For better, for worse and…for worser

Okay, I’m sorry, but no:

Cartoonist Lynn Johnston can’t bring herself to abandon her fictional family. For years, the “For Better or for Worse” creator mulled retirement, then lightened her workload by creating flashbacks and repurposing the archives of her popular comic. Finally, she knew she needed to conclude the Patterson family’s 29-year saga.

This Sunday’s cartoon is an adieu of sorts to readers, but not a final farewell. She announced this month that she would retell her strip’s narrative, beginning Monday, by taking her continually aging characters back to 1979, but creating new artwork and some dialogue. Her syndicate says it’s the first time a mainstream cartoonist has set out to tell the same story twice.

….on Monday, the strip will time-travel back to 1979 and do it all over again, but with new drawings, new conversations, new wrinkles. (And in some cases, fewer wrinkles — John and Elly Patterson will return to parenting tykes.)

“It’s going back to the beginning when Michael and Elizabeth were very young,” Johnston says of the approach, which she is dubbing “new-runs.” “I’m going back to do it how it should have been done. . . . I’m beginning with all this knowledge, so it’s a much more comprehensive beginning. I only have an insular world of characters [from 1979] to work with.”

As far as Johnston knows, “new-runs” — in which a strip’s continual story line is retold — have never been attempted by a syndicated cartoonist (“Nobody has done it before — most people die or the strip ends,” she says).

“All of September will be brand-new material,” Johnston explains. “In October, it will be [a ratio of] 50-50. The color Sunday comics will be all-new material. . . . I think it will be 50-50 for the first year, at least.”

I really don’t have the words.

That said, I do have some, I guess. Thing is, there is something perversely tempting about all this from a creative point of view, the whole ‘well now that I know what I do know, I’m going to get it right this time.’ Trust me, I feel that way about most of my writing work in general (though sometimes I can be surprised — yesterday I was somewhat flabbergasted to receive a huge compliment about some decade old AMG reviews from one of the two lead musicians of the band in question — we’re not talking U2 famous but this is a very well-known and respected group indeed — and I admit to have been dancing on air a bit since).

And I want to take Johnston’s words on it all at face value. Still, there’s something just so…well, again, where are the words, I don’t quite have them. But I’ll try.

It’s the classic ‘if I only knew then what I knew now’ deal, and I don’t like it. In my life there are mistakes and regrets and I don’t pretend to have been prey to dwelling on them, but I try not to do so exclusively. This just seems like a strange way to literally rewrite history, and by doing so in such a programmatic fashion. One of the distinct advantages of a story like Johnston’s strip, one that is open-ended and lets the characters grow and age, is how this by default forces them into being in and of their times. They may react in ways that are classically mainstream as such, but that is life, and the whole point of the world of the Pattersons in the strip is that they were almost overarchingly so mainstream in a comfortable sense.

By default, Johnston’s decision moves her work from being an ‘of the time’ story to one where every move is a signifier of a different time — the contemporary becomes the retrospective, and if one has been working with characters for thirty years reacting to the changes around them, going back and trying to place oneself in a mindset without that knowledge is seemingly impossible. (If anything the fact that Johnston says she is coming from a place with greater awareness is all the more troubling — every word and frame now is done with the knowledge of not only what happens to the characters but their setting and society, their very place. Is this creativity or day-by-day nostalgia, and what is the purpose of such an obsessive retracing? Given the nature of the strip for its entire existence, why not live and work in the now?)

This all said, what about the strip itself? I suppose if I’d followed it more recently I’d care more — but I did follow it for a long time, actually. Stepping back a bit, I first remember reading comic strips in the mid-seventies or so, with Peanuts unsurprisingly being my way forward (though I’m sure I was reacting to the stellar run of early TV specials first), though I can’t be sure. A slew of strips first caught my eye in the late seventies and early eighties when living in the Bay Area, most notably The Far Side, which rapidly became a deserved family favorite, while For Better or For Worse caught my attention too.

