Maclean's Interview: Lynn Johnston

Cartoonist Lynn Johnston talks to Anne Kingston about the new 'For Better or For Worse' and her own domestic drama

Cartoonist Lynn Johnston returns to the drawing board this month with For Better or For Worse, North America’s most popular comic strip, syndicated in over 2,000 newspapers. She had planned to retire the 28-year-old strip that chronicles the domestic lives of the Patterson family. But the unexpected breakdown of her 30-year marriage last year prompted her to return to work. In an unorthodox experiment, the North Bay, Ont., resident will recast the story from day one via a mix of old and new drawings.

Q: Retelling the Patterson family story with new storylines is either supreme artistic catharsis or supreme regression.

A: [Laughs] Actually it’s one of those neat experiments that you know is working as soon as you get started on it. At first I thought: “Maybe it should go back and forth in time.” But the year that I tried that was a year that I had some personal chaos and found it awfully hard to concentrate. It didn’t flow. Also I would have to keep developing the characters and I would have even less time than I have now to do it. So I ended the story. It comes to a full stop the last week of August. The whole month of August has been the wedding of Anthony and Elizabeth. Some people are thrilled with the wedding, some people aren’t. I don’t care. They’re happy, they want to get married, and it’s going to be good. And, really, the whole story is about marriage and how you deal with the for-better-or-for-worse, and that was what I wanted to point out.

Q: Is that an allusion to your own marriage suddenly ending for “the worse” a year ago? 

A: Oh, yeah, that was a shocker! I had no idea, you know? I knew that there were things not working, but I kept thinking, “When I’m retired, we’ll work it out.” But there was no conversation, no discussion, and suddenly I find that there’s another woman in the picture. So I sat there when I found out, absolutely stunned, thinking, “Who’s writing this story?!?”

Q: You’ve said you expected to be retired, travelling through the Mediterranean with your husband at this point in life.

A: And had made those plans, and to have that, you know… You know, I was in shock for several days. My eyeballs were open and my mouth was open saying, “What?!? I don’t believe this, I don’t believe this!”

Q: Did you ever consider incorporating the breakup into your work?

A: No. It’s far too personal, and it’s far too stressful, and if I can enjoy a fantasy world along with everybody else then I should just keep doing that. You know, if I start to put what really happened in the strip it’s unfair to my family.

Q: But you’ve touched on significant issues in your life before — a character who comes out of the closet, abusive relationships . . .

A: But not divorce.

Q: No, not divorce, which makes me wonder if one of the reasons the cartoon has been such a sanctuary of comfort is because the Pattersons have their ups and downs but remain solid at the core.

A: That’s what I thought I had! I was divorced once before, so all of that memory is still there. I was thinking of using that, in that Anne — Elly’s neighbour — her marriage is not working too well, but I never worked it into the strip.

Q: But recently you recycled an old strip in which Elly has a recurrent dream that [her husband] John leaves her for another woman.

A: Yes, it was so prophetic I thought, “You know what? I’m going to just throw that in there.” I think it’s funny; it’s so déjà vu.

Q: So that was a dream that you had during your own marriage?

A: Well, [my former husband] worked with beautiful women ever since I met him. He’s a dentist. He has hygienists and front-desk girls, and there are usually eight girls around him all the time, and he used to travel to the Native villages taking his staff with him, and people in the town would look at me as if to say, “Well, girl, join the club,” because in a small northern mining town there’s a lot of horsing around, and the joke was you can steal a man’s wife, but you don’t touch his woodpile, you know? It was rampant up here.

Q: Adultery is a form of entertainment where you live?

A: It was recreation. It was like a high school, all these different personalities thrown into this one inescapable place where you had to be there together all the time, whether you wanted to or not, and someone you hated might turn out to be the guy in the bar that you’re hitting the sack with next year, you know? I didn’t have time for that, nor did I want it, but it was there in the town. But I thought there was safety in numbers if he was with a bunch of girls. And they were all really nice people. But I thought to myself, “If I’m going to be a jealous wife, I’ll drive myself crazy.”

Q: Later-in-life divorce is rampant. I wrote a story last year for Maclean’s about it titled “The 27-Year Itch.”

A: I’ve also heard it called “the Viagra divorce.”

Q: This is your second divorce. The terrain must be so different at this stage; you were a young mother of one son the first time; now you have two grown children.

