Review by Frank Plowright
This 550 page volume of the perennially popular newspaper strip opens with a landmark sequence Lynn Johnston based on her own husband’s experience. John and brother-in-law Phil head off on a canoeing trip that goes wrong, leaving them stranded on a remote island. While Johnston had run small dramatic sequences before, this was her first long-form try, and it kept readers enthralled for a month, although as the printing order is chronological, the Sunday joke strips interrupt the mood. Not all the strips have punchlines, and some that are included are dry, ironic or foreboding. Despite being very different from the domestic comedy on which For Better or For Worse thrives, the sequence was well received, and pointed the way forward. There had always been the occasional reflective punchline, but now they appear more often, although in these early stages there’s no saccharine-radar and while Johnston’s judgement is sound overall, an occasional wince-inducer slips through.
Johnston also appends considerably more comments to the strips than in Volume Two, sometimes just noting updates made when a strip was reprinted, but generally enlightening, and frequently about audience complaints. They also reveal the long-term planning that goes into the strip, with the cast seemingly always on her mind, although there must inevitably be a constant low-level intuition for real life happenings that could slot in.
There’s considerable thought about the entire cast as family, one strip making the point when Elly goes to visit Mrs. Baird in her nursing home, not discarded just because she’s no longer a neighbour. However, once married, Phil isn’t the interesting poor influence, and his appearances become scarcer until the end when Johnston runs a series of gags about house buying. That represents how well the strip is constructed. If a humorous topic occurs, there’s almost a certainty by now that there are cast members suitable for running it.
Because Johnston made the brave decision to have For Better or For Worse to occur in real time (with allowances for extensions for comedy sequences) it involves her having to age the cast. This is most obvious when looking at Elizabeth at the start of the book and the end, but applies more subtly to others, John for instance putting on a little more weight around the middle. Elizabeth now starting school enables a different set of problems to those experienced by Michael in Volume Two. He’s now reached the stage of his first crush on a girl, Johnston nailing the contrary feelings of being attracted to a girl, but not wanting to look uncool in front of mates. A subsequent series of “hormone attack” strips set at the school are all winners.
All the above, however, is secondary because in strip after strip Johnston comes up with a killer joke, generally true to life (within reason). A highlight? John deciding that because the dump is on the way to a wedding, it’s the ideal time to take along the garbage bags. What could possibly go wrong?