Book Review: For Better or For Worse: The Complete Library, Volume Three (1986-1989) by Lynn Johnston

A comic strip about life from someone who has obviously lived it.
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From 1979 to 2008, Lynn Johnston showcased the joy and strife of family life in her award-winning newspaper strip, For Better or For Worse. At its peak, the comic was featured in more than 2,000 newspapers in 23 countries, and was translated into eight languages for a readership of more than 220 million fans. Johnston retired from the strip in 2008, but today, For Better or For Worse: The Complete Library can be enjoyed by old and new fans alike in a series of elegant hardcovers thanks to the Library of American Comics. Having already reviewed Volume One (1979-82) and Volume Two (1983-86), it only made sense that I keep the train rolling with Volume Three, which collects 1986-1989. And I’m really glad that I did, because this collection is my favorite one thus far. 

If you read my previous reviews, you may recall my initial trepidation at reviewing one of my favorite strips from childhood and my happiness when I realized that it not only does Johnston’s work hold up, I found it even more relevant now that I’m a parent myself.  And you may also recall that my daughter has been reading and enjoying these collections along with me, falling in love with the Patterson family just as I did when I was her age. Now, part of what the most recent collection so special to me is that I would’ve been 10 years old in 1986, so this volume collects what were undoubtedly my peak years of reading it. My daughter, being 11 years old and entering sixth grade this year, is not only roughly the same as I was when I discovered For Better or For Worse, but is also the same age as Michael, the eldest of Elly and John Patterson’s children. 

So there’s some sort of math kismet going on here that added a layer of cool to this experience, not to mention the fact that I actually remembered a good chunk of these strips while reading them. As a matter of fact, the comic made such an impact on me that to this day, I still sing Elizabeth Patterson’s altered lyrics to "Walking in a Winter Wonderland" every holiday season. 

The beauty of For Better or For Worse lies in its simplicity. Johnson’s art is direct and to the point and by 1986, she had developed her already impressive storytelling skills to an astonishing plateau, conveying emotion with minimal line work devoid of any wasted effort. By this point, Johnston is combining words and pictures in a fashion that packs an exceedingly impressive punch. Also contained within these four-panel masterpieces are the simple truths of childhood, adulthood, and parenthood. As a parent of two (my son is eight, so he’s a little older than Elizabeth, the younger Patterson child, is in this collection), there was very little in this collection I couldn’t relate to on some level. I honestly cannot count the number of times I laughed out loud or wiped a tear from my eye as I handed the book to my wife so she could do the same. When reviewing the notes I had made while reading the book, I noticed that I wrote some variation of “simple, direct, universal truths” over and over again. You can keep your chicken soup for the soul; I don’t think you’ll find more valuable life lessons than the ones you’ll find in these comics.

But you don’t have to take my word for it! There are a lot of little notes strewn throughout these pages in which Lynn Johnston discusses the myriad of letters she received from parents relating to and thanking her for so accurately depicting their lives on a daily basis, or readers asking who certain characters “really were”. There is an honesty in these comics that you don’t often find in real life and I found myself admiring Johnston not just for her creative talents, but for her ability to put herself on the page. She mentions several times throughout this book that she often borrowed from her real life for the strip, and it shows. I don’t think you can write something so true and so relatable unless you are putting a bit of yourself into it. Or as Johnston herself says, “You can’t do strips about a dog if you’ve never had a dog.” If you haven’t been through what the Patterson’s and their friends and family are going through on these pages, you know someone who has. It’s as simple as that.

In this collection, we see humor punctuate and alleviate somber moments, like John and a friend getting lost in the woods on a harrowing canoe trip, or the death of an old family friend. Michael’s friend Lawrence moves back to town, with a new stepdad and two stepsisters, giving us a look at the challenges of a blended family. Elly’s brother Phil is alternately depicted as the “cool uncle” and a man on the edge as he gets married, buys a house, and struggles with the smoking habit he had given up in a previous volume. Michael discovers girls and John deals with a midlife crisis by purchasing a new sports car. Both Elly and the kids fret about their looks. In fact, Elly gets a perm, and because Johnston was committed to depicting the Patterson’s life in “real time”, the new hairstyle takes a while to grow out!

And that’s another one of Johnston’s gifts on display in this collection. Rather than simply being a gag-a-day strip, For Better or For Worse takes a joke or a problem and stretches it out to its resolution over a period of time. Again, it’s a technique that sets this comic apart from its peers and makes it all the more relatable. Another notable technique Johnston uses is the flashback. Frustrated by the lack of “kid stories” she was able to do as the Patterson children aged, she wrote a few comics where the family flipped through old photo albums, recounting the children’s births and the days when they were smaller. Having done this with my own kids on more than one occasion…well, there we are with those simple, relatable universal truths again. 

So there you have it. As I said earlier, Volume Three has been my favorite collection of For Better or For Worse thus far and while it was partially for reasons of nostalgia, it was also because Lynn Johnston’s work seems to get better as the years go on. I would love to tell you that this collection is a great jumping on point for the series, but in truth, any point you pick it up is a great jumping on point. It’s a comic strip about life from someone who has obviously lived it. 

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