A: Well, thank goodness they’re adult children. It was terribly hard on them anyway. My heart goes out to the younger moms who have children at home who are thrown between the two and have to spend time between two families. It’s so difficult. But [my husband and I] had very individual lives. He had lots of hobbies, and I spent a lot of time on my own, and so being on my own is not something that I’m uncomfortable with. I think I’ve coped really, really well. When I was divorced the first time, I met another young woman who was also divorced. Actually, what happened with her was her husband took her to the hospital as she was having her second baby and she never saw him again.

Q: Wow. Really?

A: Yeah, and the two of us were looking at each other saying, “You know what? We’re really fine people, we’re worth keeping,” and we supported each other through being brand-new moms with new babies and on our own. We were hoping to help other people through this once we’d survived. We had our survival mechanism, which we thought was superb. And the first thing was never go to bed ugly, because if you look in the mirror at three in the morning and you’ve been crying all night and you’re saying, “Well, no wonder he left me. Look at you!”

Q: That’s such a female response, to blame yourselves.

A: Yeah. We had no money, so we went to the Salvation Army and we bought the best negligees. I mean, who wears a negligee? You wear it one night, it goes to the Salvation Army, so that’s the best place to go to buy a fancy, swanky negligee. So we would go to bed and we would do our hair, our makeup. We’d call each other at 11 o’clock at night: “Hey, babe, you look good?” “Oh, I look great. Did you do your nails?” “Yeah, I did my nails.” “Great.” Then we’d go to bed looking great, feeling good, and we’d call each other in the morning.

Q: You were ramping down For Better or For Worse when the marriage dissolved. Do you see any connection?

A: I think catching someone [being unfaithful] is . . . it’s the end.

Q: Certainly adultery is a recurrent marital theme.

A: Do you know what it is? It’s cowardice. If you’re not happy, work it out. Some marriages are worth keeping if there’s a really good basis for it, no matter what’s gone on, because at this stage of our lives there’s so much history, so much family, so much . . . not just possessions, but mental possessions, like the time we did this, and when we did that, and all the wonderful history there. When you’re in your declining years, your memories are so important, and your family and friends. Do you really want to throw that away and start a brand-new life with brand-new people?

Q: I think there’s a desire to be revitalized or to reinvent oneself, however mythic, that propels people to seek someone new.

A: Well, a number of people that I know — three actually — who have gone through this, the partner who took off for the new, better life, lived it for maybe 10 years and then was devastated that they didn’t have the old life, because they realized what they left for isn’t as valuable as what they built for 30 years. But it’s gone now, it’s just memories. And it’s hard for me to imagine passing by the man I lived with for 30 years and just saying a pleasant “Hello” in the supermarket.

Q: Do you ever cross paths?

A: I’ve never seen him. I mean, it’s a small town so he probably knows what I’m doing and I probably know a little bit of what he’s doing, but my life is rolling along and I have a very full life. I’ve had a lot of fun, actually. I’ve really enjoyed being single; after you pass through the shock, then it’s like, “Well, I can do anything I want. I can go anywhere I want.” One of the things I’ve been wanting to do for years and years is to go to South America and be a translator, and I went to Peru this year and I worked for two weeks as a translator with the Medical Missionaries, and I had a wonderful time.

Q: Your work now gives you the flexibility to do that?A: Oh, sure, absolutely, because I won’t have to do six dailies and a Sunday every week. I might do three dailies, I might do five, I might do one, it all depends on how well the classic material works into what I’m doing now. The stories are already written, and the backgrounds are already drawn. I don’t have to devise another character.

Q: Rewriting history isn’t an opportunity we have in life, only art.

A: No. Isn’t it a great thing? I am so excited by this, because it’s the best of all worlds. I get to fix my mistakes. You can’t change the past but you can perhaps tell the story a little more clearly.

Q: You talk about reaching a new generation with the strip but it’s a very different generation than existed in the ’70s, pre-Internet, pre-YouTube. How are you adjusting to that?

A: Well, I’ve just gone past a couple of strips that were really funny — they were both about a typewriter, and those are both gone. Not because I didn’t think they were good. I just didn’t think it would go. So it’s not as if I’ll change things. I just won’t include them if they don’t have any relationship to today.

Q: What has readers’ reaction to your own marital split been?

A: Well, people want to know a lot about it, and it’s nobody’s business but mine, you know? And they’re sad because it was a fantasy. And I was sad for them because I wanted to give them a real family behind the family in the strip that was together and communicated and could see through… see each other though all the ups and downs.

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