Category Archives: Letters from Lynn

Lynn, On Her Trip to Cartoon Crossroads Columbus

The last week of September saw me heading off to Columbus, Ohio, where I was a guest speaker and panelist at CXC: Cartoon Crossroads Columbus. They had asked me to give a talk, and take part in a panel.

CXC is more than a gathering of comic art fans; it’s where artists, publishers and collectors go to meet each other and to learn more about the industry. The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, located within Ohio State University, has one of the biggest and most important collections of original comic art, books, films, letters, and related documents in the world. In this fairly new museum building, made possible through the generosity of the Ireland family and supported by many others, much of the weekend event took place. Other meetings and presentations took place in the Wexner Centre, another of the spectacular, classic buildings on the Ohio State University Campus.

Above: (L to R) Jenny Robb (curator), me, and Annie Koyama (publisher). Annie had just donated an enormous collection of original comic art to the museum.

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Atlin Chalk Talks

The last week of August saw me heading north. I had agreed to do a “chalk talk” at the tiny Globe theatre in Atlin, BC – just south of the Yukon border. The flight to Whitehorse on Air North was pleasant as always – one of the few airlines which treats passengers with courtesy and appreciation. There is no charge for checked luggage, you get a nice lunch and at the end of the trip, they bring you a warm chocolate chip cookie! I always sit in a window seat. The scenery along the B.C. coast is spectacular and must be seen from above if possible.

Forest fires were raging again, and the result could be seen from 30 thousand feet above the ground. I took some pictures to show that smoke filled the valleys. It came up to the mountain crests. No wonder people were evacuating to safer and clearer areas; the air was bad. Paul (my partner) picked me up at the airport. It was a cool, clear day and compared to the dry heat of the city, it felt like fall.

After a fast trip to Skagway to see friends, we returned to Atlin and Paul’s tiny log cabin. It’s a cozy space nestled in the woods. He built it by hand when he was in his 20s and he says the land is in his DNA. I love being back in the north. When I was a kid and just leaving home, I wanted to stay in the city, be an animator or go into advertising. Like all city kids, I thought the north and the prairies were off the map; no place for me. Later, when fate took my family and me to Lynn Lake Manitoba, I changed. Small towns connect you to what’s real; what’s important. You learn to do without, to create your own entertainment, to be resourceful and to depend on your friends and family. Atlin is one of these special places and it comes with scenery too beautiful to photograph. Maybe that’s why so many talented artists choose to live there.

The Globe theatre, on Atlin’s main drag, was built during the Gold Rush. It has been beautifully restored and seats about 100 people. Heather, the Globe’s young and enterprising operator, had arranged a number of fundraisers in order to pay for the boiler which has to be repaired before the long winter sets in. Paul and I were the last of the “shows” and 23 people showed up. It was like a reunion as everyone knew everyone else.  Heather set the heater in the middle of the aisle to heat the place up a bit, then put on the coffee and the popcorn. She had also made Rice Krispie squares. We had an hour and a half to perform, as there was a baseball game on as well – an inter-community game which was a serious draw! Paul “opened” for me, with a few numbers on his guitar. He is a local favourite and I asked him to play something he’d never played for an audience before. I figured – if he’d roped me into this, I was going to give him a challenge in return! He played some fine original tunes – which I had only heard in part.

This shows the board in front of the Atlin Gas station, advertising the show. I told Heather that what I did was called a “chalk talk” and wondered how many folks would know what that meant! Not many, I’m sure – but there it was!

The chalk talk always goes well and is never the same twice. I talk about the things that go into a cartoonist’s mental rolodex: childhood memories, personal truths and lifetime adventures I want to share. I draw while I talk, using an overhead projector – a machine which is becoming harder and harder to find! I have always loved to watch my cartoonist friends draw. It’s a magical experience. With this in mind, I use the projector to illustrate my talks and it has become more than a tool, it’s kind of a “Dumbo’s Feather”. I need it to hide behind and give me the confidence I need to do public speaking! I’m still an amateur. I have learned that stand up comedy is the hardest job in the world and I’m awed by the people who do it well!

After the talk and some more visiting, Paul and I left the Yukon and began the long drive home. Every year, he likes to bring his truck back to Tsawassen where he has a cottage. I have begun to look forward to this four-day journey – for the scenery and for the experience. I love a good road trip!

There were fewer fires. Firefighters and some much-needed rain had lessened the threat and the smoke had dissipated. We were able to see the great walls of rock, vast mountain meadows and deep winding gorges of B.C’s interior highways. We listened to “books on tape” and enjoyed staying in out-of-the-way hotels and cabins. I didn’t want the trip to end.

Lynn’s Thoughts on 2018’s San Diego Comic Con

I have just returned from Comic Con in San Diego. I was invited to be a speaker this year, and to sit on a couple of panels. It was great to play the role of cartoonist again! Even though I continue to draw and create funny designs and patterns, I miss spending time with friends who are still doing the dailies and Sundays; still working to deadline. I miss being one of them! Having said that, I don’t wish to return to the work I did for so long. The fact that FBorFW is still remembered so fondly fills me up and makes me proud of the work I’ve done. It’s a great feeling.

