Book Review: For Better or For Worse: The Complete Library, Volume Two (1982-1986) by Lynn Johnston

Written by Chad Derdowski

In 1978, after publishing a handful of humorous parenting books, Lynn Johnston was asked by Universal Press Syndicate if she’d be interested in working on a daily comic strip. She signed a contract and the rest, as they so often say, is history. Thirty years later, Johnston retired from For Better or For Worse, leaving behind a rich tradition of exquisitely hilarious storytelling through sequential art. As the title of the strip suggests, For Better or For Worse dealt with a great deal of family joy as well as strife over the course of those three decades, all of it done in Johnston’s expressive artwork, depicting the day-to-day experiences of the Patterson family – a family who aged in real time (or a pretty close approximation), allowing fans to grow up and old along with the characters. Counted among those fans was no less than legendary cartoonist Will Eisner himself, who described the strip as “the best strip around, currently.” For Better or For Worse brought creator Lynn Johnston a Reuben Award in 1985 and saw Johnston become a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, not to mention a spot in the Women Cartoonists Hall of Fame. Pretty impressive stuff. 

The Library of American Comics has also established a rich tradition – one of collecting the best American comics in the best possible format. If you’ve read any of my reviews of the various collections they’ve released over the years, then you definitely know of my love and respect for what they do. And if you happened to read my review of Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse: The Complete Library, Volume One (1979-1982) last November, then you also know of the rediscovered love and newfound respect I have for this series. And now, here we are celebrating not only the release of Volume Two, which collects the daily and Sunday strips from 1982-1986, but also another, slightly less (but soon to be) rich tradition, which involves my daughter stealing these comics out from under my nose and devouring them before I even get the chance to crack the cover. 

As I established in my review of the previous volume, and I’ll no doubt reiterate several times throughout this review, For Better or For Worse is a comic strip that can be enjoyed by the young and old alike. It is the literal definition of “family entertainment” as it accurately depicts the perspectives of both parent and child and is absolutely appropriate for pretty much any age group. I’m pretty sure I used the term “timeless and universal” at least a dozen times in my previous review, so I’ll try to avoid saying too much in this one. But that phrase is no less true this time around, as we continue to grow along with the Patterson family, witnessing their faults and foibles, trials and triumphs. As I read it, I found myself wearing the same smile on my face as a 41-year-old father of two that I did when I was a 10-year-old reading it in 1986 – and saw a similar smile on the face of my own 10-year-old.

Collecting three years at a time, these enormous volumes cover a fair amount of ground. With the second volume, the focus shifts slightly away from Elly and John and more toward the kids as well as the supporting cast, including family and friends from school. The Patterson children are getting older, Elly is looking for ways to supplement the family income as her younger brother finds love, and longtime family friends move away. There is a great deal of truth in this strip, whether it be Elly slaving in the kitchen over homemade soup, only to have her kids request “the stuff from the can” or the struggles her brother goes through as he attempts to quit smoking. The nature of a daily comic strip often requires a level of stagnancy, as it must maintain a certain status quo at all times, but For Better or For Worse breaks that mold and gives us a family and community that progresses, grows, and changes with time. 

Recurring plotlines start to gain prominence in this volume as the kids deal with bullies and crushes at school and the parents deal with the inevitable aging process, finding that their babies aren’t exactly babies anymore. Some of the jokes are painfully relevant, such as seeing the couch, table, and even the family dog divided in half with masking tape after a long day of listening to the children fight over everything. And when John Patterson defines the bathroom as “the only refuge a family man has”…let’s just say it hit close to home. We also see Johnston turn the camera around, so to speak, and story starts to emphasize the world around the Pattersons and how they interact with it. The strip deals with consumerism as young Elizabeth becomes clothes conscious as a result of seeing a few too many commercials for fashion dolls and their accessories, as well as the shocking and often violent nature of the nightly news and the effect it has on the kids. The Patterson parents empathize with their children while recalling their own sibling struggles and question their parenting skills while Johnston, though the use of little bullet points which accompany many of the strips, explains that the comic was often a means through which she would question her own. 

Speaking of those bullet points – they pop up throughout the book and are an amazing source of illumination into the thought process of an artist.  We learn who Johnston’s influences were and when she caught heck from her readers. She lets us in on her triumphs (hundreds of women praised Elly Patterson as she dealt with a less-than-enlightened husband of the early 1980s) and doesn’t mind telling us when she thought a particular installment wasn’t up to her usual standards. Getting these enormous hardcover collections full of oversized strips is a treat, but getting a peek inside the mind of the creator is absolutely priceless. 

One last thing worth mentioning is the presentation. No matter how popular For Better or For Worse was (at its peak, it was syndicated in more than 2,000 newspapers in 23 countries and translated into eight languages), I still have doubts that your local newspaper ran them at this size, which allows us to more closely inspect Johnston’s artwork (which, as I’ve already established, is amazing; full of life and getting better and better as the strip goes on). And the full color Sunday strips, lord, help me, these are a thing of beauty and look way better than they ever did when I was reading them as a kid. The original color palate is preserved, but modern technology and better quality paper allow these colors to pop off the page, adding even more exuberance to an already great comic. 

If you enjoyed the first volume of For Better or For Worse, picking up the second collection is a no-brainer.  And if you’ve never read the comic, this is as good a place to start as any. Here’s where we really see the strip gain some steam as Lynn Johnston’s storytelling skill evolves right along with the Patterson family and their community. The grace and elegance of her artwork that I discussed in my review of the Volume One becomes even more refined as time goes on, cutting right to the heart of whatever emotion or expression is needed for the strip. Whether it be the exasperation of dealing with wild kids who can’t seem to sit still or the annoyance of dealing with parents who just don’t understand, Johnston’s depiction of family life is spot on every time. 

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