Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Graphic Lit: Thoughts on the revamped For Better Or For Worse

What’s my favorite comic strip?

There was a time not long ago when my answer would have been Lynn Johnston’s family saga, “For Better or For Worse.”

Oh, “Peanuts” was always seminal for me, and “Calvin and Hobbes” was certainly the last great strip of the 20th century. But after Schulz’s death and Watterson’s retirement, Johnston stood head and shoulders above the comics page as the last bastion of quality.

That’s not the case now, and it hasn’t been for some time. Johnston’s constant need for overly cute wordplay, not to mention her forcing middle child Elizabeth into a marriage with creepy former sweetheart Anthony, left a bad taste in my mouth.

Of course, if you’ve been paying attention to the funnies at all, you noticed that “For Better or For Worse” came to a close of sorts recently.

After a yearlong series of “will-she/won’t-she” announcements, reversals and decisions, Johnston opted to bring the current story line to an end and has been redrawing and editing older strips, telling the Patterson family’s story all over again.

As creative choices go this seems a bit like regressive second-guessing to me. Revisiting and altering your older work doesn’t necessarily “fix” or “improve” anything, as most “Star Wars” fans would be quick to point out.

And yet, despite all my qualms, it’s worth pointing out just how good the strip has been over its 30-year run. One of the few strips to have its characters age in real time (“Gasoline Alley” being the other notable example), “For Better” offered an honest portrait of day-to-day family life that drew upon universal themes without sacrificing humor in the name of drama. Or vice-versa.

Johnston frequently explored risky or serious topics, the most famous no doubt being Michael’s best friend’s coming out of the closet. But she also addressed spousal abuse, bad love affairs, teen angst and the pitfalls of raising kids, often with insight and great characterization. She seemed to take an impish delight in walking right up to the line but not crossing it, and that delighted me.

But what impressed me most about the strip was its lovely art and attention to detail. In an era when most cartoonists responded to the ever-shrinking news space by minimizing as much as possible (see “Dilbert”), Johnston grew more ornate and detailed.

Her strip frequently became a thinly sliced series of panels, each crammed to the point of overflowing with words and pictures, but never seeming dense or weighed down.

Yes, she could be sappy and saccharin. Yes, her constant need to add a “rim shot” fourth panel often resulted in terrible puns or awful homespun wisdom that wouldn’t make it onto a sub-par throw pillow. Detractors will get no argument from me on that score.

And there are plenty of detractors to go around. In recent years, Web sites like The Comics Curmudgeon have made a veritable career out of poking fun at the strip. There are blogs devoted to “The Foobs” that delight in raking its characters over the coals as often as possible.

Why such ire over a simple comic strip?

Perhaps they sense how good it once was and could still be. Perhaps such snark was born out of frustration over seeing the characters they watched grow up be contorted into awkward and unrealistic relationships for the sake of a pat happy ending. Maybe they just didn’t like the strip.

Despite the awkward note “FBoFW” ended on, and however iffy I feel about this new 2.0 version, I’m grateful to Johnston for 30 years of raising the standards of the comics page (one of the few women to do so, it should be noted). She remains one of the greats.

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At 8:22 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

The most troubling aspect of FBoFW is that the creator is sort of "phoning it in" by using the older strips. And much like the older strips that are simply repeats, FBoFW now is simply taking up the space that could be used by the next great comic strip artist. In the ever-shrinking world of newspaper comics, it's getting harder and harder for new blood to come in, and having all these strips that exist for "old times sake" are merely filling up space that could be used to promote the next great strip. Someone should ask Lynn what her feeling would be if she was just starting out, and had to fight against "Yellow Kid" repeats for paper space.

And yes, I am talking about Peanuts, too. At this point, how many different book editions have the current "classic Peanuts" strips have been in? 4? 5?

What I'd much rather see Lynn do is take two or three aspiring comic strip artists that match her sensibilities, and somehow tutor them, and use "her paper" space to introduce their strips. Whether or not that's even feasible, I have no idea. But at least it let's her keep her legacy going, while trying to introduce new blood to the industry.

At 5:48 PM, Blogger Bill Peschel said...

I wonder when someone will offer to publish the complete FBOFW. Or would it even be if?

If not, I hope at least someone tries to edit the significant story arcs and gets them out. That could go a long way to restoring some of Lynn's reputation.

At 2:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I still insist Marmaduke needs to leave the Patriot's comics page. Foob can come later.


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