Sunday, May 9, 2010

For FOOB or for FBOFW

Like many newspaper comic readers, I grew up reading the Canadian family comic, For Better or for Worse. It practically mirrored my own nuclear family. The only thing we didn’t have was a sheepdog. (We did, however get a schnauzer, but that wasn’t until later)

It was very influential on my life. I started out calling my parents Mummy and Papa, but after reading the collection It Must be Nice to be Little, I started calling them Mom & Dad. As an ardent fan, I wasn’t able to get the first collection I’ve got the One More Washload Blues until much later. However, bits and pieces of Lynn Johnston’s early strips showed up in smaller book collections with titles such as Grampas are for Jumping On.

Many of her daily strips were collected in her books, but I was irked that so few of her Sundays were in her books. This was one of the things that spurned me to keep the Gazette Sunday comics. Sadly, she only started getting serious about showing the Sundays in tandem with her dailies at around 2000, when her strip became a chore to read. (I can’t even bother reading the later books without doing some serious skipping)

I have fond memories of her legendary strip up to Farley’s death. After that, it seemed like the soul of the comic had been ripped away. In part, it might be because after her mentor Charles Schultz retired and died, she lost all further inspiration in her creation. (Schultz also said that killing the dog off would be a mistake - a criticism he seemed to recognize)

Myself, I feel that the strip started to go downhill when she got too attached to her “serious” stories. This started with the hospitalization of Grandma Marian, which I felt dragged on for too long. To me, that was the point where it gradually changed from FBOFW to FOOB.

In her book The Lives Behind the Lines, she showcased multiple plotlines behind the characters that she’d kept behind the scenes, in part because she didn’t have a chance to showcase them without having to rely on obvious exposition.

When she announced that she was going to semi-retire her strip, and fill in the blanks of some of the stories she wanted to expand on, I was mildly enthusiastic. I thought it would be reminiscent of when Elly recalled Elizabeth’s birth from looking at the family photos and explaining them to her children. Sadly, we got none of that. It was a crushing disappointment when we got filler to the filler of the early strips back when the comic was just finding its legs. Not to mention she tried (but failed) to copy her artwork to her old-school style, which was much looser than the stiff style she’d grown accustomed to later in life.

Not to mention when Lynn formally announced her “retirement”, she kept putting it off for one reason or another. It seemed like she was simply unable to conceive of a life outside of not doing a daily strip, even as she admitted she no longer enjoyed doing it. When the cartoonist keeps doing the strip without enjoying it, and the audience also keeps reading said strip without enjoying it, there’s something seriously wrong there.

At the end, I felt very much like the reader of this parody of a long-running Manga, which likewise went on for too long. (Yakitate! Japan should’ve stopped at the 14th volume)

Part of what made the strip fail for the last 10 years of it’s shelf life (11 years too long) were multiple factors. In wanting to tell more serious stories, she increased the number of panels in the dailies, leading to more scrunched-up panels, as opposed to her looser artwork. Having worked non-stop since her conception, she was probably feeling more burnt out than ever. This can be evidenced by her self-plagiarism of her early Sunday comics (originally featuring Elizabeth, but now showing April). A very large part could be that when her children moved away from her, she lost the source of her inspiration, and had to mine her past to get any further ideas, and there’s only so much you can get when you start talking to yourself.

Most of all, I feel it suffered because it was no longer following a family drama, but became more of a wish fulfillment fantasy. This can be seen in Michael’s wanting to become a writer, but opted instead to write about a romance during the war rather than Farley’s death - an event that touched him strongly. Stone Season is about Sheilagh Shaugnessey’s marriage to an abusive soldier, while trying to keep her independence and giving birth to a baby. In short, it was the kind of novel that would be more suited for Elly to have written herself. But since Lynn was so filled with the vision of her son being a successful writer, all realms of plausibility as well as character identification were chucked out the window. There were two sticking points - when Michael ran back into a burning house to retrieve his novel from the fire, he was placing his work before his family. The second was that his first draft (which was in severe need of multiple rewrites) was snapped up for a $25,000 grant. Obviously, Lynn had forgotten about the struggle a starving artist has to make to get their works noticed.

It was also verrrrrrrry convenient that a childhood friend, Deanna Sobinski came back after languishing in obscurity, and his then-girlfriend, Rhetta just told him that she was breaking up with him.

