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.

The Anglican family tree sees a mass exodus of folks leaving two or three British cities to conquer the Americas in the 1960s. Some went to California and other parts of the West Coast, and some strayed north of the border, settling into a snug corridor between Montreal and Ottawa. As a result, I have personaly had a pied a terre in the Great White North, but more importantly, I have always had a rough understanding of the differences between their culture and ours. They celebrate Thanksgiving on Columbus Day, they hate guns, the Queen's portrait is everywhere - and they absolutely adore and celebrate the most pedestrianly average.

Humorist Stuart McLean, who died a short while ago of melanoma was famous for his long rambling brick joke filled stories about "Dave and Morley", Dave having left a humble upbringing on an isolated rock in Cape Breton to... run a second hand record store and coffeeshop in another backwater town. (In contrast, an American version of the story would have him leaving Kansas to go be a success in New York City or Hollywood)

Canada loves to celebrate the pedestiran and average, finding joy in the stories of the sheer weirdness of everyday people. The only show I could stand up there when my Canadian relatives enthusiastically forced their culture on me was one about a singularly unattractive bald man who runs a gas station in Canada's equivalent of South Dakota. The plot of this particular show had him have neither the money, initiative or interest in going anywhere on vacation, so he simply sat on the front lawn of the gas station for a week, and sent postcards to the station (who saw him every day but pretended he wasn't there) spinning yarns about the various exotic locations he's picturing in his mind as being in. A newcomer to the town thinks he's crazy for doing it and the rest of them are even crazier for looking forward to his dispatches from France or wherever. And they're right.

The point I'm getting at is, this is a society that really values the pedestrian, and loves to find the quirky weirdness in everything. The whole place is like NPR on steroids.

Which explains this comic strip, which was created in the 1970s and ran in its original form until the 2000s.

Lynn Johnston was an art school dropout who moved to Ontario and found work as an illustrator while trying to hold together a marriage to a cameraman, who fathered her first child. She met a young, dynamic bush pilot/dentist who served rural communities, literally flying in to remote places to provide medical care. She segued defly from the first marriage to the second, and soon they had a young family in Lynn Lake, Manitoba. At that time she hadn't just said goodbye to her old marriage, but her old career. She'd done some cartoons to put in her obstetrician's office, and was encouraged to submit them to a syndicate for publication. She turned out to be in the right place at the right time as Women's Libbers demanded more diversity in media - like Cathy Guisewite she was snapped up and signed to a long term lucrative contract for a daily strip.

Her initial strips are the best. In these, she turned her home life into a fictional family (the Pattersons) in a fictional town (Milborough, Ontario - to Toronto what New Jersey bridge and tunnel communities are to New York City). If you read between the lines, given she modelled things very closely on her own life experiences - so much so that the characters all bear the middle names of the family members they are based on -  it was a bit of a turbulent time. Rod Johnston took in a child that wasn't his, but sure had a hair-trigger temper about it and spanked the little boy a LOT. All men are sexist pigs and can't be faithful to their dutiful little wives, who have kaffee-klatches in the kitchens and ignore the various distractions they sired.

The general gist: Elly (Lynn), John (Rod), Elizabeth (Katie) and Mike (Aaron) live in a boring suburb. John is a dentist, Elly tries her hand at a few odd jobs. The kids get older, she buys the local kid's bookshop from a retiring old dear. John gets interested in trains and buys a sportscar. Mike's childhood friend Gordon gets kicked out of an abusive house. John lends him money to start a gas station/garage and he ages VERY VERY rapidly (more rapidly than David Bowie in "The Hunger") to turn into an elderly helping hand along with his increasingly shapeless proletarian baby-producing wife. The other neighbor kid turns out to be gay, the dad kicks him out and accepts him back within 24 hours. Elizabeth becomes a teacher, moves out to an Indian reservation, changes her mind, comes home. Mike decides to write a book and it becomes a best seller (instant success, I mean that's how it worked out for Lynn right?) even though the in-strip prose makes Bulwer Lytton read like Andrew Vachss. There's a wedding. She dutifully returns home to become a surrogate mother and dutiful housewife for an abandoned single male who keeps his kid in the basement. The end.

To put it politely, Lynn has issues. And as the years went on, they got stranger. Take her opinion of motherhood. She seems to have strong feelings about it - she on one hand hated the 70s expectation of the "good stay at home wifey" but dutifully had two children and later in the strip a career woman with no interest in children is demonized as a complete bitch. The cognitive dissonance is astounding, especially when her opinions of parenting seem to be about having children and then neglecting them and spanking them when they become a bother. She later draws her (now grown) son Aaron, who she cast as a writer (in actuality Aaron went into video production) typing with his eyes closed to try to get that Great Canadian Novel come to fruition ignoring the two children of his own crawling over him with increasing desperation, calling out "Daddy" into deaf ears like someone trying to reach a coma patient.

