Wednesday, January 31, 2007

For Better or Worse?


Thanks to Gazette TV writer Andy Wineke for spotting this story on the wires.

"For Better or Worse" is The Gazette's No. 1 comic with local teens, young adults, 30- to 50-somethings and seniors.

By ERIC HARRISON, Houston Chronicle

First, the bad news: Lynn Johnston needs a break.

The cartoonist has, after all, written and drawn the popular comic strip“For Better or for Worse” for 28 years, in sickness and in health, without complaint, while Aaron McGruder (“Boondocks”), Bill Watterson(“Calvin and Hobbes”) and others griped, took extended hiatuses and retired.

“What wusses!” she exclaims.

But Johnston turns 60 this year, and she wants to do things in life that are difficult to do while producing 365 comic strips a year. “I want to travel and study and paint, and I want to spend some time with friends and family,” Johnston says. “We’re starting to get to the stage when you go to funerals and that’s where you reunite with friends,” she continues. “I want to be able to spend time with friends while they’re still alive.”

The good news, however, is that Johnston isn’t retiring. Instead, the strip — which appears in more than 2,000 newspapers — will be transformed in September into what Johnston calls “a hybrid” of new and old material. She will continue to write and draw, but the new material will serve to frame flashbacks consisting primarily of recycled material. These strolls down memory lane also sometimes will contain new material that amplifies, embellishes or completes story lines of old.

For instance, Johnston mentions a character, Deena, who was absent from the strip for a long time without explanation. In her head she knew why Deena disappeared, but she never got around to drawing it. Now she will. For the most part, however, the continuing saga of the Patterson family will end. Characters will stop aging. Existing story lines will be wrapped up before the change. Think of the new format as a long goodbye.

This creative solution to the problem of cartoonist burnout will lessen Johnston’s workload while still making the strip available to readersdaily. “I wanted to retire completely,” says Johnston, who has never taken a break from the strip. Her thinking always was, “If Charles Schulz can do it, so can I,” she said, referring to the creator of ‘Peanuts,’ who drew his strip for just short of 50 years, giving it up only weeks before he died Feb. 12, 2000.

“I don’t know whether it’s my age or that I was raised on hard work,” Johnston says, but while other cartoonists complained about oppressive deadlines her feeling was, “You’ve got a job — do it.”

But now she says she’d love to be able, for the first time in almost three decades, to take a two-week vacation without first laboring nights and weekends to finish two weeks’ worth of strips in advance. ...

“For Better or for Worse” has blazed trails from the beginning. Not only was it the first family-centered strip created by a woman, but its characters also inhabited something like the real world instead of the usual timeless cartoon universe where nobody dies or moves away. ...

She will use the time between now and September to finish existing storylines and provide an ending. “It will be a full family circle, one full generation,” she says, noting that Michael, who was a child when the strip started, now has two children, just as his parents did in 1979 when “For Better or for Worse” began.

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