The biggest icebreaker, of course was the Mary Sue, who's been called everything from Blandthony, to Granthony, to the Pornstache; Anthony. More has been said about Anthony here, so I won’t bother, save that Anthony was an obvious avatar for Lynn Johnston herself. It became increasingly clear that Anthony’s marriage to Theresse was more a marriage of convenience than love, with Anthony still pining for Liz, his TRUE love. It closely mirrored Lynn's feelings during her first marriage which ended badly, and no longer followed any routes her children could've taken, but the choices they should've taken, which of course all ended up as the right choices, leading to a Happy Ever After ending for all of them.

What's particularly telling is that once Liz & Mike got together with their "true wuv", their chemistry with their partners completely fell off the face of the earth. This was especially true for Mike, since Deanna was a safer bet than the more rombust Rhetta. More can be read here, which showcases how Liz got the convenience of having a baby without ever having to go through the trials of ever having to lose her virginity or get pregnant. Surely that's every woman's wish? To have somebody else's baby without the joy that comes before and after the event???

Some of the most devoted fans started doing barbed criticism of the latest FBOFW strips, or as they called it, FOOB, based on a “slang” word April said once, showing just how out of touch Lynn Johnston was with her audience.

It was tremendous fun seeing these possible interpretations of these lousy strips. How HowTheDuck manages to overanalyze every new strip without breaking his mind is an ordeal I’ll never understand. I would’ve quit after the first five new strips alone. But my admiration started to fade when they pointed those same barbs towards the early reprinted strips. When you start seeing the hidden motives behind every single sentence a once-well regarded writer ever did, it becomes less of a guilty pleasure, and more of a reason to keep kicking a dead horse before the body’s even cold. Pointing out that Lynn expected her children to sit still when the strips were reflecting parent's exasperation in trying to control their children is missing the point entirely. Obviously, these people have never had children. Recently, these posters have even gone so far as to insinuate that Elly's treatment towards her children are grounds for Child Endangerment. They've obviously forgotten the 'Calvin' where Calvin was ranting about the bad role models in newspaper comics, while his Dad retorted; "Yes, we all know how funny good role models are."

It’s just a shame that FBOFW only started to get parodied when it started to get lousy. Where was all that devotion when the strip was actually GOOD?? I only recall MAD Magazine having maybe two (yes, TWO) satires where a FBOFW character showed up as a background character. I don’t recall which one Elly showed up in, but I do know Farley was seen drinking, then falling in the pool in “Smellgross Place”. And MAD had a tendency to copy cartoon characters in the margins of their articles very often. (Calvin alone showed up as a rowdy kid in the background often, as well as “Robin” in Batsman & Rubin)

This in turn led to an observation about Liz’s travel to Mtigwaki, and how she felt truly happy with her current life, with her teaching job, and being with Paul. That was until an e-mail from April spurned Liz to return home to be with Anthony again. The problem was, there was more chemistry between Liz, and her other potential suitors than there was with Anthony. With everyone else, there was a definite spark, a great show of emotion between two people. Even the arguments with Paul, (a regular Irving) was a great display of fireworks. But you’d be hard pressed to find any of that with Elizabeth & Anthony. Mixing nitroglycerin with sulfur-based gasoline, and injecting it with electricity wouldn’t have produced anything from those two corpses, no matter how much Lynn Johnston tried to convince us.

And yet, there were still people who wanted Liz and Anthony to be a couple, simply because “it felt right”. I was mortified to discover that my Mother was one of these people. I’d always considered her to be smarter than that. If this kind of thing had happened on a TV show or movie, I’m sure she’d be mortified, pointing out all the potential flaws between the two. But because this was a comic strip, she didn't have as much leeway since it wasn't a medium she was faithfully devoted to. Also, it had been hinting at a possible romance between the two for so long that a pairing seemed inevitable. To her, it seemed romantic, but to me (and others) it seemed painfully obvious, if not contrived.

