- This article is about the comic strip. For other uses, see For better or worse.
For Better or For Worse is a comic strip by Lynn Johnston that began in September 1979, and ended the main story on August 30, 2008, with a postscript epilogue the following day. As of September 2008, the strip is re-telling its original story by means of a combination of newly drawn strips and reruns. The strip is set in the fictitious Toronto-area suburban town of Milborough, Ontario; it chronicles the lives of a Canadian family, The Pattersons, and their friends. It is seen in over 2,000 newspapers throughout Canada, the United States and about 20 other countries, and is translated into eight languages from its native English.
The title is a reference to the marriage service in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:
- ...to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health...
A "signature element" of FBorFW during the first 28 years of the strip's existence was that the characters aged in "real time", except for the initial two years. Beginning on September 3, 2007, For Better or For Worse changed to a format featuring a mixture of new, old and retouched work, which allowed Johnston to "keep alive her partly autobiographical comic while not having to devote as much time to it."
On September 1, 2008, Johnston began what she calls "new-runs", restarting her storyline with new art and jokes. The time frame appears to be around 1981 or 1982. Michael looks to be about five or six years old and Elizabeth is a small child learning to walk. This new material will occasionally be interspliced with strips from her original run.
Johnston is no longer the sole artist of For Better or For Worse. Though she still creates the stories and rough sketches, other artists handle the inking, coloring, and lettering.
Johnston's work on the comic strip earned her a Reuben Award in 1985 and made her a "nominated finalist" for a Pulitzer Prize in editorial cartooning in 1994. The strip led the Friends of Lulu to add Johnston to the Women Cartoonists Hall of Fame in 2002.
The strip focusses on a typical Canadian family, the Pattersons:
- Elly Patterson, a married wife and mother of two. Restless, Elly tried night classes, writing columns for a small local paper, and periodically filling in as a dental assistant in John's office before landing a job in a library. Nearing menopause, Elly was surprised to learn she was pregnant with their daughter April. After the library job ended, Elly began working in a book store which she and John eventually bought and expanded to include toys and hobby supplies (such as model railroads). She then sold the store to her friend and began retirement.
- John Patterson, husband to protagonist Elly, also a dentist and a father. Over time we see him develop interests in cars and model railroads.
- Michael Patterson, began the strip as a rambunctious and curious preschooler. Michael became a freelance writer, married to his childhood crush Deanna and father to Meredith and Robin.
- Elizabeth Patterson, began the strip as a toddler. When the original series of strips ended, she was a teacher who had just married her old friend Anthony Caine.
In 1991, a third child was born:
- April Patterson, so-called because she was born on April Fool's Day, 1991. She nearly drowned during a spring flood when she was four years old: the family sheepdog Farley lost his own life while saving her. She developed over the years into a bright young woman who was a talented musician. When the original series ended, she was about to go off to university to study veterinary medicine.
As John and Elly's children grew older, the strip began to focus on neighbours and friends as well, creating an ever-changing roster of characters.
The comic's main characters were initially based upon Lynn Johnston's real family, but Johnston has made significant changes. When her children were younger, she asked their permission before depicting events from their lives; and she only once used a "serious" story from their lives, when Michael and Josef photographed an accident before Michael realized he knew the victim. Johnston says that when she had the urge to have another child, she instead created a new daughter (April Patterson) for the strip.
In the comic's quarter century, the strip has featured a variety of storylines, as the characters and their friends age. These include Elly's return to the paid work force, John's mid-life crisis
, the birth of a friend's six-fingered daughter, friends' divorces
, the coming out
of Michael's best friend Lawrence Poirier, child abuse (perpetrated by Gordon's alcoholic parents), the death
of Elly's mother Marian Richards, and Elizabeth's experience with sexual harassment and assault at the hands of a co-worker.
The strip has also strived to present a relatively diverse and culturally sensitive portrayal. Although the Pattersons themselves are a fairly typical middle class white anglophone family, there have been recurring characters of many different backgrounds, including Caribbean, Asian, Latin American, Franco-Ontarian and First Nations cultures. Elizabeth's favourite high school teacher, who inspired her to study education herself, was paraplegic.
