For Better, For Worse

Lynn Johnston is one of the world’s best-known cartoonists. This story is based on facts, but it’s a fictional version of how we imagine Canada’s most famous comic strip might have got its start.

Illustrated by Jessica Lindsay; written by Allyson Gulliver

Posted April 15, 2014

“Mommmmm! I want a snaaaack!”

Silence. Maybe he would wait for just a moment more while she put the finishing touches on —

“Mommmmmm! I want a snack!”

Big mistake. Now baby Kate was crying.

Lynn sighed and put down her fine-tipped black artist’s pen, scooped Kate up and headed for the kitchen.

Looked like another late night ahead, trying to finish that advertising poster after the kids were asleep. She cut up some apple slices and cheese and turned to put the plate in front of her six-year-old son, but her foot caught on something fuzzy. Mother down; plate, cheese and apples flying.

“Bad dog, Farley,” shouted Aaron, but the black-and-white sheepdog was already happily munching the boy’s snack as the kitchen door opened and Rod Johnston, still in his dentist uniform, wandered in.

“Hey honey — how was your day?” he said, aiming to kiss his wife but missing, his attention on the mail he was flipping through.

“Well, I’m behind on that poster, I have three medical drawings to do by Thursday and Dr. Bharati wants some more cartoons for his office.”

“Oh no!” said Rod, not really listening.

“Yeah — it was crazy,” said Lynn.

“Our phone bill went way up last month!” said Rod.

“What? Of course it did!” said Lynn.

“All those calls to my publisher about the parenting book, remember?”

“Right. Sorry.” Rod gave her an apologetic kiss. “Hey, did you write to Universal Press Syndicate?”

“It’s the biggest comic strip distributor in the world. What would they want with me?”

Rod held up an envelope. “Better open this and find out.”

Lynn ripped open the envelope. For once, all was quiet in the Johnston household.

She looked up, her face a mixture of bewilderment and joy. “Somebody there saw one of my books. They want me to send in some comic strips.”

“Congratulations!” shouted Rod. “Now, you get to work — I’ll order some pizza.” Lynn was in a daze. What could a mom from Lynn Lake, Manitoba, possibly do a comic strip about?

She stared at her family — Aaron running around with a tea towel on his back pretending to be Superman, Kate reaching out from her high chair to try to catch a buzzing fly, Rod stepping over Farley as he pulled out drawers looking for the pizza flyer.

And then she smiled. “I’ll draw what I know.”

She practically ran back to her work area, set the forgotten poster aside and picked up a pencil. A family quickly took shape: a woman who looked kind of like her, a man in a dentist’s jacket, a young boy and a baby girl. And of course, a black-and-white sheepdog.

“It wouldn’t be fair to use our real names,” she thought. “But middle names … ” And below the characters, she printed John, Michael, Elizabeth and Farley.

Her eyes wandered over the clippings and pictures pinned to her wall, and stopped on the photo of Elly, the dear friend who had died not long ago. Lynn smiled and wrote Elly under the cartoon woman.

“Thank you for coming all the way down here to Missouri, Mrs. Johnston. Your comic strip is so refreshing and real-life that we knew it was perfect for us,” said the editor. “We don’t offer a 20-year contract to just anybody.”

“I was thinking that, to keep it real-life, the characters would grow up and get older,” said Lynn. “You know, the kids will go to high school and university and get married.”

“What a great idea — everyone else on the funny pages stays the same age! But Lynn . . . the name of the strip has to go. It’s so boring.”

She shrugged. “I couldn’t think of anything clever, so I stuck with ‘The Johnstons’.”

The editor leaned forward and smiled.

“Well, I have a better idea. I think we should call it ‘For Better or For Worse.’”

This story is based on facts, but it’s a fictional version of how we imagine Canada’s most famous comic strip might have got its start.

Lynn Ridgway Johnston was born in Collingwood, Ont., and grew up in British Columbia. She studied cartoons and animation at school.

In 1972, she was pregnant with her son Aaron when her doctor asked her to do some funny drawings to put in his office for his other patients.

She published some books of cartoons about being a parent, which led to her big break with Universal Press Syndicate, the huge company that sends comic strips to newspapers, in 1978. “For Better or For Worse,” the story of the Patterson family, hit newspapers the next year.

She was the first woman and the first Canadian to win the Reuben Award from the National Cartoonists Society in the U.S., and is a member of the National Cartoon Museum Hall of Fame and the Canadian Cartoonist Hall of Fame. The strip appears in more than 2,000 newspapers and online outlets around the world and has been translated into eight languages.

Since 2010, it has been almost all re-runs from its earliest days. Johnston now lives in Corbeil, near North Bay, Ontario. Visit to see nearly 30 years’ worth of her comic strips.

This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Kayak: Canada’s History Magazine for Kids.

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