lynn based the characters on her own family. “We were the only people I knew I could draw over and over again with some consistency.” *(2)

   Universal offered Lynn a 20-year contract on the basis of her ingenious work. The syndicate editor changed the name from “The Johnstons” to “For Better or For Worse.” Lynn changed the characters’ names  to the second names of everyone in her family, except for the star character. Elly is named after a high school friend of Lynn’s who died of brain cancer. In negotiations with the syndicate, Lynn held out for a few things, such as insisting the strip remain Canadian-based.

   The characters of the comic strip are broadly constructed from the family and friends of the Johnston’s. Michael and Elizabeth follow some elements of Lynn’s own children Aaron and Katie, but are three years behind. John is very similar to her husband Rod, both being dentists and model railroaders. April is Lynn's own imaginative creation, sprung from her desire to have another child. April’s spirit follows the cartoonist’s own childhood attitudes. Lynn lovingly added traits of her own father into Elly’s father. She added elements of her in-laws into several other characters and created new in-depth personalities as friends and neighbours.

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   Even the animals in For Better or For Worse take on endearing personalities. The readers are pulled into the joys of the rabbit, Mr. B., chasing Edgar, the pup, through the house, then looking like guilty children when ordered to stop. Fans world-wide were wrenched with sadness on the death of the Patterson’s beloved first pooch Farley, after he saved April from drowning the Sharon River near their house.

   It all sounds so real, doesn’t it?

   Lynn is not afraid to tackle difficult issues in her comic strip, making it more of a saga than a laugh-a-day event. She shared the sorrow of the death of Elly’s mom and included the reader in the mourning and confusion of her father on his wife’s death.

   She boldly included the difficulties and pain of Michael’s friend Lawrence admitting he was gay. Lynn stuck with this important story line, even though she received hate mail and cancellations of her strip. It was not enough to cause any permanent strip damage – she came out ahead in newspaper count after the kerfuffle was over.

   Careful crafting of the For Better or For Worse plot keeps millions of loyal comic strip fans engaged in the lives of the Patterson family. The characters mature and get older along with the rest of us, giving Lynn new and interesting story opportunities with each age group.

   Elly and John started as young parents but now are middle-aged. A lot of time has been spent on their adjustment to their ages and changes. Their son Michael and his girlfriend Deanna have married and are going to be parents themselves. Elizabeth is in university and getting more than a scholastic education. She is suffering heartaches and experiencing life on her own.

    For Better or For Worse debuted in newspapers on September 9, 1979 through Universal Press Syndicate. It now appears in over 2,300 newspapers in 25 countries world-wide. It is translated into eight languages. In 1998, Lynn changed syndicates, moving For Better or For Worse to United Features Syndicate.

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   How is this complex comic strip drawn? Lynn comes up with story lines and gags herself. Like Charles Schulz, she refuses suggestions from others. She does the penciling and final inking and has assistants who complete the background colouring and lettering. Lynn uses 2-ply Strathmore Bond paper. She makes use of Windsor-Newton Ink, C-6 Speedball nib pens and Rapidograph drafting pens. Colours are done by computer.

   The cartoonist and her staff work in a small building on the edge of a lake, near her home. She employs a web site designer, two assistants, a graphic designer and a manager in her booming business of cartooning.

   Lynn Johnston has received numerous awards for For Better or For Worse:

  • 1986 - Reuben Award for the Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year from the NCS She was the first female, the first Canadian and the youngest cartoonist to receive the prestigious award.
  • 1987 – Gemini Award (a Canadian honour similar to the Emmy) for the television special, “The Bestest Present.”
  • 1992 – Reuben Award for Best Syndicated Strip from the NCS.
  • 1993 – Nominated for a Pulitzer prize.
  • 1995 - Elected President of the National Cartoonists Society.
  • 1999 – Doctorate of Laws, honoris causa from the University of Western Ontario in “acknowledgment for her distinctive comedic talent.”
  • 2001 - Media Human Rights Special Award from the League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith.
  • 2002 – Nominated in Best Comic Strip category. Awards will be announced in late May. Lynn was honoured for her work by the Government of Canada in 1992. She was awarded the Order of Canada, the highest civilian honour bestowed on Canadians.

   Newspaper cartoon surveys continuously rate For Better or For Worse in the top five popular comics, and more often it reaches Number One, even out-rating "Peanuts", by Charles Schulz.*(1)

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   Though not an official spokesperson, Lynn has helped promote awareness for the Dystonia Foundation. She has a form of the disorder called Spasmodic Torticollis. Dystonia is a chronic neurological disorder causing involuntary muscle contractions that may force any part of the body into strange and sometimes painful movements. In Lynn’s case, her head is sharply pulled to the left in painful spasms. One out of 100 people suffer from Dystonia.*(2a)

   We have five more years to enjoy For Better or For Worse. Lynn has decided to finish the comic strip when her contract ends in 2007. She feels that the comic strip will have run it’s full course – it will have been in publication for 28 years. Lynn has other things she would like to do, such as go away for more than two weeks.

   Look for more of the Patterson family and For Better or For Worse on television and in books. Teletoon is running the cartoon as a regular and it also appears in specials on other channels. There are at least 23 books to add to your collection. (Lynn has also illustrated many other books and projects.)

   If you can't resist more For Better or For Worse comics for your house, there is a large selection of goodies available on the cartoon's website, including mugs, t-shirts and even beautifully handcrafted porcelain dolls of April.

    For Better or For Worse is so much more than a simple cartoon for the fans. Readers write to Lynn, asking what is happening with the present characters and those who have not appeared in the strip lately, as if they are living beings. Her readers feel truly involved.

   Lynn has taken her imagination to soaring heights, creating a realistic family saga that draws the readers into her characters’ lives. Through laughter and tears, her comic strip makes fans eager for the next instalment of her fascinating fantasy world.

   The Pattersons have become more than Lynn’s second family. They are ours, too.

   *(1) The complete home website of Lynn Johnston with information, games and goodies.

   *(2) How to be a Successful Cartoonist by Randy Glasbergen, Publisher:
North Light Books, 1996.  Pages 70-71.

   *(2a) Learn about Dystonia:

   The Washington Post Live Chat on July 6, 2001 with Lynn Johnston:

© Susanna McLeod 2002  
(Originally published in The Cartoonists on