Better Things

Well, it’s late September, and another summer has come and gone. The West Coast baked under record temperatures, and those of us on the Eastern Seaboard dubbed it the Wet Coast. I spent much of the summer working with Little Engine on our TV series adaptation of my Mixtape comic series, and are now in the process of taking it out to market.

To answer THAT question first: no, I don’t know when Mixtape the series will become a reality. I don’t know if it will become a reality. But come what may I am intensely proud of the work we’ve done and continue to do on it. There are a total of five completely new Mixtape stories in the world right now (sort of) and one way or another we’ll get them out there. For now though we just have to hold tight.


So that was my Summer 2021. In part … because the other notable thing that happened was my unplanned deep-dive into a decades old comic strip you may have heard of.

If you’re a person of a certain age, FBoFW 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 found imposed upon him more times that not. The hero of my next novel happens to be Canadian and that will not change.  

Yes, Canadian milk comes in bags. From Becker’s.


I spent the latter half of June and most of July rereading the strip, all collected in five columns (and counting) of IDW’s hardcover 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 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 Prize for a story about a teenager’s coming out – 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 from the beginning, all over again, updating it 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 aformentioned 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).


It’s fitting that I found myself rediscovering FBoFW while up to my neck in Mixtape again, which was the other pleasant part of the summer that was. Mixtape shares some similarity in FboFW; that fly-on-the-wall real-time progression. Rediscovering a world I first created in 2010 but hadn’t visited in some time, it was nice to get back to that familiarity, to see some old friends and rediscover some new ones. Mixtape TV is a much more expansive project than the comic, will our five mains of Jim, Siobhan, Lorelei, Terry, and Noel joined by a collection of new faces, new characters. I hope you all will get to meet Benny and Marco, Beth and Jenny, Steve and the many more populating that world. 

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.

Reading Pictures

Boooooks!

Novelizations. We’ve all seen them. We may have even read some of them. I myself have a bookshelf-full of them (pictured above); a combination of ones I’ve had since childhood and ones I picked up at visits to used bookstores over the last several years. These are part of my “comfort reads” – the books, magazines, and comics that I’ve read and re-read multiple times, whose familiarity is the entire point. Those stories where, unlike the current global crisis, we know how it all ends. That’s what a Novelization is; a story you likely already know, told in a different way.

More boooooks!

First we need to clarify the difference between a “novelization” and a movie based on a novel. In the latter case, someone wrote a book; call it Jaws or the Silence of the Lambs or The Hunger Games. That novel, that source material, existed before the movie version did. Novelizations, by comparison, are the books based off a film or more specifically that film’s screenplay. The books that exist only because some screenwriter wrote a screenplay that was turned into a major motion picture, and the studio sold the rights to a publisher to assign an author to turn out a book based on the film to sell in stores as a nice little bit of promotion.  

Novelizations are frequently rudimentary in prose; “workmanlike” is the best descriptor, as though there’s something wrong with that. Frankly, I’ll take “workmanlike” over “MFA trying to impress me with their three-page treatise on the texture of a raindrop” any day. They’re serviceable; the perfect beach or pool-side reading. The types of books you can read with one eye while keeping the other on your child, to ensure they don’t drown or get munched by a roving Great White Shark.


Novel, not Novelization (though the prose is about the same)

Novelizations aren’t concerned with great turns of phrase. The exist to tell a story; or re-tell it, if you will. And to be fair, some novelizations are actually well-written, but you aren’t going to impress the teacher with your book report on the novelization of Rambo: First Blood Part II or Starman. Novelizations are the bastard stepchild of the literary world. They are books, and they are readable, but wouldn’t you be better off reading something more substantial?

Yes. To all of the above. Every criticism thrown the way of the novelization is valid. However the first “adult” books I read were novelizations. They were my gateway, from books geared to my age group; “Middle Grade” or “Young Adult” before those terms even existed. While I rack my brain trying to remember which novelization was my first, I have to assume it was one of these:

The Holy Trilogy

I was a child of the 1970s, and if you are an adult of a certain age it’s likely the years 1977-1983 were dominated by a trilogy set in galaxy long ago and far, far away. I can’t exactly remember what year I read Star Wars by “George Lucas” (actually sci-fi author and novelization mainstay Alan Dean Foster), but I want to say it was the early 80s, probably 1982. We would have been visiting family and I think a cousin had the paperback novelization and gave it to me. I read it over a weekend, and was, of course, hooked. Even knowing the story, there were surprises to be found within its pages. What made reading Star Wars interesting was the context it provided. Here was the first inkling of a galactic history, opening with an excerpt of “The Journal of the Whills” laying down the backstory for the Republic, the Jedi, and the rise of a bureaucrat named Palpatine.

