For over thirty years, Lynn Johnston has been drawing and writing, but when she began her strip “For Better or For Worse,” she had begun something nobody had ever done before. Some cartoonists are “mostly” artists, but Lynn’s saga of her own family, thinly disguised as the Patterson family on paper, grew from a few boxes of funny stuff about typical home life into a saga, rich with characters and events and social issues. People read “For Better of For Worse” as they watched a miniseries on television, anxiously awaiting the next day’s happenings.
Lynn was not afraid of controversy, either. She was the first to have an already-beloved character come out of the closet, and the way the other characters in the strip dealt with Lawrence was pretty much the way people in real life deal with such news: some were horrified, some were disbelieving, and most just accepted it because they loved Lawrence and whatever he was or was not didn’t really matter. He was what he was, as are we all.
Lynn also introduced a special needs character into her strip. She was not afraid to let her characters treat Shannon pretty much the way many special needs kids are treated in school and out: some kids were repulsed, some made fun of her, but most simply accepted her and were kind to her. They asked questions about her and the questions were answered, and this is how we learn and accept almost everything. April Patterson’s attitude towards Shannon is one that we all should try to cultivate.
Most comic strip characters stay the same, year after year. Lynn’s characters aged and changed. Her readers watched Elizabeth, Michael, and April grow from infancy to adulthood, all in a realistic and typical manner. The problems the Pattersons dealt with were the same problems everybody deals with.
We watched John and Elly grow from young parents with a toddler and an infant into older retirees with grandchildren. We watched as they dealt with a pregnancy in their forties, and we saw April come into the world on a freezing, ice-covered April Fool’s Day. We fell in love with their dog Farley, and sobbed out loud when the aging dog’s heart gave out after saving April’s life when she fell into the raging river.
We watched Michael fall in love with Deanna, and we followed THEIR lives with their two small children, their kind landlady, and the dreadful people downstairs whose smoking habit burned down the building and nearly killed them all. We followed Michael’s attempts to break into the publishing business and we rejoiced with his successes.
Elizabeth’s attempts to find true love became a saga, too. One after another, she rejected her suitors until she finally realized why nobody ever lived up to her expections: she was still in love with her high school sweetheart, Anthony. We watched Anthony’s attempts to save his doomed first marriage and then we hoped with crossed fingers that he and Liz would re-connect. When they did, we all rejoiced as if our own daughter had found her one true love.
It wasn’t just the main characters Lynn’s readers loved, either. We eagerly followed the doings of Liz’s friends, and Michael’s friends, and April’s friends. Elly’s friends were as familiar to us as are our own. Connie’s history, and Annie’s problems. . . these all became our business, too!
The love story of Gordon and Tracy, and how he rose from rags to riches. Becky, who is still slowly learning that friendship is far more valuable than fame.
Through this comic strip, Lynn Johnston has been able to give us advice from all kinds of people. We’ve had whispered asides from teachers, good AND bad examples from friends and neighbors, insights into how and why people do and say the things they do and say. . . .
We’ve been encouraged to love each other, and to love our pets, and to make allowances for human nature. We’ve been allowed to look inside the windows of a family so realistic it’s hard to believe they weren’t real.
Lynn based the Pattersons on her own family, and her readers loved thinking that the Johnstons were as diverse and as happy as were their newspaper mirror. Lynn’s love for her children and for her husband Rod were obvious, as she either told us outright that she adored them or we read it between the lines.
When Rod’s shameful adultery became public and he left his family, Lynn was devastated and so were her readers. I wonder if there is anywhere on this earth Rod Johnston and his fling can go where he won’t be thoroughly hated once people realize who, and what, he is.
Lynn continued to write, and ironically had John and Elly become closer and more loving than ever. Her storylines were all coming to a close, and every day one more open-ended issue was brought to a satisfying end. She had intended to retire and travel with Rod, but his behavior choices put that out of the question, so now she has decided to end her storylines and begin anew, taking the Pattersons back to their beginnings and re-telling us how it all started.
I found them in a bookstore and seriously, they saved my sanity during my first pregnancy. Just the idea that other women were thinking and feeling and fearing these same things was enough to bring me out of any funk and face the future with a more positive outlook. They’re out of print now, but if you’re lucky enough to come across them, GET THEM.
These were written well before she began her comic strip. In fact, she wrote the first one by drawing cartoons to put on her obstetrician’s ceiling so women could have something to read while they were lying there waiting for the doctor to come in. He saved them, and when he got quite a collection, he called Lynn and said, “Kid, you’ve got a book.”
She sure did.
I have been Lynn’s biggest fan for thirty years. She doesn’t know that, of course, and never will, but I have loved her and her family and her animated family longer than many of you have been alive.
Thank you, Lynn, for sharing the Pattersons with us.
Today’s strip broke my heart, and also lifted it up. It was the end, of course, but every end is also a beginning.