Toon comes to life

BILL BRIOUX

, Last Updated: 5:12 PM ET

Ay carumba! Good grief! Is there anything harder than bringing a comic strip to life?

The greatest success is probably The Simpsons. Matt Groening's edgy and ironic scribbles first appeared in the alternative press more than 20 years ago. This Sunday, TV's longest-running series hits the 250-episode mark.

Charles Schulz' Peanuts led the way 35 years ago, when the first Charlie Brown specials became holiday perennials at CBS.

UPN recently tried to turn the trick with Dilbert. However, what works in a four-panel daily newspaper strip doesn't always translate into a 22-minute TV adventure.

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That has been the challenge for Lynn Johnston, the Canadian cartoonist behind For Better Or For Worse, one of the world's most popular syndicated newspaper strips. The new animated series based on the strip premieres on Teletoon Sunday at 8 p.m.

Johnston's cartoon family -- mom Elly, dentist dad John and their three children, along with sheepdog Farley -- are a barely disguised take-off on her own brood.

"The truth is, I find Elly Patterson awfully hard to draw because she is so much like me," says Johnston, who appears at her drawing board at the beginning of the series. "We are one and the same, although I draw her more the way I feel than the way I am."

For Better Or For Worse had been animated before in a couple of holiday specials. When it came time to develop the strip as a series, Johnston teamed with Funbag Animation Studios.

Johnston has been very hands-on with this project, supervising character designs and even getting involved with voice-over casting. That's her voice you hear speaking for Elly, the busy mother of the Patterson clan. (Jayne Eastwood also lends voice as Mrs. Dingle.)

And why not? The Pattersons are her family. "I've had a chance to get to know my children as probably few people do because I've raised them twice, in a way," she says.

Johnston even looks like Elly, although her blond hair is shorter now. As the character, she says she has been able to reconstruct her life by being able to construct an ideal family. "I've been able to bring back my parents," she says. "I've been able to bring back my friends.

"When the kids were little, they drove me crazy! And through Elly Patterson, I've been able to look at them in retrospect and remember what they were like when they were little."

Age, evolve

Unlike Schulz, who froze his characters around the age of six or seven, Johnston always has let her cartoon family age and evolve. The show reflects this and is divided into three different stages of the Pattersons' lives: "The Early Years," when the kids were very young, "The Growing Years," when they were not-so-young and "The Later Years," when the kids headed off to college.

Last June in Toronto, Johnston spoke about her friendship with "Sparky" Schulz, her mentor and inspiration, who died earlier this year. The Peanuts creator was in his 50th year drawing every panel of Charlie Brown and Snoopy's adventures.

It's one record Johnston has no interest in matching. She has sketched For Better Or For Worse for 20 years, and will pack it in in another 10.

"It's a great job, but it demands all of your time. I think I'll be ready for a rest by then," she says.


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