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For Better or For Worse is a comic strip by Lynn Johnston that began in September 1979, and ended the main story on August 30, 2008, with a postscript epilogue the following day. Starting on September 1, 2008, the strip began re-telling its original story by means of a combination of newly drawn strips and reruns. The strip is set in the fictitious Torontomarker-area suburban town of Milborough, Ontariomarker; it chronicles the lives of a Canadianmarker family, The Pattersons, and their friends. It is seen in over 2,000 newspapers throughout Canadamarker, the United Statesmarker and about 20 other countries, and is translated into eight languages from its native English.

The title is a reference to the marriage service in the Book of Common Prayer:
...to have and to hold from this day forward, 'for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health...


A "signature element" of FBorFW during the first 28 years of the strip's existence was that, after the first two years, the characters began to age in "real time" Beginning on September 3, 2007, For Better or For Worse changed to a format featuring a mixture of new, old and retouched work, which allowed Johnston to "keep alive her partly autobiographical comic while not having to devote as much time to it."On September 1, 2008, Johnston began what she calls "new-runs", restarting her storyline with new art and jokes. The time frame appears to be 26 years before the present day; the family is correspondingly younger. Michael looks to be about five or six years old, Elizabeth is a small child learning to talk, and the family is also raising a puppy. This new material is occasionally interspliced with strips from her original run.

Johnston is no longer the sole artist of For Better or For Worse. Though she still creates the stories and rough sketches, other artists handle the inking, coloring, and lettering.

Johnston's work on the comic strip earned her a Reuben Award in 1985 and made her a "nominated finalist" for a Pulitzer Prize in editorial cartooning in 1994. The strip led the Friends of Lulu to add Johnston to the Women Cartoonists Hall of Fame in 2002. Johnston was also good friends with fellow Reuben Award winner and mentor Charles Schulz, the creator of the comic strip Peanuts.

Characters

Original characters

The strip focuses on a typical Canadian family, the Pattersons:

  • Elly Patterson, a married wife and mother of two. Restless, Elly tried night classes, writing columns for a small local paper, and periodically filling in as a dental assistant in John's office before landing a job in a library. Nearing menopause, Elly was surprised to learn she was pregnant with their daughter April. After the library job ended, Elly began working in a book store which she and John eventually bought and expanded to include toys and hobby supplies (such as model railroads). She then sold the store to her friend and began retirement.


  • John Patterson, husband to protagonist Elly, also a dentist and a father. Over time we see him develop interests in cars and model railroads.


  • Michael Patterson, began the strip as a rambunctious and curious preschooler. Michael became a freelance writer, married to his childhood crush Deanna and father to Meredith and Robin.


  • Elizabeth Patterson, began the strip as a toddler. When the original series of strips ended, she was a teacher who had just married her old friend Anthony Caine.


In 1991, a third child was born:
  • April Patterson, so-called because she was born on April Fool's Day, 1991. She nearly drowned during a spring flood when she was four years old: the family sheepdog Farley lost his own life while saving her. She developed over the years into a bright young woman who was a talented musician. When the original series ended, she was about to go off to university to study veterinary medicine.


As John and Elly's children grew older, the strip began to focus on neighbours and friends as well, creating an ever-changing roster of characters.

The comic's main characters were initially based upon Lynn Johnston's real family, but Johnston has made significant changes. When her children were younger, she asked their permission before depicting events from their lives; and she only once used a "serious" story from their lives, when Michael and Josef photographed an accident before Michael realized he knew the victim. Johnston says that when she had the urge to have another child, she instead created a new daughter (April Patterson) for the strip.

Key storylines

The fictional suburban town of Milborough is located near Lake Simcoemarker. On the FBorFW website, Milborough is described as being about a 45 minute to one hour drive from Toronto and resembling Newmarketmarker or Etobicokemarker, and a location map places the town on Highway 12 near Canningtonmarker and Beavertonmarker in the northernmost part of Durham Regionmarker. The family's house is located on Sharon Park Drive.

In the comic's quarter century, the strip has featured a variety of storylines, as the characters and their friends age. These include Elly's return to the paid work force, John's mid-life crisis, the birth of a friend's six-fingered daughter, friends' divorces, the coming out of Michael's best friend Lawrence Poirier, child abuse (perpetrated by Gordon's alcoholic parents), the death of Elly's mother Marian Richards, and Elizabeth's experience with sexual harassment and assault at the hands of a co-worker.