Other issues are also addressed. During her second year at university, Elizabeth moved in with her boyfriend, Eric Chamberlain, insisting that she would maintain her own bedroom. Elizabeth later broke up with Eric when she found out he was cheating on her. Storylines sometimes concern the Pattersons dealing with difficult acquaintances such as Thérèse, the ex-wife of Elizabeth's friend Anthony, who resents Elizabeth's presence, or Deanna's squabbling parents, Wilfred and Mira Sobinski.
Since the comic happens in "real time," it eventually became apparent that the Patterson's first Old English Sheepdog
, Farley, was starting to get fairly old. When he was fourteen years old, Farley saved April from drowning in a stream near the Patterson home. Farley could not take the shock of the cold water or the exertion of saving April, and died of a heart attack. Farley's son Edgar later became the Patterson's new family dog.
The death provoked a lot of reaction from fans. "People's emotions were kind of raw," said Johnston of the time. "I received 2,500 letters, about one-third negative. I didn't expect the response to be so great. The letters were open and emotional and honest and personal, full of stories and love." The story line was published at the same time as the Oklahoma City bombing (April, 1995) and these strips were used by some parents and church groups to try and explain the concept of death to children.
When Johnston told fellow cartoonist Charles M. Schulz that Farley was going to die, Schulz "threatened to have Snoopy hit by a truck if Johnston went though with the plan". He thought Snoopy, being more famous, would take the spotlight off Farley. As a result, Johnston kept the timing of Farley's death a secret from Schulz.
The official FBorFW website has a section dedicated to Farley; this includes the strips depicting his heroism and death, plus a selection of "Farley's Spirit" strips.
Johnston has allowed the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association (OVMA) to use Farley's name and likeness for the "Farley Foundation", a charity established by OVMA to subsidize the cost of veterinary care for pets of low income seniors and persons with disabilities in Ontario.
Lawrence comes out
In 1993, Lawrence Poirier's coming out
generated controversy, with readers opposed to homosexuality threatening to cancel newspaper subscriptions. Over 100 newspapers ran replacement strips or canceled the comic. Three years later Lawrence introduced his boyfriend, giving rise to another, though smaller, uproar.
In 2001, when Michael chose Lawrence to be best man at his wedding to Deanna, Johnston ran two sets of comic strips– one for readers who had not been allowed to read the earlier coming-out story. In the primary storyline, Mira Sobinski objected to having a gay man in the wedding party, while in the alternate storyline, which used the same art but modified the dialogue, she instead objected to the flowers that Lawrence, by this time a professional landscape architect, gave Michael and Deanna to decorate the church.
Explaining her decision to have Lawrence come out as gay, Johnston said that she had found the character, one of Michael's closest friends, gradually "harder and harder to bring... into the picture." Based on the fact the Pattersons were an average family in an average neighborhood, she felt it only natural to introduce this element in Lawrence's character, and have the characters deal with the situation. After two years of development, Johnston contacted her editor, Lee Salem. Salem advised Johnston to send the strips well ahead of time so that he could review the plot and suggest any necessary changes. So long as there was no offensive material, and Johnston was fully aware of what she was doing, Universal Press would support the action. Johnston's personal reflections on Lawrence, an excerpt from the comic collection It's the Thought That Counts..., are included on the strip's official webpage.
At the time that the strips appeared, Johnston said in an interview for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program As It Happens that she knew Lawrence was gay when she introduced him to the strip as a toddler, and was simply waiting for an appropriate time to have him come out.
One result of the storyline was that Johnston was made a jury-selected "nominated finalist" for the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1994. The Pulitzer board said the strip "sensitively depicted a youth's disclosure of his homosexuality and its effect on his family and friends."
Milborough and Mtigwaki
The fictional suburban
town of Milborough is located near Lake Simcoe
. On the FBorFW
website, Milborough is described as being about a 45 minute to one hour drive from Toronto and resembling Newmarket
, and a location map places the town on Highway 12
in the northernmost part of Durham Region
. The family's house is located on Sharon Park Drive.
Mtigwaki is a fictional Ojibwe community in Northern Ontario near Lake Nipigon, where Elizabeth Patterson taught from 2004 to 2006. While in school, Elizabeth took a practice teaching job in Garden Village near North Bay.
