For Better or For Worse is blowing my mind

Okay, I can’t really claim to be a regular comic strip reader. But I recently became aware of exciting new developments in Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse (question for all you Strunk and White nerds – is the … Continued

Okay, I can’t really claim to be a regular comic strip reader. But I recently became aware of exciting new developments in Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse (question for all you Strunk and White nerds – is the name of a comic strip italicized?). I feel like Ms. Johnston, without even meaning to, may have pointed the way towards a new style of storytelling.

For Better or For Worse centers on the Pattersons, a typical nuclear family. Maybe too typical – sometimes they seem a little retro in their wholesomeness. But the strip’s set in Canada. Maybe things really are that wholesome up there.

What made For Better or For Worse unusual was that its characters aged in real time. When the strip began in 1979, Elizabeth was a toddler. It ended earlier this month with her marriage. It kind of split the difference between the hardcore serialized strips (Mary Worth, Rex Morgan M.D., and, God help us, Prince Valiant), and the ones that were just out for laughs (Garfield, Calvin and Hobbes, and God help us, Family Circus).

Sure, there are plenty of strips where the characters go through life changes (did you all know that Cathy is married now?!), but Johnston had a real interest in storytelling. For Better or For Worse was a soap with punchlines.

Johnston’s 61 now, and for years she’s been planning to retire. (Her health, sadly, is not great.) But in 2007, her husband of over 30 years left her for another woman. And because of this, she decided to make her retirement into semi-retirement.

On Friday, September 5, the AP ran a story with the eyebrow-raising headline “Popular comic strip ignites controversy.”

There it was in full color in the big Sunday strip: As Elizabeth’s parents are dancing at her wedding (to Anthony, thank God) Johnston herself enters the strip in cartoon form and tells us that starting the next day “For Better or For Worse” will rocket back almost 30 years in time to soon after it began.

Elizabeth, now 27, would be a baby again. Michael, who loved to taunt his sister, calling her “Lizard Breath” when they were growing up, would be about grade-school age. On the positive side, family patriarch John Patterson would shed that pot belly he’d been growing in recent years and his wife, Elly, could finally put away all those anti-wrinkle products she’d been obsessing over for about the last decade.

She’s not rewriting the past – as far as Johnson is concerned, every that’s happened in FBorFW is “canon.” She’s just showing us the strips between the strips that she drew 30 years ago.

It’s too early to say how ambitious Lynn will get with this new phase of the strip. Personally, I hope she’ll use this second run to flesh out her character’s backstories and motivations, giving the events we’ve already read new meaning. For instance, maybe something that the mom said back in 2003 will turn out to be a paraphrase of something her son told her decades before. (By the way, I’m using the editorial “we.” I personally have only a vague knowledge of the strip.)

Imagine if you wrote a draft of a novel, and then for the second draft, all you could do was add stuff – you couldn’t change anything you already wrote. If you were clever enough, you could make all the first draft’s flaws into opportunities, right?

Then I started wondering, is Lynn going to move forward in the same real-time way as before? Or is she going to skip around, knowing that the timeline is established? One week is about the birth of baby April. The next week is about her prom night.

Then I started thinking, wouldn’t it be amazing if she’d STARTED off that way? What if she’d told the story of the Patterson family out of order the first time around? On Monday, there’s a little girl with her first crush on a cute boy. On Tuesday, we see the same girl as a grown woman, married to that boy.

So over the course of hundreds of strips, we begin to get a picture of a family over the course of decades. Fans on the web could meticulously put the strips in chronological order, building a timeline out of the scraps of narrative they’re given, and speculating on the big gaps (“How did that guy die? Are we sure he’s dead?”) Every day you’d check the latest strip, not knowing if it’ll be meaningless fluff, or a key to the Big Picture.

But that picture will never be complete, of course. We might know two people get divorced, but we’ll have to wait years to find out exactly why – or maybe we’ll never get that strip. Maybe someone is accused of a crime, but we never get to see the strips where the crime unfolds, so we’re never quite sure of the truth.

Some weeks, the strips might be randomly chosen vignettes. Other weeks, they could be themed – seven different family vacations, or seven first kisses with different boyfriends. Or, they could be chosen to tell a story – seven key father/son moments, showing them gradually drifting apart.

What other medium besides a comic strip could you use to tell a story this way? A story with the scope of an epic novel, but revealed in bits and pieces, leapfrogging decades from day to day? Thank you, Lynn Johnston, for your vision. It may not happen in our lifetimes, but For Better or For Worse is laying the groundwork for a future masterpiece.

12 Comments on “For Better or For Worse is blowing my mind”

  1. Sheely #


    Isn’t this more or less the narrative structure used in Lost? Like FBOW, it is a Soap Opera with a few twists (although those twists involve actual movement through space-time). Sure, you have the framing device of time moving forward pretty linearly on the island, but all of the flash backs (and since season 3, the flash forwards)jump around, forcing you to piece together the narrative in exactly the way you describe. They play with this structure of not knowing when things are happening in the “master timeline”a lot- the big reveal at the end of season 3 was that crazy bearded jack was in the future, although everything that happened in those “flashes” could have conceivably been happening in the past.

