Getting older is a strange experience. Your body ages, your face definitely does as evinced by the increasing grey and white hair, the creases and crags in your face, and by how damn tired you are all the time. Where before rising before eleven on a Sunday was the norm, now I find I’m up before the sun in some cases.
But to really feel your age, you have to delve back into some of the touchstones of your youth to see how much things have changed. To a pre-social media, pre-internet era in particular. You can look at this old media, these old photos and TV programs and comic strips and go “wow, I remember when things looked like that!”
An example of this phenomenon comes in particular if you were born and raised Canadian sometime after 1970 but before 2000. If you fall into that group you’ll no doubt recall a daily comic strip that appeared in Canadian and US newspapers titled For Better or For Worse.
FBoFW (as I shall henceforth call it) was probably better known as “your mom’s favorite comic strip” because Lynn Johnston’s talent was finding familiar in the familiar everyday of middle-class life. Family vacations, making friends and losing them, grocery shopping, Halloween and Christmas, first jobs, first loves, starting college, finding true loves, true purpose. Stories also abounded about child abuse, workplace harassments, the death of parents and pets. All told with humor, grace, and honesty.
FBoFW wasn’t afraid to be unabashedly Canadian either. The Patterson’s were a Canadian family. They celebrated Canada Day, the kids played hockey, mail came through Canada Post. School choir trips were to Ottawa, eldest son Michael attended Western University in London, Ontario. Family visits to Winnipeg and Vancouver occurred multiple times over the series. They bought their milk in plastic bags. That was at the insistence of Johnston, by the way, despite the urging of her syndicate who did press her on many occasions to “dial back” the Canadian stuff because apparently American readers only want to read about America. This is something that I, a writer who cut his professional teeth in Canada, have found imposed upon him more times that not.
I spent the latter half of June and most of July of 2021 rereading the strip, collected in five columns at the time of IDW’s The Complete For Better or For Worse. I actually read the five on Hoopla, the free digital comics app available through many public library systems in the US (not sure about Canada though). Reading (and in some cases re-reading) strips I was first exposed to in the daily and weekend newspaper (or clipped from said newspapers and adorning our refrigerator at home) was an experience not unlike time travel. Because FBoFW was identifiable for its time, 1979 is very much 1979, and 1995 (where the reprints are currently up to) very much feels like a mid-90s setting. FBoFW depicts the pre-internet, pre-millennial, pre-social-media era of the last two decades of the 20th century much better than any movie or TV show I know of. Reading FBoFW as a parent now has been an even bigger eye-opener, seeing the behaviors of my now six year-old mirrored in the antics of a comic strip family that first occurred nearly forty years ago.
It was that aspect, more than any other, that really brought home why I think FBoFW was a success, and still endures. FBoFW is a story that at its most basic is a story about the general decency and the inherent goodness of people. The conflicts are gentle ones, the aggrieved parties down to misunderstandings or an “off” day. Lynn did tackle bigger issues – and was in fact nominated for a Pulitzer for a story about a teenager’s coming out – yet I think it’s helpful to remember that decency and kindness rules the way. It’s good to divorce yourself from online chatter, outrage, comments, social media, algorithms designed to keep you engaged by keeping you in a state of anger against someone else. Not to say those forces aren’t out there, but in the end what do we as human beings want? To be loved. To be happy. To get through life.
FBoFW still runs in papers. When Johnston “retired” the strip in 2008 she opted to go back to the beginning and run the series all over again, updating it where needed for more modern times. But the aesthetic is still there; that honesty, that gentleness of living your life. Some might complain that the world of FBoFW is too gentle, too nice, too “Canadian white middle-class” that doesn’t tackle Real Issues about Modern Life.*
But that’s … kind of the point. That’s what makes a story timeless, not tethered to a place in time. If FBoFW had gone all-in on criticism of Mulroney and Reagan, of the Free Trade Accords and Meech Lake, it wouldn’t have been as successful, as beloved as it is now. Part of the problem with the current wired social media don’t read the comments world of ours is it’s convinced those holders of minority opinions that theirs is, in fact, the majority.
*A criticism that’s quite off base too. Johnston’s Pulitzer-nominated coming out of Michael’s friend Lawrence led to cancellations and angry letters, but given the choice Johnston said she would do it all over again. A late-run story with daughter Elizabeth teaching school in a First Nations community enlisted the aid of Anishinabek Nation elders to make sure she got the details just right. These efforts, I might add, at a time when it was not fashionable to tell stories of LGBTQ acceptance (the aforementioned coming-out story was inspired in part by the murder of one of Johnston’s close gay friends), or address the severely underfunded and neglected northern communities of Canada. And while the focus was on the typically white Canadian Pattersons, their world was occupied by beloved friends, family, teachers, and neighbors of all ethnic and minority status (not to mention featuring one of the first disabled recurring characters in any comic strip).
Living where we do, my family and I, I see a lot of ourselves in FBoFW. Our concerns, while vast and indeed global, still take a back-seat to the daily grind of making sure we’re fed and housed, that our child is cared for and knows above all he is loved by his mom and dad. That we can make a greater difference in our community, our few square blocks of suburbia, than anywhere else. They say think globally and act locally, and I think FBoFW was able to do both. By focusing on the trials, travails, joys, and sorrows of a typical family we were all able to see a little bit of ourselves and feel just a little less alone in this mad world.
I’m finding as I get older that memories do fade over time, but more specifically memories of memories fade faster. Things that were much easier to recall ten years ago aren’t so much now. I’ve been finding this especially regarding Mixtape. When I began the comic series the events portrayed in it were barely twenty years old. Now they’re closer to thirty. And while I could mourn that loss of memory and passage of time I realize that you don’t so much lose memories as you fill that space with new ones. New experiences, new joys; fatherhood in particular has occupied space once taken up by memories of parties and dating, high school, college, the years that followed. I know in years to come those memories will fade, but hopefully what they’ll be replaced with will be even better. And if not, well, life is to be lived for better, for worse, and all between.
2023 update: The complete FBoFW is up to Volume 7 and approaching its final years. And I’m sure once it’s completed I’ll go back to the beginning and read them all again. Though if IDW could release some more affordable softcover editions I’m sure to pick those up as well.