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.

For Better or For Worse Goes “Hybrid”

Last week, the comic strip For Better or For Worse started running some flashback strips, framed by Michael telling his daughter about how his parents met and his early childhood. Some of the strips were newly-drawn, but other were re-runs of the strip’s earliest days, from circa 1980.

Apparently this is because FBoFW was originally intended to end this month – creator Lynn Johnston had planned to retire once Michael’s children got to the same ages that Michael and his sister Lizzie were when the strip started. But plans changed, and instead FBoFW will continue as a flashback strip with occasional new material. Johnston said in an interview:

My initial plan was if I could not find someone else to continue the strip, I would not continue it at all and leave the space.

But they felt that because the strip had begun in only 150 papers that many papers had not seen that initial work and readers would probably enjoy it. So they talked to a number of their editors, and they were receptive.

But apparently another factor is that Johnston’s getting divorced, and so the motivation to retire to spend her retirement with her husband is no longer there.

I have mixed feelings about all of this. For a long time, FBoFW was an excellent comic strip, and Johnston was one of the best artists in the business. I think she’s disappointed a lot of her readers in recent years (as I’ve commented on before). Apparently the current-day strip is going to be “frozen in time”, so the story won’t move much further ahead. This is disappointing because it means there won’t be much closure to the strip, something which Johnston had a rare opportunity to provide in a comic strip: Certainly the strip was going to end with some dangling stories, but it could have gone out on a high note: Perhaps a wedding anniversary for John an Elly, or retirement (which they’ve discussed in some strips). Instead it’s going to go into “zombie mode”, with extensive reprints and occasional new strips. But even if the new stuff is enjoyable, it feels like it will be a strip dying a slow and uncomfortable death.

It’s hard to begrudge anyone from wanting to continue their career – as with sports athletes, I don’t believe stories of retirement until the person actually retires. But I hope she’ll either go back to doing all-new material, or just give the strip a big send-off and end it, because this approach seems like a sad fate for a once-great comic strip.

(Thanks to my Dad for pointing me at the links about the strip, both of which are worth reading.)

For Better or For Worse: House Fire

Lea Hernandez criticizes the comic strip For Better or For Worse‘s current storyline, which involves the house Michael and Deanna are renting having a fire. Hernandez lost her own house in a fire in September, so this hits close to home for her.

When I read the beginning of the FBoFW storyline – before seeing Hernandez’ post – my reaction was “Geez, isn’t this kind of over the top?” FBoFW’s appeal is mainly that it’s a slice-of-life story about its characters, and while there have been a few exceptional events (Michael and Deanna hooking up because she was in a car accident, for instance), I think this story has the potential to go rather too far. Especially since it’s coming on the heels of an extended episode in which Elly’s father Jim had a stroke. It’s one trauma too many.

By the way, the For Better or For Worse web site is, uh, one of the more poorly-designed pro sites I’ve seen lately: Extremely busy design, so much going on it’s very hard to focus on individual items. And it’s all compacted down to a small amount of screen space. It could really use a redesign to make it more spacious and friendlier.

Apparently creator Lynn Johnston has also been writing letters from the characters for a couple of years, I guess to flesh out the story beyond what appears in the strip. Although I enjoy the strip a lot (I own all the collections), that seems excessive to me; I’m only really interested in what actually appears in the strip. Rather than writing all those letters, wouldn’t it have been more fun (for the readers, and lucrative for her) to have spent that time drawing a FBoFW graphic novel or something?

The comments by others in Hernandez’ post are pretty harsh regarding FBoFW, not unjustifiably so. I think it’s still a fun strip, but it loses its way from time to time. I have read (as commented on in the thread) that Johnston plans to end the strip when Michael’s kids are about the same age as Michael and Deanna were when the strip began (probably in about a year), so I guess one could see the next year or so as being Johnson tying up loose ends. That could be a good thing… or a bad thing. (Having dealt with Jim’s stroke, I think it would be a very bad thing if she decides to squeeze his death into the strip’s final days.)

Mostly I wish Johnston would tone down the traumatic episodes and get the strip back to being a fun slice-of-life piece again.