The Lynn Johnston Interview
(Editor's note: This interview was published in Hogan's Alley #1, 1994.)
It's easy to form a mistaken impression about Lynn Johnston. I should know. Thinking myself rather well-informed, I had known her to be a fantastically talented woman masterminding one of the most successful strips—critically and popularly—in recent comics history. I also knew she loosely modeled For Better Or For Worse on her own family. And I was also aware that Universal Press Syndicate had sought her out, intent on convincing her to wield her unique talents in fashioning a new type of family strip-one done by a woman. (This was during a time when Cathy Guisewite's Cathy had shown the comics-reading public to be hungry for a female perspective.) To prepare for this interview, I read the autobiographical introduction to her strip's tenth-anniversary collection, where I learned about her childhood, which overall seemed healthy and normal. What I did not and could not know, however, was even more striking and served to heighten my already considerable admiration for the woman behind the drawing board. In achieving the pinnacle of success she currently enjoys as the creator of a strip appearing in more than 1,600 papers, Lynn Johnston had to rise above obstacles that would have shackled most people. If For Better Or For Worse seems so honestly and genuinely realized, its characters so in touch with themselves and their world, it is because they are extensions of their creator's complex and perceptive personality. Lynn, 46, was born Lynn Ridgway in Collingwood, Ontario, Canada, and she grew up in British Columbia. She is married to Rod Johnston (whose middle name is John). She has two children, Aaron Michael, 20, and Katy Elizabeth, 16. (Do those middle names sound familiar?) They live in Corbeil, Ontario. This interview—originally published in 1994 in Hogan's Alley #1—was conducted, transcribed and edited by Tom Heintjes.
Tom Heintjes: As a child, you were something that a lot of cartoonists weren't—you were outgoing and extroverted, the class clown, the prankster.
Lynn Johnston: I was outgoing and extroverted in the wrong way. I was a fighter. I was angry. I wanted to fight, and I wanted to hurt people.
Heintjes: What was the source of that anger?
Johnston: I was very unhappy at home. You think about child abuse and you think of a father viciously attacking a daughter or a son, but in my family it was my mother. My mother, I would say, was a...very brutal disciplinarian. She was brought up with a "spare the rod and spoil the child" philosophy, and she was raised by a father who brutalized her. He didn't want daughters. He wanted sons. He had no time for daughters. He refused to educate his daughters. It was a waste of his money. And they all left home as soon as they possibly could. Some of them ran away from home, some left to join the armed forces. That's what my mother did. And my father was the first person she'd met who treated her kindly. She was terrified of men, and she married a very meek, kind, dear man. And she had the upper hand. She ruled the roost. My father was beaten as a child. His philosophy became, "I refuse to lay a hand on my children."
Heintjes: That's the opposite approach of most abused children.
Johnston: Right. But my mother's philosophy was, the harder you beat them, the more they'll realize that what they've done is wrong. She would hit me until she was exhausted. She would use brushes, broomsticks, anything she could wield. I could look at the different bruises and tell what she had hit me with. If it was a black bruise with a red stripe down the middle, it was a piece of kindling. If it was a brown bruise with a certain shape to it, it was a hairbrush. If it was perfectly round, it was a wooden spoon. I used to go to school with bruises from the middle of my back to my heels.
Heintjes: And your father never interceded?
Johnston: Never. And my mother was so full of anger and hate. She was a brilliant woman. She could have done anything. She was a writer, she was an artist, she was a calligrapher, just a brilliant, talented lady with potential beyond belief. Right after the war, she married a man and had a family. But she wanted a career. She wanted to be a doctor. God help you if you got sick, because her home remedies would kill you. Poultices, enemas, and God knows what else. But at that time it was not appropriate for a woman to go to work. Her work was in the home. Everybody saw these magazine ads with the lady in the dress who stayed at home all day. But even though all this was going on at home, if someone had tried to take me away and put me in a children’s home, I couldn’t have handled it. Even though my mother was very brutal, it was my home.
Heintjes: Did your mother feel a need to always be in control of any given situation?
Johnston: Oh, yes. You talk about women in the military...she would have gone over the hill first. She would have held the machine gun until the last bullet was fired. She was a fighter.
Heintjes: What were your parents like when there wasn’t strife?
Johnston: My mother was a very literate person who had educated herself. She had an exceptional vocabulary. And my father was a comic. He could play any musical instrument. He loved to perform. He was a wonderfully comedic character. He had the ability to dance and sing and charm and analyze poetry. He was an exciting person to have in your home. When he got a few drinks in him, he was on. And he wasn’t an alcoholic. But he was a performer, and all he needed was a beer in his hand and he was gone. So the two of them together were very witty, very funny. And we never dealt with anything straight out in our home. If something happened, it was over and done. But there was an undercurrent of anger and hate and unresolved problems, all the time. For example, my mother would look at you and you would ask, “What’s wrong?” and she would say, “Well, you should know.” And it might be about something you said two weeks ago. But she would never tell you why she was angry with you. She might be angry with my father or my brother or someone else, and then something like a spilled bowl of cereal or a bad word would make her strike out, and she would beat and beat and beat and beat and beat you. You could see this look on her face that was pure rage.
When I got too big for her to beat, she would scream things at me like, “You fat cow! You ugly duck!” She just didn’t know any better, because that was the sort of thing she grew up with. Back then, there were no parenting groups. There were no books. All she knew was, “I have to get this ugly thing into line. I have to force this thing to toe the line.”
I haven’t told many people this because my parents were still alive and I didn’t want to reveal it, but I want you to print this, because it happens in so many families! She really cared, though. It’s hard to describe. On the one hand, she beat the living crap out of me. On the other hand, though, she was bright and witty and well read. Neither of my parents ever stopped encouraging my brother and me from pursuing our creativity. They let us take all kinds of art classes. My dad made $47 a week at the jeweler’s shop in Vancouver. If there was any money left over, we would go to see a movie or something like that. My mother used to shop for clothes at the Salvation Army. She would buy trenchcoats there and remake them to fit us. She made us the most wonderful clothes. We never realized how poor we were! She was a survivor. We grew our own food, and we were never hungry. My mother saved every scrap of food either for the compost heap or for the birds. People never knew we were poor, but out of that poverty came the most incredible inventions—board games, recipes...we never stopped inventing.
Heintjes: Both of your parents had come through the Great Depression.
Johnston: That’s right, and they had a Depression mindset. After I got this job at the syndicate, I started sending them money so they could go on trips and do the things they could never afford to do. All the while, I never knew that my mother was socking money away. And when my mother passed away, I found she had a bank account with $60,000 in it!
Heintjes: How long ago did she pass away?
Johnston: It’s been four years now.
Heintjes: It sounds as if you’ve reconciled your feelings toward your parents.
Johnston: It’s taken a long time. You know, when she died, I didn’t cry. I stood by the bed she had just died in, and I remember being very clinical, thinking, “She is still warm,” folding her arms across her body, tilting her head. It was very strange. Then I came home from the hospital, and I was sitting on the side of her bed, looking into her closet. I looked at her clothes, and you know what I thought of?
Heintjes: What was that?
Johnston: I thought of the Wicked Witch of the West, who turned into a puff of smoke after the house crushed her, and all that was left of her were her shoes. That’s what I thought. And it took me a long time before I could see past that and see her as something else—a strong, positive influence on me in many ways.
Heintjes: I’m having a little bit of trouble reconciling what I’m hearing now with what you wrote of your childhood in the 10th anniversary For Better Or For Worse collection.
Johnston: That book was written before my parents passed away. I was very, very protective of my parents. We were never able to resolve all these issues. We never talked about it. I remember after my mother’s death, I thought my father would talk to me about it. It was a perfect time to talk about it. One beautiful sunny Saturday he and I were taking a walk along the river, and we were talking about our lives together and growing up. And I said to him, “Dad, I want to talk to you about Mom beating us.”And he said, “I will not talk about it.” So part of him was acknowledging that it happened, and part of him was saying that it never happened at all. So when something goes unresolved, you have to resolve it some way. One way to resolve it is with the death of the people, because there is a certain romanticism that comes with death. I know it sounds crazy, but I have had far more connection with my parents after their deaths.
I’m not a great driver. I often get extremely frustrated with great big trucks in front of me and people driving too slowly. And just the other day, I almost killed my daughter and myself because I didn’t wait for a sensible place to pass. I was thinking that somehow there’s a hand on me that’s keeping me safe. One time I was on an airplane in a terrible storm. The woman sitting next to me had white knuckles, staring anxiously out the window. And I wanted to say to her, “We’re not going to crash—you’re with me!” I lead a charmed life, I really do.
Heintjes: Are you religious?
Johnston: I don’t like organized religion where people tell me I have to follow a certain dogma. I don’t like other people interpreting Scriptures for me. I like to interpret them for myself. Not that I feel that I’m the only one who can, but I just feel...let’s put it another way. Only a couple of times have I ever been to church and felt enlightened by it. When I was a kid, I was in the choir, and I remember the politics of the choir. The favorite kids got to sing solos, the kids who were not favorites didn’t. When I was 16, I was in the choir, and I was taking off my surplice after a performance, and this old gray-haired guy from the bass section grabbed my breast from behind. I spun around and said, “What are you doing?!” and he said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I was helping you off with your surplice.” And the way he said it, I thought, how can I believe that he wasn’t trying to help me? But when I got out of church that day, I thought, “How could that happen in church, of all places?” So church for me was always politics and lies.
Heintjes: Did your household have a pretense of being religious?
Johnston: It was “do as I say, not as I do.” Mom and Dad would stay in bed on Sunday morning, but the kids would have to go to church.
Johnston: Oh, yeah. They went to church on holidays.
Heintjes: Did you mind going to church under these circumstances?
Johnston: Well, I loved to sing, just loved it. I loved to sing harmonies. So the choir for me was wonderful. The dogma of the church was secondary. After I proved I could keep a tune, I loved getting to sing solos.
Heintjes: Did you devise any sort of escape mechanism for the life you had?
Johnston: I was very reclusive. I spent hours and hours in my room drawing. That was my release, and that was my way of surviving. You see, anything I imagined, I could draw. And I found that if I was in a terrible depression and I closed my eyes, the blackness would appear to go on forever. But if I put it down on paper, it was no bigger than 8 1/2 by 11, and I could deal with that. If you have a horror inside of you, it goes down to your marrow. But on paper, it’s not so bad.
Heintjes: So drawing became a form of therapy.
Johnston: It was a way to survive. If I was in love with someone, I would get their picture out of the school yearbook and do portraits. If I was curious about sex, I would draw pictures of it. There were no books for me to look at. Then I would go find my father’s matches to burn the paper. [laughter] If I wanted to draw funny pictures, I would draw them, and I remember loving watching my brother laugh at them. My brother was a great audience, and if he liked the picture, he would laugh and laugh and laugh, and he would want to keep the picture. Making people laugh with an image I had created...what power that was!
Heintjes: How did your upbringing affect the way you rear your own children? Do you find yourself reacting against the way she brought you up?
Johnston: [Pause] I treat my children both like my mother and myself. But I really need to answer that question later, because I had to go through so much before I learned how to raise my children.
I had a terrible marriage the first time around because I had no self-confidence, even though I had tremendous self-confidence. That was the strange thing. That’s why I’m a perfect Gemini. One part of me says that no matter what happens, I have a talent that no one else has. I could sing, I could write, I have so many gifts that I could fall back on. I knew I wouldn’t have to work at Woolco. I could go into show business. I knew, deep down inside, that I was never going to starve.
The other side of me said, “You’re fat, you’re ugly, you don’t deserve the best.” I never believed I was in love with a guy unless I was crying into my pillow. Any kind man who brought me flowers and remembered my birthday, I thought, “You wimp!” Any guy who treated me like shit, I wanted! “Please God, don’t let him go! He said he’d call me!” So I went for these guys who treated me like shit, and I married one of them! The guys who treated me badly were the funny guys, and I always went for the guys with the sense of humor. But I married a guy who treated me very badly, but I was happy. I was miserable, so I was happy.
