Saturday, March 23, 2013

Reader's Diary #968- Lynn Johnston: Something Old, Something New

(Pre-scheduled post to appear while I'm away in NYC.)

 Recently I read Judge Dredd, The Complete Case File 01, despite warnings from a long time fan that I probably shouldn't start there if I was unfamiliar to Dredd. It made sense to me to start there as it was an anthology of Dredd stories, starting right at the beginning and working through chronologically. After reading it, I understood her advice. The quality just wasn't there. The writers and artists were still trying to get a grip on who they wanted the character to be, many of them were new to comics themselves, and Dredd didn't become fully realized until much later.

So, when it came to reading an anthology of Lynn Johnston's work, I wasn't exactly sure what to do. First, I should probably back up a little to explain why I was interested in Lynn Johnston's comics in the first place. Johnston is, of course, best known for her decade spanning For Better or For Worse comics. But I didn't read many daily comics as a kid. I would have, most definitely, but I grew up in a small outport Newfoundland community where we had one thin newspaper a week (the Lewisporte Pilot) without any funny pages. Occasionally, if we took a trip into St. John's, I'd look forward to getting my hands on the Telegram, which did carry the funny pages. Better yet, because those trips were inevitably on weekends, I'd get the coloured ones. Sweet. Even then though, I can't honestly say I was really into For Better or Worse. I was a kid. I wanted Garfield. Marmaduke. Maybe Peanuts.

I was older before I started noticing and appreciating what Johnston was doing. She took on serious topics, from time to time. For the funny pages, that was somewhat of a big deal, I suppose. But outside the cartooning world, comedy and drama were mixed all the time. Look at All in the Family and Maude, for example. What really began to interest me was the fact that her characters aged! Cartoons don't do that! Okay, there was the Pebbles and Bam Bam Show but even then you didn't get to see them age. The Simpsons will soon have its final season and yet Bart remains 10, just as he was when he first appeared on the Tracey Ullman show back in 87. As much of a fan as I'd been of the show, it would have been cool if Bart actually turned 36 this year, if we watched the Simpsons kids grow up, go to high school, have kids of their own. But Johnston did it. It's as revolutionary as drawing a 5 fingered cartoon hand!

Anyway, not being overly familiar with her work, I decided to start at the beginning. Fortunately however, Johnston was well aware of the pitfalls of revisiting her old work in a new compilation and addressed the very same concerns I had with the Judge Dredd collection. Should she even bother looking back? And if so, should she conceal the "warts and all" as she refers to the mistakes she made in the early days? When Johnston first "retired" the strip, she had plenty of time to think these things through. The newspapers had agreed to sort or start the strip all over, like a long rerun. However, Johnston wasn't out of the picture all together, she decided to improve upon the original. She added whole strips here or there to beef up or explain dropped story lines and tie up loose ends, she made tweaks with illustrations and so on. In Something Old, Something New she includes the strips that were added in after the fact, along side the originals, and my inner-historian thanks her for acknowledging the new strips with a subtle asterisk beside each one. There are a few missteps along the way. For instance, I knew the strips in this anthology were suppose to have started in 1979 and go to about 1983. However, in one scene, Elly's husband John mentions an attractive dental hygienist that looks like Shania Twain. Oddly, this strip wasn't marked with an asterisk. Shania Twain would have been 14 in 79 (creepy, John) and though she appeared on the Tommy Hunter Show at age 13 (thank-you, Wikipedia) she was still going by Eilleen at the time (she wouldn't adopt "Shania" until 93). So, the strip didn't add up. I did a little digging on the For Better or For Worse website (because apparently my family and my job don't need any attention), and it turns out that in the original John said that the hygienist looked like Cheryl Ladd. Should have kept it that way. Less confusing. Especially when there are so many other dated clues in the neighboring strips (a typewriter, a David Cassidy reference, a curly phone cord). There's also a chronology error here or there, such as a reference to Farley the dog before he first appears. Small errors aside, the collection is incredibly well put together and complemented with an occasional anecdote, explanation, or photo from Johnston herself.

All in all, Something Old, Something New was funnier than I expected. It wasn't hilarious and the humour is pretty realistic, observational stuff, but pleasantly amusing nonetheless. While the more serious topics apparently come in later collections (coming out, deaths, abuse), there were hints that the comic could possibly begin tackling weightier issues. Elly, for instance, clearly wrestles with being a stay-at-home mom and finding personal fulfillment. Perhaps it was that, perhaps it had something to do with being set in Manitoba, and perhaps it's because I just read it recently, but to some extent Elly reminded me of Hope in David Bergen's The Age of Hope. More modern and more funny, mine you, but similar nonetheless.

As for the art work, I really appreciated her characters and their expressions. In the earlier artwork there didn't seem to be much in the way of backgrounds, but in the newer, injected strips you can see how much more Johnston paid attention to detail. Then, with these newer additions, the time pressure of pumping these comics out daily wasn't as great and so she could presumably have afforded more time to drawing a few more bricks in a background wall.

Lynn Johnston is a Canadian treasure and a gift to the cartooning world.


raidergirl3 said...

Growing up, we had a couple of the FBOFW anthology books at home, and I was in the booming metropolis of PEI, so we had cartoons in our paper, so I remember the cartoon. I always liked it and found it funny.
However, I find her rewriting and updating of the cartoon jarring. She had retired, and then her marriage broke up. I believe there were some money issues, so she went back to FBOFW. Have you noticed how her 'husband' has become a complete ass, as she rewrites the history? Originally he was a loveable doofus; now he's a leecherous jerk.
It's just a little uncomfortable knowing some of the background.

John Mutford said...

Raidergirl: Actually, I think some of strips just took on new significance in light of what happened. I didn't, for instance, think he was all that loveable even in the originals. Take the aforementioned Cheryl Ladd/ Shania Twain strip-- it's about how he hired his hygienists based on looks, not skill.

The whole semi-autographical angle is simultaneously the blessing and the curse of For Better or Worse.

Perogyo said...

Oh I love me some Lynn Johnston.

I was in Japan looking the strip up online everyday when Elizabeth became a teacher up north. Those strips were really personal for me, and I identify with it the way I never have with any other comic.