Sunday, September 23, 2007

For Better or Worse -- death in the comics

Lynn Johnston has been credited with two innovations in her strip "For Better or Worse" -- the realtime aging of her characters and death coming to two sympathetic characters. While not common, As I pointed out before, neither are these traits unique.

I previously cited other strips whose characters age. It turns out that those visited by the Grim Reaper are mostly a subset of that group.

I neglected to mention "Prince Valiant" last time. When Hal Foster began the Sunday-only epic in 1937, the thirteen-year-old Viking Valiant arrived at King Arthur's court to serve as a squire. Val grew up, married Aleta, Queen of the Misty Isles, and their children have also grown, and some have married as well.

Set in the 6th century Europe, life in "Prince Valiant" is often brutal and violent. While the number of sympathetic characters that have died is low, the actual body count for the strip is pretty high.

Note I qualified the kind of deaths we're talking about. Adventure strips since the early 1900's have regularly killed off villains. Plane crashes, car, and shipwrecks, various explosions -- all effective ways of permanently disposing of the bad guy without showing his actual demise.

"Dick Tracy" has a fair share of both good and bad guys buying the farm -- and Chester Gould didn't shy away from presenting violent death in all its ugliness. The strip started with Tess Trueheart (Dick Tracy's fiancee) and the readers witnessing her parents' murders in a botched robbery. The crime prompted Dick to join the police force, and the rest is history.

As a part of that history, readers have seen villains strangled (Breathless Mahoney), machinegunned (the Fallon brothers), flattened by a tractor trailer (Nylon Rose) and even skewered on a flagpole (the Brow), sliced and pinned to the floor by falling shards of plate glass (Gargles) and more -- right before their eyes. They also saw the death of Junior's mother, and heard -- rather than see, for once -- the car bomb that killed Junior's wife.

"Judge Parker" hasn't had many deaths, but the passing of Neddy and Sophie's grandfather orphaned these homeless sisters and eventually lead to their adoption by Abby Spencer.

And don't forget that "Little Orphan Annie" started out with her parents, um, dead. Ditto with the hero of "Dondi." Although in both those strips, parental demise occurred offstage, and neither character ever aged.

"Funky Winkerbean" probably illustrates best how effective death can be in the hands of a master storyteller. Lisa Moore, who survived a previous bout with cancer, has finally succumbed to the illness in the current storyline. She and her husband mark out her remaining days in hospice care.

And because we've followed Lisa for years, the story has much more depth. Long-time readers remember when, in high school, she had to give up her child for adoption. We've watched her struggle through law school, and breast cancer and just when everything seemed to be going right, face death.

You won't find stories like that in the gag-a-day strips. But it's what rewards the readers of the best continuity strips on a daily basis.

- Ralph


  1. There's a spoiler on Funky Winkerbean at Editor and Publisher. If you choose to read it, I'd be curious to know about what you think about plans for the strip.

    I read FW when I lived in Roanoke, and enjoyed the serial nature of it, though I didn't understand the title at all, not knowing much of the backstory.

    Back to FBOFW for a second. I'm really enjoying how Johnston is blending the old and the new, and I hope she reconsiders and keeps doing this hybrid form for quite a while.

  2. Sean:

    I did read the post, and (without spoiling it for others) what happens next is very similar to what he's done before. That is, reboot the strip after a landmark event. The first time it was the high school graduation of the major characters.

    The title comes from the major character, "Funky" Winkerbean, who started out as kind of a hip Archie Andrews and grew from there.