Heintjes: This was Doug, the man who gave you Aaron?
Johnston: Yes, and when I had Aaron, he left me, and I didn’t know how to raise a child. And I wasn’t close to my parents, and because I was too proud to go to my parents for help, I mistreated that little baby. I didn’t want a baby. I wanted the stability that a family was supposed to represent. And a baby can’t say, “Thanks, Mom, for feeding me and keeping me warm and dry even though I screamed my lungs out all night last night.” And they want and they want and they want and they want. The only satisfaction you have is that they’re fed and they’re warm and they’re safe and they’re thriving, and they smile at you every once in a while. They’re not going to thank you until they’re 45 [laughter].
I remember once when he was very unhappy and he was screaming and screaming, and I threw him out into a snow bank in his pajamas. This was in Ontario, and it was not warm here. And he put his hands against the window of the front door, pleading to be let in. And I was inside, screaming at him, “If you don’t want to sleep all night, you can friggin’ sleep outside!” And this was a teeny baby. And I don’t know what it was—it was almost like at that moment, my guardian angel put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Open the door.”
The next morning, I called a very good friend of mine who was working at the hospital. I had also been doing some work for this hospital on a freelance basis. And I said to my friend, “I need some help. I don’t known how to parent.” Now, you say to yourself, “I’m a mature adult—I should know how to parent.” But raising a child is not like training a dog. [laughter] I was not a sensible mother. I just didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I didn’t know about time out. I didn’t know to say, “OK, we’re both out of control, let’s have time out for five minutes and calm down.”
I was in a very unhappy situation. I was lonely, I was single, and I had all the elements set against me. I had no support. And it didn’t help that I had a very irritable, difficult child. He’s going to go into the theater [laughter]. He’s a performer. He’s witty. He could go into stand-up comedy. He’s taken all his anger and turned it into something creative.
Heintjes: Sounds like he got those traits honestly.
Johnston: He did. Aaron and I will be joined at the hip until the day we die. We have loved and hated each other since the day he was born. He’s very much a part of my heart. He’s going to broadcasting college now, and he’ll do fine. But he came into a world that did not welcome him. I was exactly like my mother in that sense. I just didn’t know how to raise him. I had grown up with all the anger, the frustration, and I didn’t know how to raise a child.
Heintjes: Did you ever physically discipline Aaron?
Johnston: I only hit him once. Hard. I felt myself becoming my mother—and I couldn’t bear that! I did shout a lot, and I cried a lot. I didn’t want to hit Aaron, because he was so small. I can remember my mother dragging my brother around by his arm, like a little monkey. That image was very clear in my memory, and I could never do something like that to my own child. That’s one thing that’s always served me well as an artist—I could draw that scene right now, because I can recall it so well. I don’t forget things like that.
Heintjes: Has your husband helped you shape your approach to child rearing?
Johnston: Oh, yes. I was lucky enough to marry the dearest man in the whole world who, without a psychologist’s papers, is able to observe a situation and...I won’t say analyze it, but see the dynamics and help me figure out why I’m doing something in a certain way. It’s taken me a long time to become the person I am, for all the ugliness to fall away. The rotten flesh is gone, and the seed is there. I can touch that now.
Heintjes: Contrast Aaron’s upbringing with your daughter’s, Kate.
Johnston: When Kate was born, she was born into a world of joy and happiness and confidence. The difference between the children is night and day. She’s happy, she’s thriving, she’s full of self-confidence. I tell her she’s beautiful every day before I send her off to school. When I had her, I was happy, and when you’re happy, you can look in the mirror and say, “You know, I’m not so bad.” But when Aaron was born, it was different. My husband would say things to me like my mother did. “You’re fat and ugly.” And he treated me like garbage. His girlfriends would call him at home, and when I would pick up the phone, they would giggle at me. And I would look in the mirror then and say to myself, “If only I were pretty. If only I were thin.” So I decided to get thin, and boy, did I get thin—I went down to 110 pounds. I was anorexic. I would go to bed and my stomach would be cramped.
Heintjes: What cured you of the anorexia?
Johnston: I think it was because a friend of mine did the same thing. We would call each other late at night and say, “I’m starving, are you starving? OK, don’t eat anything and I won’t, either.”
Heintjes: You were each other’s codependent.
Johnston: That’s right. She was from Germany. Her name was Brunhilda. She ran away from home to come to Canada, and we became best friends. We went on this incredible diet where we both became skeletons. I remember looking at her at one point and saying, “You look terrible!” Here we were, trying to become the models we saw in magazines. We wanted the pointed hips and the angular elbows—we looked like Biafrans.
When I first met Bernie, she was wonderful, sexy, beautiful...every man’s dream. She wasn’t fat, but she was rounded, just a delicious-looking woman. Beautiful blue eyes, just perfect. And here she was after this diet, her back covered with bumps from her spine.
Heintjes: I don’t imagine that you were much better off.
Johnston: No, I wasn’t. But I looked at my friend Bernie and said, “This is it, we’re killing ourselves.” I quit dieting, and she didn’t. Her period stopped, and she just got worse.
Heintjes: What ultimately happened to her?
Johnston: She married a doctor, and that was a crazy relationship. They moved back to Germany, where they split up, and I lost touch with her. I know her father owned a pub in Germany, and I have a crazy idea that she’s working at that pub. I’d love to go there and see her again; she was a wonderful person.
Heintjes: You are a very successful, much-admired woman. And yet, you suffered so much in your childhood and early adulthood. Since so much of a person’s self-esteem is formed during this period, I wonder how you feel about yourself now.
Johnston: I’ve always felt that life is a novel, and part of it is written for you, and part of it is written by you. It’s up to you to write the ending, ultimately. I’ve had some tremendous adventures, good and bad. It’s part of the novel, and a novel isn’t interesting if it doesn’t have some good and bad. And you don’t know what good is if bad hasn’t been a part of your life.
Years ago, one person wrote to me and accused me of being an amateur psychologist. I wrote back to her and said, “Yes, I am an amateur psychologist.” We all are. That’s how we get through life. That’s how we figure out our relationships with people. And I wrote to her, “As an amateur psychologist, I wonder what is upsetting you so much that you would be angered by a comic strip? What else in your life is upsetting you?” I’m sure she was miffed by that.
Sure, I’ve had some bad times, but everybody does. But people don’t get to talk about them like I do, unless they do to a therapist. People don’t get to put them in the paper like I do. At 46, I’m still making mistakes, but I really think people are enriched by the bad stuff, and it should not motivate you to do bad stuff in return. I’m a product of my home, and I have wonderful friends, a wonderful husband and a wonderful family. All of that is good. I could easily have been torn apart by another bad marriage. I was just so lucky to have a wonderful life after a tough marriage. I often think you bring unhappiness on yourself, because if you don’t like yourself very much, you allow yourself to be influenced by people who reinforce that.
Heintjes: That’s what prompted my question, because in years past you seemed not to really like yourself a whole lot.
Johnston: Oh, I didn’t. And I still don’t. In a way, a certain amount of self-criticism is a good thing, because it keeps you humble. Realizing that no matter what success you’ve achieved, you can still make enemies makes you humble, too. The Lawrence series has been a very humbling experience!
Heintjes: I want to switch gears here and talk about your early interest in comics. I find it interesting that some of your earliest comic influences were comic books, and not comic strips. In fact, you and I share some of the same early favorites—Little Lulu, Uncle Scrooge, Mad magazine.
Johnston: Well, those were all fantasy comics. I was never interested in superheroes, though. In the superhero comics the men were always all-powerful, and I was surrounded by weak men. My father was meek, and every male teacher at school that I could browbeat into tears, I did. The men were my adversaries, in a sense.
Heintjes: Did you enjoy Wonder Woman comics?
Johnston: No. Wonder Woman was perfect, and I was fat and ugly. I knew I could never look like that, so I didn’t want to look at her. I loved the Little Lulu stories, where she would fantasize that her bedroom rug would turn into a pool of water, and she could dive down into the center of the world. Or Scrooge McDuck with his money bin. I loved all that stuff. It was wonderful fantasy that seemed achievable by a child. And it wasn’t ugly. There were no villains with guns. The bad guys were the ones who were going to steal your lunch money, or who were going to stop it from raining forever.
Heintjes: Were comics permissible in your household when you were a child?
Johnston: Yes they were, all the time. Because they were creative. The only thing that caused a problem was Mad, and that was only with my mother, because my father had a more raucous sense of humor.
Heintjes: At that time, Mad must have seemed like an underground comic.
Johnston: It was absolutely an underground comic. To my mother, it was like having a porno magazine. It was gross. She also didn’t approve of The Three Stooges because they were so coarse. My mother was a lady.
My grandfather had been a philatelist for King George V. He was probably one of the leading experts on forgeries. My grandmother was an opera singer who worked for a portrait painter who worked for the royal family. So of course they hobnobbed with the upper crust. And my mother married a guy whose father was a shipyard worker in Collingwood, Ontario. My father’s vocabulary was so big only because he was a voracious reader and taught himself to speak properly. So my mother was from the aristocracy and my father was from the bush, so she was shocked when we were captivated by something as crass as The Three Stooges. One time I whacked my brother over the head with a piece of celery to see if it would shatter as effectively in reality as it did when The Three Stooges did it, and it did! It has to be fresh, though. [laughter]
Heintjes: Did you ever poke him in the eyes?
Johnston: No, but my brother and I tried to kill each other many times. My father would encourage us to stage-fight behind my mother’s back. He knew how to do the pratfalls without hurting himself, and he didn’t mind The Three Stooges.
Heintjes: What sort of creative influence did comics have on you? Did you ever try tracing any of your favorites?
Johnston: No, never. I never wanted to trace people’s work. I would try to draw cartoons from time to time based on other peoples’ stuff, but I just wasn’t happy copying anybody. If I took elements of anybody’s work, it was Len Norris of the Vancouver Sun. He was my father’s absolute idol; he just adored the man and had all of his books. He was an editorial cartoonist, and his drawing was just exquisite. It had a British sort of sarcasm to it. He had been an architect, so his renderings were just absolutely beautiful. He always gave you extra stuff to look at. If there was a painting on the wall of the ocean and the painting was tilted, the water was still perfectly horizontal. If there was a bird cage, all you would see of the bird was its feet, because it was obviously dead. I always appreciated that, because not only did you have all of these extra jokes, but you had 10 minutes of looking at all of these drawing thrills.
Heintjes: You’ve mentioned in the past that your grandfather would sort of pontificate on each of the Sunday comics, and you differed with him over Peanuts.
Johnston: Well, when I was a kid, my grandfather was not a nice guy. If you talked to other people who knew him, he was a great guy with a sense of humor, and he was somebody they enjoyed knowing. But to me, he was a sadistic, black, haughty, unattainable ogre. I always felt his disappointment in me. I hated him and wanted him to love me at the same time. As a child, you work so hard for the approval of a grandparent or a parent. You want them to love you, and you’ll do anything, even if it means being silly or acting out. You want them to notice you and you want them to care, even if it’s not positive care. You want something out of them.
My grandfather used to lavish all sorts of attention and affection on my brother, while he virtually ignored me. He would give my brother 50 cents and he would give me a nickel. Right in front of each other.
My grandparents lived on this wonderful piece of property that ran up to the train tracks behind their house. It overlooked a very rocky landscape. Behind the house they had peach trees, and we would grab the peaches and wait for the train to go by, and if the peaches were rotten enough, they would smack off those passenger trains’ windows like you wouldn’t believe! [laughter] We’d get bulls-eyes and yell “Yahoo!” And that seed in the middle of the peach would hit the window with that satisfying “click.” One day in the peach trees I found a robin’s nest with a perfect little robin’s egg in it. I came running down the hill with it, and my grandfather was sitting in front of the house with my brother, and they were making string baskets with their fingers. I guess I was about 8 and my brother was about 6. Anyway, I said, “Look what I found! Look what I found!” I was so excited! And my grandfather said, “The way to keep this is to make a tiny hole in the end of it and blow the material out so you can preserve the shell.” So he got a needle from the house, and I was so excited that I would have this robin’s egg. As he was about to puncture it with his needle, he turned to my brother and said, “And I will give this to you.” And I said, “But I found it! It’s mine!” And my grandfather turned to my brother and said, “As I said, I will give this to you.” Then he lifted up the bird’s egg close enough to his face so he could see what he was doing, and he popped the needle in, and the egg must have been rotten, because it blew up in his face and covered it in the yuckiest muck. I was thrilled! I remember thinking, “There is a God.”
