Review by Frank Plowright
When considering great newspaper strips it’s a rare list recognising strips created since the 1950s other than Calvin and Hobbes and Doonesbury. It’s partly because gag strips became simpler and more formularised as their allocated space shrunk. People may laugh at Garfield or Dilbert, but does anyone also consider them great art? However, For Better or For Worse is beautifully drawn, and doesn’t receive due respect despite running for thirty years in over two thousand newspapers at its peak. Readers love it, while historians and critics largely ignore it.
The opening three daily strips from September 1979 still raise a laugh, the jokes being at the expense of an ignorant husband and a harassed mother. The cartooning was rapidly refined, Lynn Johnston taking around nine months to move the viewpoint closer on the cast, rarely extending beyond a half figure, and becoming more adaptable with expressions. Because For Better or For Worse is drawn by a woman and largely, although far from exclusively, centres on the viewpoint of Elly Patterson, don’t mistake it as specifically aimed at women. Anyone with a sense of humour should locate the appeal very quickly, and that wouldn’t be an issue regarding a strip featuring a man and drawn by a man. Being a parent is possibly advisable, as the family jokes come thick and fast. At this stage the strip is more confined to the home than it would be later, Johnston frequently just adapting incidents occurring in her own house with two young children.
For Better or For Worse has the benefit of Johnston still being alive to see her work compiled into hardbound volumes. It means she can offer small annotations on individual strips as she recalls circumstances, influences or reception. She notes the development of the supporting cast, some starting in small roles that gradually increased, and many not yet featuring. Further information is found in The Lives Behind the Lines, in which Johnston supplies the background to her cast she’d previously kept in her head. Farley the dog joins early, and the fastest growing non-family roles are for single mother Connie desperate for love in her life and occasionally the sole focus, and her son Lawrence, Michael’s best friend, but Annie, Gordon, Jean, Dr Ted McAuley, and Uncle Phil are all introduced over the first two years. So was Deanna Sobinski for a few strips, her main role being years ahead.
Other strips progressed forward through time, notably Gasoline Alley, but it was an unfashionable device by 1980, most newspaper strips existing in a never-never land. It’s therefore surprising to see Michael move to school age after a year’s run, and to grade two a year after that. Johnston’s approach also progresses. The strips run set up and punchline gags for the most part, but they can vary from observational to joke comments, while the shorthand symbolism of the object thrown in anger was gradually excised. The single chaotic panel also works well, and even this early into her career Johnston can come up with a killer joke. Ellie is worried about her son no longer believing in the Easter Bunny, and asks John what she should do. He suggests she finds a rabbit that lays eggs. Sunday pages are often more reflective and touching, more panels allowing for that.
Johnston’s work would become even sharper, both verbally and visually, but over 500 pages of strips show For Better or For Worse was a work of art from the beginning. Volume Two takes the strip to 1986.