Monday, August 25, 2008

For Better or For Worse

It's never been what you would call a "hip" comic strip. It's never been a laugh out loud funny strip like "Peanuts," "Calvin and Hobbes," or "Pearls Before Swine." And it's certainly never entered the national consciousness the way a strip like "Doonesbury" or "The Far Side" has. But for nearly 30 years, "For Better or For Worse" has always been there, telling a story about a family that is just as real as any story you might hear about a family in your own neighborhood. Over the years, the Patterson family has had its ups and downs - moments of great happiness, moments of great sorrow, and moments of the kinds of everyday frustrations that every family goes through.

And through it all, author and artist Lynn Johnston has nailed the details; everything about the strip rings true - the world of the kids, the key role that pets play in the family, the difficulties that families face as loved ones grow older, and the day-to-day challenges that parents face at different stages of their life. John and Elly Patterson are a strong and loving couple, but they're not without their quirks and their moments of weakness. In short, they seem real.

The story Johnston has been telling for thirty years has been somewhat unique in the comic strip world, in that the characters have aged in real time. The Patterson children, Michael and Elizabeth, weren't even in school when the strip began, and now they're adults. The youngest child, April, was born just a couple of months after the birth of our #1 son, which would make her a senior in high school.

And now, for all practical purposes, the story is coming to an end. I suspected that was the case a few weeks ago when every strip began to be devoted to a minute-by-minute account of Elizabeth's wedding day. And sure enough, when the wedding storyline concludes on August 31, Johnston plans to stop the clock and go back to the very beginning, drawing new strips to fill in the blanks that were left when she told the story the first time around. If she had asked me, it's not the way I would have wanted her to close things out, but on the other hand she's definitely earned the right to do with her creation whatever she wants.

It's never been the kind of strip that you read first when you get to the comics page - but for me, it's been a strip that I've read every day, even without realizing it, for nearly all of its existence. I remember when April was born, and I remember when the family dog, Farley, sacrificed his own life to save hers when she fell into the creek behind the Patterson family home. I remember Michael's wedding, and I remember Elizabeth's experiences at the University. I'm going to miss finding out what happens next in the life of the Pattersons, while knowing that they will endure, as the strongest families always do.

It may not be cool. But it has been great, and Johnston deserves to be recognized for a great story, wonderfully told.

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