Heintjes: Wow—that is perfect!
Johnston: But you see, I wanted his approval. I would do anything for his approval, because as a grandparent I saw him every other weekend. No child wants to be out in the cold. My grandfather loved the comics, and he would analyze the Sunday comics. This was something between him and me, because my brother never cared for the comics. He would analyze Pogo, and he would analyze Momma and Miss Peach. He would talk about why they were drawn that way and what the artist really meant. I was into this, because it was attention from him. I remember thinking that nothing could be worse than Henry. It was boring to read, it was drawn so boring, his tongue would appear out of his chin when he was eating an ice cream cone. I remember thinking, “I could do better than that.” That’s the sort of thing that really spurs you on to try it.
The one strip my grandfather really didn’t like was Peanuts. Now, I remember when Peanuts first appeared in our paper. It was in the mid-’50s. I was sitting next to my grandfather on the couch, really enjoying the fact that I was close to him, it was warm, and he wasn’t pushing me away. He was going through the comics, and I always tried to agree with him, just to make him happy. He finally came to Peanuts, and it was a strip where Charlie Brown talks about how depressed he is, and Lucy comes out with a smart remark, and my grandfather said, “No child talks like that. No child has these thoughts. This is ridiculous.” And I thought, “You’re wrong. We may not use the same words, but we have the same thoughts and the same feelings.” Everything about that strip seemed right. And what appealed to me about it more than anything is that all the women were strong! Lucy was a crank, but she was strong! Peppermint Patty could go out there and play ice hockey and win! One thing I know about Charles Schulz is that he really likes strong women. Many women in his life have been strong. He’s encouraged his daughters to be strong, as well. I think he was taking little risks in the strip. You know, there’s a formula to comic art, a formula to the gag. It’s not predictable necessarily, but there is nevertheless a formula. I think Charles Schulz was willing to forgo that formula with punchlines like “Whatever...” and the psychiatrist’s 5-cent booth.
Heintjes: The characters would cast their eyes upward in response to a remark—that was all new.
Johnston: Right! I was looking in a copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, and they only give him two quotes out of the whole thing. Of course, they only give Jesus one. And I said to myself that I was going to take five minutes and come up with more than two quotations. So I opened up—I think it was the 35th anniversary—book, and in five minutes I wrote down six or so others that could really have been in Bartlett’s. They were really fine, brilliant, quotable quotes. And I told that to him. I couldn’t believe they gave him only two quotes. Cathy Guisewite is someone else who writes very quotable quotes. Why aren’t they in Bartlett’s Friggin’ Quotations? They’ve got all these things by Aristotle that no one ever heard of before.
Heintjes:I think it all comes down to something that you and I and everyone who loves comics have to battle on a daily basis, and that is the general public’s dismissal and trivialization of anything associated with comics. I was showing some of my cartoon work to a coworker who is a fine artist. She didn’t really know I could draw before I showed her my stuff, and she looked at it and said, “Wow, Tom, if you have this kind of talent you might be able to do some real art one day!” And she wasn’t trying to offend me. It was just a natural thing for her to say, because it was comics and therefore not “real” art.
Johnston: She actually said that to you...wow. Here’s an anecdote for you. The first time I went up to Charles Schulz’s house, the first time I had spent any real time with him, the first thing he wanted to show me was a drawing he had done of a street in France he had seen while he was there during the war. I looked at this beautiful, sensitive illustration of the houses and the cars, and he looked at me and said, “I really can draw.” All of us feel that way.
The editorial cartoonists razz us, and we razz them. They say to us, “You don’t have these tight deadlines every day, and you don’t always have to be topical, you can do stories about whatever you want. You can draw a strip and then go play golf.” And we say to them, “Yeah, but you have an infinite amount of resource material, and you have real space to draw in! We have these little postage-stamp areas, one-third of which has to be the dialogue.”
Heintjes:That leads me to my next question. You obviously have a real passion for drawing. It shows in everything you do. Do you ever feel constrained by the size of the strip?
Johnston: Not really. I’ve found that I can use that space effectively. I do think, though, that if they reduced it any more I would simply throw my hands up in the air and find another business. We’d lose our readers. Most people can’t see that small.
Heintjes: I want to talk about For Better Or For Worse, just in case you thought we were never going to get around to it. Tell me about your early career in cartooning, and how this eventually manifested itself into the strip.
Johnston: When I was a kid, I always cartooned. When you’re a kid, you eat when you’re hungry and you laugh when you’re happy and you do stuff on the spur of the moment that’s a thrill. I cartooned. It was something I did without thinking about it. So when I went to art school, it was the linear, visual arts that intrigued me and the commercial art was the thing that came closest. I was not going to be a painter, and I was not going to be one of these experimental artists who cast body parts in rubber. I wanted to do something that was fast and funny and would make a statement and sold stuff.
Heintjes: Most art schools think that comics work is pretty despicable as a career goal.
Johnston: Exactly. The people who went into the commercial field were called “the hacks.” Meanwhile, these other people were spending $50 on paint—actually, they were requisitioning from the government, which was enough to make you puke—throwing it on 30-foot canvases, hanging them in local galleries and getting medals for it! The rest of us are painfully doing tuna casseroles in black-and-white ink. But the ones who did the casseroles are making a living. The people who threw paint onto canvases are either on welfare, drugged, or went into the retail business. I don’t know.
But it was a fine arts college. They put no money into the commercial art area. You know that adage “Them that can’t do, teach”? It was so painfully, pathetically, unhappily true. The guy who was teaching commercial art was looking at it from the ‘20s. We were still rendering in black and white when color television was happening. We were begging for color, and he was making us render in black and white with frisket paper and smudged charcoal and things that people didn’t do anymore. We wanted to do stuff in airbrush and colors. Then, when I got a summer job in an animation studio, I can’t tell you how I suddenly woke up! There are people in this world who are as nutty as me!
There are other people who act and sing and perform and bang their heads against the wall and laugh and draw and dream and bring things to life! So I quit art school and took on a full-time position at the animation studio. I worked there for two or three years, and I met and married a cameraman, and moved to Ontario looking for work. In those days, there was no work in B.C., and all the work was in Ontario. Now that we have an NDP government, B.C. is where all the work is, and there’s none in Ontario! So we moved to Ontario, and I tried to get work as an animator out here. But there was no work in animation unless I wanted to freelance for Rocket Robin Hood, which was garbage! I thought maybe I’d go back into the jewelry business, because my dad was a jeweler, and I’d grown up working for him. So one day I took my folio in the store with me for the hell of it, and the guy who ran the store said, “Look, I’ll hire you if you can’t find anything else—you’ve got too much talent to work here.” I took that as the most wonderful compliment; it filled me up. I could’ve kissed the guy right there. About a day later, there was an ad in the paper for a medical artist at McMaster University, and they were simply looking for someone who could do charts and graphs for medical students. Black-and-white diazo slides, illustrations for lectures, things like that. So I spent all night making charts and graphs up out of my head, and I copied out of my anatomy books, and I padded my portfolio with all this phoney-baloney stuff. And I went into this place to apply for this job and this animal just looks at my legs. It was miniskirt time, and it was a time when I didn’t weigh much, and I guess he liked what he saw. He hired me for my legs—they were really lucky that I could draw. At the time, I was really glad of the sexist attitude. “I got the job ‘cause I’ve got legs!” [laughter] So they hired me and another guy who could draw quite well, and they put us into medical school along with about 20 brand-new medical students who were being trained in an exceptional way. They were completing a four-year course in two years. So a lot of the stuff was already done for them. All the dissections were completely done—it wasn’t like they had to do the dissections. So I took a detailed anatomical course so I could illustrate and label the dissections. I did the most unbelievable stuff for five years. I did reconstructive plastic surgery, genetics, growth and development of the fetus, I worked with people as they were having angiograms, I animated a whole kidney biopsy...it was a real serious medical professional’s job I had. And in my spare time I would do posters for the university. It was wonderful, because at home, I had this terrible marriage; things were falling apart there.
One of the doctors in epidemiology and biostatistics had a dad who was cartoonist. He said, “I’ve seen your posters around the school,” and he asked me to do some cartoon art to illustrate his lectures. I did them, and it was so much fun! Dave Sackett was a delight to work with. The other doctors were infuriated, though. They thought it was making fun of their profession, but the students who looked at these cartoons memorized the information 100 percent quicker than the students who didn’t! And they did an analysis of the cartoon work versus the plain diazo slides, and suddenly I did nothing but cartoon art for the university! I was no longer doing the detailed anatomical and surgical work. I did that freelance at home, and I started a little freelance commercial art studio where I branched out and developed a huge clientele.
When I had my son, I was thinking I would be able to stay at home and do my freelance work. Then my husband left. Aaron was six months old. I was left with the baby, the house and my freelance work. I was making $7,000 a year in 1973. At the time, you could survive on $7,000 a year. If I spent any more than $20 a week on groceries, I was over budget, but I was managing on $7,000 a year as long as welfare was paying for Aaron’s daycare. I was so proud of myself that I could survive as a cartoonist, and I could support myself and my baby and pay my mortgage and my groceries. And the last people I would ever ask for help were my parents. I would never ask them for help. I always wanted them to think that I could make a living by myself. So that’s where I was right before I met Rod Johnston. You see, I love to fly, and I love small aircraft. The smaller, the better. One stormy day in March, Aaron was sitting in the car seat, and this little plane flew overhead. He said, “Airplane, Mum!” So, I turned the car and drove up the hill to the airport so we could watch the plane land. The fellow who flew the plane came over to me and started a conversation. And he invited me to fly with him the next day. We flew to the next airport for hamburgers. A year later, we were married. Now, you can’t tell me that somebody didn’t say, “The guy in that airplane is your guy.” [laughter]
Rod wanted to move to the Northwest Territories. He wanted to be a flying dentist. He was in his second year of dental school, he was brought up in the Arctic. His father was a miner and a prospector, and his mother had been one of the first teachers to go up into the Arctic. I thought, “I don’t want to lose this guy.” And he was going to have a rough time accepting Aaron, because Aaron was a very difficult child who wanted his mother all to himself. He did not want Rod around, so he’d scream all night and throw these temper tantrums where he’d foam at the mouth and bang his head against the wall. And one day, Rod said to me, “Look, I’ll take on Aaron, and you take on the bush, and we’ll make it.” And we did. I’ve been married to him for 17 years now, and I’m still crazy about him. We had an interesting life up there, and that’s where the strip began. While I was freelancing, I had done three little books, one of which was done while I was pregnant with Aaron. I had done them for the ceiling above my obstetrician’s examining table, and he convinced me to turn them into a book.
Heintjes: Who published these?
Johnston: Oh, there are some horror stories. The first one, David, We’re Pregnant, was published in Hamilton, Ontario, by a publisher who never paid me. For the second book, Hi Mom, Hi Dad, I signed up with a second publisher in Toronto, who ended up being such an alcoholic that he went bankrupt and lost his business, and the second book disappeared.
Heintjes: The second book just ceased being published?
Johnston: That’s right.
Heintjes: Did you ever get your originals back?
Johnston: Oh, no. Then, the third book, Do They Ever Grow Up?, was done through a Minneapolis guy.
Heintjes: What happened to the first book?
Johnston: I ended up hiring a lawyer to buy the rights to my first book back for the amount the guy in Hamilton owed me, which at that point, three years later, was $25,000. To date, David, We’re Pregnant has sold more than 300,000 copies. And he’ll go to his grave telling everybody what a shit I am because if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have the job I have now. “Once they get big they dump on the little guy,” that kind of stuff. The second guy in Toronto died. The third guy in Minneapolis got the rights to all three books and did a wonderful job publishing them, but we’ve since had a…difference of opinion. So he keeps publishing the books, but I don’t do artwork for him anymore.