The first time I went to this unconventional convention, it was a relatively small gathering of cartoonists who wanted to share their work, have their folios reviewed, buy and sell stuff, and drink beer. We all walked from table to table, enjoying new ideas, seeing how artists drew and coloured — all before the magic of computers. This was magic on its own! You could see the entire exhibition floor in less than a day and I don’t remember anyone wearing costumes.

Today, the “Con” attracts tens of thousands. There is no age limit. Everyone, from the new kid in a carrier, to granny with a cane, is there– along with hordes of twenty-somethings who line up for hours, some sleeping on sidewalks in the hopes of scoring tickets to an event, a talk, or a workshop. People are friendly. People are reunited, and new friends are made. It is a seething, bustling, colourful crush of fans and foragers. Many people come in costume, looking for headgear and hardware, buying everything from space suits to makeup — whatever it takes to become a superhero. Whatever you can dream up, you can be.

The convention hall is shaped like a massive cruise ship. Each day it took at least half an hour to work my way through the comic book stands, graphic novels, animation exhibits, and original art to wherever I needed to go. Fortunately, I had a volunteer guide who took me directly to meeting rooms and signing tables or I’d have been lost! Everywhere, I was greeted by folks who read my work as children and were now reading it to kids of their own. They would appear and then dissolve again into the dense river of people. I was grateful to sit in the National Cartoonists Society  booth with Greg Evans, Maria Schriver, Steve McGarry and crew, safe and out of the way. I also spent time behind the desk at IDW publishing, signing the new collection books. Having somewhere to be, somewhere to stand, made the massive crowd easier to manage. Moving bumper to bumper with aliens, robots, rubber chickens, and the undead, is wonderful — but in small doses.

It’s over for another year. I’m home again, looking at photos and sending messages to folks I met. It was four days of fun and freedom; of harmless fantasy in a celebration of comic art at its best. At a time when the world outside seems stark raving mad, I’m grateful for the kind of craziness that brings people together in spirit and solidarity. That’s Comic Con.

Lynn J.

Lynn Receives a Medal Of Honor from the National Cartoonists Society

Congratulations to Lynn!

At the annual Reuben Awards (the Oscars for cartoonists) in Philadelphia this year, Lynn was honoured by the National Cartoonists Society (NCS) with a lifetime achievement award. This is a huge honour for Lynn. Here is what she had to say about it:

On Saturday May 26th, I received a wonderful and surprising gift. I’ll call it a gift because as I stood before a banquet hall filled with artists I admire, I felt overwhelmed and unsure; the way you do at a surprise party. The National Cartoonist Society Medal of Honor has only been given to 5 other cartoonists: Al Jaffee, Arnold Roth, Mort Walker,Mell Lazarus and Mort Drucker — all heroes; all men! That it has been given to me is truly hard to believe.

The Medal of Honor is given to someone who has already won the Reuben. It’s a lifetime achievement award, and although it is a great honour, I’m not ready! The small polished wooden box that contains this Olympic sized medal sits on my bookshelf and challenges me to work harder—I don’t feel as though I have achieved a lifetime’s worth of work! Not yet…there is still so much that I want to do!

I am grateful to everyone on the board of the NCS for giving me this beautiful gift. I will treasure it. And, I believe with all my heart that it belongs to every one of us who draws cartoons for a living. It looks like an easy job, but it certainly is not. Cartooning is a talent, a commitment and a drive. For all of us, it’s a lifetime achievement. I am grateful for this gift and this honour, and I’ll continue to work hard to deserve it.   LJ

(Photos of Lynn by David Folkman)

Looking Back at Lawrence’s Coming-Out

It’s hard to believe that 25 years have passed since “Lawrence came out“. That’s what we have come to call the episode in FBorFW, when Michael Patterson’s lifelong friend and next door neighbour told Mike he was gay.

I wanted to write this story, in 1993, because I had just lost a dear friend, who was murdered for his bicycle and his stereo–and his death rocked my soul. Michael B. was someone I had grown up with. We went to the same school, were in the drama and art clubs, and we met often after school to listen to the “Goon Show” in his mom’s living room. He had all the shows on vinyl; a real treasure! We lived for comedy, and were often in trouble for taking our “stand-up” routines too far.

After grad, Michael and his partner, Paul, moved to Toronto where they did stand-up comedy and eventually wrote for CBC radio. I moved to Ontario around the same time, and we stayed in touch. I saw them perform in gay bars, Yuk-Yuks, and at the Firehall. They introduced me to musicians like Stan Rogers, and comedians like Robin Williams and Martin Short. We expected we would know each other forever.

One day, a thought about Michael came into my head suddenly, with a rush and a smile. It had been years since I’d seen him. I was standing in my kitchen in North Bay Ontario, having moved and remarried. I had two children, and a busy job with the syndicate. I spontaneously called his number, but there was no answer. I called his partner, Paul, and there was an eerie silence on the line. When Paul could speak, he told me he had just learned that Michael had been murdered in his apartment, by a young man he had met on the street that day. The man was homeless and had asked for money. Michael gave him forty dollars to get food, and a place to stay for the night.