2007 and 2008 changes
Johnston had planned to retire in the fall of 2007 but in January 2007, announced she instead would be tweaking her strip's format beginning September 2007. Storylines would now focus primarily on the second-generation family of one of the original children; scenes and artwork from older strips would be reused in new contexts; and the characters would stop aging. Johnston announced that the changes are to provide more time for travel and to help with health problems, including a neurological condition (dystonia
) she controls with medication.
In September 2007, Johnston said she and her husband, Rod, are separated and will probably divorce, telling the Kansas City Star,
- [...] I have a new life. My husband and I have separated. I am now free to do just about anything I want to do. We still communicate. We still have children in common. It’s a positive thing for both of us. And I just see so many things in the future.
But when asked if this would be a storyline for the strip, Johnston replied, "No, not a chance. I only want to live through this once. Johnston said in September 2007 that she would continue to produce new installments.
The changes in the strip over the next year were not major, although (as announced) the stories did indeed focus more on Michael, Elizabeth and April than on their parents.
During the summer of 2008, Elizabeth and Anthony carried out their wedding plans, culminating in a ceremony that took place in late August. This joyous occasion was marred by a crisis: Grandpa Jim had another heart attack. Elizabeth hears about this after the ceremony, and visits her grandfather in the hospital who is being cared for by his second wife, Iris. Jim is hanging on, and responding with his post-stroke responses of "yes" and "no." In the final daily strip, Iris gives advice to Elizabeth and Anthony, who are both touched by her devotion to Jim. The strip concluded with Iris saying "It's a promise that should last a lifetime. It defines you as a person and describes your soul. It's a promise to be there, one for the other, no matter what happens, no matter who falls...For better or for worse, my dears...for better or for worse." This final daily strip had a message from Lynn Johnston saying, "This concludes my story...with grateful thanks to everyone who has made this all possible. ~Lynn Johnston"
The Sunday strip on August 31, 2008 revealed what each character would do in years to come. Elly and John retire to travel, volunteer in the community, and help raise grandchildren. Elizabeth continues to teach. She and Anthony have a child, James Allen, who it is assumed she names after her grandfather Jim Richards. Grandpa Jim lives to welcome the child, then passes away at age 89 with Iris at his bedside. Anthony continues to manage Mayes Motors and its various related businesses, introduces Elizabeth to ballroom dancing, and hopes to eventually open a bed-and-breakfast. Michael has four books published before signing a film contract. Deanna opens a sewing school and teaches Robin how to cook. Meredith enters dance and theatre. April graduates from university with a degree in veterinary medicine. Due to her love of horses, she gets a job in Calgary working with the Calgary Stampede, continues to live in western Canada, and has an unnamed boyfriend there.
In the last panel, along with a caricature of herself at the drawing table, Lynn Johnston thanks everyone for supporting her and concludes with a reference to the story starting over with a mixture of old and new material beginning September 1, "If I could do it all over again... Would I do some things differently?... I've been given the chance to find out!! Please join me on Monday as the story begins again... With new insights and new smiles. Looking back looks wonderful!" The next day, Michael is once again a small boy, asking his young mother, Elly, to get him a puppy.
Johnston herself has observed, à propos
of an increasing difficulty in keeping story lines germane to the experience of young families, "I have to admit that I'm not in a place where I can do this," Johnston says. "I'm past the point where I can remember what it's like to be a young mother.
In an interview shortly after Lawrence came out, Johnston contrasted the reader response for it with the responses she'd received previously:
- I have not slept, I have not eaten, I’ve lost 10 pounds, I’ve lost 19 papers, I’ve lost many readers. It was not something I did for joy, or something I did for publicity. I did not say, “Damn the detractors” and go ahead, intending to upset the editors. I did it because it was a story I really, fully believed in, and when you write a story that is perhaps a controversial one, you have to expect to take the heat....
- I've had a pretty easy life as a cartoonist, and that's part of the problem for me. I get letters now and then that complain about the way I do things, and I generally think, "Get a life!" If you don't like the way I punctuate my sentences, tell me what else is interesting in your life. And most other people say, "I love your work, you're on my refrigerator, my dog is just like yours," and so on.
