Canada 1979: For Better Or For Worse

Own inspiration: Lynn Johnston; creator of For Better or For Worse; uses her own family as source of

As I turned seven years old in 1979, I was a big fan of two of the world’s most successful comic strips – specifically, Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts and Bil Keane’s The Family Circus, which always seemed to capture the ups and downs of childhood and family life from both the adult perspective and the kids’ viewpoint. I had dozens of paperback collections of both strips, and even wrote and illustrated several of my own stories and adventures featuring the Peanuts gang,

I had no idea that a young artist from Collingwood, Ontario was about to launch a 29-year run with her own family-based comic strip, or that she would turn the “family cartoon” concept on its ear with a unique combination of humour, warmth, and social commentary.

Her name: Lynn Johnston. Her career-defining comic strip: For Better Or For Worse.

 

 

Now, to be clear, For Better or For Worse would run for about three years before I actually discovered the earliest version of Johnston’s cartoon clan, the Pattersons – often-clueless dentist dad John, busy mom Elly, rambunctious grade-school son Michael, struggling-with-her-pronunciation pre-schooler Elizabeth, and the irrepressible Farley the dog. Nova Scotia’s biggest daily newspaper, The Chronicle-Herald, included the weekend colour strip in its then-new Saturday comics section in 1982, and I was immediately drawn to Johnston’s ability to mine laughs from situations I understood all too well as a hyperactive elementary-school boy with two busy parents and a little sister.

Whether or not they knew of my enjoyment of the strip (or the parallels, positive or otherwise, that I was seeing in my own family), my folks got me a copy of the second For Better or For Worse paperback collection, Is This “One Of Those Days,” Daddy? That book (below, left) expanded my knowledge of the Pattersons’ universe into Johnston’s daily strips, and I was immediately hooked. Over the following decade I picked up seven more FBOFW paperbacks, and while I don’t have a complete collection of Johnston’s work, I’ve augmented my own stash with two volumes that Cathy brought into our marriage, and recently picked up the excellent 2015 oversized paperback For Better Or For Worse: The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston (below, right).

 

I’ve also got the last of three books Johnston released prior to launching FBOFW in 1979, Do They Ever Grow Up? These collections of single-panel cartoons regarding the various sides of pregnancy and early parenthood set the tone for Johnston’s approach to FBOFW, as they usually went for the laughs but occasionally resulted in a thoughtful pause or a serious plucking of the heartstrings. My two favourite examples from this era couldn’t be more diverse – a four-panel illustration of a young mother unable to converse with her husband in anything but goo-goo noises after a day’s worth of baby babble, and a sombre single panel depicting a doctor patiently stitching up a bawling toddler’s shin while his heartbroken mother encapsulates her mood in a single thought balloon: “I forgive you everything.” (Seriously, three decades after first reading Do They Ever Grow Up?, I’m tearing up just thinking about it.)

With this in mind, Johnston broke with funny-pages tradition and delivered a comic-strip universe that entertained and captivated its readers but also challenged them with equal balances of chaos and pathos (or, to quote the title of a ’90s paperback collection, Sunshine and Shadow). In the essay that closes The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston, Amber Landgraff traces the launch of this serious approach to a mid-’80s plotline that saw John Patterson and his brother-in-law Phil fighting for their lives after their canoe capsizes during a fishing trip. (The strip that features Elly receiving the news ends with the polar opposite of a punchline – a horrified Elizabeth gasping, “Daddy? Gone?”)

It’s worth noting that during the year these strips appeared, 1986, Johnston won the National Cartoonist Society’s prestigious Reuben Award. By that time, her fan base included many of her peers, including the aforementioned Charles M. Schulz – who Johnston believed to be an impostor the first time he called her studio – and another groundbreaking female cartoonist, Cathy Guisewite. (Johnston credits Guisewite for the decision to avoid using real names, including her own, for the FBOFW family; apparently, the lines had blurred one too many times, personally and professionally, for the creator of Cathy.)

 

 

The late ’80s and early ’90s saw the Pattersons hit the small screen, beginning with the 1985 Christmas special The Bestest Present (available here) and continuing with six ’90s specials produced for CTV and The Disney Channel, prior to an early-2000’s series that ran for just over a year on Canada’s Teletoon. The first of the ’90s specials, The Last Camping Trip, still sticks in my head for a scene in which Elly, frustrated with adolescent Michael’s unwillingness to communicate with her, makes up an on-the-spot rap song. (I’m not lying; the rather cringe-worthy proof is right here.)

