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Sunday, August 10, 2008

LYNN JOHNSTON SPEAKS

The fourth Doug Wright Awards ceremony was held at the Toronto Reference library on Friday, August 8. The winners are listed in the link; I particularly liked THE MAGICAL ADVENTURES OF LONG TACK SAM, the first 'graphic novel' adapted from a motion picture made by the same artist!
The Doug Wright award is named for Doug Wright, whose strip NIPPER (also known as Doug Wright's Family) ran for over three decades in Canadian papers. It had one strong advantage over most comics of the day--it was entirely without dialogue, an advantage in a bilingual country. And it was beautifully drawn.
There was also a special award called THE GIANTS OF THE NORTH. Lynn Johnston was the seventh inductee to this special panorama.
The logo for the award (and the awards themselves) were beautifully designed by Seth, who is also the book designer for the COMPLETE PEANUTS books published by Fantagraphics Books and a famous cartoonist in his own right. Seth looked rather like he could play Hildy Johnson in THE FRONT PAGE without any costume change; he dresses rather like a newsman of the Thirties complete with snappy fedora and tailored suit.
Lynn Johnston took the stage and looked at the GIANTS OF THE NORTH logo, which features three bearded men flanked by two Castor Canadiensis.
"I wonder which one of these characters is female?" Lynn enquired. There was a general intake of breath.
("The beavers, of course!" I whispered to the man in the next seat, who did not react. Canadians are generally very polite. I'm not acclimatized yet.)

Lynn then proceeded to give an amazing lecture on comics, comic artists, and the future of FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE. The last comic of this famous strip will run on August 31, but that is not the end of the story. Here's a brief summation paraphrasing what she said. Lynn has graciously given me permission to print some exciting news. Any errors in the report are mine.

The Hardest Story

"Story comes from within you. I had a personal connection to most storylines...they were based on people I knew...The hardest story I ever wrote--the best story I ever wrote--was when Lawrence (Michael Patterson's high school friend--n.b) 'came out'.
...I remember the anguish of a small-town editor in the Southern states. He was harrassed. He had to drop the strip...he liked it, but he wrote me 'My kids were harrassed at school, the dog was spraypainted...I have to drop the strip.'"

(The 1992 landmark series where a teenager tells his best friend that he is gay resulted in many American papers dropping FBOFW, but "for every one that dropped it, two more signed on!" There was laughter and applause as Lynn stated this. Here's some of the criticism she received.)

Lynn: "There is a 'code of ethics' for comics. My strip was seen as 'family friendly' but the syndicate approved the story line. Nowadays, they would probably be less upset..."

"...Gary Trudeau (Doonesbury) got away with it...I was nailed to the wall! There were 7000 letters. We made three piles: "Yes" (approve), "No" (rational) and "No" (inflexible). Very few of the 'noes' were rational--most were inflexible..."

"...April (the younger daughter) has been accepted at Guelph University!" (laughter from audience and applause) "You'll have to read about this on the last day."

(The story wraps up on August 31--n.b.)

"...The drawings were becoming stiff. I couldn't move. And I couldn't make jokes about little kids any more. Michael has children...but I have no grandchildren...and I couldn't really see it any more. It's better to end it when it's time. It all comes full circle."

For Better or For Worse: The Sequel

(The Universal Press Syndicate suggested that the strips be rerun, starting from the beginning.)

Lynn: "New material drawn in the old style will be added when the strips repeat. I want to go back and fix things! I draw so differently now...but you do the best that you can possibly do."

"...The comic strip page is called 'real estate'. Other syndicates are going after my papers! (There is only a certain amount of space on the comics page, and every new strip displaces an older one. --n.b.)
"The clouds are gathering! If it is going to run again, it's going to be the best I can make it."

Killing Farley

"...He's coming back. He'll be coming into the strip again, soon....All comics are written eight weeks before publication. Farley died on the same day that Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murragh building in Oklahoma City. You can't judge what the reaction would be...(Lynn told me that she received more negative mail when Farley died than when the grandmother died; she knows now that this was a reaction to the current events, not a mistake in priorities.--n.b.)

"...Farley is appearing in a new children's book, FARLEY FOLLOWS HIS NOSE. There will be a stuffed Farley toy. And a group of Ontario veterniarians licensed him for the FARLEY FOUNDATION, which pays the bills for sick pets when the owners cannot afford to."