But he was the one who sent my books to the syndicate, saying “If you don’t publish her, I will.”
Heintjes: That was to Jim Andrews at Universal.
Johnston: That’s right. It was Lee Salem who called up and asked for 20 samples, and I thought, “How crazy! How could they want so much so fast? They’ve got to give me time!” So within two weeks I sent them 20 comic strips. At the time, we were living out of packing boxes, I had a brand-new baby girl, and we were really living in chaos. And I didn’t hear from them forever, and then a 20-year contract arrived! Later, I found out that the reason they wanted the 20 strips right away was to see if I could produce fast and produce under pressure. That’s something new people aren’t prepared for. It might have taken them six months to put together the 20 samples they’re sending in, but the syndicate doesn’t know how long it took them to do those 20 strips, so they test you.
Heintjes: That’s part of the value of the development period, too.
Johnston: Exactly. I know a young man who’s just had a very frustrating time. He signed a development contract with a syndicate, and then the syndicate finally turned him down. Well, I’ve seen the work he’s submitted over that six-month period, and the problem is, no matter how hard they worked with him, he never improved. Yet, he was under the delusion that he was getting better, that he could simply turn in more of the same stuff. And how do you say to somebody, “You’re not funny enough?”
Heintjes: It’s hard to hear.
Johnston: It’s hard to hear, and it’s hard to say. He recently sent me a block of stuff and he draws very well, but he’s not funny enough. He said, “Please give me some advice, and I will frame it.” It’s almost like people will succeed by osmosis. “I really want to meet so-and-so, because if I meet so-and-so, maybe then my work will be published.” It doesn’t come from connections, it comes from inside. I was brutally honest with him and said, “You’re not funny enough.” In today’s awful, competitive world where the comics are shrinking and the newspapers aren’t buying any more and the syndicates aren’t willing to risk anymore, you have to be good now. They’re not willing to take someone with potential and pursue and develop it. And that’s how I got in. I got in at a time when they said, “Well, it’s a little rough, but let’s see what the kid can do.” Now, I look at that early stuff and I wonder why they ever hired me. But I don’t think they have the time, money or energy to do that as much anymore. Comic strips are shrinking, and whenever a new strip is introduced, an old strip has to be bumped. And many of the old strips that can be bumped have been bumped, so they’re up against the good stuff. And to compete with the good stuff, you have to be really good. So I was lucky. I entered the field at a time when I needed to develop, and I was allowed to.
Heintjes: Even from the earliest days of For Better Or For Worse, when the strip was still evolving, to its current incarnation, you’ve managed to bring a lot of what I would call subtlety into a medium that is generally not known for its subtlety. One of my favorite strips you’ve done was the Sunday where Elly was standing on the patio brushing her hair, reminiscing about how she used to watch her mother do the same thing, and all the while Elizabeth is watching Elly. It was so understated and poignant, and I think the reason it stayed with me is because comics have traditionally not dealt well with subtle themes and topics.
Johnston: I think maybe it’s because I’m a girl. [laughter] There are so many men in the business who are good at the comedy part, but the subtle, gentle, nuance part, you don’t see that much. I think Brian Bassett, who does Adam, is very capable of that. I think Sparky does that. I do it. Cathy Guisewite is far more brazen, but you’ll see that gut-wrenching insight in Cathy. They have their finger on that sensitive pulse. They make you say, “Yes, I know how that feels.” It’s not necessarily funny, but it’s real.
Heintjes: One other sequence that I think was a particularly well-done “slice of life” piece was the story of the rubber band around Farley’s leg. That one really rang true.
Johnston: Oh, that one was based on something that really happened! We don’t have a Farley type of dog—Farley is based on a dog I used to own that I gave away. But our dog kept favoring its leg, he kept licking on it, and when you looked at it, you could see that he was licking at a wound. But it looked like a bad cut, maybe a wire cut. He never leaves the property, but he does have free roam of the bush, and who knows? Maybe he cut himself on some wire down there. We don’t really know what might be in the bush. So I was treating it and looking after it, but it wasn’t healing. I finally took him to the vet’s, and he couldn’t find out what it was, either. Very fortunately, one of the two vets at the clinic decided to take a really good look. He opened the wound up and found an elastic band. It turned out that my son had at one point put a rubber band around the dog’s leg and forgot about it, and the darn thing worked its way through the hair until it was against the skin, and it eventually worked its way into the flesh, right down to the bone.
It affected all of us. It affected the kids deeply, because they had lost sight of this rubber band, and none of us knew what was happening. And I did that strip to alert people about this potential problem. It’s like Ann Landers telling people to watch their babies around toilets, because they can drown. “Well, gosh, I didn’t know that!” And here this was such a simple thing. For readers, nothing affects them like something happening to pets. You can show people being blown off the face of the earth every day on daytime TV, but show a dog with a thorn in its paw, and you’ve got readers sending in volumes of mail.
Heintjes: Are we left to conclude, then, that perhaps subtlety is not commercial and that’s one reason for the relative lack of women cartoonists?
Johnston: I think there are lots of women cartoonists. I think they’re working at ad agencies, and other people are getting credit for their brilliance. They are animators, they do cards, they are everywhere, wonderful, talented women cartoonists. But very few have come into this comics field, for whatever reason. I never thought that I could do this. I never applied for this job. I never sent anything in and said, “Hey, check this out, give me a job.” When I signed a contract at Universal Press Syndicate, the people around that big rosewood table were interested in celebrating. They wanted to take me out to lunch, but I went back to the hotel and—swear to God—got physically ill.
Heintjes: You realized what you’d gotten yourself into.
Johnston: How could I produce material every day, 365 days a year? How could I do that? I could see producing a book now and then, but a daily comic strip? I was going to have readers every day who would expect a certain level of quality work, and I think that maybe that’s why I segued into the little vignettes that have moralistic and motherly values, like little parables. I might not be able to have a joke every day, but I could have a thought every day.
When you’re very young, you often find yourself completely devoted to something, whether it’s Elvis Presley or a father figure or whatever. You become a cult member of some sort. And when I was very young, I wanted to be married to a minister. I didn’t want to be a minister, but I wanted to be the wife of one, because I wanted to write his sermons. I was about eight years old, and I would lie in bed and pray, “Please, God, make me a minister’s wife,” because I wanted to write something that would mean something to people!
I was brought up believing that everyone was bathed in sin. You would arrive at church, the day would be beautiful, the birds would be singing, everything would smell like fresh morning dew, and you’d feel great! And when you walked out after the service, you’d feel like you had nailed some poor sucker to a cross! “Wait a minute! I was happy until I came here!” [laughter] And I don’t think spiritual guidance necessarily means shredding your self-confidence and destroying your day. You should come out of church wanting to carry on and care about people, pursuing your dreams and being positive. And when I was that little girl, I wanted to write pieces for that audience that would lift them up and make them feel great! And do you know what?
Heintjes: Yeah—in a very real way, you ended up doing just that.
Johnston: And I never even married a minister! [laughter]
Heintjes: When you started For Better Or For Worse, did you have in mind the passage of time that would allow your characters to age and change over the course of years?
Johnston: I had no plan when I started. My only focus was “please let me write something that would be worthwhile to read every day.” And let me meet my deadline. When I first started the strip, the characters were my family. I used all the same names. And when I signed the contract, I went crazy. I asked for time to learn how to write dialogue, to learn how the characters looked from all angles. Elly Patterson had to look like Elly Patterson from the front and the back. She has to look like Elly Patterson whether she’s being introspective and gentle and sweet or she’s got multiple eye bags with dandruff popping off her head. She has to look the same. I needed time to learn the characters and breathe life into them. I couldn’t just go with them right off the bat.
Heintjes: How much time did you have to do all this?
Johnston: I had about six to eight months.
Heintjes: What happened during that period?
Johnston: During that time, I learned how to daydream and become part of that second family, because the family in that strip is an imaginary family. That daydream family is as real to me as my flesh-and-blood family. I know how they feel, I know how they think, because I am one of those people. To have them have their needs, their anxieties, their foibles and their faults, I had to become one of them. I know where the school bus parks. I know what the school looks like. I know what Connie does for a living, and I know that Ann’s husband messes around on her. I know that Gordon’s father is an alcoholic, and that Lawrence is gay and has known about it since he was 11. I know these people intimately, and because of that they’ve taken on lives of their own, independent from my family.
Heintjes: And the syndicate had no problems with any of the structure you had set up.
Johnston: They had just realized what a wonderful find Cathy Guisewite was. Here was a woman who was saying things no one else was saying. They were naked, bare-bones, grit-your-teeth truths! And they loved that! And they also loved the fact that Cathy was Cathy. And they loved the fact that the Pattersons were and Rod and Aaron and Kate. And yet, the closer the date of publication got, the more I felt it was unfair to my children to have their names running in the papers. I thought they needed a buffer between themselves and this chronicle that would happen every day. When they were little, it was just Mom’s work, but as they got older, it was like an expose. They would have to convince their friends at school that “No, I don’t have a girlfriend named Martha” and “No, I didn’t have to have an appliance put in my mouth to stop me from sucking my thumb—these are figments of my mother’s sick imagination, and they have nothing to do with me, thank you very much.” I could see it when they would bring their friends over. They would enter the house like they were coming into some incredible place! Then they would look around and think, “Well, it’s got a leaky faucet, a mother who yells at you, crumbs on the floor,” and the magic was gone. So it was important for the kids to bring their friends home. It was important for their friends to see Rod and me first thing in the morning, looking like we’d been hit by a Mack truck.
I would go to my kids’ school to talk about comic strips, how they were colored and produced and so forth, but it was really for the purpose of saying, “See? Aaron and Kate Johnston are Aaron and Kate Johnston, and they have nothing to do with Michael and Elizabeth Patterson.” For one thing, Michael is a much more confident, comfortable teenager than my son ever was. Aaron was just flying off in all directions. Like Aaron, however, Michael is sensitive. He’s going to be a writer. He’s very emotional. They’re different people. And yet, given a very specific situation, Michael would react the way Aaron would. For example, in April last year, Lawrence told Michael that he was gay, and Michael handled it the way I know Aaron would. He was shocked at first, and then he said, “You’ve been my friend since the age of three. The only thing that’s changed here today is me. You haven’t changed; therefore, I have to deal with this.” And that’s the way Aaron would deal with this.
Heintjes: You haven’t always portrayed Michael and Elizabeth in the most flattering light. You’ve dealt with the awkwardness of a date, the pain of rejection, peer pressure, and the general tempestuousness of adolescence. Do their schoolmates ever have anything to say to them about this sort of portrayal?
Johnston: At first they did. Years ago, the kids were asked about whether their dad was a dentist, whether they had a shaggy dog, and so on. Now, the fact that we’ve lived in a small community for 10 years has been very helpful to my children because they have friends who have known them for 10 years, and those friends know the truth. They know that Kate Johnston is not Elizabeth Patterson. What’s interesting is that Kate’s friends will read my work much more avidly than Kate will. Neither of my kids read my work at all. Kate’s more likely to read Luann. Aaron always loved Garfield. When Aaron was about eight years old, he was asked by an interviewer if he liked the fact that I did For Better Or For Worse, and he said he’d be more impressed if I did Garfield. [laughter] I thought that was hysterical. People ask me if I’m hurt because my children don’t read For Better Or For Worse, because both of them will tell you, “Oh, hell, I never read it. I don’t know what she’s writing about.” What that says to me is that they trust me. They don’t have to check up on me every day. They don’t have to ask, “What did you embarrass me about today, Mom?” I am so protective of them. Any time I broached a subject that I thought they might feel uncomfortable about, I would talk it over with them first.
