Lynn Johnston's For Better or for Worse.
When a reader identifies emotionally with a story, there is a natural temptation to seek a deeper connection, often by drawing explicit links between the work of art itself and the life of its creator. Such was long the case with For Better or For Worse, Lynn Johnston’s long-running and award-winning comic strip which focused, for almost three decades, on the Patterson family, a paragon of the middle-class white Canadian family, unique in their ordinariness. Through Johnston’s skills with plotting, her decision to allow the characters to age in real time, and her willingness to face the social changes of the last decades of the 20th century head-on, the Pattersons seemed to lift off the page, to become less characters in the daily funny pages and more, well, real people.
This is a pretty accurate description. When Lynn ended the modern strip in 2008, Lynn's Coffee Talk and the FOOBiverse’s Journal were filled with comments about how the commenters grew up with the Pattersons and how they read the strip each day to see how the people they considered to be their friends were doing. Robert Wiersema places the reason for the popularity of the strip on Lynn’s plotting, the real-time aging, and the social changes; but you notice he does not say one word about the art. I love the phrase “unique in their ordinariness”. That is a good summary for the appeal of the bland Pattersons.
But while readers got to know the Pattersons, the woman behind the drawing board remained largely an enigma.
I guess for people not willing to read any of her autobiographical essays or her interviews, that is true.
While it may have been tempting to read For Better or For Worse as autobiographical, such a reading would have been largely incorrect.
How do you define this word? Is it “autobiographical” when you take stories from your life and put them into a comic strip, or does “autobiographical” mean that the comic strip is the story of your life exactly? In some respects, the comic strip is Lynn’s life re-imagined as a “What would have happened if Lynn never got that syndicate contract?” story.
Just how far the strip is removed from Johnston’s particulars is one of the themes running through For Better or For Worse: The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston, by Johnston and Katherine Hadway.
If you have a theme of what is different between a book and your life, you are treading into the territory of biography. It’s like if you see a Lifetime movie on someone’s life and spend your time pointing out the parts the movie got wrong.
The lavishly illustrated volume is, officially, the companion to an exhaustive retrospective of Johnston’s career currently running at the Art Gallery of Sudbury in Ontario, but it also serves as something of an unofficial memoir. Through lengthy interview passages, couched within Hadway’s enthusiastic (if somewhat flat) narrative, Johnston recounts the events of her own life, both in isolation and in play with the events of the comic strip.
“enthusiastic (if somewhat flat) narrative”. I think I need an example.
A description of Johnston’s childhood in North Vancouver, her troubles at school, the influence of her aunt (the artist Unity Bainbridge), and her training at the Vancouver School of Art and her early years of freelancing are handled in a matter-of-fact manner, tersely described in the style — rightly so — of someone filling in the blanks. (Johnston’s West Coast days are not entirely behind her: the artist is planning to move back to Vancouver this fall.)
Unity Bainbridge is Lynn’s aunt? She has mentioned her aunt Unity once before in her Lynn’s Notes and also briefly in her 10th anniversary collection, by not with last name. Looking about I see Unity Bainbridge has a Wikipedia page where it mentions she went to the Vancouver School of Art and apparently she is in her 90s and still alive. I can see why she should have been an influence on young Lynn, but Lynn has hardly ever given her credit for any sort of artistic inspiration. The 10th anniversary only says that people knew young Lynn was going to be an artist like Aunt Unity, but nothing about her influence.
Later, though, that flat tone works somewhat against the emotional revelations and struggles that Johnston reveals. Following the dissolution of her first marriage (her husband “took what he could on his motorcycle and left”), for example, Johnston was left with an infant, and no means of support. It’s a harrowing situation, but one which Hadway’s narrative, and Johnston’s interviews, almost gloss over.
This is a hard area to work around and it is true that Lynn in her biographies does not talk about this period much. Does she want to admit that Doug left her everything but his motorcycle and the clothes on his back, and that was so much it was enough to live on for a year? Do either Katie or Lynn want to admit that Lynn was messing around on her first husband with second husband Rod and very likely that was a strong motivation for Doug to leave? I suspect this is still a secret Lynn wants to keep, even though the clues are all there in her 10th anniversary collection biography. Robert Wiersama seems to get that with these next sentences:
One can understand, and respect, this approach to the deepest of family secrets, whether it is discretion or simply self-protection — this is, after all, explicitly not a memoir. And where For Better or For Worse excels is as an exploration of Johnston’s art, and the history of the comic strip itself.
True enough, but if the book gets into the Liz/Anthony/Thérèse love triangle, the comic strip does mimic the life not recounted in the memoir.
It serves as both a celebration of Johnston’s work, and a reminder — as if longtime readers could have forgotten — just how much a part of our lives, and our culture, Johnston’s work has been. As the book illustrates, the lives in For Better or For Worse may not have been real, but the comic rang true to its readers and their experiences, which is altogether more significant.
This is a good summary. The strip’s popularity survives based on the fond memories of the longtime readers. The issues with the stories for a new reader are that the real-time aging is now meaningless and the culture references are dated. That leaves story and art to sustain it and those are the weakest parts of the material.