The strip has also strived to present a relatively diverse and culturally sensitive portrayal. Although the Pattersons themselves are a fairly typical middle class white anglophone family, there have been recurring characters of many different backgrounds, including Caribbean, Asian, Latin American, Franco-Ontarian and First Nations cultures. Elizabeth's favourite high school teacher, who inspired her to study education herself, was paraplegic.

Other issues are also addressed. During her second year at college, Elizabeth moved in with her boyfriend, Eric Chamberlain, insisting that she would maintain her own bedroom. Elizabeth later broke up with Eric when she found out he was cheating on her. Storylines sometimes concern the Pattersons dealing with difficult acquaintances such as Thérèse, the ex-wife of Elizabeth's friend Anthony, who resents Elizabeth's presence, or Deanna's squabbling parents, Wilfred and Mira Sobinski.

Farley's death

Since the comic happens in "real time," it eventually became apparent that the Patterson's first Old English Sheepdog, Farley, was starting to get fairly old. When he was fourteen years old, Farley saved April from drowning in a stream near the Patterson home. Farley could not take the shock of the cold water or the exertion of saving April, and died of a heart attack. Farley's son Edgar later became the Patterson's new family dog.

The death provoked a lot of reaction from fans. "People's emotions were kind of raw," said Johnston of the time. "I received 2,500 letters, about one-third negative. I didn't expect the response to be so great. The letters were open and emotional and honest and personal, full of stories and love." The story line was published at the same time as the Oklahoma City bombingmarker (April, 1995) and these strips were used by some parents and church groups to try and explain the concept of death to children.

When Johnston told fellow cartoonist Charles M. Schulz that Farley was going to die, Schulz "threatened to have Snoopy hit by a truck if Johnston went though with the plan". He thought Snoopy, being more famous, would take the spotlight off Farley. As a result, Johnston kept the timing of Farley's death a secret from Schulz.

The official FBorFW website has a section dedicated to Farley; this includes the strips depicting his heroism and death, plus a selection of "Farley's Spirit" strips.

Johnston has allowed the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association (OVMA) to use Farley's name and likeness for the "Farley Foundation", a charity established by OVMA to subsidize the cost of veterinary care for pets of low income seniors and persons with disabilities in Ontario.

Lawrence comes out

Panel showing the coming out of Lawrence to his mother - this strip caused death threats to the creator.
In 1993, Lawrence Poirier's coming out generated controversy, with readers opposed to homosexuality threatening to cancel newspaper subscriptions. Subsequently, Johnston received hate mail and death threats towards herself and her family. Over 100 newspapers ran replacement strips or cancelled the comic. Three years later Lawrence introduced his boyfriend, giving rise to another, though smaller, uproar.

Explaining her decision to have Lawrence come out as gay, Johnston said that she had found the character, one of Michael's closest friends, gradually "harder and harder to bring... into the picture." Based on the fact the Pattersons were an average family in an average neighborhood, she felt it only natural to introduce this element in Lawrence's character, and have the characters deal with the situation. After two years of development, Johnston contacted her editor, Lee Salem. Salem advised Johnston to send the strips well ahead of time so that he could review the plot and suggest any necessary changes. So long as there was no offensive material, and Johnston was fully aware of what she was doing, Universal Press would support the action. Johnston's personal reflections on Lawrence, an excerpt from the comic collection It's the Thought That Counts..., are included on the strip's official webpage.

One result of the storyline was that Johnston was made a jury-selected "nominated finalist" for the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1994. The Pulitzer board said the strip "sensitively depicted a youth's disclosure of his homosexuality and its effect on his family and friends."

In 2001, when Michael chose Lawrence to be best man at his wedding to Deanna, Johnston ran two sets of comic strips– one for readers who had not been allowed to read the earlier coming-out story. In the primary storyline, Mira Sobinski objected to having a gay man in the wedding party, while in the alternate storyline, which used the same art but modified the dialogue, she instead objected to the flowers that Lawrence, by this time a professional landscape architect, gave Michael and Deanna to decorate the church.

In 2007 when she was asked about why she did the storyline, Johnston said

Mtigwaki

Mtigwaki is a fictional Ojibwa community in Northern Ontario near Lake Nipigonmarker, where Elizabeth Patterson taught from 2004 to 2006. While in school, Elizabeth took a practice teaching job in Garden Village near North Bay.

