Growing up in suburban Chicago in the 1980s and 1990s, I read the comics pages in the Chicago Tribune every day in a very precise order, starting with the boring ones (“The Lockhorns,” “Peanuts” — sorry, Franzen — and “Cathy”) and working my way toward my favorites (“Fox Trot,” “Brenda Starr”). The very last comic I read every day was Lynn Johnston‘s “For Better or For Worse.”
“Fox Trot” was funny, but fundamentally gag-based, and the family never aged or grew; Jason scares Paige with his iguana over and over and over, and she never gets a clue. “Brenda Starr,” told stories about its “girl reporter” heroine, but Brenda, too, never aged, and the strip was dramatic, not funny.
But “For Better or For Worse” included both jokes and long, sometimes serious story-lines about its central figures, the Patterson family. When the strip began in 1979, daughter Elizabeth was a toddler. By the time the strip ended in 2008, she was a teacher and step-mother. Son Michael grew from a preschooler to a journalist and father. Over the course of those 30 years, parents John and Elly Patterson had another daughter, April. They saw the death of the beloved family dog, and tackled serious issues including divorce, sexual harassment, and a major character’s coming out. And yet even in the midst of these Very Special Story Lines, the strip remained genuinely funny, low-key, and warm.
“For Better or For Worse” wasn’t just good, it was wildly popular. Johnston became the first woman to win the National Cartoonists Society’s Reuben Award in 1985. The strip was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1994, and won Editor and Publisher’s award for Comic of the Year in 2001, among many other honors. In 2008, Johnston was inducted into the Canadian Cartoonist Hall of Fame. By the time “For Better or For Worse” concluded its run of original story lines, it was carried in more than 2,000 newspapers, making it one of the top comics in North America.
Johnston ended the strip in 2008. By then, the characters had become so real that it was only the second time for me that a strip’s conclusion felt like a death. (The 1995 end of “Calvin and Hobbes” was the first.) But it was a bittersweet occasion for another reason: In 2007, Johnston’s husband of 30 years, Rod Johnston, had left her for another woman. That development, which Johnston spoke frankly about at the time, cast a new light on the strip, which was about the same age as the marriage. If the Johnstons couldn’t make it “for better or for worse,” could Elly and John? Could anyone?
For a while, Johnston stayed busy reworking early strips for a tweaked second run of the Patterson family’s story. That plan didn’t last, however; now the strip is rerunning in many newspapers in its original form. Johnston, who lives in Northern Ontario, is now working a planned series of 15 collections of old “For Better of For Worse” comics. (The first one appeared in 2010.) When we were setting up our interview last week, she had to work around an appointment regarding her garden. She spoke with me from her home about her long career, her lead character’s shift from housewife to bookstore owner (and her uniform hairstyle throughout), and why many young people wouldn’t have the stamina for a 30-year career in comics.