The Prequels, only with less Jar-Jar.

It also gave you a taste of scenes left on the cutting room floor. Casual Star Wars fans might not know that originally we were meant to spend a lot of time on Tatooine with Luke Skywalker before encountering R2-D2 and C-3PO. We met his friends Fixer and Cammie, and his good friend Biggs Darklighter.

If you wanted to see what an “earlier version” of a beloved movie may have been like, you picked up the novelization. Given these books were written to coincide with the release of the film, they were most often based on a version of the screenplay that became a much different movie. An example of this would be Orson Scott Card’s novelization of James Cameron’s 1989 sci-fi adventure The Abyss, which prominently featured a Tidal Wave sequence and various subplots that wouldn’t see light of day until three years later with the release of The Abyss Special Edition.

Life’s Abyss … and then you dive

Novelizations told a story you already knew the outcome of. But they did it in a way that put you in the head-space of the characters you only previously witnessed onscreen. Here you were in the cockpit of Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing as it raced down the Death Star trench. You were with the Goonies as they hunted for One-Eyed Willie’s treasure. You were Short Round as he occupied himself throughout Shanghai in the day leading up to the opening scenes of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Novelizations gave you backstory and character histories, it filled in the blanks on little mysteries lurking in the corners. It gave you more, at a time when you wanted more. You didn’t read novelizations for something new; you read them to re-experience the story you’d already fallen in love with. This was especially crucial in an era where home video was still in its infancy. Where you had to wait years to see a movie again. This was the age of the re-release. Star Wars, released in theaters in 1977 didn’t arrive on video until 1982. Return of the Jedi, released in 1983, didn’t show up until 1986.

We waited THREE YEARS for this.

The heyday of the novelization, for me, spanned roughly 1977 to 1989. Star Wars to Batman; famously one of the first films released on home video for purchase within six months of its theatrical debut. Once that six months threshold was broken, it became more common. By 1995 I was clerking at a video store, and it was pretty much a given that that summer’s theatrical releases would be available to rent by Christmas. As a result, novelizations became a lot less essential than they used to be. I look at my collection of novelizations and they really do begin in 1977 and end around 1989. Some are okay, none are truly terrible, and if you want ones that are a cut above the norm, look for names like Wayland Drew (Dragonslayer, Willow), George Gipe (Back to the Future, Gremlins, Explorers), and the Big Kahuna, Alan Dean Foster (Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, Krull, The Thing, The Black Hole, The Force Awakens, and a host of others).

The late George Gipe wrote three of the best …

Novelizations still exist, though in some notable cases, they’re released after the theatrical release, to keep spoilers at a minimum. All of the Disney Star Wars movies had novelizations released several months after the theatrical release; quite a contrast to Terry Brooks’ novelization of Star Wars: Episode One back in 1999, which arrived in stores nearly a month before the movie hit the silver screen. Overall these newer books are quite well-written, employing acclaimed, well-known sci-fi-fantasy authors to draft prose based on screenplay format. Yet with the theatrical-to-video window now averaging three months if that, you don’t really need the novelization to keep you engaged in that world and its characters; all you have to do is watch clips on YouTube, and wait for the digital version or Blu-Ray to become available.   

Yet I believe what has in some way made movies a little less essential than they used to be has been in part because of the shrinking of that theatrical-to-video window and death of the novelization. They used to be part of the package, alongside the comic book adaptation and the Making Of book and TV specials. They made those movies feel a piece of a much bigger whole. They made them events, rather than mere entertainment.

The novelization was also very important to me as a developing reader. They were the bridge from books geared to people my age, to ones that skewed older. I might have been immersed in novelizations in 1984-1985, but by 1986 I was moving deeper into the adult world. In fact it would have been this book (no a novelization) and this movie that had the biggest impact:

Not a Novelization, but even more important.

Stand By Me, the movie, led me to Different Seasons, the collection of four Novellas by Stephen King (the other three being the little known The Breathing Method, as well as Apt Pupil, released in 1998 and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, released as The Shawshank Redemption in 1994). Different Seasons led me to The Stand, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Cujo, It … the list goes on. By 1987 I was reading Stephen King, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, Dean Koontz, and a host of other horror and suspense authors and I never really looked back. And while I was aware of Stephen King, it wasn’t until seeing Stand By Me that I wanted to know more, and more importantly read more.

Admittedly, my novelization shelf is more of a show-piece than a practicality. They’re a conversation starter for house guests. Yet occasionally, usually when between projects, I’ll pull out one of my old novelizations and take a trek down memory lane.

