The End of For Better or For Worse

A year after “going hybrid”, Lynn Johnston’s long-running comic strip For Better or For Worse came to an end today with a mostly-text piece telling us how the lives of the Pattersons developed after the end of the strip, which concluded with the marriage of Elizabeth to Anthony.

Well, it’s sort of ending, but as the last panel of the strip as well as a letter to her readers says, Johnston is actually rebooting the strip, going back to the beginning and telling the story of John and Elly and their children from the beginning, with new art and new jokes, but still a return to the past.

I have two reactions to this:

First, for me this effectively marks the conclusion of For Better or For Worse. Much as when Marvel launched its Ultimate line of titles, I don’t really feel a need to read the same stuff done anew, even if it does differ here and there. If my newspaper carries it, I’ll read it, but I doubt I’ll pick up any collections of the rebooted material (I own copies of every collection published so far).

The quality of FBoFW has followed a bell curve: The early strips were fun but very rough, and without much continuity. The best stuff came in the middle, when the kids Michael and Lizzie were teenagers, and Elly was dealing with her parents entering old age. The later years were very well drawn, but the writing was weak and often maudlin and contrived: Elizabeth’s romantic entanglements in which she ended up with her high school sweetheart Anthony in a silly turn of events, Elly’s father’s ongoing health problems (including a nauseating decision to have him suffer another stroke on the eve of Elizabeth’s wedding), the house fire which led to Michael and his family buying their parents’ house. So going back to the beginning and having to wait 10 years until she revisits “the good stuff” isn’t very appealing.

Second, given the theme (and title!) of the strip, I wonder why she decided to end the continuity now. In her letter, she suggests that she was getting tired of dealing with the large cast and ever-more-complicated storylines, but there’s not any reason she had to keep those elements. Elly and John are heading towards retirement, and their youngest daughter April will be heading to college soon. It seems natural that as their kids move away their circle of friends and drama would shrink somewhat. There’s no reason Johnston would have to follow the lives of their children closely, she could instead focus on the transition to retirement her characters are going through, and focus on her main characters, having the other characters come visit naturally when they would in real life, on holidays and special events and the occasional vacation.

I suspect that Johnston was uncomfortable taking the characters that route given that she’s recently been divorced herself and so that’s not the route she’s taking. That I can understand. And presumably her syndicate was perfectly happy to keeping paying her to produce the strip as a reboot, possibly with less controversy than it’s seen in its later years, where they might be less willing to give he a try with a brand-new strip (though I don’t know whether she tried to pitch them a new strip). So it makes sense, in a way.

In conclusion, the characters we’ve been reading about for the last 30 years have reached the end of their story. It’s disappointing that the strip basically limped over the finish line, but it’s tough to keep anything going for that long, especially at a high level of quality, and ultimately we’ll always have the good stuff to go back to and enjoy. And that’s worth a lot, because at it’s peak the strip was very, very good.

Lois McMaster Bujold: Paladin of Souls

Paladin of Souls is the sequel to The Curse of Chalion, and also the winner of the 2004 Hugo Award for next novel.

The story opens about 3 years after the close of Chalion, and the protagonist is Ista, the mother of the present royina (queen), who lived for 20 years under a cloud of depression and despair due to the curse on the royal house. It’s taken her this long to struggle out from under that cloud, and with the death of her mother Ista is now casting about for some meaning to her life, even as she’s kept a prisoner through kindness of her family and friends at her mother’s castle. Desperate for a change, Ista organizes a pilgrimage for herself and a few helpers, including a pair of soldiers sent by her daughter, Ferda and Foix, and her new lady-in-waiting, Liss, whose main occupation is a horse courier.

On her pilgrimage, Ista learns that more and more demons seem to be loose in the world, a point driven home when one of her party is himself occupied by a demon. But the group soon has larger problems, when they are attacked by a raiding party from the neighboring – and unfriendly – nation of Jokona. After the group is scattered, Ista is eventually rescued by Lord Arhys and taken to his castle Porifors, where she also mets Arhys’ young wife Cattilara. Though charmed by their hospitality – and rather taken with Arhys – Ista soon realizes that there’s something not right in Porifors. In fact, a visit from a party from Jokona some months earlier had adversely affected Arhys and left his best friend, Illvin, close to death. Moreover, all that has transpired can be traced back to Jokona, and Ista finds herself unwillingly at the center of the happenings, and even more unwillingly charged by one of the gods – gods whom she believed abandoned her to her decades-long misery – to set things right.

Being set in the same world as Chalion, I found Paladin suffers many of the same problems, among them its stock and basically unimaginative backdrop. The most interesting aspect of the backdrop are the five gods – the Father, the Son, the Mother, the Daughter, and the Bastard – who each hold sway over different aspects of the world, and with a structure that makes it more than a common polytheistic religion. But the structure doesn’t really play a major role in the story, it’s just a backdrop which shapes the character of the one god – the Bastard – who does play a significant role.

The big problem is that Paladin shares the biggest flaw of Chalion, which is that the story moves so s-l-o-w-l-y. It takes nearly a hundred pages for anything significant to happen, during which we’re mainly treated to the endless musings of Ista over her situation, until they encounter the Jokonan raiders. And then it’s over a hundred more pages before the revelation of what’s happening in Porifors, which is when the real story begins; everything before that it really just set-up, and it drags. A lot.

The balance of the story is generally stronger than Chalion, though: While Ista is not as engaging a main character as Cazaril was (Ista is another stock “strong woman in a society which marginalizes women” character), the challenge she faces is more interesting, and it has a much more dramatic and satisfying resolution. I also enjoyed the denouement of this book better than the first book, as it provides some nice insight into where the main characters will be going after the story ends.

But overall this is still a very flawed book. I’d sum it up with the old chestnut, “If you like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you’ll like.” As for me, I think Bujold’s career has pretty much bottomed out with this pair of fantasy novels, and I certainly have no interest in reading any of her later fantasies. I’ll probably read further books in the Vorkosigan series (even though I’m not wild about the path that’s taken, either), but the action and adventure and humor that characterized her earlier novels has dwindled and finally vanished, and instead she’s writing dreary dramas with flat characters, and that’s just not worth my time to read.