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It's for the 'Better'

As Lynn Johnston's comic strip marks its 28th anniversary, it's in for some changes. But then, so is she.

September 10, 2007|Alex Chun | Special to The Times

In a letter sent to editors last month regarding the fate of her long-running semi-autobiographical comic strip, "For Better or for Worse," Lynn Johnston, borrowing a quote from Mark Twain, wrote, "Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated!"

Ironically, it was Johnston herself who started the rumor almost a decade ago when she stated in interviews that she would be retiring this month, the 28th anniversary of her strip. Instead, "For Better or for Worse," which runs in more than 2,000 papers including the Los Angeles Times and chronicles the lives of the Patterson family, will continue in a hybrid format that weaves together new plots with previously published material.

"I love a challenge, and this is the biggest challenge I've had since Farley the dog died," Johnston says, referring to the emotional 1995 death of the Patterson's beloved family pet. "All these characters are delightful people who live and breathe in my head, so I wanted to say a little more about each of them."

Loyal readers will notice many changes, starting with new art that will be used to introduce reprint material, told with photo albums and flashbacks. And one of the strip's hallmarks, the aging of the characters, will come to an end. Elly and John will be relegated to a backup role with the focus shifting to their son Michael, his wife, Deanna, and their two children, who, not coincidentally, are about the same age as Michael and his sister, Elizabeth, were when the strip began.

"John and Elly have told their story, so this is about the next generation and comparing today to yesterday," Johnston explains from her Corbeil, Canada, studio, about 200 miles north of Toronto.

To smooth the transition, the ratio of material will favor new work at the outset before tilting toward classic strips as Johnston gets more comfortable integrating strips rendered in two completely different styles. "Some of the gags are good, but I could have drawn them so much better," she notes.

Although she's excited by the challenges the new format presents, Johnston says that up until a few years ago she fully intended to retire, citing a desire to travel (she's already scheduled a trip to South American to work with medical missions), her age (she turned 60 in May) and her health.

For a number of years, she battled a neurological condition called dystonia, which has gone into remission since she went off hormone therapy. She experiences double vision caused by eyestrain and has an essential tremor -- a condition that also afflicted her friend and mentor Charles Schulz -- which causes trembling in her hands and makes it difficult for her to draw a slow, even line.

As a result, Johnston relies on assistants to help with coloring and inking. For her part, she doggedly continues to write and pencil the strips, and inks all the characters, "because I really want that expression or body gesture to reflect what the story is about."

When she initially thought about retiring, Johnston planned simply to end the strip. Later, she toyed with handing the strip off to another artist -- one artist was actually offered the job but turned it down, Johnston says -- or letting the strip run as a strict reprint à la "Peanuts."

In the end, however, Johnston decided she just couldn't let go.

"I'm not dead yet, so I thought if the classic strips do run again, there are some things I would fix and change and add to," she says.

By utilizing classic strips, Johnston has been able to bank the free time she craves (she's already two months ahead on her dailies and Sundays); at the same time, continuing the strip has helped Johnston cope with her separation from her husband of 32 years, Rod Johnston.

"Working on the strip and in the studio with a staff I love are things that are familiar to me," she says. "Being a single woman is not something that is familiar to me."

Although this will not be the first time a cartoonist has reused previously published material -- toward the end of his run on the strip "The Heart of Juliet Jones," Stan Drake sometimes cut figures out from his older originals and pasted them into new art -- it's the first time that it's being used as a storytelling device. But if anybody can pull it off, it's Johnston, says Lee Salem, Universal Press Syndicate president and editor. Johnston is the 1986 Reuben Award (cartooning's highest honor) winner and a 1994 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her story on Michael's friend Lawrence coming out of the closet.

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