Cartoonist Lynn Johnston and her recently deceased Universal Press Syndicate editor, Lee Salem, introduced newspaper readers everywhere to Elly and John and their children on Sunday, Sept. 9, 1979.
For the next 29 years, loyal readers of “For Better or For Worse” watched the Patterson children, Michael and Elizabeth, grow, witnessed the birth of their sister April, saw grandparents pass, a dog die, and Michael’s childhood friend come out as gay.
Now, 40 years later, the readers of 2,000 papers in 23 countries can revisit those beloved strips as Johnston—who stopped writing the original strips in 2008—re-releases them with the occasional fix for continuity and timeliness.
Johnston was recently interviewed for the new Editor & Publisher magazine podcast, “E&P Reports,” by host Bob Andelman.
She talked about the impact of the retired Salem—who died suddenly on Sept. 2, 2019, in Kansas at age 73—on the development and success of her daily strip.
“He helped me all the way through that first six months as we developed the strip,” Johnston said. “He managed everything with such integrity and such kindness and strength. It was an honor actually to work with him and I don’t work well with people I don’t respect. So, I worked well with Lee.”
It was Johnston’s daughter and her webmaster who alerted the artist that the strip would hit its 40-year milestone in 2019.
“I was surprised,” she said. “So many years have gone by.”
Before “For Better or For Worse,” Johnston wrote a few books about pregnancy and raising kids. Those, in turn, were forwarded to Salem, who asked her to draw three weeks’ worth of strips as quickly as possible, according to Johnston.
“I think they wanted to put the pressure on to see how quickly I could produce,” she said. “I think they do that to just about everybody. They liked what I sent them, and they sent me a 20-year contract and off I went. I couldn’t believe I would be fully employed as a cartoonist, which is a pretty rare gift.”
The fictional Pattersons started as a representation of Johnston’s own family. Each of the main characters—except Elly Patterson—is named after her children and husband at the time.
“Elly was such a profound character and I couldn’t really identify her 100 percent with myself,” Johnston said. “But I wanted to think of her with a certain affection that transcended reality. And I named her for a friend of mine who had died when we were in elementary school.”
Year after year, the children grew. Elly got pregnant with April, children moved out, the beloved family dog—Farley—died, and 14 years into the strip, Johnston introduced a gay character. He was in response to the death of her friend Michael Boncoeur, who was killed in a robbery.
“The media and the authorities at the time tended to say, ‘Well, there’s another predator off the streets,’ when it came to the death of Michael,” Johnston said. “I wanted people to know that he was my friend, he was a neighbor. He was somebody’s son.”
The story of Lawrence Poirier coming out first to Michael Patterson and then to his family stretched over a month of strips. Johnston submitted them with extra lead time in case edits were needed. She and Salem expected they might lose six to eight papers. They lost closer to 50, she said.
“It was shocking, but at the time, most of the markets had more than one major paper,” Johnston said. “When one paper would drop you, the other one would pick you up. I actually gained papers through the storyline.”
She discovered that 90 percent of newspaper editors were open-minded and big papers were happy to run something controversial. It was the small papers in smaller markets where the editor would be accosted by readers at the local coffee shop.
“Those were the ones who were most upset,” she said.
Looking forward, Johnston doesn’t expect newspapers will start over again after the first 29 years of “For Better or For Worse” strips repeats in full.
“I can’t hang onto this piece of real estate forever,” she said. “I mean, I want to see someone new come in and just knock the socks off me. I would love to hire that person right now if I could. I can’t begin to tell you how honored and fulfilled I am because as an artist you want to have some kind of body of work and legacy.”
And the cartoonist is a pragmatist when it comes to print’s shrinking news hole and the effect it has on the funnies. But she is also hopeful about the future of print.
“I think right now we’re going through a bit of a revolution and people realize that a laptop and an iPad are not the only way to get your information,” Johnston said. “I think paper is going to be there for us always. It’s going to be another 10 to 15 years of just sheer experimenting.”