Here’s an example: my son had a problem with acne. Oh, he was just miserable with it. But I never broached it in the strip because I didn’t want to hurt him. And one day he said to me, “Mom, you never do anything on zits! You’ve got to do that!” He thought I should do one about a zit on the end of Michael’s nose, and I did. Also, Aaron has glasses and Katy does not, and Aaron begged me, “Please, please, don’t have Michael have glasses.” But the whole thing with glasses is so important—losing them, the expense, and so forth. And Katy sees very well without glasses, but Elizabeth wears them. So there’s a difference there. And Katy has jaw-length brown hair, and Elizabeth has blond hair that’s in a ponytail. And April looks exactly like Katy did when she was a baby. I loved having that baby so much. My first baby was a nightmare. It was a nightmare for both of us. Aaron’s childhood...we both look back on those days as war-zone days. And I can’t have children anymore, and I’m going through that awful pre-menopausal stage of saying, “I want another baby!” So to satisfy my own mumsy, nurturing needs, I did the next best thing and had one in the strip. And it’s been wonderfully therapeutic.
Heintjes: As we conduct this interview, the controversy over Lawrence revealing his homosexuality is raging. What has been the reaction to it from various people: readers, newspaper editors, your colleagues?
Johnston: It has been mixed everywhere. To begin with, when we announced that the storyline was going to run, people who had no access to the material became violently opposed, saying it was pornography. Very few newspaper editors took that position, though—most newspaper editors are schooled to see both sides of an issue before you make a stand. Yet some were outraged. They were not expecting this. They did not read the literature that came with it. They don’t feel that comics are anything more than icing on the cake, they don’t have to read them—they just wax them and stick them down. The editors who didn’t read the notice alerting them that they might want to run some alternate material were caught off-guard. I really do feel for them, because it was an unusual subject for the comics page. Not that it’s unusual for For Better Or For Worse, but they just don’t like the comics to deal with issues, and especially not this one.
Heintjes: What was your intent in creating the sequence?
Johnston: I wanted to challenge myself to write a good story about something that’s largely misunderstood, and to show that it’s the kid next door, anybody in any neighborhood. It’s a story about friendship and acceptance; there was not one mention of sex. Not one mention of anything that could not be talked about comfortably. Considering the climate of the ‘90s, when you can turn on any average sitcom and you get vulgarity and explicit sexual discussion, open talk of body parts, naked people in bed, you wonder where the humor is in today’s comedy writing. And considering that a most unfortunate view of sexuality is seen every day on every channel, with the exception of PBS and Disney, I guess, where are the family values we’re talking about?
Heintjes: I was thinking that in a so-called “family newspaper,” the most depraved events can be described in lurid detail—the Jeffrey Dahmer case, mass murders, all sorts of horrific events—and yet this sequence in For Better Or For Worse is deemed unacceptable.
Johnston: Fortunately, many people did not find it unacceptable. Many editors said, “This is interesting. This is a challenge. Let’s see if people are reading and let’s see how they respond.” Generally, that was the attitude in the big markets. The Chicago Tribune has been wholly supportive. The Boston Globe, the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, the Vancouver Sun, the Los Angeles Times—on and on and on, there has been tremendous support from the bigger centers. In the smaller centers, and especially the centers where there are a lot of very strong fundamentalist beliefs that this is evil and that homosexuality is a matter of choice and all this stuff, the hatred runs so hot and heavy. There is so much fear. And in those centers, the editors are part of the community. In a community of 20,000 people, the editor goes downtown for coffee, and everyone knows him and can attack him. And from the privacy and obscurity of my home, I can produce a series of drawings and I will receive a certain amount of mail attacking me, but I am comforted by the fact that I don’t have to face these people personally day after day. So I understand the position of editors who said, “I’ll cancel it,” or “I’ll run it on the editorial page,” or however they decided to handle it. I think everybody handled it as well as they could under the circumstances. One interesting thing is, right at the very beginning, the angry, bitter, vicious attitude of “I will not admit this into my home! I will not acknowledge that this exists! I am blindly forcing this entire issue out of my life!” was overwhelming. And I thought, “What have I done?” I really believed that people in this century would be willing to take the time to look at what I was doing before they fired both barrels. But this happened before the strips even began to run.
Heintjes:This attitude was predominantly among the readership, not the editors?
Johnston: The readership. It started off with the Detroit Free Press. The bulletin had come through with the artwork many weeks in advance of publication. One young reporter there, who was gay, was really excited about the prospects of the strip’s publication. He wanted to do an article immediately, so he interviewed me and put the article on the wire service, which goes everywhere. It was very supportive, and it went out to editors who hadn’t even had a chance to review the comics. A lot of editors ran the wire story, and it turned on the non-thinking but reacting readers, people who are blindly devoted to a belief that has no other side to it. There is no other question involved, this is just the way it is, and you have no right to introduce this into my home. So that’s what rose like a Medusa out of the clouds, and from my perspective, I could see why people do not take a stand on issues in a community like that, because the fear of reprisal from these incredibly strong groups who are so powerful...religious fervor is like adrenaline, and it can overpower almost anything in its way. Because of this, I can see why information is suppressed, why people are oppressed, why so much goes unachieved. It’s because of blind intolerance. Lee Salem told me this would happen. Especially when he saw the second half of the series, he said, “You really have no idea how vicious and angry and hateful people are in the United States about this subject.” Canada is far more tolerant. And I argued with him. I said, “This is the ‘90s—people are so much more aware! People are talking about it! Look at television and newspapers!” There are articles here covering, word for word, trials of child molesters, and they describe it in detail. And I thought that in a climate where people are talking about sexuality in so many unsavory ways, let’s do something positive for a change and show that this is the kid next door. This is the kid who walks your dog. This is the young person who operates on you at the clinic! Who knows? It’s everywhere, and you can’t discriminate against something that is there by birth.
Heintjes: I guess your faith in human nature was a little shaken when you found out the truth about people in the ‘90s, eh?
Johnston: In fact, that’s the truth. I was surprised by this blind hatred that I guess is born of fear. There is a fraction of society that wants to believe in “a leader,” and not believe in themselves. They don’t want to trust their own judgment; they would rather blindly follow the leadership of someone else. That’s the easy way out, I think. It’s much harder to say, “OK, let’s think. Let’s not simply obey.” It took a while for the thinking people to come together. They waited until it was published before they responded, and when they read it, the positive response happened. They responded partly to retaliate against all the negative stuff, but partly also to say, “This is appropriate, because of all the teenagers who kill themselves, one third of them do it over their sexuality.” They knew that these people who are discriminated against are not part of an evil power, but are simply people who must be acknowledged, accepted and respected. They are simply a part of our lives. They are a part of society. There is an undeniable population. So the thinking people started making their opinions known, and many people who had never talked openly about this subject before were defending the story. Some papers were even being picketed in favor of running the strip. Before the strip had really started to run, some papers were being picketed against the strip, but after it began to run, a lot people really wanted to read it. I know it took the syndicate quite awhile to respond to people who want to see the story because their own papers had prevented them from seeing it.
Heintjes: How did Universal satisfy them?
Johnston: They printed up a little booklet, and anyone who wants to see the story can send them a self-addressed stamped envelope and they’ll send them the literature.
Heintjes: When you decided to create this sequence, did you consult with Lee Salem so he would have an idea of what you were getting into?
Johnston: Yes. I wrote out the dialogue first, and I faxed him the dialogue. Then I drew up the first section of it, to where Lawrence confides in Michael, and that section ends with Michael punching Lawrence in the arm playfully. That was sent off about eight weeks ahead of deadline, and that was well ahead. Generally, we’re about six weeks to the good, and I can get by with about four weeks or even three weeks. So there were plenty of weeks there in case I needed to backtrack and produce something else. Lee was very matter-of-fact about accepting it, and I told him I was going to go ahead with the rest of the story. He wanted to see what I was doing, so I faxed him the pencil roughs to the next section. He was concerned at that point. He said, “Maybe this goes on too long—do you know how angry people are going to be?” But he left it up to me, and said that if I wanted to do it, they would give their support and stand behind me. But he said, “Keep in mind that you are going to take some flak.” I asked him if I would lose papers. He said, “Absolutely.” I asked him how many, and he said he didn’t know. I asked him, “Would I lose 10?” He said I probably wouldn’t. I asked him if I would lose six papers, and he said probably not. I said, “Three?” and he said I maybe would lose three. I told him that even if I lose three papers I think the story is worth telling, and he said it was my decision, and they would stand behind me. And the rest is history.
Heintjes: How taken aback was Lee by the overwhelming reaction?
Johnston: He wasn’t taken aback at all. He was steeled for it. He’s used to dealing with Garry Trudeau’s detractors. I thought the people at the syndicate might be angered by the extra work, but they were kind of charged up by it.
Heintjes: Any publicity is good publicity?
Johnston: Well, in fact, that’s what John McMeel said to me. He was kind of enjoying it. Now, I haven’t spoken to him over the past week! [laughter]
Heintjes: This is pretty much the first major bump you’ve encountered in your career, isn’t it?
Johnston: I’ve had a pretty easy life as a cartoonist, and that’s part of the problem for me. I get letters now and them that complain about the way I do things, and I generally think, “Get a life!” If you don’t like the way I punctuate my sentences, tell me what else is interesting in your life. And most other people say, “I love your work, you’re on my refrigerator, my dog is just like yours,” and so on. So I was bathed in this wonderful, warm glow of acceptance for so long, and yet, For Better Or For Worse had always dealt with relevant subjects. I had always challenged myself to write a story that included both sides. For example, when Gordon’s father beat him, Gordon’s father does not appear as an ogre, but he appears as a man who can’t control his temper and he cries over that. I try to see things from both sides. I tried to see Elizabeth and her smoking from both sides. I try to be nonjudgmental in the stories I tell so that where there is a resolution, it’s up to the reader. I try not to use the strip as a platform from which to preach, and I don’t think this sequence is a preachy one, either. It is simply a story that happens. It happens every single day in the world. Every day, someone is discharged from the comfort of their home because that person does not conform to the lifestyle that that family planned. And the story doesn’t say that anyone was wrong, or that the situation was right. What the story tells is that this is a very difficult lifestyle for anyone to be part of. It’s not a life glamorized by partying and orgying. It’s a life, and a life deserves to be respected and applauded for whatever it can contribute. So I don’t think I was preaching as much as I was telling a very honest and true story. In so doing, perhaps it has run on a little too long, and that has been painful for me, because it lengthens the time I’m under fire. But it tells the whole story, and I can’t imagine broaching the subject without telling the whole story, from my impression of it as I felt it needed to be told. And to prove, I suppose, that it’s not a matter of choice, because who would choose to go through that?
Heintjes: How is your mail running, now that a large part of sequence has run?
Johnston: At this point, it’s overwhelmingly supportive. The negative letters have been very angry or very religious. One very fine letter came in from a very religious lady who told me that I was misguided, and that with love and understanding, she wanted me to know that. She hoped I’d find peace in Jesus. I thought that was a wonderful letter. I really appreciate this lady, because she was still loving and kind and accepting of me, no matter what my beliefs were, and that to me was wonderfully valid. But then you get letters from people who say, “Do you realize that all serial killers are homosexual?” One hysterically funny letter came from a man who was in his 60s, and he began by explaining what an upright, Christian man he is, and that he doesn’t believe in a debauched lifestyle, and if I only knew what these people did to each other, I would be so disgusted and repelled that I would never consider socializing with them. And he added that what they did was so horrific that he didn’t want to even think about it, and then he followed it with four pages of detailed descriptions! I’ve gotten very few letters from people who are gay. I think the people who will be particularly affected by this story are waiting until it’s over before they say whether or not it was good. For the most part, I’m hearing from families, psychiatrists, doctors, teachers, very open-minded people who are saying, “Good—we have left this in a closet for far too long, and it’s time we allowed people a life.” And I’ve gotten letters of support from people of all ages. There are teachers who are going over this a day at a time with their students, with the approval of the students’ parents. They’re writing and phoning to tell me that it’s an educational tool. One letter was from a mother who said that because of the strip, her son had the courage to tell her that he was a homosexual, and because of the strip, she had the courage to handle it well. I also got a letter from a woman in Edmonton who said that if the strip had run last year, perhaps her son would still be alive, because then he would know that he was not the only one in the world with this problem. It’s that kind of response that makes me think it’s been worth the roller-coaster ride it’s put me on. It would be so much easier not to make a statement, not to tell a story, to continue to be that yellowing page on the refrigerator.