The community was created with Baloney & Bannock comic creator Perry McLeod-Shabogesic, of the N'biising Nation (Anishinabek Crane Clan). McLeod-Shabogesic collaborated with Johnston to create an authentic world for the characters to inhabit. His son, Falcon Skye McLeod-Shabogesic, created the Mtigwaki First Nation's logo, which is partially inspired by a dreamcatcher, and his wife Laurie assisted Johnston with the Ojibwa language and was written directly into the strip as a teaching colleague of Elizabeth's.

For the series of strips in Mtigwaki, Johnston was awarded the Debwewin Citation for excellence in Aboriginal issues journalism by the Union of Ontario Indians in 2004.

2007 and 2008 changes

Johnston had planned to retire in the fall of 2007, but in January 2007, she announced that she instead would be tweaking her strip's format beginning September 2007. Storylines would now focus primarily on the second-generation family of one of the original children; scenes and artwork from older strips would be reused in new contexts; and the characters would stop aging. Johnston announced that the changes are to provide more time for travel and to help with health problems, including a neurological condition (dystonia) she controls with medication.

In September 2007, Johnston said she and her husband, Rod, are separated and will probably divorce, telling the Kansas City Star,
[...] I have a new life. My husband and I have separated. I am now free to do just about anything I want to do. We still communicate. We still have children in common. It’s a positive thing for both of us. And I just see so many things in the future.


But when asked if this would be a storyline for the strip, Johnston replied, "No, not a chance. I only want to live through this once." Johnston said in September 2007 that she would continue to produce new installments.

The changes in the strip over the next year were not major, although (as announced) the stories did indeed focus more on Michael, Elizabeth and April than on their parents.

During the summer of 2008, Elizabeth and Anthony carried out their wedding plans, culminating in a ceremony that took place in late August. This joyous occasion was marred by a crisis: Grandpa Jim had another heart attack. Elizabeth hears about this after the ceremony, and visits her grandfather in the hospital who is being cared for by his second wife, Iris. Jim is hanging on, and responding with his post-stroke responses of "yes" and "no." In the final daily strip, Iris gives advice to Elizabeth and Anthony, who are both touched by her devotion to Jim. The strip concluded with Iris saying "It's a promise that should last a lifetime. It defines you as a person and describes your soul. It's a promise to be there, one for the other, no matter what happens, no matter who falls...For better or for worse, my dears...for better or for worse." This final daily strip had a message from Lynn Johnston saying, "This concludes my story...with grateful thanks to everyone who has made this all possible. ~Lynn Johnston"

The Sunday strip on August 31, 2008 revealed what each character would do in years to come. Elly and John retire to travel, volunteer in the community, and help raise grandchildren. Elizabeth continues to teach. She and Anthony have a child, James Allen, whom, it is assumed, she names after her grandfather Jim Richards. Grandpa Jim lives to welcome the child, then passes away at age 89 with Iris at his bedside. Anthony continues to manage Mayes Motors and its various related businesses, introduces Elizabeth to ballroom dancing, and hopes to eventually open a bed-and-breakfast. Michael has four books published before signing a film contract. Deanna opens a sewing school and teaches Robin how to cook. Meredith enters dance and theatre. April graduates from university with a degree in veterinary medicine. Due to her love of horses, she gets a job in Calgarymarker working with the Calgary Stampedemarker, continues to live in western Canada, and has an unnamed boyfriend there.

In the last panel, along with a caricature of herself at the drawing table, Lynn Johnston thanks everyone for supporting her and concludes with a reference to the story starting over with a mixture of old and new material beginning September 1, "If I could do it all over again... Would I do some things differently?... I've been given the chance to find out!! Please join me on Monday as the story begins again... With new insights and new smiles. Looking back looks wonderful!" The next day, Michael is once again a small boy, asking his young mother, Elly, to get him a puppy. Johnston has apparently decided to retcon certain elements of her strip, such as Deanna Sobinski's family moving away while Michael is in preschool and not elementary school, as previously established.

Cartoonist Stephan Pastis poked fun at Johnston's decision in his comic strip Pearls Before Swine. In the strip, Pig referred to For Better or For Worse as "that great strip that was gonna retire, but then didn't, then started running repeats, then didn't, then ran new ones, but then fixed up the old ones, and now is gonna run new old un-new new ones".

