The problem with For Better or For Worse

It seems that the comic strip For Better or For Worse is ending, sort of. Sunday’s strip will be the chronological end of the story for the fictional Patterson family that creator Lynn Johnston began drawing in 1979. Unlike The Family Circus where Dolly, Billy, Jeffy and PJ stay young children forever, the Patterson children and their parents kept aging just as we aged over the decades. Johnston herself is now 60.

The strip has proven to be an enduring comic phenomenon. My late mother was one of the many people drawn to the fictional yet ordinary lives of Elly and John, and their children Michael, Elizabeth and later April, not to mention their many neighbors and friends. Like Peanuts, it seems to run in every newspaper in the country. It seems though that its author Lynn Johnston has little more to contribute toward the story. Lizard Breath (Elizabeth) just got hitched to her long-time friend Anthony while Grandpa seems about to pass comfortably and nobly into the hereafter. Sunday’s strip will be the last in the series chronologically. Johnston plans to redraw the strips from the beginning with much improved artwork.

When I read this article in The Washington Post, I was surprised to learn one new detail of Lynn Johnston’s life: she is a recent divorcee. After thirty-two years of marriage, she is no longer married to her husband Rod who she used whole cloth when modeling John. Her own two children are also clearly characters in the strip. Actually Johnston is now a twice divorcee, but clearly she expected her second marriage to last the rest of her life. It is the whole premise behind the strip.

Things happen of course. Most married couples intend to hang in there for better or for worse, but the reality is often different. “Worse” turns out to be a lot more worse than many imagined. About half of married couples divorce at least once. It is unclear how many of those who do remain married for life are reasonably happy with their marriages. For the most part, any marital spats between John and Elly were minor. There were no ugly and denigrating screaming and shouting matches in this household, at least that I remember, even though you likely saw them in yours.

On the surface, the world of the Patterson family resembles that of most healthy nuclear families. For the most part the characters feel real, and many of the situations are clearly modeled on incidents in Johnston’s personal life. This is what made the strip so compelling to read: we could readily identify with her characters. As life is messy, a comic strip modeling family life should be messy too. Johnston’s strip was perhaps the first example of a family comic strip that was actually plausible. Most of the time, she found the right mixture of the serious, the not so serious and the humorous.

Still, it is hard to write any comic strip for three decades without it devolving toward mediocrity. Overall, the artistry improved over the years while the story lines degraded. For the last ten years, I have read the strip only sporadically. I lost interest in many of the characters. It felt more soap opera-ish than realistic. Particularly in the last few years, while Johnston’s marriage was likely unraveling, it felt saccharine.

Was there any doubt with such sterling parents that Elizabeth would marry that loser fly boy? No, of course, Johnston would insist that she have more common sense. So in time she would come to her senses and marry devoted and dutiful Anthony, even though he brought some baggage from his failed marriage. It would follow a predictable script where Elizabeth was morphed into the sweetest woman in the world. Elizabeth, who used to be shown with a button nose, is now a glamorous young woman with a thin physique and a cute, upturned nose. She’s both hot and an ideal woman. Maybe she is doing Jenny Craig.

My stomach was queasy this week as I watched her wedding play out. Of course, immediately after the wedding she would have to dash to the hospital to see her ailing grandfather. Grandpa could not conveniently die a few weeks after the wedding. Moreover, of course grandfather would be doted on by his second wife who epitomized compassion and selflessness. The story of the Elly and John could not wholly model her own marriage. While Lynn Johnston is divorced, it is clear that Elly and John are happily married for life. Michael and his wife even get to start their own married life in their parents’ old home. Heck, Michael even married a girl he argued with in grade school. How likely is that?

Perhaps it is best to stop. Twenty-nine years is a good, long run for a comic strip. The strip was widely admired and occasionally chastised when it fell into controversial areas like Michael’s gay friend Lawrence. Johnston’s relatively liberal Canadian values did not always align with America’s more conservative values. Clearly though the strip was tired. As it aged, it drifted more obviously toward implausibility.

The Pattersons are her universe to define, of course. Yet, if Johnston was going to lift so much of her life and insert it into the strip, perhaps she could have modeled the dissolution of her own marriage and put that in too. It would have been appropriate, under the circumstances and realistic. The society in which the Pattersons interacted was plausibly portrayed, but it ends on a slightly surreal note with all the principle characters a bit too surreally moving toward happily ever after.

At least For Better or For Worse was far more plausible than The Family Circus.

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