Heintjes: If you had it to do all over again, would you have proceeded with the story?
Johnston: Yes, despite the fact that it has been quite horrible. I have not slept, I have not eaten, I’ve lost 10 pounds, I’ve lost 19 papers, I’ve lost many readers. It was not something I did for joy, or something I did for publicity. I did not say, “Damn the detractors” and go ahead, intending to upset the editors. I did it because it was a story I really, fully believed in, and when you write a story that is perhaps a controversial one, you have to expect to take the heat. And I have. And I also have to realize how soft I am. I am not unmoved by the spears and arrows that are coming through the mail. I’m not immune to those. It absolutely is an attack on me, and it’s from people who are thinking, feeling people. As a cartoonist who is very optimistic and who wants to be approved of, I am not unaffected by it. It has been an ordeal. Again, I’ve lost 10 pounds.
Heintjes: A new quick weight-loss method! [laughter]
Johnston: I figure that if I ever get fat again, I’ll do the abortion issue. [laughter] It’s pretty well gone. I can feel all my ribs.
Heintjes: What has the reaction of your colleagues been?
Johnston: I talked to Mike Peters yesterday, and he said it’s not very often that a cartoonist can make such an overwhelming statement and influence so many people to talk, whether it’s for or against what you say. It’s an issue that needs to be talked about. He said, “You’ve made people talk, and that’s a very enviable position for a cartoonist.”
Heintjes: Probably the only cartoonist who does that on any sort of regular basis is Garry Trudeau.
Johnston: I spoke to Garry Trudeau. I called him up and said, “Well, Garry, now I know just a little bit about what your life is like.” He laughed and said, “They’ve given up on me. They still held out hope that you could be another gag-a-day cartoonist, but they long ago gave up hope on me.” He also said that most people don’t realize how thoroughly he researches everything he writes about. When he puts something in the paper that is very pointed and of a name-dropping nature, it is not done without hours and hours of thorough research. He said he knows that he has detractors, but he said that he’s always confident that he’s told the truth as he sees it. He was very comforting, and he said, “If you want to make a statement, you have to make it with all honesty and truth and be comforted knowing that it was made with your own strong sense of values and truth.”
Heintjes: You’re handling this sequence so deftly and so honestly, with a perceptiveness that seems so authentic. I’m left wondering if you simply wrote it from out of your imagination.
Johnston: I didn’t. I wrote it from experience. My brother-in-law is gay. It certainly has not been by design, but so very many of my friends have been gay, all the way through school, art school, even in my husband’s dental class—our very best friend, who graduated with Rod, was gay and is now HIV-positive. He’s been thrown out of his home. We’ve been part of the private lives of so many people who have had to deal with this. I know this story. I know it’s a true one, and I know the dialogue by heart.
Heintjes: That explains why it seemed so palpably real.
Johnston: It is real. That’s why I can stand tall and know that I am not making up a story simply to shock people. I produced a story that is so true that it’s painful. You know what it’s like? It’s like lancing a boil and taking out the thing that won’t allow it to heal. Not that I intended to do that, but I had the confidence that I could tell this story from the side of the people who had experience. In that way, I was being very true to myself, my strip and to them. The strip’s always been very honest.
Heintjes: Have you heard from any other colleagues?
Johnston: Well, the first person I sent it to, before I sent it to anyone else, was Sparky. We tease each other all the time, because we’re forever giving each other advice, and we never follow each other’s advice. But if he had said to me, “Do not do this,” I wonder if I would have. But he said, “This is good, and it deserves publication.” He’s been doing interviews to that effect. I have never mentioned his name, because I never wanted to involve anyone else in my situation, but I suppose reporters called Sparky because they wanted to get the point of view of someone they respect. He called me yesterday and said, “I’ve been doing interviews because of you!” [laughter] Of course, he’s been very supportive. I spoke to Greg Evans, who does Luann, and he’s another cartoonist who has touched on some issues. Like myself, Greg is a very gentle soul who doesn’t enjoy controversy and doesn’t like the angry letters. He was feeling for me. I told him yesterday what a roller-coaster it’s been, and I was feeling pretty down. He sympathized with me, and we talked about how comic strips are changing and how far we have to push that envelope. He said he believes we have to nudge that envelope once in a while, but that he wasn’t prepared to nudge it as far as I did. I also talked to Bill Amend, who does FoxTrot. He said that although he really wants to cover real issues, he wasn’t prepared to push the envelope. Now, I’ve always felt that way as well. I have always strongly pursued the laughs, but my thoughts never pursued the laughs. The laughs always became a more objective look, or the other side of the coin. I didn’t think that I would do something as radical as this. I knew that I would eventually touch this subject, but I never saw myself in the situation I’m in now. But perhaps that will happen to Greg, and perhaps that will happen to Bill. Perhaps one day they will feel very strongly about something and write what is in their hearts, and they too will discover that there are readers out there who are intolerant, who just want their laugh a day.
Heintjes: Do you think that what is happening to you will serve as a disincentive for comics creators to deal with their characters in a mature, realistic way?
Johnston: I think that something like this always sets some kind of a limit, always sets some kind of an example. I will be interested to see what other people will do. But at the same time, people who do comic strips are very optimistic, very easy-going people who generally want to be loved and approved of. So I can’t see anything being done without love and care, and if cartoonists are going to do more relevant work, it will always be done within the context of family entertainment. I don’t think it will become the deplorable, very basic humor you see on television, which has to say gross, four-letter things to elicit a laugh. People have been programmed to laugh at smut. I am so thrilled with Comedy on the Road and Caroline’s Comedy Hour on A&E because these people are forced to be clean in their humor, and they are generally funny. I am very prudish. I am very conservative. I believe that sex is a private thing, and that all of this gulping, gasping muck you see on television is too much.
Heintjes: When you describe yourself as “conservative,” how do you mean that?
Johnston: I don’t go to Dangerfield’s in New York and laugh at the smut and filth they think is funny. Now, I love a dirty joke if it’s really funny, but I can’t laugh at filth anymore. I’m a very objective, open-minded, “mom” type of person. I’m modest in my dress, I’m modest in the way I speak, and I’m modest in so many ways.
Heintjes: Let me ask a couple of quantifiable questions: how many papers are dropping only the sequence, and how many are dropping the strip for ever and ever?
Johnston: I believe 40 or 50 took alternate material, but they haven’t dropped the strip. Nineteen have dropped the strip for ever and ever, amen.
Heintjes: What was supplied to the papers who elected to run alternate material?
Johnston: They chose a five-week run from 1991, something that fit right into that slot. And I don’t know what the breakdown of dollars is—I don’t know if Universal charged them for it; I never asked. I may well be charged for a great deal of this. It’s a expense that we share.
Heintjes: As if creating For Better Or For Worse doesn’t keep you busy enough, now you’re having to cope with this.
Johnston: It’s starting to die down now. The phone never stopped ringing for the first couple of weeks. I would hang up the phone and it would instantly ring again, to the point where I had to take the phone off the hook just to take a shower, eat a lunch, do anything.
Heintjes: Did you resort to screening your calls?
Johnston: I did leave my answering machine on for a while, but the calls were almost all from editors and reporters, and I wanted to talk to them. I thought that if I’m going to produce this material that causes them a lot of phone calls, then I have to respond to them and be there for them. They need my support as well.
Heintjes: How did you get any real work done?
Johnston: I didn’t. What was wonderful was that somehow I had been able to get a couple of weeks ahead, so I could afford to lose the time. And I did lose the two weeks. For two solid weeks, I answered the phone all day on the same subject.
Heintjes: I imagine your household was in something of an uproar.
Johnston: It was! We were all in a state of shock, but now we’re looking forward to it all being over. Enough is enough, especially for my husband, who has his own concerns. He runs a very busy clinic with a huge staff, and he’s got his own worries and anxieties, and he would very much like me to rub his back and ask him, “How was your day?” I say to him, “I turned down Good Morning America and Maury Povich today.” And he says, “Uh, I had a banana with lunch today.” [laughter] It’s been difficult for him to be undermined as part of my life. This has taken over my life for the past two weeks.
Heintjes: Have media outlets that large really been wanting you to appear?
Johnston: Oh sure—Today, Good Morning America, Maury Povich, The National, which is huge in Canada. But I turned them all down. I work in a print medium, and I am responsible to our client newspapers and to others who want to talk about this in the print medium. I felt that once I went on television, it would look as if I were crusading, that I am there for purposes other than writing a good story.
Heintjes: Next thing you know, you’d be known as “Lynn Johnston, AIDS activist.”
Johnston: Yeah, something like that. I didn’t want that to happen. I felt that the people who are in the forefront of this movement will take up the battle. If this has done anything to open a door, they’ll go through the door themselves. I want to do comics.
Heintjes: You’ve discussed the pleasure that rendering things like razor stubble, bulges, baggy eyes and things like that bring to you. Why is that? What does it all signify to you?
Johnston: [laughter] Because it diminishes the stuff that’s really there. I am not an overweight person. I am the typical 10 pounds overweight that every 46-year-old woman is. I have 10 pounds to lose. But there are days when those 10 pounds hang off me like great rubber dewlaps. And there are some days when it is insignificant. On the days when I feel like Roseanne Barr, I draw it, and it feels great! It’s like when there’s a bald-headed comedian, the first thing he’s going to do is draw attention to the fact that he’s bald. “No one is going to hurt me, because I’m going to call attention to it myself first.” Once the hurt is dealt with and gone, then we can get down to the fun of the comedy. People will think, “Why can’t I be as capable as this guy is at dealing with his shortcomings?” If Phyllis Diller didn’t feel like an ugly person, she never would have made those wonderful comments. If she hadn’t felt ugly, she never would have said anything.
Phyllis wouldn’t want you to find out from another source that she’d had a facelift. She’s going to tell you about it, and you’re going to crack up over it. Then it will be dealt with, and then we can get down to the other stuff. I don’t like being 10 pounds overweight. I would like to look as perfect as the women in the magazines. So when I draw that ugly character, it feels wonderful, because...remember when I said that if you shut your eyes, the hurt and anger and blackness go on forever, but if you put it down on paper you can deal with it? So I draw this saggy, baggy character, and it looks so funny! I could never look that bad! I can laugh at that. People say to me, “Lynn, you’re so attractive! Why do you draw Elly so ugly?” Well shoot, there’s a reason right there! [laughter]
Heintjes: Do you ever get the feeling that your family thinks you’re looking at them, waiting for material to happen?
Johnston: Never. That would be like looking at an oven, waiting for a cake to happen. You have to make it up.
Heintjes: That question came to my mind recently when I was reading about the early days of Motown and the success of the songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland. One of them said that people felt self-conscious talking to him because they felt he was always waiting for someone to say something that would trigger a song lyric in his mind.
Johnston: I think they were lying. I think that what they were really hoping is that they would say something that would trigger a song idea in his head and they could forever say they were responsible for that. That’s what happens to me. Every day I get a letter from someone who says, “This morning, little Rupert said this gem over his Shreddies, and I think you could use it.” Well, I don’t, but they’re hoping that you will. People do affect you in that they are your material and you record what’s going on all the time. If you’re having a tense, deep, tear-filled discussion with a best friend, you’re not going to chronicle that in the paper, but you’re going to observe the way they furrow their brows. Not because you’re an analyst, but because you’re on "record" all the time. I remember crying really deeply, walking over to the mirror and thinking, “Wow—that’s what I look like.” The way they fold their arms, put their elbows on the table, all of that goes into your memory. And what you are is an actor, and you’re getting the body language of your characters down. Wonderful little things like a baby leaning out of a shopping cart saying, “Want dat, want dat” goes into “record.”
Heintjes: The characters’ body language adds so much to the feel of a strip. You know, I make no secret of my profound admiration for Will Eisner. In the years I’ve worked with him writing a column for The Spirit, he’s taught me so much about how the medium works, and one thing he always stresses is that not only does the dialogue convey character, so does the character’s body language.
