End of Marriage Leads to New Content in Revamped Strip

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By: Dave Astor

As “For Better or For Worse” moved into “hybrid” mode this week with a look back at how Elly and John Patterson met, few readers of Lynn Johnston’s partly autobiographical comic knew that her real-life husband left her this April.

The news that Rod Johnston had met someone else was a devastating shock to Lynn, whose millions of fans thought her long marriage — like the long marriage of Elly and John — was “storybook” in nature. “It shows our family was as vulnerable as anyone,” she said during a phone interview with E&P.

But there’s a silver lining of sorts in the breakup of the marriage, which will probably officially end in divorce next April. Johnston, who’s feeling much better about the separation than she did this spring, has been devoting more time to her hybrid comic than initially planned. And she intends to continue doing so — meaning there’ll be more “new” in the new-old “FBorFW” than anyone could have expected.

“The sudden change in my life has given me a lot more need to focus on my work,” said Johnston, who noted that one reason she had wanted to stop doing “FBorFW” was to share retirement with Rod, who had ended his career as a dentist.

Indeed, Johnston, 60, had originally wanted to halt “FBorFW” completely. Universal Press Syndicate — which distributes the 1979-launched comic to more than 2,000 newspapers — then suggested that the comic go into reruns (a la “Peanuts”). Johnston countered with the hybrid idea, because she wanted to give newspapers and readers at least some new material. “And I love a challenge,” she said.

The hybrid “FBorFW” will still contain some material directly culled from the comic’s earlier years, giving Johnston the time to travel more and do other things with her life that would be hard to do if she continued creating seven completely new “FBorFW” strips each week. But, with the separation as partial impetus, the fresh content will be plentiful.

For instance, Johnston plans to do many (though not all) future Sunday comics from scratch. Around the time of the phone interview with E&P, Johnston was enthusiastically working on the Nov. 25 strip showing Deanna (the wife of Elly and John’s son Michael) dressing her children. “I’m having a wonderful time drawing the body language,” she said.

Also, much of this week’s flashback material about Elly and John meeting was newly drawn and newly written. (The cartoonist said she initially had a lot of trouble drawing John after Rod left her real-life marriage, but finally the “spell was broken” and she was able to do it.) But Johnston will also use some old “FBorFW” material that’s not redrawn in future strips.

Johnston said she’s not that pleased with her early “FBorFW” art. “It could have been better,” she observed. “I had two kids and was very busy, so I had to do things more quickly.” But Johnston does like her early writing in the comic — and has enjoyed looking back to when Michael and his sister Elizabeth were young.

“Those were some of the funniest strips,” said the Canadian creator, a 1994 Pulitzer Prize finalist and the first woman to win the National Cartoonists Society’s Reuben Award as cartoonist of the year..

Johnston has already frozen her characters in time (they’ll no long age), but she’ll continue to resolve certain things in the strip into next year. One of these things is the renewed relationship between Elizabeth and her high-school sweetheart Anthony.

The Universal creator has received some criticism from people such as cartoon bloggers for bringing Elizabeth and Anthony back together. Some said Johnston already did the school-sweethearts-reunite theme with Michael and Deanna, while others said Anthony — a nice guy and devoted father to the child from his disastrous first marriage — is supposedly not interesting enough for Elizabeth.

Johnston said she reunited Elizabeth with Anthony partly because of advice from late “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. “‘Sparky’ accused me of having too many characters,” she recalled with a chuckle. “‘It’s so confusing,’ he said. He was right.” So bringing back Anthony rather than introducing a new permanent love interest for Elizabeth made sense in that respect.

Also, Johnston has received some criticism from bloggers and younger cartoonists for doing a hybrid comic when her 2,000-plus newspaper slots could be filled by cartoonists creating completely new content.

But, as mentioned before, the hybrid “FBorFW” will have more new content than originally expected. And Johnston wryly offered a challenge to other cartoonists: “Knock me off the page! I have an extraordinary opportunity to do something different [with the hybrid]. But if you have work that will fill the space better, I want to see it as much as you do.”

Readers of “FBorFW” have liked what they’ve seen so far this week. Johnston reported receiving about 200 e-mails between this Monday and yesterday about the hybrid episodes — with about 75% positive, virtually none negative, and the other 25% commenting on or asking about the changes in a more neutral way. And the huge client list of the comic (one of only five in syndication with 2,000-plus papers) has held steady.

“FBorFW” started with about 150 newspapers in 1979, so, Johnston noted, the earlier comics will be new to many current readers. And the cartoonist said many readers who did see the earlier work want to see it again.

Johnston works with a staff of six in her Ontario studio/office. The “FBorFW” team also does commercial art and Web-site design. In the meantime, the popular FBorFW.com has expanded and will continue to expand, because, said Johnston, “readers want to know everything!” [About her and the comic.] She added that a strong online presence is important in today’s world.

But Johnston also wants to do other things — which leads to the question: How much extra time will the hybrid free up for her? “I just don’t know yet,” replied the cartoonist, adding that she’s also not sure how the hybrid format’s content will play out. “What will happen will happen,” Johnston said. “It’s going to lead me. It might surprise me.”

Johnston HAS found time to paint again (“I’m doing a portrait of a friend”) and for a just-finished, one-week trip to Kenya to visit a number of villages with a Free the Children organization contingent. Among her other planned trips in coming months is a spring 2008 visit to Peru on a medical mission.

The cartoonist — a former medical artist who’s fluent in Spanish — was originally going to visit Kenya with Rod but ended up going with her daughter instead.

Does the breakup of the Johnstons’ marriage mean Elly and John will separate and divorce in the comic? “No,” the cartoonist replied. “FBorFW” is partly autobiographical, she said, but not completely autobiographical.

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