    P.S. omar dies.


  2. Gab #

    I agree with Sheely, Lost does that already every episode. But a TV show could do it on its own, having an ENTIRE episode take place at one time, then another episode at a different one. Another medium would be short stories in literary magazines, or short films like the ones before the Pixar movies. And hell, if an author had enough gumption, they could write a whole series of short stories, novellas, or even novels in that fashion.


  3. Gab #

    PS- I almost suggested “Momento” sort of did it… I can’t decide, though. Anyone else think of that?


  4. raezyr #

    William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition has a subplot involving a series of video clips that are released anonymously online in random places around the ‘net. They are fragments of various lengths, and seem to be part of a larger film, but are not released in order. No explanation is given by the film’s author(s) about the plot or why they are releasing the film in this way. And there are multiple online communities who are attempting to piece together and decipher the film, some with competing theories.


  5. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    Thanks Raezyr – that’s exactly what I’m talking about. William Gibson, as always, is a seer.

    As for Lost, sure, it does a LITTLE of this. But I’m talking about much more radical and relentless jumps in time. Like, let’s say Lost is a fruit salad, with each chunk of fruit being a flashback. I want a smoothie, where the basic unit of storytelling is a tiny three panels.


  6. shechner #

    I think the discussion would be remiss without mention of Joseph Heller’s *Catch-22*, a masterpiece not only of political/social protest, but of story structure in general. The reader basically knows the majority of the story’s plot within the first few chapters, but is forced to repeat and reiterate vignettes pulled from it – each retelling revealing just the smallest changes in detail – throughout the remainder of the text. Awesome. Now, if we could just put the Pattersons in a semi-anachronistic retelling of the European theater of WWII, we’d be set.


  7. Traverse Davies #

    First, as to Canada and wholesomeness:
    This weekend in downtown Halifax (a city known for lighthouses and sailing ships) there is a goth/industrial event going on. It will probably have a few hundred people attend. It is sandwiched between two dance bars. At one of them a couple of years ago an underage boy stabbed someone else on the dance floor. The bar was shut down for the rest of the night. Fights are common, shootings rarer, but that has more to do with our strict gun control laws.
    Memento did the whole time thing… events taking place days, months or years out of order in quick bursts and it turns out that much of the story took place years later than it originally appeared. Very similar but in a shorter format.


  8. mlawski OTI Staff #

    My feeling is that an author should only screw around with the timeline if it makes sense thematically. Catch-22 is a great example. The spiraling, repetitive timeline increases the feeling of claustrophobia and mirrors the redundancy of the eponymous catch. That is to say, it makes the reader, like Yossarian, feel like he is trapped within some farcical fun house full of mirrors. Slaughterhouse-Five is similar, except it’s about fatalism.

    I do get annoyed with screwing around with the timeline just for the sake of being edgy. I haven’t seen Memento yet, but Chris Nolan’s first film, Following, was similar in structure. I didn’t really see the point. Sure, it was cool and clever, but it didn’t highlight any important themes. It was just a gimmick. Of course, the gimmick worked and now he’s a famous director, so I guess I should shut up.

    Having a wacky timeline in a comic strip could work, but it would be very difficult to pull off – much more difficult than in a film and infinitely more difficult than in a novel (where you can just write, “when she was five…” or “when they were older…”). People tune into strips (either in newspapers or on the web) once a day for a quick punchline and chuckle. The strips that get the biggest audiences are the ones where a longtime reader is rewarded with a knowledge of an overarching storyline while a new reader can jump in and out at any time. For Better or For Worse has more of an overarching storyline, but it’s very accessible because it’s about an average middle class family. You don’t need to know the backstory to understand any given strip.

    Having each strip of a comic be in a different time period would at first be incredibly confusing. It’s not like a reader (a newspaper reader, anyway) could go back to previous strips and figure out what’s going on. On the web it might be easier because of archives, but the bouncing around in time would scare off potential readers. I guess an author would have to have an “about” page that explained the concept so readers would know what they were in for.


  9. donna #

    Well, this is how life works. We meet people, we don’t know their history, sometimes they fill in a bit of background for us with a story. Read some Vonnegut with the jump arounds in time in Slaughterhouse Five for this kind of storytelling.

    I just found out recently a friend of mine was sexually abused as a child. I certainly knew something had happened to her, but not exactly what. It explained some things I hadn’t understood before in almost 20 years of friendship. This happens all the time in real life…


  10. Robin #

    HA! Lynn Johnston lives in the same town I do. I met her once when I was a kid and she was a total B**ch to me. Her husband was also my dentist.

    I didnt know he left her, but a little part of me smiled when I read that part. evil? maybe. But im ok with that.


  11. Turin Hurinson #

    Two words: William Faulkner.

    Seriously. Not only do some of his books (I’m thinking of “Go Down Moses” in particular, but several others qualify) operate kind of like this, but the entire Yoknapatawpha County canon gives you the picture of, not just a family, but an entire county, over several generations, in a non-linear way.


  12. Satchel #

    The italicization question is less Strunk and White than “Chicago Manual of Style.” And, yes, it’s a title, so it is italicized.


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