Cartoonist Draws on Family Life Lynn Johnston Orchestrates Realistic Strip `for Better or for Worse'

Article excerpt

A mother with more than one child might worry sometimes about whether she's giving enough attention to each of her children. With only two kids, both in their 20s, one might think this shouldn't be too difficult for Lynn Johnston. But she has another family to keep up with as well.

Johnston is the creator of the comic strip For Better or for Worse, which is widely hailed for its humorous, loving and realistic portrayal of family life. In the strip, she orchestrates the lives of John and Elly Patterson, their three children and their broad circle of friends and relations. It isn't easy to keep track of everybody.

"I have to remember what the characters have going on in their lives and who have I not caught up with lately," she says.

She has been doing it for 20 years, taking the Pattersons through raising their two older children, the birth of their third, plus tangential story lines involving neighbors, schoolmates, grandparents -- even the family pets. Should she ever let a character fade too far out of the picture, readers are always there to stick up for whoever they feel is being neglected. For Better or for Worse appears in more than 2,000 publications -- one of the five most widely distributed strips in the world -- so there are plenty of interested observers.

Realizing the mass appeal of her characters -- "a pretty middle-of-the-road bunch of people," as she calls them -- has made Johnston feel the responsibility that comes with her work.

"I was a lot more arrogant [in the strip's early years] than I am now. I used to tell people in airports what I do for a living. But now, it's my job." Not that it's a grind, she says, but she's aware of the impact of creating something that's read by millions of people every day.

One of the strip's most distinctive traits is that it progresses in real time. Characters mature, age, even die. (By comparison, if Peanuts did the same, Charlie Brown would be 50 next year.) And Johnston has no desire to slow down the process. To have meaning for her, events in the strip "have to be pretty doggone current," she says.

These days, situations involving high school- and college-age children hold more currency for her, as is reflected in the story lines involving the Pattersons' older kids, Michael and Elizabeth (the middle names of Johnston's own children, Aaron and Kate). But 9-year-old April Patterson is a "fantasy character" with no real-life counterpart.

"I am completely out of touch with what happens in a home with small children," says Johnston, who turns 52 this month. "I have to shut my eyes and remember what it was like." She must reach back into her "misty memory" to write for April -- and even for the Pattersons' dog, Edgar, since the Johnstons no longer have a dog.

The death in the strip a few years ago of Edgar's father, Farley (he died after saving April from drowning), is one example of the cartoonist's serious side. …