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Comic controversy

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By TOM ZUCCO

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 4, 2001


The cartoonist who creates the slice-of-life strip For Better or For Worse brings back a gay character, despite hate mail and cancellations when he came out in 1993.

Lynn Johnston has been down this road before, and she's bracing herself for another bumpy ride.

Johnston, whose For Better or For Worse comic strip appears in nearly 2,000 newspapers in 25 countries, is expecting another round of angry letters and canceled subscriptions -- all over a guy named Lawrence who's 2 inches tall and exists only on paper.

In 1993, when Johnston made Lawrence one of the first openly gay characters to appear in a nationally syndicated comic strip, she was hailed as a pioneer by some and criticized by others as a threat to decency. She received boxes of hate mail, and more than 100 newspapers decided to either run replacement strips or cancel the strip altogether. (The St. Petersburg Times, which ran the original strip, received more than 50 complaints from readers.)

On Thursday, Lawrence returns as the best man in a wedding. That upsets the mother of the bride, who doesn't want a gay person in the wedding party.

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Six years from now, the last of the Patterson kids will be grown and probably living away from home, Edgar the dog will be getting along in years, and Elly and John, well into middle age themselves, will be looking for new challenges.
"But Deanna," the woman says to her daughter, the bride-to-be, "this is a church!!"

Amy Lago, vice president of comics for United Media, the company that syndicates the strip, said that as of Aug. 29, two dozen newspapers had requested alternative strips that make no mention of Lawrence being gay.

"That doesn't necessarily mean they'll run (the alternative strips)," Lago said. "But they're considering it."

Lago would not reveal which papers had asked for the alternatives but said several editors called to express their support and their intention to run the series as is. (The Times will also run the original strips.)

Johnston, 53, created For Better or For Worse in 1979. It chronicles the lives of the Pattersons -- John and Elly, and their children Michael, Elizabeth and April -- a family modeled after her own. Among the issues the Pattersons have faced over the years: child abuse, the death of the family dog, menopause, a grandfather starting to date after the death of his wife, a surprise pregnancy and unmarried couples living together.

For most regular readers, Lawrence was just another slice of reality. For others, he was a person who had no place on the comics page -- a section widely read by children.

Until this latest series of strips, Lawrence hadn't been heard from for several years. From her home in Corbeil, Ontario, Johnston said she simply saw an opportunity to re-introduce the character. Despite the risks. "I wanted to broach it again, and enough people, including people who write to me, were saying it's time," she said. "And it's only fair that Michael (the groom) ask one of his friends to be his best man."

And fans: Watch for further developments.

"If the mother (of the bride) is as wacky as she's turning out to be," Johnston added, "well, she has her own problem that'll be revealed later."

Johnston took the added risk of injecting religion into the mix -- and not by accident.

"Sometimes," she said, "people who are extremely religious are themselves the most vocal and threatening. So I thought it would be appropriate to have her say, "In a church!!' "

"Most of the complaints I got when I introduced Lawrence were from right-wing religious people in the United States who probably don't read the strip and were told to write, which is crazy."

It's not just Lawrence who has caused controversy lately. In one recent strip, Michael attends his bachelor's party at a strip club. But in a substitute strip that was made available, the party was held at a pool hall.

Why did Johnston decide to do that?

"I didn't," she answered. "That was our editors' decision. Hey, we've got two strip clubs right downtown -- the Mozie On In and Fanny's. My daughter goes on guy nights, but mostly because they have good food. It's not a big deal.

"But I really like my editors. They allow me a tremendous amount of freedom. If they felt strongly about something, I took their advice."

Johnston will again provide alternative strips for Sept. 6-8. "I remembered what happened when Lawrence was first introduced," she said. "Alternative material was required for four weeks. This time, it'll just be for a few days. I'll use the same art, just different dialogue." That dialogue won't mention that Lawrence is gay.

As was the case eight years ago, Johnston said, she is merely trying to show a typical family going through the ups and downs of everyday life. There are far worse things, she said, that readers confront.

"The comics page is the most sacred piece of real estate," Johnston said. "They don't show butt cracks, but Garfield can completely destroy his owner's apartment. And I love Jim Davis and Garfield.

"But isn't this crazy? You can't show something as ordinary as a little piece of (butt crack) tissue or say strip joint. But when you look at TV, it's so unbelievably graphic.

"When I first did the Lawrence story, the biggest problem was for the very small papers in the United States. The editors may have agreed with it, but they couldn't run it. One editor told me someone broke windows at his paper, and another said his kids got beaten up at school and someone spray-painted his dog.

"I tried to call and talk to as many (editors) as I could because we're in a partnership. We work together.

"And I didn't want to hide behind an editor. One editor said his brother is gay and loved the story, but he couldn't afford to lose circulation. I got that message from a number of small papers."

She also got hate mail. And she expects more.

"When I open the letters, I can shut my eyes and tell you what they say," she said. "It's as if the same person with same narrow mind wrote it with the same pen.

"Some people think the letters go into someone's wastebasket, but I see them all. And we try to answer every one."

One the biggest concerns could come from parents who may be caught off guard if their child starts asking questions. What happens, for instance, if a 6-year-old reads the strip and asks a parent, "What does homosexual mean?"

"I think if a child is old enough to form that question, they're ready for an answer," Johnston replied. "This is a reality-based strip. This is your neighbor next door. It (homosexuality) is nothing to fear. It's a part of life. My father-in-law is gay. Some of my closest friends are gay. . . .

"My children were far more cognizant and aware than I ever would have suspected, and it was from talking to kids on the playground and watching TV.

"I think what I'm showing is in good taste. It doesn't go into any detail; it just provides a wide variety of community experiences."

United Media also got some flak when Lawrence made a brief reappearance in the late 1990s. "But it was from one group that got together and sent a bunch of e-mails and letters," Lago said. "They were all form letters.

"So readers are clearly getting used to Lawrence being a character in the strip, and that he's gay seems to be less and less of a disturbance. Like being acquainted with someone."

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