thrift store finds: it’s all downhill from here: a for better or for worse collection

(Thrift Store Finds is a mostly-weekly “column” of sorts where I discuss some of the cool books I’ve happened upon in my neighborhood St. Vincent DePaul store. Please don’t mistake me for an expert on any of the books I am writing about… I’m just a fan of a bargain.)

I thought I’d take a different approach to writing about It’s All Downhill from Here, a For Better or For Worse Collection, published by Andrews & McMeel in 1987.

I found a church bazzar a few weeks ago. Instead of trying to write something cohesive that sums up my feelings on the book in question, I’m just going to do a bullet list/random sampling of things I find interesting about the book, the comics collected in the book, and the strip itself.

– First of all, THIS is the kind of comic strip collection I grew up with. Square in shape, three comics to a page, occasionally broken up by a Sunday strip. It offers distinct advantages over the smaller comic paperbacks we usually peruse here at Thrift Store Finds; larger strips, better binding, less editorial interference trying to squeeze a strip into a limited space. Truth be told, besides the daily newspaper, this is my preferred comic strip delivery system. As an added bonus, most comic strip artists used the expanded format to include extra material like doodles or illustrations, like this:

…yeah, that one’s kind of a downer, I guess.

– For Better or For Worse ran in newspapers for over twenty years and was always a favorite of mine. While it was never going to capture the manic energy of Calvin & Hobbes, the inspired nerdery of FoxTrot, or the whacked-out perspective of The Far Side, FBoFW was a solid, smart comic strip and was the fourth comic I looked at everyday when I’d page through our local papers (following the three I previously mentioned). For those interested, after FBoFW, I would immediately move on to Peanuts, followed by Sally Forth and Drabble.

– As a kid, I always wondered why there weren’t more clearly defined collections of For Better or For Worse. Given that FBoFW is a generational strip with character who age in real time, it would be nice if readers could have gotten a well-stated chronological collection of these comics. As it stands, I can give you my best guess as to when these strip ran in the paper- sometime in the late 1980’s.

For Better or For Worse is eminently worthy of some kind of hardcover, archive project; I hope some publisher decides to give it a shot someday.

– I always found it surprising when people thought that FBoFW was a humor strip when it’s clearly a soap opera strip with humorous overtones. In point of fact, there are some serious dramatics in the strips collected in It’s All Downhill From Here, the most obvious being the first extended storyline where Patterson clan patriarch John and his brother-in-law Phil get stranded on an uninhabited island during a canoeing trip.

I find myself laughing a little bit as I write that description, but it’s really a credit to FBoFW cartoonist Lynn Johnston that the story line works like crazy. “Shipwrecked on a deserted island” sounds so cliche, but Johnston roots the extended sequence in character and reality. John and Phil are about as clueless as you’d expect two suburbanites to be in such an extreme situation, and Elly’s anguish is genuine and palpable. At the same time? Johnston still manages to work a humorous joke into each strip! Amazing.

– At the same time, It’s All Downhill From Here contains one of the weirder extended storylines from the strip: the birth of Leah, the six-fingered baby.

Johnston was quite excellent at marrying controversial subjects to her suburban family’s lifestyle- over the course of For Better or For Worse’s run, she addressed issues of child abuse, divorce, homosexuality, struggles of native peoples and many many other issues normally taboo in the funny pages. That being said, “children born with extra fingers” always seemed SUCH a strange cause to delve into, even when I was a little kid. Maybe this is because so many comic strips don’t really worry about hand/finger accuracy.

– One of my own personal enjoyments of For Better or For Worse is how quietly, gently Canadian the comic is. I would wager that most American readers never even realized that the Pattersons lived in Canada; it’s certainly not often explicitly stated by the characters. Every once and awhile though… For Better or For Worse will have one of those little details that it undeniably Canadian.

I remember one strip from my youth where someone was drinking milk out of a bag, a detail that confused me for a long time as that packaging was quite uncommon in America at the time and is still more or less unused. You can see evidence of this in the above strips where Elizabeth starts going to school at Grade One rather than First Grade or here where Michael is doing a project on Newfoundland, a part of Canada that most stupid Americans have never even heard of:

– FBoFW fans are a passionate lot and it’s hard to write about the strip in its’ heyday without referencing the somewhat weird end which which Johnston left the Pattersons. In particular, I remember being particularly annoyed by Patterson’s treatment of eldest daughter Elizabeth’s love life. Somewhere along the way, Johnston decided that Liz and her high school sweetheart/total doormat Anthony were soulmates. This is, I suppose, a fine choice to make in a soapy strip like FBoFW, but Johnston made it QUITE hard on her readers to appreciate the decision by making a number of weird choices, including marrying Anthony off to a Therese, a harpy of a character with no redeeming qualities at all… and giving Liz a legitimately cool boyfriend in helicopter pilot Warren Blackwood.

To that end, this strip has an extra layer of hilarity for fans:

– I must confess my sadness that Johnston chose to actively pursue reruns of For Better or For Worse in newspapers after she brought the Patterson family’s story to a conclusion. One of the hallmarks of FBoFW was that the characters aged in real time, they grew and adapted into the world. Michael and Elizabeth started in the strip as small children but, with the fullness of the comic’s run, grew into adults with well-defined interests and professions; Patterson was on the same track with late addition to the Patterson clan, April. Johnston opted to go back and republish the original strips through her syndicate, offering slight changes and occasional new strips to freshen the package.

On the one hand, I don’t begrudge anyone their jobs, and there are still a lot of fans of the comic. On the other hand, the the whole enterprise just makes me feel like newspaper comic editors are throwing up their hands and saying “We give up on finding new talent! Let’s reprint some strips from the 1970’s s’more.”

2 Responses to “thrift store finds: it’s all downhill from here: a for better or for worse collection”

  1. The strip actually ran from 1979-2008 – 29 years. And I seem to remember her retirement plans were connected to illness – she has a neurological condition called dystonia, among other things…so I don’t really blame her.

    And as a Canadian, I didn’t realize that FBOFW ran in American papers! I read the re-runs on my LJ through a feed, which is neat because she posts commentary every time, all about the back-story of each strip, how her life and Elly’s lives were different (she and her husband lived in the north, not in the burbs, at the time she only had a son and not a son and daughter, etc.). It’s interesting to get the backstory, I’d recommend it if you’re a fan of the strip –

    • Christopher Pearce Says:

      Thank you for the clarification! I’m glad I put that disclaimer at the beginning of these posts 🙂

      I’d be interested in reading some of Johnson’s commentary, so I’ll be sure to check those strips out. I really struggle with the legacy of FBoFW. It’s such a good strip and I don’t begrudge anyone their jobs… but honestly, of all the legacy strips that are still published in our newspaper FBoFW is the one that I feel fits the least.

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