How big an impact was For Better Of For Worse making as the ’80s became the ’90s (and as I wrapped up my high school years)? Johnston’s characters even showed up in cameo roles within the pages of my beloved MAD Magazine – which, much to my surprise, also turned out to be a major influence on Johnston’s style. She actually devoted four pages of The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston to MAD and its various contributors, particularly artists Sergio Aragones, Al Jaffee, Don Martin, Antonio Prohias and Mort Drucker. I’d go a step farther and suggest that, like the best of MAD, a key reason I’ve enjoyed FBOFW through the years is the fact that its characters actually talk to each other instead of standing around and firing off gag lines. MAD’s seasoned writers, particularly veteran movie/TV parodists Dick DeBartolo, Arnie Kogen and Desmond Devlin, understand this, and so does Lynn Johnston.

 

 

(Above left: Elly Patterson hobnobs with the heroes of ABC’s thirtysomething courtesy of MAD’s 1989 parody “thirtysuffering,” illustrated by Mort Drucker, who also plopped Farley the dog into his splash panel for MAD’s 1993 Melrose Place satire. Above right: MAD mascot Alfred E. Neuman’s “What, Me Worry?” catch-phrase is tweaked for the title of this 1991 collection.)

Through it all, Johnston kept pushing the envelope, allowing her characters to grow in real time and introducing plot twists rarely found in any era of comic strips. FBOFW’s “classically funny” episodes were supplemented with thought-provoking examinations of alcoholism, marital infidelity, schoolyard bullying, sexual assault, workplace sexism, racial stereotypes, proper treatment of people with disabilities, depiction of multi-racial characters, death of an elderly loved one – and, in one of the strip’s most heartbreaking storylines, the passing of one of FBOFW’s original (and most beloved) characters, Farley the dog, after he risks his life to save youngest Patterson child April. (Click here for those particular strips. Bring Kleenex.)

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Johnston also showed incredible bravery in 1993 with these episodes that saw one of Michael’s best friends, Lawrence, come out as a homosexual. Spurred partly by the violent death of one of her own long-time friends and the news media’s alleged shrugging-off of his value as a person, Johnston earnestly set out to depict what strikes me as a realistic series of events for a young gay man trying to be honest with his friends and family. His best friend won’t believe him, asks awkward questions, and freaks out a little. His mother loses her mind; his stepdad throws him out of the house. The April 24, 1993 strip, which moved me the instant I saw it (and still does), is entirely without dialogue, a single panel with Lawrence hugging his mom while his stepdad casts a hopeful glance in their direction; Michael, who brought Lawrence home, leaves the family to sort it out (which they do, in the second of the two strips depicted above).

For her trouble, Johnston had close to 100 newspapers either run replacement strips or cancel For Better Or For Worse outright. (Worth noting: Today, nearly a decade after new episodes ended, it’s still running in nearly 2,000 newspapers.) She also received hundreds of letters, both positive and negative (with the former far outweighing the latter), and became a nominated finalist for the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning. 

For my money, the FBOFW storyline that still astounds me with its willingness to tackle a serious subject is this 1992 series involving the abusive father of Michael’s school friend Gordon. The story begins with Gordon damaging Elly’s car but being too terrified to go home and own up to it. The Pattersons find Gordon hiding in their garage and drive him home; the next day, on the school bus, Gordon has a noticeable bandage on his cheek, which he chalks up to a fall that accompanied his removal of the family’s non-existent Christmas lights. After trying and failing to engage him in conversation about what really happened, Michael has a breakthrough on February 29, 1992:

First panel: “Your Dad hit you that night, didn’t he, Gord.” “Uh huh.”

Second panel: “Why didn’t you say anything?” “I don’t know. ‘Cause he was so sorry it happened, I guess.”

Third panel: “Did he apologize?” “No.”

Fourth panel: “He cried.”