I’m not sure why, per se, or what attracted me. It’s almost hard to put into words now — but I suppose because it was easy enough to understand, even for an eight year old kid, and allowing for the fact that the family situation was, after all, pretty similar to mine — married well-off white couple with older brother and younger sister, plus a dog. In fact one of the things that most ended up defining the strip in the end, its Canadianness as perceived, didn’t strike me at all until many years later, late eighties I think, when a character idly mentioned something somewhere that made me realize “Oh…wait, this isn’t set in the US?” (The fact that one of the characters was named Gordon should have given it away earlier, I admit.)

And so while I don’t remember ever laughing out loud over it, I liked it well enough and as a matter of course followed it, even as over time I was following — far more completely and obsessively — strips like The Far Side as mentioned, plus Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, FoxTrot (Jason Fox IS ten year old me, believe me), Dilbert and The Boondocks, among many others. But those were the ones I actually bought book collections for — For Better or For Worse, never. Yet I knew the basic storyline and idly followed things and still remember the huge kerfluffle over Michael’s friend coming out as gay (needless to say I had no problem with that) as well as Farley the dog’s death (okay, I had a HUGE problem with that — I’m just a sentimentalist when it comes to dogs, as I’ve talked about here before) and…I think that’s about all I do remember.

As with so many things one picks up out of habit, letting it go can be a protracted process, and one that you only figure out in retrospect more than anything else. Similarly with this strip (but also a lot of comic strips — I don’t regularly read them much any more, and like TV it’s a shift in habit that never felt monumental, more simply a sense that I was done with them as a matter of regular interest), so aside from a random glance or two I never quite knew what was going on beyond that point, and happily so.

So when I looked at this related article to the one above, detailing the obsessive habits of those who follow the strip just to mock it — I can relate to this impulse as well on other fronts, believe me — the part that made me go ‘?!?!’ the most was this:

Their son Michael hit it big with a best-selling novel (About what? We never learned) and he and his wife, Deanna, bought the old Patterson family home, somewhere in the suburbs of Toronto. Little sister April Patterson’s band, the Archies-esque 4-Evah, broke up, then got a new singer, making them 4Evah & Eva. Elizabeth (a.k.a. Lizardbreath) gave up her new life teaching native people in the Canadian hinterlands to move home and marry Anthony, her boring high school boyfriend.

What, was this becoming The Royal Tenenbaums? (Don’t answer that.) The most confounding (and, from where I sit, at the least troubling and at the most insulting) detail was Elizabeth’s fate if only for the implied grappling with the traumatic issues revolving around the First Nations and how the Canadian government and society treated them in the past, only to apparently ditch that for conventionality and a comfortable existence back in the comfortable Ontario exurbs of suburbs or whatever. Of course.

So I don’t know. I think I’m content to let my final memory of the strip be Johnston’s tribute to one of her mentors, Charles Schulz, on the day when a slew of comic strip writers paid a similar joint tribute to him (it had already been planned for that year but his death beforehand made it a true memorial):

Snoopy forever

And I’ll try and keep this example in mind if I ever want to go back and ‘improve’ something I’ve done once it’s formally published. Take note what’s been done — and then do something else instead.

[EDIT: A friend posted this interpretation of things elsewhere. Very, very silly.]

4 Responses to “For better, for worse and…for worser”

  1. Xana Says:

    Elizabeth didn’t hook up with the pilot? I’m so disapointed. I really enjoyed the whole multi-cultural thing.

  2. Ned Raggett Says:

    Hahah, well you’d know more about the pilot than I do!

  3. gravyly Says:

    yesterday I was somewhat flabbergasted to receive a huge compliment about some decade old AMG reviews from one of the two lead musicians of the band in question — we’re not talking U2 famous but this is a very well-known and respected group indeed — and I admit to have been dancing on air a bit since).

    Yup…Alison Statton & Spike tend to have that effect on people :P

  4. Ned Raggett Says:

    Hahah. If only I was so lucky. ;-)


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