- So I was bathed in this wonderful, warm glow of acceptance for so long [...] But then you get letters from people who say, "Do you realize that all serial killers are homosexual?
These collections, published by Andrews & McMeel, contains reprints of the comic almost as it appeared in the daily newspapers. They are listed in chronological order; each book spans about a year in time. They lag approximately two years behind the strips' original publication. For example, She's Turning Into One Of Them!
was published in 2006, containing strips dealing with April's 13th birthday in 2004 (publication date shown in parentheses).
- I've Got the One-More-Washload Blues... (Aug 1981) ISBN 0-8362-1166-9
- Is This "One of Those Days," Daddy? (Aug 1982) ISBN 0-8362-1197-9
- It Must Be Nice to Be Little (Aug 1983) ISBN 0-8362-1113-8
- Just One More Hug (Aug 1984) ISBN 0-8362-2054-4
- The Last Straw (Aug 1985) ISBN 0-8362-2070-6
- Keep the Home Fries Burning (July 1986) ISBN 0-8362-2080-3
- It's All Downhill from Here (July 1987) ISBN 0-8362-2093-5
- Pushing 40 (Sept 1988) ISBN 0-8362-1807-8
- A Teenager in the House (Sept 1989) (Included in A Look Inside)
- If This is a Lecture, How Long Will It Be? (Sept 1990) ISBN 0-8362-1821-3
- What, Me Pregnant? (Sept 1991) ISBN 0-8362-1876-0
- Things Are Looking Up... (Aug 1992) ISBN 0-8362-1892-2
- There Goes My Baby! (Aug 1993) ISBN 0-8362-1723-3
- That's Not How They Do It on TV! (Aug 1994) (included in It's The Thought That Counts)
- Starting from Scratch (Aug 1995) ISBN 0-8362-0424-7
- Love Just Screws Everything Up (Aug 1996) ISBN 0-8362-2128-1
- Growing Like a Weed (Oct 1997) ISBN 0-8362-3685-8
- Middle Age Spread (Aug 1998) ISBN 0-8362-6822-9
- Sunshine and Shadow (Aug 1999) ISBN 0-7407-0200-9
- The Big 5-0 (Aug 2000) ISBN 0-7407-0556-3
- Graduation: A Time for Change (Aug 2001) ISBN 0-7407-1844-4
- Family Business (Aug 2002) ISBN 0-7407-2669-2
- With This Ring (April 2003) ISBN 0-7407-3412-1
- Reality Check (Aug 2003) ISBN 0-7407-3810-0
- Striking a Chord (March 2005) ISBN 0-7407-5315-0
- Never Wink at a Worried Woman (Oct 2005) ISBN 0-7407-5444-0
- She's Turning Into One of Them! (Aug 2006) ISBN 0-7407-5815-2
- Teaching... is a Learning Experience (March 2007) ISBN 0-7407-6354-7
- Senior's Discount (Sept 2007) ISBN 0-7407-6354-7 / ISBN 978-0-7407-6354-0
- Home Sweat Home (April 2008) ISBN 0-7407-7096-9 / ISBN 978-0-7407-7096-8
When the first collections appeared, the Sunday strips were not included in them - only the dailies were included. Instead, the following two 'Sunday' collections (also published by Andrews & McMeel) were published. Each book contains full-color reprints of 79 Sunday strips. While the strips appeared in the Sunday paper each week, and thus are part of the overall storyline, they are not included in the list of the "Chronological" collections and are not mentioned on the official "For Better or For Worse" website. These books are:
- More than a Month of Sundays: A for Better or for Worse Sunday Collection (1983) ISBN 0-8362-1218-5
- Our Sunday Best: A for Better or for Worse Sunday Collection (1984) ISBN 0-8362-2057-9
These books include a 'retrospect' section, and usually some autobiographical and/or "behind the scenes" information. In particular The Lives Behind the Lines
has biographies of all the major and many minor characters, including information not otherwise explored in the strip. The first two books also include the year of most recently printed comic strips.
