Unlike the never-ending cuteness of Bil Keane
’s "The Family Circus
," the Pattersons of "For Better or For Worse" live in a continually changing world. Whereas the characters of "Circus" are no more than cardboard cutouts designed to invoke some kind of kitsch sentimentality out of its readers, the characters of "For Better..." are living and breathing creatures, barely revealed through the two-dimensional windows into their three-dimensional world.
With the exception of Garry Tradeau’s "Doonesbury," "For Better or For Worse" is the only major comic strip with aging characters. Daughter Elizabeth Patterson born in 1981, is now twenty years of age. Characters have died, characters have been born. Families have moved away while others came to fill their homes. Lifelong friends continue to share their devotion with one another, while others just drifted away with the passage of time. Some of those friends got married and had kids of their own.
The Pattersons live in a fictional southern Ontario suburb. The setting and the characters of the strip closely follow the life of its creator and author, Lynn Johnston. The mother/wife of the strip, Elly, is Lynn in many ways. John, the dad, is a dentist and resembles Lynn’s husband, Rod. Son Michael, now in his mid-twenties, has finished university with a major in journalism. Elizabeth, the older daughter, is hoping for a teaching career. April, the younger daughter just now entering junior high, still provides a youthful energy to the strip, especially now that her siblings have left. And, of course, there have been the various pets through the years, dogs Farley and Edgar and Mr. B, the resident rabbit. The Pattersons have lived in the same home for the entire duration of the strip.
The strip occasionally explored outside the family. Michael’s friend Gordon was frequently the target of domestic abuse from his father. One of the neighbor’s wives had to go through the pain of her husband’s affair. Another one of Michael's friends, Lawrence, revealed himself to be gay to the surprise of his family. Even though the subject matter was handled very delicately, the series was controversial enough to convince some United States newspapers to drop the comic strip permanently. The family itself has suffered through car accidents and dropped frozen turkeys on toes (not so funny to the victim of the plucked toes). They’ve also lost parents. However, they’re lives are not completely full of Doom and Gloom, which makes identifying with them easy. An obvious love exists that cannot die.
While some may dismiss the day to day happens of a modern suburban family as "domestic trivialities," the fact is that millions of readers continue to make the strip one the most successful of the last twenty years. And why shouldn’t it be? Most people don’t live the troubled trials of the "Foxtrots," the smirky comebacks of "Sally Forth," or the bumbling hijinks of Bumstead in "Blondie." As funny as those strips can be, the lives of most North Americans resemble those of the Pattersons, no matter how "trivial" they are. It’s the kind of strip that gently reminds to treasure one’s family, no matter the troubles or the tribulations of the time.