Book Review: For Better or For Worse: The Complete Library, Volume One (1979-1982) by Lynn Johnston

Written by Chad Derdowski

Since Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse launched in 1979, it has been syndicated in over 2,000 newspapers worldwide and has received many accolades, including the Gemini Award from the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television and the Order of Canada, the highest honor a Canadian civilian can get, not to mention Johnston’s Pulitzer Prize nomination and her Reuben Award from the National Cartoonists Society. In addition to being the first woman to receive the award, she was also the Society’s first female president. And while it may not be nearly as prestigious or famous of an accolade, For Better or For Worse was a longtime favorite in my household growing up and held the highest honor my family could give, as many of the strips were cut out and hung on the refrigerator over the years.

For 30 years, readers watched the Patterson family age in real time and become part of our own families. With an audience of over 220 million, I’m confident in saying that the Derdowski’s weren’t the only ones who shared the trials and tribulations of the Patterson clan on our refrigerator doors. But as I grew up,  For Better or For Worse ended and was relegated to the back corner of the attic of my brain. I hadn’t thought about the strip in years until the opportunity to review the first volume of The Complete Library became available. I was cautious – would I still find something to enjoy? Or would For Better or For Worse, like Garfield, stand revealed in the light of adulthood as a constant recycling of the same three lame jokes, forever on a black and white (and color on Sundays) loop until the sands of time run dry? I did a quick Google search and read a handful of them, overjoyed to not only revisit a dear old friend, but to find that we’d both grown up and had somehow grown even closer over those years apart. I found that revisiting it wasn’t just a nostalgic walk down memory lane, but a testament to the timeless and universal nature of Lynn Johnston’s magnum opus.

For Better or For Worse didn’t have the frenetic kineticism of Calvin & Hobbes. It lacked the existential angst of Peanuts and with it’s down-to-earth, family aesthetic, it was about as far from the off-the-wall insanity of The Far Side as you could get. It didn’t even have a fat and cynical talking cat like Garfield. In other words, For Better or For Worse wasn’t cool in the traditional sense of the word. But what the strip may have lacked in cool factor, it more than made up for in realism and heart. It was easy to relate to the strip as kids because we went through the same things as the Patterson kids did and they aged along with us, a rare and very intriguing element lacking in most comics. And it didn’t hurt that my family, like the Pattersons, had a big ol’ sheepdog!

Reading For Better or For Worse as a 40-year-old parent of two was revelatory. While it was still the same old comic I loved as a kid, I was now seeing it through the eyes of the parents, Elly and John, instead of the kids, and it remained every bit as real and honest as it was all those years ago.  In fact, it was even better than ever. And yeah, some of it is a bit cliché after all these years and a few jokes feel fairly dated. From time to time, it’s even guilty of the sin of repetition I chastised Jim Davis’ corpulent cat of just a few sentences ago. But that’s expected when you’re reading a three-year-chunk of a 40-year-old comic strip over the course of a few weeks. At the end of the day, what it all boils down to is that it’s easy to sum up For Better or For Worse in one simple word: true. It feels 100% true, from the first page to the last and as Homer Simpson once said, “It’s funny because it’s true.”

Elly Patterson loses her patience with her kids far more often than she’d like to admit. She questions her decisions and her parenting. These days, it may be common to share (and occasionally over-share) our feelings of doubt, self worth, and body image, but the 1970s were an era of discovery and awareness. The stuff that seems cliché now was probably pretty revolutionary in a syndicated comic strip back in 1979 and we can likely thank Lynn Johnston for paving that road – or at the very least, holding our hand as we walked down it with her. But whether or not you find the ideas and the humor presented in this collection to your liking, it’s hard to argue with the universal truths contained within. There were more than a few times I questioned if Johnston, in 1979, somehow had a window into the home and the brains of my wife and I. I’m willing to bet that my mother and father felt the same way when they were reading it and raising us. And that is the magic of this collection.

I suppose it’s worth noting that my nine-year-old daughter was reading this volume along with me and actually finished it before I did – another one of those testaments to timelessness and universal themes.

So I liked it. We’ve established that much. But how about the more technical side of things? Well, like everything else I’ve seen from the Library of American Comics, this collection is top notch. If you’re like me and your bookshelves function as decoration in your home, you’ll be happy to have this on display. It’s 8.8 x 1.5 x 11.4 inches, 544 pages and four pounds. So the book is big and the comics inside are reprinted big, allowing you to experience it the way it should be and likely the way you did when you were younger and the funny pages occupied a larger part of the daily newspaper (remember newspapers?). The Sunday strips are presented in their original color and there are a lot of little notes from the creator in the margins regarding reader reactions, insights, and occasional regrets. The paper is thick and doesn’t feel flimsy and Johnston’s art is impeccable. Her simple and graceful line work conveys a great deal of emotion. It’s not overly stylized or intricate, making it easy to plug yourself into the roles of the protagonists. Again with the timeless and universal nature of the strip.

For Better or For Worse: The Complete Library Volume One (1979-1982) contains over three years of comics, memories, and life – your life, my life, Lynn Johnston’s life. Anyone who has been a kid or has been a parent ought to find something to connect or re-connect with. The strip may not be as cool as a dog who fights the Red Baron, but as I’ve grown up, I’ve found that cool is a pretty relative term.  Growing up is pretty cool and so is For Better or For Worse

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