Comic Strip Shocks Fans

By: AP
By: AP

LOS ANGELES, California (AP) -- For most of our lives cartoonist Lynn Johnston has had us hanging on every plot twist and complication she could pack into 29 years of "For Better or For Worse."

Lynn Johnston ended the original run of "For Better or For Worse" Sunday, but is now returning to the past.

Take one of the biggest, longest-running ones: Would Elizabeth, seriously challenged in picking men, finally dump that silly helicopter flyboy boyfriend of hers and just marry Anthony, for God's sake? He'd been her sweetheart off and on since their grade-school days and had rescued her from the crazy would-be rapist she once worked with. So forget that the mustache Anthony grew in recent years made him look so much like a dork that even other comic strips began making fun of it. Life is, as Johnston would say, for better or for worse.

But then the cartoonist pulled the rug completely out from under us Sunday with a plot twist that made even the heartbreaking death of the Patterson family dog Farley (as he saved little April from drowning) seem pale in comparison. Even the comic strip that outraged readers by the thousands in 1993 when Lawrence acknowledged he was gay couldn't top this.

There it was in full color in the big Sunday strip: As Elizabeth's parents are dancing at her wedding (to Anthony, thank God) Johnston herself enters the strip in cartoon form and tells us that starting the next day "For Better or For Worse" will rocket back almost 30 years in time to soon after it began.

Elizabeth, now 27, would be a baby again. Michael, who loved to taunt his sister, calling her "Lizard Breath" when they were growing up, would be about grade-school age. On the positive side, family patriarch John Patterson would shed that pot belly he'd been growing in recent years and his wife, Elly, could finally put away all those anti-wrinkle products she'd been obsessing over for about the last decade.

And readers of some 2,000 newspaper comic sections would be left to scratch their heads and mutter, "What the ... "

"Interesting idea and it may very well work with the fan base that she's got," says Dave Strickler, a comic-strip fanatic who runs the Web site comicsaccess.com and has compiled a list of every comic strip syndicated in the United States from 1924 to 1995.

Strickler, like other fans of the strip, complains that it has gotten a little too sentimental in recent years, with Johnston concentrating too much on the philosophical musings she is famous for saving until the final panel and not enough on the story line.

At the same time, he says, the strip has grown to include so many characters that it was getting hard to tell them apart. He would sometimes mistake Elizabeth for her younger sister, April, or even her mother, Elly. (Those anti-wrinkle products must really be working!)

"If she goes back to the original art and carries on with the wit she's capable of, there's no reason to believe current fans won't be loyal and new fans won't enjoy it as well," he said of the change.

For the time being, fans are left to try to figure out what would have happened to the gang had they kept on aging.

Johnston did tie up some loose ends in that last strip, explaining that Michael, who nearly died a few years ago when he ran into a burning apartment to save the manuscript of his Great Canadian Novel (the comic strip is set in Johnston's native Canada) has gone on to publish four books and sign a movie deal.

Ailing Grandpa Jim, she said, would live long enough to hold Elizabeth's first baby before dying at age 89.

Barely able to speak after suffering a stroke, Jim still managed to think one of the strip's better quips last month when, after seeing the bride and groom rush into his hospital room straight from their wedding, he declared their act "a classic case of hitch and run."

Whether editors will embrace the strip or cut and run remains to be seen.

About 2 percent of the 2,000 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada that carry "For Better or For Worse," canceled when Johnston changed things from a real-time serial to a daily comic set in a fixed time, Universal Press Syndicate spokeswoman Kathie Kerr said Wednesday.

For some of the newspapers that did, reaction was swift.

Kathy Lu, features editor at The Roanoke (Virginia) Times said about 100 people e-mailed or phoned over the next two days, most of them unhappy.

"It felt like we were just going to be doing the same thing over again, even though she said she was going to be drawing some new stories," Lu said of deciding not to continue the strip.

It was an argument die-hard fans weren't buying.

Although Johnston has said that from this point the strips will be about a 50-50 mix of "classic" repeats and what she calls "new-runs" that will be drawn in the old style and set in the previous time but involve new stories, one man told Lu he wouldn't care if every strip was old.

"He said, 'It's like watching '(The) Andy Griffith (Show),' " she said of the 1960s sitcom still in reruns. "He said, 'I watch that show over and over again.' "

In an interview she recently posted on YouTube, Johnston said she was aware of fans' concerns and hoped they would "hang in there with me and see what I do because it's never been done before."

In recent years, she has talked of simply ending the strip when the time came or of handing it off to someone else. She indicated in the YouTube interview that splitting with her husband of more than 30 years last year prompted her to abandon those plans.

"I never thought I'd be single at this time in my life," the 61-year-old artist said. "And with that in mind, I still want to work. I still want to keep my hand in it."


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