A fire in an apartment, the death of a beloved family pet, the onset of aphasia after a stroke—these seem unlikely stories for a newspaper comic strip. But since 1979, Lynn Johnston's cartoon, "For Better or For Worse" (FBorFW), has used these events and more, finding the sometimes bittersweet humor in everyday life.
Set in the province of Ontario, Canada, the cartoon has followed the lives of the Pattersons—Elly and John, parents of Michael, Elizabeth, and April. The characters are based on Johnston's own life: Elly was named for a late friend, and the other Pattersons (except for April) are inspired by Johnston's husband and children and have their middle names (Aaron Michael, Katherine Elizabeth, and Roderick John). Johnston has said that the characters also reflect her: April, for example, was inspired by Johnston's desire to have another child.
Many story lines draw from Johnston's own life experiences. Elly's bookstore, Lilliput's, is modeled after Gulliver's, a book and toy store in North Bay, Ontario. Johnston's niece Stephanie has learning disabilities; her experiences are portrayed through Shannon, a young character who appears in story lines involving April.
In a story that began in September 2006, Elly's father, Jim, has aphasia resulting from a stroke. In an e-mail interview with The Leader, Johnston discussed Jim and the future of FBorFW.
Jim's story explores Johnston's feelings about aging, she explained. "It's seeing through the eyes of someone with a frustrating disability," she said. "It's [like] being my father, and being a man I know who's living with aphasia. It's an acting challenge!
"I wanted the character to be fairly capable physically, yet dealing with a disability that would change him emotionally and require him to be very dependent on his wife," she continued.
Johnston is educating readers through the comic strip, portraying the multiple problems that may arise with aphasia. When Jim's wife, Iris, speaks for him, he is visibly frustrated at her control. His doctor prescribes anti-depressants, advising that depression is often associated with aphasia. And Iris feels overwhelmed at being a caregiver, asking the doctor if he can prescribe hugs.
The cartoonist is known for her extensive research on the topics in her strip. Johnston even asked a real designer to create a wedding dress for Deanna, Michael's wife. For Jim's story, she is working with Blaine Foell, a neurologist who specializes in stroke. In the next few months, she will introduce a speech-language pathologist into the strip.
"He [Foell] has connected me to speech-language pathologists who specialize in aphasia, and I'm working with a family whose 'dad' has almost the exact same symptoms as Grandpa Jim," Johnston said. "If I can find someone who is living with a situation, I ask for their help [in making the story authentic]."
Johnston's brother-in-law Ralph inspired a controversial 1993 story about Lawrence (a Patterson family friend) revealing his homosexuality, a topic that elicited complaints and some newspaper cancellations of the strip. Grandpa Jim's situation also has inspired much communication.
"I've received many, many messages by e-mail—letters with heartfelt stories from people who desperately need to express their feelings with regard to living with aphasia," Johnston said. "I've also heard from associations specializing in treatment, socialization, and caregiver support."
Other Language Issues
Johnston often deals with language issues and that people's words may not communicate exactly what they mean. For example, when Elizabeth was a toddler, Elly worried that the little girl wasn't picking up language well. In the cartoon's last panel, Elly began speaking baby-talk to her daughter, leaving the reader with the recognition of how adults contribute to the way their children learn. Johnston said that this cartoon was not based on personal experience, however.
"It was a 'set-up,'" she said. "We almost always spoke to our kids in normal speech patterns—but we still use Kate's [daughter 'Elizabeth'] word for 'bathroom,' which was 'blafoon.'"
Johnston said she started out like many cartoonists, doodling on anything as soon as she could hold a pen. She attended the Vancouver School of Art, leaving after three years to work in the ink and paint department of an animation studio. She then worked as a medical artist at McMaster University before drawing the cartoons that led to the Patterson family and international syndication.
Into the Future
FBorFW has a loyal following and is one of only five comics carried in more than 2,000 newspapers around the world. Fans will be happy to know that instead of retiring and ending FBorFW this year as previously announced, Johnston will continue the strip in an innovative new/old hybrid. Classic published strips and scenes will be reprinted, perhaps from the angle of Michael looking at old photos or scrapbooks. The characters' stories will wrap up, although Johnston also will create a limited amount of new material.
The new format should begin in the fall. Johnston developed the model so that she can stay involved with the strip, augment the stories, and give her editors and readers something different. Another significant change for the strip is coming: the characters will no longer age in real time as they have in the past.
"Characters will not age because it's work to change them," Johnston explained. "People move, grow, have relationships, and die. To have them age would create a strip within a strip and really compound my workload! I want a break from the deadlines."
In Editor and Publisher, Johnston joked that although the new way of doing the cartoon means she will be "flying by the seat" of her eraser, it will allow her more time for travel and other interests. She also wants more freedom in her schedule because of health issues, including dystonia, a neurological condition that she controls with medication.
And what about the character of Jim and his aphasia? Johnston reflects real life in her stories, and Jim's will be no different. As with most older adults who have experienced a debilitating stroke, Jim will likely maintain the abilities he has for a while but will slowly, inevitably deteriorate physically and mentally, Johnston says. In her latest monthly "letter" on the FBorFW Web site, the character of Iris writes that although Jim has improved, healing the brain is a slow process in older people, and Jim probably will not regain his full range of function.
"We manage, though, and we have love, so things still look pretty bright in our little corner of the city," Iris writes. "We can focus on what's important—enjoying life and making the most of the time we have!"