Comic relief–Lynn Johnston
When Lynn Johnston sits down to draw For Better or for Worse , she often ends up unraveling the tangled story of her life. Rob Colapinto reports
By Rob Colapinto
First published in Chatelaine’s March 1997 issue.
A slight shudder plays across Lynn Johnston’s face, interrupting her animated account of a cute moment in the life of 5-year-old cartoon creation April. “I’m sorry, I’ve recently developed this problem and I’d better get my medication,” Johnston says quietly, her face now set in a mask of grim expectancy. “Well, heck,” she suddenly brightens, “it’s easier if I just show you.”
With that, the author of the acclaimed comic strip For Better or for Worse is flat on her back on her kitchen floor, doing a quick check that her black skirt and matching jacket are not hiked or rumpled. “Now, if I turn my head just so and relax,”
Johnston explains, “I kinda…kinda…”
She suddenly erupts in a blur of flailing arms and legs, her head thrashing from side to side, her spine pretzeling. Then, she jerks up into a sitting position and the spasms stop as quickly as they began. The artist’s wavy shoulder-length brown hair is tousled, her face is flushed and everything has gone all inappropriate, but she seems none the worse for wear. “How ’bout that?” she exults over her shoulder as she makes off to find her pills.
Last fall, Johnston, 49, was diagnosed with torsion dystonia, a classificatio of neurological disorders characterized by involuntary shock-like muscular spasms. “My dystonia is called spasmodic cervical torticollis,” she explains. “At first I thought I had a brain tumor, and it took forever to get the right diagnosis. So spell it right, please: I want anyone with a similar problem not to go through the terror I felt.” Johnston’s variety of the illness is probably hereditary and has likely progressed as far as it’ll go. “Luckily, my rendition of The Exorcist’s demon child mainly happens when I’m lying down,” she laughs.
Her ready “demonstration” would not come as a surprise to the loyal readers of For Better or for Worse, in which Lynn Johnston routinely, unreservedly addresses and challenges the sometimes cruel vagaries of life. The daily four-panel cartoon chronicles the lives of the Patterson family–parents Elly and John, and children Michael, Elizabeth and the precocious 5-year-old, April. The stories are all fictional, says Johnston’s husband, Rod, “but, at times, I wonder if Lynn is fully aware of that. She gets so absorbed in the strip, a kind of blurring of the real and imaginary worlds occurs.” This confusion would seem almost inevitable as Johnston attempts to create a family that is as passionately engrossed in its own often problematic affairs–and as imperfect–as any family in real life. As well, the artist has some personal family business to resolve.
The blur between fantasy and reality, says Johnston, “is just me hunkered down at my desk drawing a new life for myself.”
Little April, for example, was created in 1991–when Johnston, at 45, yearned for another child. Realizing that, short of adoption, she was unlikely “to complete my family,” she created baby April instead. Today, April comes alive in almost every strip, and Johnston seems to revel in her as much as any mother. A recent weekend color offering swept from panel to panel entirely without text as it followed the child’s joyous play among falling autumn leaves.
Johnston’s work adopts the expected conventions of a funny-pages sitcom–slapstick humor, witty puns and punch lines, and the requisite cast of romping, cutesy animal and human characters. “What sets Lynn’s strip apart from the others,” says Elizabeth Andersen, Johnston’s editor at Universal Press Syndicate, “is that her characters and readers are not spared midlife crises, financial hardships or confrontations with prejudice, child abuse and death.”
Are such topics a bit of a stretch for a cartoon? “That’s Lynn’s personal challenge,” says Andersen, “to bust out of the usual constraints of a comic strip, and to do it convincingly.” Still, Johnston has no intention of abandoning sight gags and other devices of comic art. “They help convey or piggyback the serious stuff,” she explains. “It’s like my dystonia display; my party trick, as I call it. If I show it in a certain way, it becomes more manageable for me and for the observer. Yet it remains very real.”
Johnston insists that she is more than capable of distinguishing between her real-world existence in Corbeil, Ont. (several hours north of Toronto), and the Toon Town adventures of the Pattersons. April, she declares, is a compilation of the early years of her real children, Kate, 19, and Aaron, 23, combined with any number of friends’ and strangers’ kids. Home in real life is a 60-hectare property in the woods on which she and Rod, a local dentist, have built a beautifully appointed two-storey log house with indoor swimming pool plus a cottage. But look out the solarium windows of her work studio–where she spends several hours a day drawing her strip–and fantasy intrudes. A miniature train station stands in a corner of the side lawn, with engines and cars ready to carry family and friends off for a half-kilometre run through the woods (Rod is a train enthusiast).