Sep 21, 2017

Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse, the First and Last Years

For Better or For Worse could be so beautifully good, you’d take it for granted. It was a surety, like Peanuts being enjoyable or chocolate generally tasting good. Smarter than Calvin and Hobbes, better characterization than Mary Worth, cooler soap than Crankshaft or Funky Winkerbean. It was just always there. Lynn Johnston would balance the true to life with the truisms, the real people with the imaginary events, and it all seemed right.

That Your Wagon Over There, Ma’am?
Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse, the First and Last Years
Travis Hedge Coke

What strikes me, looking a the 1979 strips, is how beautiful they look, how every panel counts, the balance of visuals, the line work. Johnston’s avatar in the comic, Elly, looks amazing, whether dressed to the nines, beleaguered after a day of children, housework, and worry, or panicking with a face full of mask when her husband brings home company with no warning. That’s a woman I could be. That we all can be, whether woman or man, regardless of race or class. She’s such a genuine person, you could find yourself there.

The husband is a broader sketch. He’s a broader sketch than the main character or any of the children. The children are individuals, and so too, is he, but he’s there as something to bounce off, to react to. They’re people.

By 2008, John is a person, too. But, our heroine has become everything. “I look at my flappy arms and my droopy buns, and I say, ‘Yes, this is me!’! This is Meee This is Meee” she sings in one strip, dancing barefoot before standing, tummy sticking out, jowly, and thinks, “It still sucks to be me.” The very next strip, she’s being told that “We’ve earned our lines.” That she was a great mom and is a grandparent now. Then, the series went back to reprinting from the first year again, giving further weight to those old strips, greater gravitas.

2008 For Better or For Worse glows for me, when the new strips’ sense of age and passing reverberate new light on some of the earliest ’79 strips’ anxieties and ideologies. But, the art, too, shifting from the looser, wavy line to the short jaunting strokes and weighted curves of the new stuff, creates a friction that surpasses both. It makes it clear how home ’79 strips are, how comforting and reassuring even with their anxiousness, because of the anxiousness, really. 2008, with paunch and optimism, condescension and  fatalism, is a different beast. It’s not being able to go home again, even if home is in the very next strip and the one the week before where you are.

The magic is lost, but the loss is its own important glamour.

The words, “His doctor thinks it’s depression that makes him so… slow. I do what I can. But I can’t bring back his ability to speak or to dance or to play guitar… His cup is half full. But he thinks it’s empty —”

When someone has to say, “Elvis is not old! Charlie Chaplin is old. Flappers are old —”

When one grandmother says, “The world was on our shoulders,” and the other looks down at her widened thighs and says, “Maybe that’s why we’re shaped like this —”

The comic goes back and forth between strips from both eras, about dishwashing and chores. John, the husband, doing chores in the present, and how Elly, our window and heroine, can’t quite process it, intermixed with strips of her saying men and women should share the household duties to friends, and in private, her husband thanking her for “not telling them the truth.” She even smiles when he says that, and he holds her. It was sharp back then, but given the weight of decades… maybe I should just drift off here.

Elly’s daughter, Elizabeth, has her mother’s old smirk. The smile of someone convincing themselves that they’re smiling. But, Elizabeth has a real smile, too. A genuine smirk. And, it’s climbing up through the artifice for it that strengthens the beauty and intensity of that reality.

The younger daughter, April, never needs that. She’s neither her father nor her mother. But, the love and respect she has for her mom is awesome. She’s smart, she’s responsible. Even more than the little kid characters, April is the endgame. April is the future. Liz is getting a wedding dress, Elly is getting fed up with her husband (and throwing a glove at him in what is a pretty passive-aggressive condemnation), and April is just April. School, friends, family, running errands and most important of all things, she knows when to stay out of the way.

It begins with Elly and John. It ends with Liz and Anthony’s marriage and Elly’s father, Jim’s second wife, Iris, explaining what marriage should mean. There’s a coda and then it’s over. The son barely shows, the final year, despite dominating the first. His story had gone beyond or gone away. And, Liz is Elly at a new angle, a new model of an old reliable. But, April, born only halfway through the whole run, is the bolt that holds the pageantry and sag of the final year aloft.

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