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.