01 September 2008

For Better

Today marks a rebirth of Lynn Johnston's daily comic strip For Better or For Worse. Having built up a large cast of characters spread out over many households, Johnston returns to the nuclear family she started with. According to a February story in the Chicago Tribune, downloadable from the strip's website, the comic will now consist of old strips about the Pattersons, in some cases redrawn to replace lost originals or to update the material.

On her website, Johnston wrote about the challenge of learning how to draw in her earlier, looser style.

I practised, using the first two books, copying as if I was trying to draw someone else's work, not my own! It's taken some time to simulate the earlier work, but it's coming and because it's a simpler style with less detail in the background, I can comfortably do all the art myself without the need for another illustrator.
Johnston had been using assistants to draw backgrounds while she concentrated on the stories, the figures, and especially the faces.

We've seen comic strips with characters that age (Gasoline Alley), and we've seen syndicates rerun strips because their creators are on vacation (Doonesbury) or dead (Peanuts). But Lucy Shelton Caswell of the Cartoon Research Library at Ohio State says Johnston's plan is unprecedented. Currently For Better or For Worse is one of the most successful strips in North America, appearing in about 2,000 newspapers. Will it remain popular with readers, many of whom won't remember the material from 25+ years ago?

In a less commercial dimension, will fans be satisfied? Last week showed Elizabeth's marriage, and Sunday's strip described the outlines of the main characters' futures: April goes through college and becomes a veterinarian in the West, for instance, and grandpa Jim lives long enough to see Elizabeth's first child. But is that enough? Will readers turn to fanfiction to fill in the gaps?

Though I'm disappointed not to see more of the family's lives, I'm pleased the strip will continue in some form, not only because I've called Johnston "the greatest Canadian storyteller of our time," but also because I was so startled by her news about her marriage a year ago. Rerunning and revising strips looks like a way for Johnston to ease into a happy retirement that she deserves.

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