But it reached its zenith when she drew the boring, Lord Friendzone neighbor kid "Anthony" as someone who deals with the demands of a stay at home single father by literally building a cage in the basement to keep the daughter in while he goes over his accounting figures. She thinks it's a clever idea, the rest of the world thinks it a bit Silence of the Lambs.

Again, as I said, this lady has some issues.

She tended to ignore legitimate critiques such as her lack of research, her lazy drawing and all the various things her art school teachers also pointed out to her like her problems with perspective, drawing disembodied heads and limbs and in one memorable instance a person half behind a table and half in front of it. She ignored them and dropped out, and she ignored her critics too.

Well, most of them. 

As time went on she went from an intrigue-filled, slice-of-life comedy about the 70s in S&M country to making bad puns and coming up for ideas by literally putting random things together e.g. banana. typewriter. LOL, little April puts a banana in a typewriter! Her family was rich, her life was on autopilot. She had staff to deal with things like housework and childrearing while she ensconced herself in a little room and came up with ideas. When she ran out of them, her comic avatar had another baby, April - based on no family member, just her personal thoughts about young girls.

Spoiler alert: they're all little whores.

As her life started winding down and some health problems caught up with her Lynn decided she was going to retire. She was going to take her long-henpecked and snidely made fun of husband and they were going to spend their golden years together, with him retired and her retiring the strip and.... that's when he told her he was actually plowing his dental hygenist, and they were very happy together, and he was leaving her, and good luck with the rest of your life.


She'd already started the story arc: it was going to culminate in a wedding. Middle daughter Katie (Elizabeth in the strip) was going to return from the Indian reserve she was parked in in the North (for which she got Kudos for for representing Aboriginal life etc etc etc) and she did it by having her boyfriend cheat on her, and then the Chief tell her she was probably better off amongst her own people - people should stay with their own kind. Problem is, that damn well ISN'T how Native culture thinks and she deeply, DEEPLY offended some people with that plot point. But she didn't care, the smell of burning bridges weren't a problem since Rod hadn't dropped the bombshell yet.

Yes, she was returning home to boring Milborough to finally hook up with the Lord Friendzone boring Anthony mother approved of so much, in a story arc that was derisively called "The Settleocalypse". It surprises nobody that the wedding pulls off without a hitch after some initial "will she get there on time" and nobody cares. So concludes the epic saga of "The Pattersons" until next week, when she starts redrawing her old strips and getting rid of some continuity problems.

Say what?


Most papers quietly passed on the opportunity to receive newer versions of her older work, so her readership went down - eventually requiring her to lay off long time staffers and help. But she soldiered on for the few faithful outlets that wanted it.

She has a tendency to write/draw people as they fit her present image of them. She draws her own mother in earlier strips as she was and portrayed her dying as a slim, attractive older woman. Later on she would redraw the woman (as a ghost/memory) as a homely, potato-nosed caricature of an Eastern European grandmother, minus the babushka. Likewise, her colorist couldn't seem to figure out what skin tone to use with neighbor kid Lawrence. And of course, when she decided to "re-do" her earlier work she quietly removed the spankings and portrayed John (based on her husband Rod) less kindly.

She has capable assistance in this regard, because there's an entire online community on Livejournal devoted to ripping apart her work, critiquing her website, and so forth. They have a whole vocabulary, including "Foob" for anything FBorFW related (she once had a kid call someone else a "foob"), "Flapandhonk" for Lynn's avatar Elly (when she hit menopause she did a lot of strips about hot flashes and blowing her potato-like nose), "the sheet-shaver" (based on weird responses to her character using a woman's leg razor to remove pills off old sheets, believing that everyone does this) and so forth. It's actually morbidly fascinating to see a crew so lavishly devoted to critiquing her life's work that they'll point out continuity errors, drawing errors, bring in known autobiographical notes to see where the strip got information from and where it deviates from her actual life.

They also satirize her obsession with the "Madonna/Whore" complex, noting that a subplot in which middle school children in essence describe an "easy" girl as "roadside!" and "a gig!" and once you go there....... you never, ever come back.

It's kind of mean for them to be picking on her. Her entire life is winding down: she's single, living with her daughter. Her attempts at success outside of the strip met with mixed results, she has an entire garage full of "Farley the sheepdog" golf club covers which she thought would sell but didn't. She also had fabrics printed with effects balloons from her strip. (Pow! Bang! Zap!) which were politely made into a couple of outfits by some polytech students but otherwise didn't sell. The strip itself is pretty much everything she has left, as well as a baying pack of online critics.





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