Bibliography

Animated series and specials

In 1985, Atkinson Film-Arts of Ottawa, in association with the CTV Television Network, produced an animated special based on For Better or for Worse entitled The Bestest Present. In the United States, it was first broadcast on HBO, and in later years, on The Disney Channel. Lynn's own children, Aaron and Katie, provided the voices of Michael and Elizabeth, and Rod Johnston made a cameo appearance as the voice of a mailman.

Beginning in 1992, another Ottawa-based studio, Lacewood Productions, produced six more specials, also for CTV. In the United States, these were seen on The Disney Channel. According to Lynn Johnston, the set designs (for instance, for the Patterson's house) which these and subsequent TV programs required led her to develop a much more sophisticated background style in the comic strips, with the layouts of homes and even towns consistent from story to story.

The six specials produced by Lacewood were:
  • The Last Camping Trip
  • A Christmas Angel
  • The Good-for-Nothing
  • A Valentine from the Heart
  • The Babe Magnet (a.k.a. The Sweet Deal)
  • A Storm in April


In 2000, Ottawa's Funbag Animation produced a new animated series for cable TV network Teletoon. Featuring introductions by Lynn Johnston herself, the show looked at three related storylines from three different eras of the strip--the 1980s, the 1990s, and the 2000s.

The series consisted of two seasons with eight episodes each. On March 23, 2004, Koch Vision released the complete series on DVD.

The rights to the 1980s/1990s specials are currently held by Lynn Johnston Productions, who were able to acquire the rights in 2008. All of them are now on DVD, available exclusively through the For Better or For Worse online store.

Exhibits

In 2001, Visual Arts Bramptonmarker's Artway Gallery exhibited Johnston's work.

References

  1. Popular Cartoon Will Stay On — As Old/New Hybrid, a Universal Press Syndicate news release
  2. . Although some other comic strips feature aging, including Gasoline Alley, Doonesbury, Funky Winkerbean, Baby Blues, and Jump Start, they are usually not aged contemporaneously with the strip.
  3. New Phase of Popular Comic Strip "For Better or For Worse" Begins, a Universal Press Syndicate news release
  4. FBorFW.com is The Official Website of Lynn Johnston's comic strip For Better or For Worse
  5. The Pulitzer Prize Nominated Finalists Retrieved 10 October 2007.
  6. Past Lulu Awards Winners from the Friends of Lulu website
  7. Aaron Johnston wrote: "[T]he strip, though based in part on our family and our personalities during the early years, mostly comes from Lynn's own imagination. ... I think that in the late '80s and early 90s there was a real split ... [i]nstead of being a reflection of our family, they truly became Lynn's own imaginary family with a life all their own." - Suddenly Silver: Celebrating 25 Years of For Better or For Worse
  8. "Elizabeth is me at the age of two melting crayons on the radiator; Michael is me at the age of six feeling jealousy and rage at the coddling of a younger sibling." - from A Look Inside For Better or For Worse: The 10th Anniversary Collection by Lynn Johnston.
  9. Aaron Johnston relates being asked for permission to use his experiences with wearing glasses in the strip in Suddenly Silver. Aaron "dreaded" Michael getting glasses, and suggested that Elizabeth get them instead.
  10. Described by Johnston in All About April
  11. FBorFW.com is The Official Website of Lynn Johnston's comic strip For Better or For Worse
  12. http://www.fbofw.com/features/who/main.php#
  13. Neutering Edgar, Gina Spadafori
  14. Good Grief! Author Describes Bio of Charles M. Schulz — And Oldest Son Offers Critique from the Editor & Publisher website
  15. Remembering Farley on the "For Better or For Worse" official website.
  16. Farley Foundation
  17. Discussed in compilation books and the 1993 Slate interview
  18. CBC: Life is a comic strip
  19. Zucco, Tom. "Comic controversy", St. Petersburg Times, Sept. 4, 2001. Johnston's web site says that about 40 newspapers ran replacement strips.
  20. Official website
  21. More information about Mtigwaki and how it was created is available on the official website.
  22. Deirdre Tombs, "Cartoonist's ordinary Native people celebrated". Windspeaker, 2005.
  23. For Better or For Worse comic winding down, CTV News, Sept 24, 2007
  24. Brad Mackay, "Family affair: Lynn Johnston winds down her famous comic strip", Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) News, August 24, 2007
  25. "Lynn Johnston's For Better or for Worse will continue in flashback form", The Kansas City Star, September 7, 2007
  26. "End of Marriage Leads to New Content in Revamped Strip", Editor & Publisher, September 7, 2007.


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