- A Look Inside ... For Better or For Worse: The 10th Anniversary Collection (Sept 1989) ISBN 0-8362-1853-1
- It's the Thought That Counts... Fifteenth Anniversary Collection (Aug 1994) ISBN 0-8362-1762-4
- Remembering Farley: A Tribute to the Life of Our Favorite Cartoon Dog (1996) ISBN 0-8362-1309-2
- The Lives Behind the Lines: 20 Years of For Better or For Worse (Oct 1999) ISBN 0-7407-0199-1
- All About April: Our Little Girl Grows Up! (2001) ISBN 0-7407-2063-5
- Suddenly Silver: 25 Years of For Better or For Worse (Nov 2004) ISBN 0-7407-4739-8
These "little books" combine character illustrations from the strip with inspirational text or verse.
- Isn't He Beautiful? (text by Andie Parton) (2000)
- Isn't She Beautiful? (text by Andie Parton) (2000)
- Wags and Kisses (text by Andie Parton) (2001)
- A Perfect Christmas (text by Andie Parton) (2001)
- Graduation: Just the Beginning! (text by Andie Parton) (2003)
Gift books are similar to little books, but are in a larger format.
- So You're Going to Be a Grandma! (text by Andie Parton) (2005) ISBN 0-7407-5049-6
- I Love My Grandpa! (text by Andie Parton) (2006) ISBN 0-7407-5679-6
In the early 1990's, Tor Books published a series of standard-paperback strip collections.
- It All Comes Out In The Wash (March 1990) ISBN 0-8125-0692-8
- Grandpas Are For Jumping On (Aug 1990) ISBN 0-8125-0986-2
- Happiness Is A Warm Puddle (Aug 1991) ISBN 0-8125-1346-0
- Another Day, Another Lecture (Dec 1991) ISBN 0-8125-1736-9
- You Can Play in the Barn, but You Can't Get Dirty (Feb 1992) ISBN 0-8125-1737-7
- But I Read The Destructions! (Feb 1993) ISBN 0-8125-1738-5
- Shhh -- Mom's Working!! (April 1993) ISBN 0-8125-1739-3
- It's A Pig Eat Chicken World (Sept 1993) ISBN 0-8125-1740-7
- Misery Loves Company (Feb 1994) ISBN 0-8125-1741-5
- Am I Too Big To Hug? (April 1994) ISBN 0-8125-3640-1
The first three books in this section collect cartoons by Johnston from before the strip began.
- David, We're Pregnant! (1972)
- Hi Mom! Hi Dad! (1975)
- Do They Ever Grow Up? (1980)
- Leaving Home: Survival of the Hippest (text by Andie Parton) (2003): An instructional book about single living for young readers who have recently permanently moved out of their parents' home.
- Laugh 'n' Learn Spanish : Featuring the #1 Comic Strip "For Better or For Worse" (with Brenda Wegmann) (2003) ISBN 0-07-141519-X
Animated series and specials
In 1985, Atkinson Film-Arts of Ottawa, in association with the CTV Television Network
, produced an animated special based on For Better or for Worse
entitled The Bestest Present.
In the United States, it was first broadcast on HBO
, and in later years, on The Disney Channel
. Lynn's own children, Aaron and Katie, provided the voices of Michael and Elizabeth, and Rod Johnston made a cameo appearance as the voice of a mailman.
Beginning in 1992, another Ottawa-based studio, Lacewood Productions, produced six more specials, also for CTV. In the United States, these were seen on The Disney Channel. According to Lynn Johnston, the set designs (for instance, for the Patterson's house) which these and subsequent TV programs required led her to develop a much more sophisticated background style in the comic strips, with the layouts of homes and even towns consistent from story to story.
The six specials produced by Lacewood were:
- The Last Camping Trip
- A Christmas Angel
- The Good-for-Nothing
- A Valentine from the Heart
- The Babe Magnet (a.k.a. The Sweet Deal)
- A Storm in April
In 2000, Ottawa's Funbag Animation produced a new animated series for cable TV network Teletoon. Featuring introductions by Lynn Johnston herself, the show looked at three related storylines from three different eras of the strip--the 1980s, the 1990s, and the 2000s.
The series consisted of two seasons comprised of eight episodes each. On March 23, 2004, Koch Vision released the complete series on DVD for the very first time.
In 2001, Visual Arts Brampton
's Artway Gallery exhibited Johnston's work.