I still remember almost dropping my copy of the paperback in which that strip appeared, Things Are Looking Up, as I read that episode. About a year later, during a lesson on the effectiveness of short sentences at the King’s College School of Journalism in Halifax, I was reminded that the shortest sentence in the Bible is also one of the most powerful: “Jesus wept.” Similarly, you’re not going to find a lot of comic-strip dialogue more heart-wrenching than “He cried.” (Although Johnston has definitely come close on several occasions throughout the 29 years of FBOFW.)

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That’s not to say Johnston didn’t have a great sense of humour; of course she did, and it was obvious not only in the writing and artwork she provided for FBOFW but in her approach to her fellow cartoonists. Exhibit A: The strip above, of course, isn’t a Lynn Johnston effort but the creation of Mother Goose and Grimm artist Mike Peters, as part of the Great April Fools’ Day Comics Switcheroonie of 1997. (Johnston’s version of Mother Goose and Grimm appears below.) Peters did a follow-up strip that had Grimm digging under the Pattersons’ fence and briefly entering the FBOFW universe, only to quickly age by several years, mirroring the real-time progression of the Pattersons and their supporting cast.

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In preparation for writing this blog post, I not only picked up The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston but finally combed through FBOFW’s concluding chapter (in terms of regular-sized paperback book collections), Just A Simple Wedding. Both books featured the final daily and Sunday strips, with the Pattersons’ 29-year saga closing on a high note as middle child Elizabeth Patterson wed her childhood sweetheart Anthony Mayes. (In a neat coincidence that I didn’t recognize until years later, the last Sunday strip ran on August 31, 2008 – in Nova Scotia, it actually ran the day before, which just happened to be my own wedding day. No wonder I didn’t see it when it first ran; I was mildly distracted that day, as were the Pattersons on their own big day.)

 

Thumbing through Just A Simple Wedding and seeing how Johnston advanced and wrapped up her various storylines, while simultaneously preparing her characters for life after For Better Or For Worse, reminded me of why I’ve enjoyed the strip so much since my childhood. Sure, it’s funny, sharp, well-presented and rooted in real life (on more than one occasion I feel like I’ve lived a parallel life to Michael Patterson, from grade-school onward). But while these characters certainly aren’t perfect, they’ve reeled me in over the years because they’re truly likeable and they genuinely want to live their lives in as honourable a fashion as possible. And Johnston had no problems ditching the punchlines or the serious commentary to occasionally let the strip (and its readers) breathe a happy sigh, without dipping too far into Family Circus-style syrupy-sweetness.

As she says in her introduction to Just A Simple Wedding:

So much entertainment focuses on the negative, the hostile, the selfish, the cruel. I firmly believe that our society is good; that most people are giving and forgiving; that most parents are nurturing and responsible; that children of all ages are loving, conscientious and respectful. Teenagers are confident and caring. The next generation can be trusted to take on the world they’re about to inherit and the future will be prosperous in their hands.

All of this goes a long way towards explaining why a mid-’80s episode remains my all-time favourite FBOFW strip. It comes at the end of a storyline that sees John Patterson arrested when he tries to break into neighbour Annie’s house to get a child’s potty for her son Christopher (who Elly was babysitting at the time). Having finally cleared things up with the police (“I HATE dentists!” hollers the cop that stuffs hapless John in his squad car), the Patterson matriarch is in a foul mood, grousing on his living room chair when the June 22, 1985 strip opens.

Daughter Elizabeth (who would have been around seven at this point) warily enters the living room. Seeing her sullen father, she ventures: “Need a hug, Daddy?” And he happily accepts one, showing that at some points of raising a family, the adult-child dynamics and the specific parenting techniques go out the window and love becomes all-encompassing and all-consuming.

We need a lot more of that these days, in our families, our neighbourhoods, and our world. To quote Charles M. Schulz: “There is nothing wrong with niceness.”

Thanks, Lynn (and your team). And thank you, Elly Patterson. You’ve both done Canada proud, inside and outside of those thousands of comic-strip panels.

 

 

 

(Footnote: All images contained in this blog post were posted without permission. If I’m asked to remove them by anyone even remotely official, including Lynn Johnston herself, of course I will. And if you’d like to see more of For Better Or For Worse, feel free to visit the strip’s astounding Web site, which features a three-decade archive of every single daily and Sunday episode. I’ve already lost a lot of time flipping through this painstakingly-gathered collection; it’s like the digital equivalent of a family scrapbook.)

 

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