Speaking of Treks …

When talking about novelizations it helps to remind one’s self that yesterday’s trash is tomorrow’s treasure. It wasn’t so long ago that comic books were considered Low Art; now they’re winning Pulitzers and Hugos. There have been many scholarly looks at the Pulp Magazines of the 1930s, cheap, simple, and exploitative, which are now regarded as the cornerstone of modern genre fiction. The internet has changed the world, and even those ephemeral things that didn’t even exist ten years ago like Podcasts and YouTube are regarded as essential, even ground-breaking media.

I love movie novelizations. They were a gateway to more adult fiction; they were what spurred my interest in movies and the making of them. They’re what made me want to tell stories of my own. But mostly, they’re a simple, analog comfort to help us get through an uncertain world.

On that note: remember to wash your hands.

Brad’s Top Ten Novelizations

The Abyss – Orson Scott Card’s adaptation of James Cameron’s sci-fi thriller was granted unprecedented access to the film and unsurprisingly the novelization reads as top-level sci-fi. The book begins with three POV chapters each about its three leads – Bud, Lindsay, Coffey – in their younger days, and impressed James Cameron so much he gave the chapters to his actors and told them “this is canon”. One of the few novelizations that works as a stand-alone book.

Back to the Future – George Gipe’s adaptation of the beloved blockbuster puts particular emphasis on Marty’s friendship with Doc, and him getting to know the his own father before life crushed those same dreams now threatening to crush Marty’s. Gipe sadly passed away in 1986, but if you see his name on the cover it’s well worth your read.

Dragonslayer – acclaimed Canadian fantasy author Weyland Drew takes a middling Disney fantasy movie into a fine little piece of almost Tolkien-esque prose, focusing more on the threat the rise Christianity represents to an untamed world than the dragon hunting its people. The first of Drew’s two novelizations on this list.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. There was no way the novelization was ever going to recapture the wonder, the emotion, the soaring spectacle of Spielberg’s masterpiece. But what the E.T. novelization does do is expand the roles of Elliot’s mom Mary, and government investigator Keys, and gives Elliott and his siblings a foil in a nosy neighborhood kid who suspects something is up at their house. This kid never appears in the movie, which makes me wonder if he was an invention of author William Kotzwinkle, or a character and subplot excised from the screenplay before the filming commenced.

Explorers – George Gipe corrects the biggest problems with this Spielberg-Dante misfire by relegating the stuff that doesn’t work (i.e. the moment the aliens show up) to the last 30 pages, choosing to focus his retelling of the story on exploring the bonds of friendship between the titular Explorers.

The Goonies – I’m not a particular fan of 1985’s the Goonies, but the novelization is an interesting read, as it’s told almost exclusively through Mikey’s eyes, relating what happened to the Goonies gang after the events of the movie have passed. It also gives us a post-script to the story, telling readers and Goonies fans what happened to their gang of misfits after the end credits rolled.

The Last Starfighter – This mostly forgotten cult film about a young man stuck in his trailer park community only to be enlisted in an interplanetary war (don’t ask) is almost meta-textual in its portrayal of life as an 80s teen; a world of video games, dead-end jobs, and, yes, novelizations. It’s another Alan Dean Foster joint. He pops up a lot when you talk about novelizations.

Poltergeist – On paper, the story of Poltergeist is a little thin. But here author James Kahn expands on the trials of the Freeling clan, by giving almost equal footing to the paranormal investigators stories, particularly psychic Tangina Barron, whose detailed visits to the spectral plane actually precede the kidnapping of Carol-Anne, and sends her and her team on the hunt for the Freelings before the Freelings even know their daughter is in danger.

Star Wars – the George Lucas/Alan Dean Foster adaptation that kicked off the Golden Age of Movie Novelizations. Released in December 1976 (the original release date for Star Wars), it sat on shelves nearly six months before the film eventually was released to stun the world. A pretty engrossing read, but for a couple of anachronistic references to dogs and ducks (which I suppose now makes them canon in the Star Wars universe).

Willow – Wayland Drew returns with his adaptation of George Lucas’s and Ron Howard’s mushy fantasy would-be epic, applying his own high fantasy skills to the boilerplate plot, spinning off tales within tales, backstories, and histories into something that comes very close to being a classic High Fantasy.

ADDENDUM: there’s an excellent podcast called “I Read Movies” from Paxton Holley, in which he reads and compares movie novelizations to the filmed versions. Paxton really knows his stuff, is an engaging host, and an always entertaining listen. Here’s a link to his show page:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/i-read-movies-podcast/id1276623435

And, for more information on Novelizations, including a massive, comprehensive index of pretty much every one ever written, https://www.movienovelizations.com/ has your back covered.