Tuesday, September 18, 2007

For Better or Worse

Lynn Johnston's recent decision to scale back her work on the daily comic strip "For Better or Worse" is sad news for readers, but not completely unexpected. At one time she announced that would only do the strip for five years (obviously, she changed her mind).

Much is being written about the real-time aging of the "Better or Worse" characters, and the death of some of them, but it's important to remember that none of this is new.

Few comic strip characters die because it's unpleasant for the reader who's formed an attachment to them, and it's also bad business. Dead characters can't (and shouldn't) come back. Most comic strips keep a large cast waiting in the wings, using whichever ones most effectively tell the story. Getting rid of a character decreases the writer's options.

And yet death comes to comics. The first was in a humorous/soap opera strip similar to "For Better or Worse" called "The Gumps." In 1929, one of the characters, the youthful love interest Mary Gold succumbed to a debilitating illness and died. Readers were devastated.

The adventure strip "Terry and the Pirates" was also visited by the grim reaper. A recurring character Raven Sherman died as a result of injuries she sustained through exposure in the Chinese mountains in 1941.

And in 2004 Phyllis Blossom Wallet passed away in her sleep. The wife of Walt Wallet, she had been a key character in the strip "Gasoline Alley" since the 1920's.

Much also has been made about the characters in "For Better or Worse" aging in real time, as opposed to being perpetually the same age as characters usually are in gag strips (like "Peanuts"). Again, this is nothing new. The Gump family grew and aged, albeit at a slow rate.

When Terry Lee arrived in China in 1934 he was a boy of about 12. He grew up before the reader's eyes, becoming a young man and becoming an Air Force pilot in World War II when artist/writer Milton Caniff left "Terry and the Pirates" in 1946. (The strip he started immediately after that, "Steve Canyon" began with a young World War II vet, who aged, retired, and -- paralleling what Johnston is doing with "For Better or Worse" -- began his memoirs so Caniff could recycle earlier strips).

The most famous example, though, is "Gasoline Alley." When Walt Wallet found baby Skeezix abandoned on his doorstep in 1921, the clock started ticking. Skeezix grew up and married. His children also grew up and married, as did their children.

I first started reading "Gasoline Alley" sometime in the 1960's and have continued ever since. As with the characters in "For Better or Worse" I've grown up (and older) with their stories. I know their history and am therefore a little more involved with what happens to them.

Gag-a-day strips continue to dominate, and some folks don't understand the appeal of continuing story strips. It is a different reading experience and one that I think is better -- not worse.

I'll miss "For Better or Worse" when it finally concludes, but I remain grateful for years of involving entertainment.

- Ralph


  1. I remember the day in the late seventies For Better of For Worse was picked up by the Chicago Tribune. I believe Star Wars was also picked up at the same time. At first, I preferred the latter, but over the years, I've gained such an appreciation for Lynn Johnston's work. After living in Canada for a year, that appreciation went even higher when I realized that she doesn't compromise and reduce the references to Canada for an American audience.

    I'll miss the strip, but I'm loving the year-long closure we're currently getting.

  2. It's a strip that grew on me, too. But unlike most other folks I know, I enjoy (almost) all the serial strips: "Judge Parker," "Rex Morgan, MD," "Gil Thorpe" and many others.

    It's certainly getting a better send-off than "Steve Roper and Mike Nomad!"