The young man followed Michael home. He then bought a knife with the forty dollars, went back to Michael’s apartment and slit his throat. He was soon found, riding Michael’s bicycle and carrying his stereo. According to Paul, the attitude of the police was “Well, there’s another one off the streets!” — referring to Michael, who was gay and was assumed to be preying on homeless boys. He had been an artist, actor, writer and comedian, but Michael now became recast by the police as a predator who deserved to die. This was Paul’s observation. Paul tried in every way he could to get justice for Michael, and to have his killer put on trial for murder. It never happened. Paul died three years later, and I’m sure it was from a broken heart. I knew them both so well. Both gave to the world. They gave with their talent and their wit, their kindness and their generosity. Neither one “deserved” to die.

When this happened, I had been doing the comic strip for some time and it was beginning to look like a “saga”; something which reflected many facets of normal family life. If I was going to be true to my own life, then one of the characters would have to be, quite naturally, gay or trans — or somewhere in the rainbow zone! I thought about Michael B and I said “Well, my friend, this is for you”. I asked my editor what he thought about taking the story in this direction, and he was encouraging.

The character in the strip who seemed like the best choice to reveal his secret to Michael Patterson (who was named after my son, Aaron Michael, who was named for my friend, Michael) was Lawrence Poirier. His character had been quietly developing. He was funny and smart, introspective, diplomatic, romantic, athletic, and outwardly kind. There was something exceptional about him, and knowing he could handle it, I chose Lawrence to be “that boy.”

The story was discreetly handled, well written, and thoughtfully drawn. It had to be. My editors said I’d lose papers, but it was a good story; they said it was coming out at the right time. Readers were ready. Six weeks before the publication date, we gave the newspapers advance warning and we offered them alternate material, if they didn’t wish to run the story. Many features editors overlooked the warning — and ran the story without reading it. Larger papers like the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times ran the story, looking forward to the inevitable discussions that would follow. Editors of smaller rural papers decided to run it, because it was controversial but appropriate. So many different papers, all in different markets with different readerships, ran the story.

At home and at the syndicate, we kept in touch with newspaper editors and waited for the story to run. What I had in my corner, along with my friend Michael’s sad story, was the help and support of family and friends who were gay; people I had interviewed, people of whom I has asked permission. All were happy to help, all were enthusiastic and hopeful. I had support from people who, when I asked what it was like to come out, had said “It was a relief!”

The Lawrence story ran for about four weeks. My phone didn’t stop ringing. From seven in the morning until midnight, I talked to editors, publishers, reporters, interviewers from radio and TV. Letters came in huge boxes from the post office and the syndicate. Some of the editors I talked to were furious. Having not read the advance information, they felt they had been blindsided. They cancelled my strip. As one paper cancelled, another would pick it up. I lost maybe 45 papers, and picked up about 50. The controversy waged on as if there had been some kind of national disaster. Neither my editors nor I could have predicted the response.

Over three thousand letters arrived at my home. I answered all that were reasonable; many were threatening and frightening. Many came from people who had no idea who I was, or why I had done the story. They wanted me dead anyway! There were times I regretted having published the series, but that was offset by knowing that what I had done was nothing compared to the work done by those who had literally put their lives at risk. I could see firsthand why things are so slow to change.

In the end, it was a very good thing. Over 70% of the letters were positive. Editors agreed that they were pleased with the controversy, and that the story had ended with thought and dignity. And why not! Lawrence is the kid next door. Lawrence is my high school chum who wrote comedy for the CBC. It was a good time to release a story that–in or out of the closet, belongs to us all.

One of the best things to happen throughout the story’s release was the interaction between parents and children, who were using the comics page to reconnect, to discuss a taboo subject, something that had torn them all apart. I have a letter here that I’d like to share with you. It’s from an intelligent and remarkable young man, whose personal story impressed me greatly. His message is a gift. I wish I could have sent him a reply.

I am wondering, now, what has changed. In today’s enlightened and much more accepting world, are people who identify as LGBTQ finding their lives easier, is the world less hostile, less restrictive, less biased? Have we come far enough? Are enough intelligent people now realizing that there is no definite sexual polarity, that we come in all shapes, colours, sizes, and sexual orientations? Is it safer out there? Are there more jobs available? More places in society? I’m hoping that folks who know about this will contact us and tell us what their experience has been now that North American culture identifies itself as diverse and aware.

FBorFW was never intended as a forum. It was always a comic strip: a space in the paper that provided a smile and a bit of personal honesty. In having created this small inside look at a normal Canadian (and therefore a normal North American) family, I also created a safe place for people to express themselves. When readers wrote to me, I wrote back. For those whose letters came from the heart, respectfully and with honest opinions, I responded with consideration and concern. I have lost too many dear friends to AIDS and alienation. Now that 25 years have gone by, did the Lawrence story make a difference? Has your life improved? Please let me know. Let me know that my friend, Michael, didn’t leave this earth without a legacy.

Thanks, Sincerely,  Lynn Johnston