All that being said, there is a very special relationship between Mom and Johnny Optimism. And for those who haven't heard it before, we're repeating it for this Mother's Day edition...
In May 2010, I was having lunch with my wife and a good friend (an author) who complained that children's books these days all seemed to need a heavy-handed social message in order to sell. I joked that he should do a book about a terminally ill boy in a wheelchair named "Johnny Optimism." And that night, just to take the joke a step farther, I quickly roughed out this book cover and sent it to him:
The next day, only a few days after Mother's Day, my Mom died unexpectedly. And for reasons I can't logically explain, I spent the following weeks expressing my grief by obsessively creating Johnny Optimism cartoons - hundreds of them - trying to somehow rediscover joy, laughter, or just a little relief in the very blackest of circumstances. And it helped me to laugh at life's pain (not at its victims) and realize that we're all like Johnny - just doing our best to cope with the odds heavily stacked against us.
Happily, Lance the dog made it into the strip without blindness or a bad cough. In fact, he's the bestest, most loyalest dog in the whole world and nothing bad will ever happen to him (my daughter made me promise).
I've never really explained Johnny's living arrangements, and in my own mind they've evolved over time. Currently, I see him living in a hospital environment where he's surrounded by other kids with interesting maladies, and inept or downright insane medical caregivers and guests.
During the day, he is mainstreamed at a regular school (which is why the school nurse is always calling to report the disaster du jour).
Early on, Johnny would sometimes mention his parents in the strips - but that element has largely disappeared. It seems to me that by freeing Johnny from traditional family structure and putting him at the mercy of a senseless bureaucracy, he becomes more of a symbol for all of us.
Johnny is near and dear to my heart. He has more courage than I do, he has bigger challenges than I do, and he faces them all with more grace and optimism than I could ever do.
And he serves as a gentle reminder that none of us is truly alone in feeling like the universe sometimes goes out of its way to throw pain and suffering our way...as well as a reminder that it's always okay to laugh, even if we're sometimes just laughing at our own vulnerability. It's quite possibly the strongest thing we can do...and the greatest gift I received from my mother.
__________AND HERE SHE IS...
Hi, Mom! Looking good!
Her name was Johanne, but everyone called her "Jo." And it was only after I'd turned out literally hundreds of cartoons in her honor that I realized that Johnny Optimism's initials are "Jo."
Whether coincidence or fate, that gave me goosebumps. And still does.