One of the intriguing arguments that was brought up was the possibility that Brian - not Lawrence - could’ve been ousted as being gay. The signs from his mother were there - he was more interested in studies than girls. But then Lawrence came out in front of his best friend, and it was a silent shocker there, eventually leading up to a small family drama (both inside and outside the newspapers) leading to a satisfactory conclusion. Sadly, after creating this great stink with one of her characters, she never adequately did a reasonable follow-up with Lawrence, only having him appear sporadically in subsequent episodes as a florist. Even his reunion with his “father” fell flat, in part that Lynn got her continuity wrong. It was Pete, not Pablo, who Connie fell in love with in the early days who left her with her son Lawrence. Of course, it’d been 20 years since she’d written those early strips, but Lynn could’ve taken about 5 minutes to do the research. Having the first letter in the name doesn’t count.

It was only recently that the archives of missing FBOFW strips started to be posted on the FBOFW site. I was surprised to see how much had been left out of the collections. There weren't that many dailies missing, but there were hundreds of Sundays that hadn't been seen for years. The comic where Connie finds out about Mrs. Baird’s house is completely different from the collected version where she was much calmer.

However, the archive's not entirely perfect. Choosing the Strips not Collected link is no help. Some of them HAVE been collected in various books, not counting Lynn’s FIRST Sunday collections, More than a Month of Sundays and Our Sunday Best. Searching by month would be your best bet, though there are still a few holes in her collection. I’m still missing the February 10th strip from 1985 as well as the daily comic on September 29 1985. However, the strip flows so well between the 28th & 30th strips that it’s hard to imagine anything in between. Lynn said that her last book was going to be A Simple Wedding, featuring the wedding between Liz and (ugh) Anthony. Seriously, the wedding between Cathy & Irving was more fun to read. Hopefully, if an omnibus collection of the uncollected FBOFW ever comes up in the future, it WON’T include the latest strips that she included to “improve” her work.

In the end, Lynn Johnston simply set the bar of quality on her strip so high that even she couldn’t jump over it. It reminds me (fittingly) of a Peanuts strip with Snoopy at his typewriter. He was writing the story of a man who never got anything he wanted. “He wanted riches, he got rags. He wanted fame, he got obscurity. He wanted cheers, he got boos. He wanted answers, he got only questions” and so on, until the last panel when Snoopy looked up and admitted, “I’ve got a hard time ending this story”. That was Lynn’s major problem there - she had no idea how - or when - she should’ve ended her strip.

This was further compounded by her putting off her retirement until "she was ready", but she took so long that even her husband of Thirty years, Rod, finally left her for another woman. In essence, the woman was more married to her work than her husband, and explains her mentality for letting Michael run back into a burning building to save his novel. Given the amount of Bad Blood between her and her family (her children have expressed no desire to have children of their own), it's surprising that there hasn't been a tell-all expose on what it was like living with a famous cartoonist. My guess is that they're waiting until she's dead when they can publish a bibliography, since she wouldn't be around to express dissent. There was similar controversy when a biography on Charles Schultz was released last year showing that he wasn't the warm & caring man he portrayed himself to be. It brought up comparisons with another American Legend who produced works of art perfectly portraying American Life, but was a horrible family man. That man's name was Norman Rockwell.

Lynn eventually got enough chutzpah to dare others to try to produce work that would knock her legacy strip off the comics page. The problem with this challenge was twofold. One - anybody who’d want to do their own tribute to FBOFW wouldn’t do it with the severe limits of the newspaper strip - they’d happily do it as a webcomic. Two - any new strip would be immediately typecast and ousted if it didn’t already follow a strict formula. Unless it featured a nuclear family, a wacky kid or animal, and stayed within an urban setting, it has virtually no chance of ever being licensed.

I always thought that if Lynn found her current surroundings to be too limiting, she could’ve simply moved on to another medium with more freedom of space to do the kind of drawings & stories more to her liking. After all, she said that half the humour in Herman (another Canadian strip) was from the drawings, and that was lost when the drawing was shrunk to half it’s size. Why she didn’t consider this might be that she’d been doing her job for so long that branching out into any new fields would be completely foreign territority.

For the uninitiated, I recommend stopping at around Graduation; Time for a Change, which was just around the time the strip started to decline, but no so much that you didn't want to see more. It's the perfect jumping-off point.

EDIT - just wanted to add the link to the site that talked about my essay, since it’s the longest commentary I’ve ever recieved outside my blog.

RE-EDIT - for anyone interested in the relevant Peanuts strip I was talking about, see this link here.

RE-RE-EDIT - Found another website that talks about Anthony's failures that I found buried in my notes, but couldn't find it at the time, so it had to go up unfinished. I finally managed to attach the relevant link in the paragraph that mentions the infamous e-mail message above, but figured it'd be safer to add the link down here, since it'd likely go by unnoticed.