Johnston: Will Eisner is the artist’s artist. He is one of the best. You look at his work and you wonder, “How could anybody do so much with lines and shadows?” He not only gives a beautifully structured image, he gives you an emotion. And he is a consummate actor.
Heintjes: I think one of his earliest contributions to comics was his portrayal of very strong women who could make their way in the world without men. And this was in the ’40s, when this wasn’t done much, especially in comics.
Johnston: I also think he was an innovator because he created women who had a certain anatomical credence. They were idealized, sure, but they were achievable. They weren’t Wonder Woman bodies. At one NCS convention, I was sitting at the same table with him, and I was looking at his hands. His hands are wonderful.
Heintjes: They look like the hands of a man half his age.
Johnston: One time, I was walking down the street with Charles Schulz and he took me by the hand. I remember as I swung my left hand forward, I thought, “The hand that draws Peanuts is holding mine.” It was such a thrill. So we hold hands all the time now [laughter].
Heintjes: I’ve been thinking recently about how, in some ways, taboos in comics are being shattered. But its a “two steps forward, one step back” process. No newspaper cartoonist today could render the kinds of women Eisner and Milton Caniff did back in the ’40s. Do you perceive a shattering of taboos in comics today?
Johnston: Women were idols then. Today, we are shattering every idol we ever had. They have now sent Kitty Kelley to England to destroy Prince Philip, the husband of Queen Elizabeth. We’re really happy shattering our idols. We’re happy destroying the Kennedy family. We all know they have multiple warts, but why can’t we just leave JFK as a god? Let us have our heroes. And women are shattered every day on television screens.
In the time of Milton Caniff, even though women were drawn with a sensuous stroke, there was still an ideal of reverence toward women. That they were all virgins until proven otherwise. You would open a door for them. You wouldn’t swear in front of them. There was a sense of courtesy and chivalry, which I can still appreciate.
Heintjes: What is harder for you—writing or drawing?
Johnston: It’s the thing that furrows my brow, upsets my stomach and takes the longest.
Heintjes: What method do you use to write?
Johnston: I write dialogue the way you would for a sitcom. I put the family in a situation, and I exist as a phantom in the room, and I hear them speak and I watch them move, and I follow them around, and I wait for the things to happen. Some things I coerce into happening, and some things happen spontaneously. I often never know where this completely independent family is going to take me. The stories often write themselves. It’s a wakeful dream state. Mike Peters says the same thing. Even Joan Rivers admitted the same thing. When you’re writing, it’s like you’re under a general anesthetic, where you’ll wake up and say, “I don’t believe it—the sun went down!” It’s like a state of suspended animation. You are transported into a dream state so your body exists as a shell during the time you’re writing. When the character April was born, a group of eight of my women friends decided to give me a surprise baby shower, and the day they planned it was a writing day. I was sitting in my studio, and my studio overlooks our driveway. Four cars pulled into my driveway, and people walked into my living room, and I still didn’t know they were there. One of the women walked into my studio and said, “Lynn, there’s something I want to show you.” I said, “Hi Beth, how are you?” not noticing that someone had walked into my house. When she led me into the living room, I had to blink several times before I could adjust to the fact that my living room was full of balloons and friends and gifts! That’s how anesthetized you are. When I draw, I can talk to a friend, I can listen to the radio, I can talk on the phone, because it’s like dancing to a tune I’ve loved to dance to before.
Heintjes: So you’re never just walking through the mall when a gag comes to you.
Johnston: Sure! And when that happens, it’s wonderful. More than likely, it’s the state of mind you’re in. There are times when I intend to write and nothing happens. Then there are other times when I have the flu and I feel crummy and depressed, and I write two weeks’ worth of stuff. About two weeks ago, I came up with 11 Sunday comics in one day! And you wonder, if there is some spiritual connection here, where were you guys last week?
I like complete quiet when I write, though. I have to have no interruptions. I can’t work if there’s background noise. Well, that’s not always true. We live in a forest, and there were a number of trees that were dead, and they were in danger of falling over onto the house. So we had a couple of guys come over and take them down. They chainsawed all those trees as I wrote, and I didn’t see them and I didn’t hear them. I went outside later at about two o’clock and said, “Holy smoke, look at all the trees you cut down!” They said, “You were right there by the window the whole time!” And I never even was aware of any of it—the noise, the chatter, the trees falling, nothing. But that’s unusual. Normally I have complete quiet. If I played a radio, I’d hear snippets of conversation or song lyrics that would distract me.
Heintjes: How is it different when you draw?
Johnston: When I draw, I have a studio that is very small, with a drafting table I’ve had for 25 years. On top of that I have one of those cutting mats. I like to work on a cutting mat because I often will cut things out and reshape them. I often make greeting cards for friends—I’m forever making little things like that—and I like to have a cutting mat for those things, too. I listen to the radio when I draw. I like to listen to the CBC because it’s got all kinds of comedy and radio plays and commentary and phone-in shows. It gives me a sense of connection to the outside world. I know some artists have a TV on. John Reiner, who inks The Lockhorns, has a TV on while he works, but I can’t imagine having a visual stimulus in the room—unless it’s my dog!
I know Sparky likes absolute silence when he draws, because he draws and thinks up new material at the same time. One time I was out in California and I was late on my deadlines and I had all kinds of things to do. I said to him, “Look, I’m just going to stay in the hotel and work.” He said, “Why don’t you use my studio? I’ll give you half my studio space.” And I told him I didn’t want to, because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to concentrate. And he insisted—but he said, “I don’t want you to play a radio, I don’t want you to talk to me, I don’t want you to come over to my side, I want you to just mind your own business and stick to your side of the studio.” And I said, “OK, that’s fine. You won’t bug me and I won’t bug you.” He was over talking to me every five minutes! [laughter]
Heintjes: Is there anything you hate to draw, anything you’ll go out of your way to avoid drawing?
Johnston: I used to hate drawing feet. Now I’ve practiced them so much that I think I do them fairly well. Heintjes: Is it shoes you dislike drawing or bare feet?
Johnston: Shoes more than bare feet. Shoes are very difficult for me. I find that hands aren’t difficult for me at all, but for some artists they’re difficult. The other thing I hate to draw is bicycles. One of the problems I have with my character in a wheelchair is that I hate to draw the doggone wheelchair! That was a whole insight to me. There are a whole bunch of disabled people who are saying, “We’re here! Draw us! Joke about us, have fun with us! We have funny things to talk about, too—don’t ignore us!” And I want to say, “I want to draw you, but I can’t draw your chair!” [laughter] It’s not so difficult drawing someone who’s sitting down; it’s difficult drawing all those levers and wheels and lines.
Heintjes: Have you ever done a piece of work and felt so good about it that you’ve said, “This is it—I can’t get better than this”?
Johnston: I have done work that I feel that good about, but what I say to myself is, “I look forward to the day when I do the level of work again.” You know how it is when it’s another regular, ordinary day, and then out of the blue someone phones you who you haven’t heard from in years, or somebody invites you to something, and you say, “Wow! Isn’t this great! Thank you for calling me—you’ve made my day!” You don’t hang up the phone saying, “Well, that’ll never happen again.” You just look forward to it happening again someday.
Every day it’s a joy. Every day it’s a surprise package. There are some days when my work is so covered with white-out that I don’t want anyone to see it. And there are days when I can write and I feel pretty smug. There are also days when I feel like I’m going to quit and go work at Woolco. Or “It’s gone—I’ve used it all up!” The trick is to stay far ahead enough of the deadlines so when you hit a dry spell, you can survive them with confidence.
Heintjes: How do you deal with writer’s block?
Johnston: I try to switch to another channel in my “computer programming.” If I’m having a real hard time doing dailies, I’ll do a Sunday. If I’m doing a storyline and I can’t figure out how to segue from school to the kitchen, I’ll put it aside and let my mind drift or do work on a Sunday. If it’s one of those days when nothing is happening, I have all kinds of other things I need to do—answer my fan mail, do illustrations for people I know who are getting married...
Heintjes: Even work for Hogan’s Alley...
Johnston: Well, yes. [laughter] That’s the kind of stuff I will do when the gas has run out.
Heintjes: Which do you enjoy creating more—a daily or a Sunday?
Johnston: I enjoy both. I often think the Sundays are funnier, because they stand alone. In a week of dailies, I might have two humorous one and the rest are thoughtful ones. The Sundays are, if not humorous, at least wry. And I never, ever connect them into the storylines I do in the dailies. So I suppose that for something you would want to own for your wall, the Sundays are a much more whole statement.
Heintjes: Do you ever want to do something apart from the slice-of-life humor of For Better Or For Worse?
Johnston: I am doing other types of material. I do a comic panel called Chuffers about an old guy who has a train. My husband is a model railroad fanatic, and he goes to conventions and meetings and builds trains to ride on. He’s spent time on movie-studio lots while they blow up trains. The guy is train-bonkers. He does a quarterly article for LGB Magazine, so I figure, “Well, if he played golf, I’d play golf,” so I do a regular cartoon for this magazine. I do greeting cards for the clinic, and it’s fun to do. It’s like changing from one exercise to another.
Heintjes: Do you find that it gets something out of your system that otherwise wouldn’t be gotten out?
Johnston: Yes—I get to draw things other than For Better Or For Worse! I find that what I need almost more than anything else is connection with other cartoonists. It’s like a self-help group. Very few people know what we go through. Look at a famous actress. Everyone says, “Oh, I wish I were you—you’re beautiful, you’re glamorous.” But from her point of view, it’s “I work so hard, I don’t have a family life, I’m hounded and I have no privacy.” The only people who can understand how they live are other actors. And cartoonists can say to each other, “God, I couldn’t think of a thing last week.” One editorial cartoonist told me that he’s so engrossed when he’s working that he doesn’t know he’s ignoring his wife until she bursts into tears and runs out of the room. He was so focused on what he was doing that he didn’t hear her say, “I’m depressed and I need to talk to you.” So we all get together and we commiserate. And Rod gets together with the other cartoonists’ spouses and says, “Living with these people is a zoo!” because they not only live with us, they live with the fantasy world we create.
If I think my husband is angry at me and doesn’t want to talk about it, I’ll argue and make his half of the argument up while he’s at work. I do it every day for my work anyway! And by the time he comes home from work, I’m furious! “You said this, and then you said that! And when I said this, you said that!” So cartoonists can be very difficult to live with. I remember the first time I went to a Reuben Award ceremony. I thought it would be like a Hollywood gala, with air-kisses and “Hello, dahling!” I’m sure Hollywood isn’t really like that, but that’s the popular impression. The public is driven to believe that there’s a lot of superficiality in Hollywood and that nobody trusts anybody and there’s no true friendship there. If someone says “Welcome,” it’s because they really just want your job. I never expected the joyous feeling at the Reubens, the feeling that we all knew each other. How can you read Cathy and not feel like you knew Cathy Guisewite? How can you read Peanuts and not have a sense of what Charles Schulz is like? Or even Garfield? Jim is as sarcastic as Garfield can be from time to time. When I went to this thing, I was overwhelmed by the sense of family and acceptance. And affection for my work as well. The competition is between the salesmen. If my salesman is trying to get an editor to drop Blondie for For Better Or For Worse and says terrible things about Blondie to try to persuade him, I don’t hear it. If his agent goes to an editor and says about For Better Or For Worse, “Are you carrying that moralistic crap? Why don’t you give them Blondie, which is a proven strip that people have laughed at for decades.” We don’t hear that. So we can be wonderfully good friends. You get charged up by each other.
When I first saw Calvin and Hobbes, the first thing I thought was, “This guy can draw!” And I desperately wanted to meet him and shake his hand and see his studio. I think that when he began that strip, another era started. I talked to Bill not long ago, and he said, “What worries me about the fantasy aspect of Calvin and Hobbes is that people think I’ve cornered the market on fantasy. And if someone thinks up a character who sometimes goes into a fantasy world, they’re accused of copying me.” And he said he never invented the idea of a fantasy life—that was invented thousands of years ago, with the invention of people.