"...The Twin Towers came down at the same time as Michael and Deanna's wedding. Deanna's dress designer said, 'You can't have them get married!' But the strips are already in the works, they can't be changed. The response was: "We're glad you didn't stop the wedding...we needed to see something funny."

"...The characters grew as my own children grew. The setup naturally mirrored that. My usual response to a gag is "And then what happened?" It's easier (to amplify the situation) than write a gag-a-day. That will drive you crazy. I developed the characters, but they were fantasy. Real life is BORING! There are times when you think you are brilliant, but how often does that happen? Everything (in the strip) was scripted. The characters developed as individuals; they weren't my own family."

On legacy strips:

Lynn worked with a staff of two other artists; she penciled and inked the main characters herself, one staff artist inked the backgrounds and the other did the color work. This will not be the case when the strip is reissued.

Lynn: "I can do it all myself now. The early style is much simpler....I tried to make it a legacy strip, I contacted an animator and spoke with him about his taking it over. You need to be an animator, have an animator's sense of perspective and body movement...we decided it would not work. 'It's your dream, he said..."

On newspapers and Web cartoons:

"...The newspapers are in trouble. It's not like it used to be. There was more space. There's now talk about the Web. Anyone who wants to test their mettle can put their mistakes on the Web and get feedback...(comic strips) are a little play. Anyone who doesn't work for an audience isn't going to make it. (The Web) is great for comic strip artists and animators."

On the difficulty of drawing cartoons:

"Someone young might not have the determination to do this for 25 years. They drop out."

(Audience member: "Why? Don't they drink as much?")

Lynn: "Six weeks dailies, 8 weeks Sundays. Six weeks dailies, 8 weeks Sundays. Jim Davis (Garfield) wants to put this on a shirt! (You must have strips ready this far ahead of publication--n.b.)
"...A lot of young people will shine for two or three years and then they just can't take it. It's a different era. I'm thrilled they can't make it!" (laughter from audience) I'm extremely competitive."

"...(Cartoonists are) the most generous, kind, warmhearted group of people. There aren't that many of us. We are very supportive, very strong. But it's a hard, competitive job."

On Fame and Cartooning

"...I'd like to take what I've done and do something good with it. The stupid thing about being famous is it's just crap. It's the sugarcoating on the M&M--and the good stuff is inside. It's really not good for you, not good for your family..."

"...I would like to do something for the betterment of society, rather than retire or disappear. Take whatever I've got and push forward....I don't know what I'm going to be doing, but I'm on my way!"

9 comments:

Brad Mackay said...

Nancy - Thanks so much for writing this. A nice summation of Lynn's words and thoughts.
Best - Brad M.

patricia said...

A great write-up of a great evening. Congrats to Brad MacKay for a wonderful awards ceremony.

David Nethery said...

That's a gutsy thing, to end the strip when she felt that she no longer had anywhere to go with it.

So many strips hang on years past their prime and they just become painful to read .

I totally understand her desire to go in to "fix" some of the older strips (we all want to fix our old drawings I think , if we see them ) but I hope she doesn't do too much revising of the strip.

Honestly, I'd like to see some one take a crack at animating the strip again. There's been a few animated specials done (and even a series I think?) but the animation was very limited. Would be fun to see these characters in full animation.

Larry Levine said...

Very interesting, thanks for posting it.

April Patterson said...

Lawrence's "coming out" arc was in 1992, BTW.

Did anyone ask whether April has been age-leaped a year? She supposed to have another year of high school left.

Nancy said...

My mistake. I listed the second "Lawrence" story instead of the first. It's been corrected!

dcorsetto said...

Oh man, I'd LOVE to hear Lynn talk in person. This was almost as good. Thank you so much for posting this!

(It's really nice to hear that last comment from her, btw - that she'd rather better society than simply retire. Makes me like her even more.)

Nancy said...

Lynn is a charming and kind lady, very dedicated to helping people through art, and very proud of her country.
She's also on the Canadian Walk of Fame, and I can't think of anyone more deserving of that award, or this.You might want to write her to tell her of your admiration...I'll bet she'll answer you.

Floyd Norman said...

I had the pleasure of meeting Lynn some years ago, and hearing her speak about comics.

She's a wonderful, and remarkable lady.