  1. But you’d be hard pressed to find any of that with Elizabeth & Anthony. Mixing nitroglycerin with sulfur-based gasoline, and injecting it with electricity wouldn’t have produced anything from those two corpses, no matter how much Lynn Johnston tried to convince us.

    The weird thing is that Anthony wasn't really supposed to be Liz's Twoo Wuv; Anthony is a Jonas Quinn for Christopher Nichols who got put on embargo because his parents' fictional marital problems reminded Lynn of her own first marriage too much to face.

  2. Excellent post. I agreed with so much of it I actually began to wonder if you're me! :)

    But my admiration started to fade when they pointed those same barbs towards the early reprinted strips. When you start seeing the hidden motives behind every single sentence a once-well regarded writer ever did, it becomes less of a guilty pleasure, and more of a reason to keep kicking a dead horse before the body’s even cold.

    It is a hard balance to maintain. It's difficult to read the early strips with the foreknowledge of all that will happen, and not let what were once affectionate memories be tainted with the characters' later development, particularly Elly's re-write of her own past (touches of the comic linked above) whenever she and Connie reminisce over coffee.

    I enjoy the barbs: some are so well-written that reading them is the only pleasure left to be gained from FOOB. I have two young children and can relate to a lot of Elly's frustration with the feeling that things might stay a mess forever; what I can't relate to is her never-ending complaining or stunned expressions every time she sees what her kids have done.

    What I also find jarring is the semi-retconning of older strips, changing a typewriter into something approximating a computer or adding $100 to the the price of a jogging suit, but leaving other things unchanged like the absence of a phone for Elly to let John know she's going out for drinks. If the old material could just be left alone and Lynn would admit that the strip happens 30 years ago, it would attract so much less criticism. Her website has two contradictory statements about the timing of the re-run strip: Q and Eh? has it in the modern day and Lynn's exasperated-sounding answer in Coffee Talk says it's 30 years ago.

    The switch from re-run strips to new-drawn material on Sundays is also disruptive and I can't for the life of me figure out how some of her readers claim to be unable to tell the difference between Lynn's old and new drawing styles: the kids' widely-varying ages, the proportions of most characters (Mike in particular), the stiffness of ruler-drawn parallel lines for every wall, door, staircase and fence, and Elly's fluctuating nose size reminding me of the downhill years of the strip.

    Stopping at Graduation: A Time for Change is a great tip. The uninitiated should have a firm warning that, even if they do want to read more, to do so will make them lose all joy they once found in the strip.

  3. Thanks for your post over at FOOBAR, Daniel BT. You asked about a couple of strips you wanted to find. Here is the one that had Carol Enjo worrying that Brian wasn't into girls and here is the one where Liz receives April's e-mail about Anthony divorcing and infamously yells "WAIT!" :)

  4. No, I wasn't talking about the strips themselves, I was talking about the discussion about those strips. I saw the FOOBiverse livejournal talk about those issues, but I don't know where in the vast archive they are.

    It would save me alot of time if you could find the posts about those pages. Also, Elizabeth's "WAIT!" was the tail end of an 8-page post from another site that might've originated at the livejournal.

  5. Oh, I see--I misunderstood. These are strips that have come up from time to time in different theads, so it would be difficult to find them all. There is a calendar view that you can use for Foobiverse, so that for the "wait" strip, you can at least find the discussion that happened on the day the strip originally ran.

  6. Here's the Brian Enjo thread:

    And here's the first discussion of "WAIT!"

  7. Obviously, these people have never had children.

    I've got 2 kids.

  8. I've got 2 kids.

    I also meant to respond re. "Obviously, these people have never had children." I have a seven-year old son. He is finishing first grade and therefore is exactly at the age/stage Michael Patterson is supposed to be in the reprints. Much of what she does with Mike and Elly's reactions to him do not ring true for me.

  9. I've got 2 kids.

    Me too. I have a two-year-old daughter: in fact, she turned two within a week of Elizabeth's birthday party. (Unlike Elizabeth, we will continue to celebrate her birthdays every year...)

    As with what April said, much of what Lynn did with Lizzie and Elly's reactions to Lizzie's behaviour don't match my experience.