Heintjes: What is your daily schedule like?
Johnston: I work 9 to 5 every single day. I have a deadline, and I make sure I am so many weeks ahead of that deadline. If it means that I work late one day so I can take off early another day, I do that. I almost never take a morning off. This is the first morning I’ve taken off in more than two years. It’s a full-time job. I have an assistant who comes in three days a week, and she does the Zip-a-tone, she colors all my Sundays, files and helps with the mail and she does our business. She doesn’t do any drawing. Between the two of us, we have a full-time job here.
Heintjes: Does she choose all the Zip-a-tone patterns?
Heintjes: It’s all up to her.
Johnston: That’s right.
Heintjes: Do you break your day up in some way, like morning is pencilling, afternoon is inking? How do you structure your day?
Johnston: I will have a writing day. For example, the last two days have been writing days. I have a sun room that has some plants, a reclining chair and a coffee table, and I’ll sit in there and I write. When I have written the number of weeks that I am comfortable with, then I pencil. A good day for me is to write a week’s worth of dailies. I’m happy with that. If I can write two weeks’ worth of dailies in a day, that’s a great day, and I’m tap-dancing at the end of it. The next day, I often find my batteries are too low to concentrate on drawing what I wrote, so I’ll do other things, like answer mail. The next day, I’ll be ready to do the drawing. And I can pencil two weeks in a day, and that’s pretty exhausting. Then I can ink two weeks in a day. It takes Nathalie a full day to do all the Zip-a-tone. Then, of course, I have all my Sundays to do, so it is a full-time job. People say, “Well, you just do a drawing a day and then goof off,” they don’t realize that it’s a technical feat just to stay ahead of the deadline, and every day you don’t produce is one day you get closer to falling behind your deadline.
So let’s say it takes me two to three days to write two weeks’ worth of dailies. It takes me a day to pencil two weeks, a day to ink two weeks, and Nathalie a day to zip it and get it on a courier, that’s a week! So it takes me a week to do two weeks of work, but then I have Sundays, book covers, calendars, coffee mugs.
Heintjes:Not to mention correspondence.
Johnston: Oh, the correspondence. If I don’t do it during the week, it takes me a full Saturday to get through it, because I like to answer every letter. I believe that if someone took the time to write to me, I feel it’s important for me to write back. A number of times I’ve heard that people have my letter hanging framed on their living-room wall. And these are people who are telling me how I’m doing. I’m not doing stand-up. I don’t have an audience who will boo and hiss or applaud at my performance. So the only gauge I have of my performance is the response I get from readers. So I want to give them the courtesy of responding back to them, and that is a huge responsibility.
Heintjes:Your artwork has a looseness, a spontaneity that’s very fun to look at. Do you pencil loosely and do most of the drawing in the inking stage?
Johnston: No, my pencils are quite tight. The way I look at it is the pencil is the ghost and the ink is how I bring that ghost to life. That’s the solid, living being you can touch and feel. And when I put my pen to the cheek of that ghost, I touch that cheek.
Heintjes:What do you draw with?
Johnston: I use an H-B lead in a mechanical pencil. I like the feel of it. You see, my hands perspire terribly. I find that I can’t stand the feeling of certain things in my hand, and wood is one of them. I wear animator’s gloves when I work because my hands perspire so badly. It’s a real problem. So on my right hand I always wear an animator’s glove when I work. It’s so funny, because I cut the first three fingers out. I buy them from the local photo shop, and I throw them in the wash. So I’ve got a drawer full of these stupid gloves with the fingers chopped out. Sometimes I’ll wash them with the dark clothes so they’ll all come out purple or green. I often don’t like people to watch me draw because these gloves look so silly, but I really do need something on my right hand to keep the perspiration from affecting the line of my work. For paper, I use Strathmore bond. I work just a little over actual size. I don’t work very big at all. In fact, one of Sparky’s old strips is exactly twice the size of mine. He gave me all his old paper. I was over at his studio one day and he showed me this big stack of paper. “Look at this,” he said. “I’ve gone to a different format and I’m going to have to waste all this paper.” I measured it, and it was exactly double the size of mine, so I asked him if I could have it. So he had his assistant cut it in half, and he mailed me about $500 worth of this beautiful, heavy paper. And it had the Peanuts logo printed on the back of it, so I did For Better Or For Worse on the back of Peanuts paper for about two years. It was wonderful! I loved it.
Heintjes:What about inking?
Johnston: I use a flexible C-6 Speedball nib. It has a little well on it, which I love, because it gives you a little more time before it runs out. I use the ink that’s commonly used for acetate sheets because I find it’s more opaque and it doesn’t smudge as easily. I often work on vellum when I’m doing finished art for coffee cups or art that’s done for other purposes. I do a pencil rough on a piece of bond pad, and I put a piece of tracing vellum over top. I really like that ink for the vellum surface. The white-out I use is animation paint. I think it’s called Cartoon Color. I love the texture of it, I love the way it dries. I find it’s better than any other white-out product. You can draw over it with pencil or pen, and it’s just like you’re working on paper again. It’s a beautiful tool.
Heintjes: Do you use a Rapidograph for straight lines?
Johnston: Yes, I do. I wish I could draw like Pat Brady or Bill Watterson. Things like furniture, the way they use those wonderful freehand lines, but I cannot do it. I also cannot draw circles or ovals very well, and I use templates for those. I curse myself every time I try to draw a freehand circle or straight line. I just screw up every time! I wish I could draw things as fluidly as I draw beings.
Heintjes: Whose work do you currently enjoy?
Johnston: One of the problems is that I don’t see everything. I don’t get all the editorial cartoonists, and I don’t get all the dailies. Of the ones I see on a regular basis and really read and enjoy, I would put Rose Is Rose at the top of the list. I admire Cathy Guisewite’s writing ability. I read the work very closely for her innovative punchline ability. I read Cathy as much as a technical guideline as for anything else. She gets into some things—weight, clothing—that some people may find repetitive, but I find she has a skill for writing that not many other people have. I still think that Calvin and Hobbes is one of the best-drawn strips there is. I’m interested to see how Bill Watterson is going to develop in the future as a writer. It will be interesting to see where Calvin andHobbes goes from here. That’s what I’m looking for. I’m also enjoying Jumpstart by Robb Armstrong. I think that’s exciting. I know Robb and his wife just had a baby, so I’m reading it to see when a baby is going to creep into the strip. And knowing the cartoonists is part of loving their work. Charles Schulz is probably my dearest friend in the industry and it’s such a thrill to say so. When I’m down I call him, and he calls me. We send books back and forth, and when he’s mad about something he’ll call me. And I just adore that connection. I know all about the red-haired girl, and I know his wife very well. I know that his poor little dog is blind and deaf now. I see things happening in the strip that I know personally about him. There’s a connection there that’s sort of a spiritual bond. Losing his work from the paper and losing him personally...it would be such a blow. It would be very tough for me to recover from that. There are very few things that reduce me to tears at the drop of a hat, but thinking about that does.
Heintjes: How do you feel when you look at your early work?
Johnston: Oh, I’m embarrassed by it, of course. [laughter] But that’s good, because if you’re not always improving, you might as well quit. I am forever getting sent stuff by young guys and women asking for a critique. And to the ones who get outraged by an honest critique, I want to say, “Hang up your pen, Jack, because you’re never going to go anywhere, because you’re not insecure enough to improve.” The ones who say, “That really hurt, but I’m going to try,” those are the ones who give you hope, because you have to look at everything you do and say, “I can do better than that.”
Heintjes: Do you have any words of advice for aspiring cartoonists?
Johnston: You have to be brutally honest with yourself if you want to be in the world of strip cartoons or editorial cartoons, because you have to be so many people wrapped up into one. You have to be a writer, a humorist, an artist and an actor. You have to be a superb actor, because you have to breathe life into all these characters. If one of your characters is laughing, you want that mouth wide open and the tongue out, eyes crinkled up, and you want to convey that expression so that it goes into the eyeball of the reader and straight to the brain. You have to be able to act that well. If your mom says you’re doing fine and the guy down the block laughs at your stuff, that isn’t enough. It has to compete with the stuff out there now, and the ability of so many people only goes so far. And they try. And they try. And they try. And they send you stuff again and again. And you want to say, “But you’re not listening. You’re not getting any better. You’re not standing back from it from an objective point of view and saying to yourself, ‘It’s not funny enough’.” How do you say to somebody, “You draw well, you’re witty, you’re a swell guy, but you’re not funny enough!”? It’s awful hearing that from somebody in the business, but you’ve got to say it to yourself. And how do you get funny enough? You get funny by watching and studying people like Bill Cosby, who say funny things, make funny faces and use funny body language. You don’t look at successful cartoonists’ work and say, “Gee, why are they there and I’m not?” You look at their work and say, “They’re there and I’m not because the line does this and the words do that.”
You also have to involve the audience in the gag. You can’t hand them a gag. You have to let them get the gag. Here’s a very bad example—two nuns are sitting on a bus and one of them is doing a crossword puzzle. One of them says, “Sister, what’s a four-letter word ending in ‘it’ that you find in the bottom of a bird cage?” The other replies, “Grit.” “Oh,” says the first nun. “Do you have an eraser?” The audience has to “think” to get the joke. Why does she need an eraser? The answer to what she wrote, obviously, is “shit,” but it’s never spelled out. The audience laughs because the audience is involved. So many people don’t do that—they want you to get the gag so badly that they hand it to you. Even a five-year-old wouldn’t think it was funny, because he’d see the gag coming before he got to the punchline.
You have to be able to write poetry, because the way you write a strip is with an economy of words, a flow and a choice of words, that the reader reads straight through. There’s no stopping and starting.
And you’re drawing for the reader. You’re not drawing for you. So many cartoonists are so selfish and are enjoying their work so much that they don’t realize it’s a performance for an audience. If you don’t connect the forehead to the nose, for example, and those eyes are forever floating, and the hair is kind of a chicken’s crop up on top...you, the artist, can see the character because in your “computer printout” all of that works for you, but the audience might look at it and just see a series of worms. Your gag is lost, because the audience is still looking at the character and saying, “Is that a nose, or is that part of his hair? What am I looking at here?” You’re performing for an audience, and you’ve got to draw for that audience. The characters have to be somebody the audience cares about. When you’re doing a comic strip, people tend to assume the readers will instantly relate to their characters, but that’s not true. It takes three years before Joe Blow the reader will say, “That character will always respond in this way.” Over time people realized that Dagwood would always miss the bus. A new creator might do a strip about a farmer and his talking animal and have all kinds of gags about it.
Meanwhile, the readers are saying, “Why does this animal talk? Is this guy married? Why is this happening?” And they can’t relate, because the cartoonist never gives the readers enough information, and for three years, every single day, you have to say, “Hi, my name is Jack and I have a talking moose.” Every single day. And three years later, people are going to say, “Hey, did you read the strip about Jack and his talking moose?” People assume that because they know their characters intimately, their readers will. But the readers are skeptical. They want what they’re used to. They don’t want Rex Morgan, M.D. to go away. “I don’t want to lose M*A*S*H! Don’t give me a replacement for M*A*S*H—I’m going to hate it!” To buck that attitude, you’ve got to be so appealing, so understandable, that the reader’s going to say, “Well, that one’s intriguing. I’ll read it again tomorrow.” And if they read it tomorrow, they have to find it equally intriguing. Often, new creators are so comfortable with their own stuff that they don’t realize they have to spoon-feed the audience. It’s one statement a day. In a sitcom, for example, you can have a full understanding of the characters in a half-hour, but in a comic strip, you’ve got to hook the reader a little bit, day by day. It’s like fishing—you’ve got to use the right hook and the right bait, and you wait, wait, wait, wait.
Heintjes: And it’s that patience that eventually leads to the readers’ identification with the characters.
Johnston: That’s exactly right. And once your readers identify with your characters, you know they’re going to look forward to seeing them every day, and that’s the rewarding part—knowing that your characters are a part of your readers’ lives, even if it’s only for a few moments each day.