Thursday, 18 February 2016

The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery

Photo by Alastair MacKay
From her family’s home in North Vancouver, a retired Lynn Johnston reflected candidly on her experiences in work and life with solemnity and good humour. Producing a cartoon strip for thirty years where the subject matter is much in tune with her own life, Lynn has also gained a good degree of wisdom and confidence to speak her mind. She has influenced society with the twists and turns in her For Better or For Worse comic strip. One such twist was Lawrence’s coming out, controversial enough to garner hate mail while simultaneously getting her mass appreciation and awards. Her influence has been international and most of it accomplished from North Bay, Ontario.
     The Thunder Bay Art Gallery’s “The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston” runs till March 6, so if you weren’t part of half the City who has seen the show already, make the time. Not only will you get a good laugh, you will garner insight into Lynn’s life, the life of her characters and obtain an appreciation of the incredible amount of work involved.
     Writing and drawing a comic strip requires discipline and a great degree of confidence. Lynn didn’t see herself as a comic, a jokester, able to write a gag a day. “I wasn’t funny enough, that’s why I developed stories to work with.” She also chose to have her characters age over time, a brilliant and unusual move. And the Universal Press Syndicate believed in her approach enough to offer her a twenty-year contract. She garnered legions of fans and unlike other comic strips that went stale with repetition or should have gone the way of the dodo in the 1960s, Lynn was able to keep the stories relevant and close to her heart. 
     Talking comics, Lynn balks at the literal shrinking size at which comic strips are now printed, if at all. “You can barely see the text,” she laughs in disgust. “Originally comics were put into newspapers to attract a younger audience, to create the next generation of readers.” Lynn describes how decades ago editors were surprised to discover that more than eighty percent of the readers of comics were adults. Reading comics could also be a family affair. For decades readers took comics seriously as any modern day television drama.
     Lynn laments, “Now even the political cartoons are streamed. That’s why you always see generic cartoons of Trudeau and Obama in every paper. You don’t see local politics any more in the editorial cartoons.”
     Apropos, a film screening of the documentary, “Stripped” will be shown in Room 351 of the Shuniah Building in the Confederation College Lecture Theatre on Saturday March 5 at 7pm. Cartoonists from all-over talk about the historical value of comics, the love we have for them, and the current battling of comic survival in the print and digital world.
     In her retirement, Lynn’s strip is currently running right from its start. She’s thrilled that the majority of papers that originally ran her strip continue to run it.
Photo by Alastair MacKay
      Lynn felt her approach to creating her work for an audience was more akin to acting. “It’s like making a movie. You have to be a writer and an actor.” She had to imagine constructing the story scene-by-scene, placing the characters in settings and sync the timing of events and story lines. Occasionally Lynn had to be a costume and set designer amongst other roles. You will see all this at the show. A great effort had to go into organizing her time and keeping a schedule.
     Lynn produced a number of children’s books and animated short films, one of which is a regular Christmas feature, The Bestest Present. Lynn is horrified by the quality of Canadian children’s books today. “One of the worst stories that somebody came up with was for the Olympics – for you know, whoever those little drippy dippy mascots were. It suuucked! Damn it was a piece of crap. And the rest of the world [artists] that could do a better job, just had to stand there and flap their lips in amazement. So much children’s literature is published and often the art is fantastic, but the writer is terrible.”
     Recounting when she first worked with a Canadian publisher, Lynn was being paid twenty dollars an illustration. The now deceased owner of Potlatch Publications, at one point refused to pay Lynn claiming that he had run out of money. Lynn refused to do any more work for him. He came to her door demanding illustrations. Equally stubborn, Lynn refused. She told him that she needed to get paid in some manner. The publisher ended up mowing her lawn.
     Lynn had to visit another publisher who was refusing to pay her, and when Lynn dropped by his house, he was having a pool put into his back yard. “So, this is where the Canada Council’s money is being spent,” she said. The publisher replied, “Put it this way, I deserve it.”
     Regarding an incident with The Atlantic Magazine, back in 1973, she says with delight. “I did a piece of the art for them. Ninety days I went without being paid. A friend of mine was down there and he dropped by the Atlantic’s office and pulled the publisher across the desk by his tie. So he gave my friend a cheque for 50 bucks.”
    Lynn worked with three Canadian publishers, all who ripped her off in some manner. It was an American publisher who approached her and developed a long lasting relationship. Together they put out a number of books, much to the chagrin of friends who claimed Lynn wasn’t being patriotic. Lynn had to explain; “They came to me. I didn’t go to them.” And after all, there’s only so much punishment an artist can withstand.
Photo by Alastair MacKay
     We discussed troubles in the publishing world, the art world in general, and the lack of recognition of the comic arts in Canada, enough for another article. However, Lynn is thrilled with the show at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery and the public's response to it. She met with some of our talented comic artists and many young people and got royal treatment.
     The show was originally organized and curated at the Art Gallery of Sudbury. Lynn gushed, “The Sudbury gallery did a beautiful job, a very dignified and professional way to show my work. They were very respectful. It was a beautiful show. I learned an awful lot about galleries. I’ll never go into a gallery again without an understanding of how much work is involved.”
     Lynn is hoping the show will eventually crisscross the country and jog over to the United States for a while. The show is sure to bring a better understanding of the value and work involved in the comic world. 

No comments:

Post a Comment