Monday, November 05, 2007

On Reading and Rereading For Better or For Worse

I’ve been intending to rip off Comics Curmudgeon Joshua Fruhlinger’s entertaining newspaper strip commentary concept for a long time, and now that fatherhood is upon me and all those 3:00 a.m. diaper changes have left me too sleep deprived to come up with ideas of my own, the time for shameless plundering has finally come.

I decided to begin with Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse, the first strip that I ever truly obsessed over. Why it spoke to me so intensely and so conspiratorially is a no-brainer. The strip began running in 1979, when I was seven and my sister was two-and-a-half—an age gap that was very similar to the one between Michael and his baby sister Elizabeth in the strip. Indeed, everything about the Pattersons and their children reminded me of my own family, a connection that was enhanced by the strip’s real-time development.

Most importantly, it was funny. Younger readers who came late to the adventures of the Patterson family probably find its current slice-of-life tone a little too maudlin. There is also, undeniably, an element of Bill Keane’s (risible but unintentionally fascinating) Family Circus in Johnston’s sometimes precious humour. But perhaps not as much as people like to think. And even if the strip does reach too quickly for upbeat or consoling forms of narrative closure, I still appreciate its frequent focus on non-traditional—often depressing—themes (epitomized by the Death of Farley storyline and subsequent arcs concerning death and disease), something that is consistent with the serious edge that the strip had from the very beginning.

Reading the earliest strips from the late 70s and early 80s now, one might be amazed by the stringent honesty of their treatment of parenthood—or perhaps I should say, motherhood. Usually focalized through Elly and her frustrating struggle to reconcile conventional maternal and wifely roles with the liberating promise of second wave feminist ideals, the “comedy” of many of the early strips is propelled either by Elly’s barely suppressed rage at being taken for granted by her husband and children or by her melancholic reflection on the hurts, missed opportunities, and emotional disconnections that haunt family life. Johnston’s particular skill as a cartoonist is to give even the darkest of this material a genuinely comic turn—though, at its best, the effect is to leave the honest core of the cartoon harsh and undiluted.

One of the best early examples of this shows Elly ranting angrily to John as she stalks through the house: “I’m sick and %&@ tired of picking up TOYS! I’m tired of housework and dirty noses and cooking and the NEVER ENDING MESS.” John, always hilariously meek and nervous in these early strips (as if he’s living with a keg of dynamite), takes Elly in his arms and comforts her with characteristic platitudes: “Take it easy. Kids are a lot of work. They’re part of life—you have to accept these things. After all—you’re the one who wanted kids in the first place.” This one makes me laugh out loud every time I rediscover it in Johnston’s first For Better of For Worse collection, I’ve Got the One-More-Washload Blues…” What really gets me is the way this marvelously dark humour is punctuated by Johnston’s visual depiction of Elly’s rage—pop-eyed with Medusa hair—as she’s wrapped in the arms of her well-meaning but clueless husband. More generally, it’s this integration of Johnston’s feminism with the inherent cruelty of comedy that makes the humour of the early For Better of For Worse so delightfully bracing. It’s Johnston’s exceptional skill as a cartoonist that makes these strips classics.

Like Charles Schultz, who masterfully transformed melancholia into a kind of textured gallows humour in Peanuts, Johnston always took the “or for Worse” of her strip’s title seriously as a thematic compass for its gags, reflections, and plots. Usually, the sources of strife were the quotidian disappointments of family life—disappointments whose seemingly familial nature was often revealed to be sexist and systemic by Johnston’s astute comic eye. In the introduction to Washload Blues, Johnston names these disappointments “guilt”—an emotion that brings the most private experience of desire, moral responsibility, and social codes into complicated and uncomfortable relation. We feel guilty precisely because of some failure to regulate our desire in accordance with the social codes and values we’ve internalized—codes and values that present themselves as transcendent and unquestionable. As Johnston pointedly asks, “Who in this world could ever follow all the sage advice in all those parenting books and be human?” (a question that is as relevant to parents now as it was in 1981). The strip, she tells us, is thus a confession, a “diary”—“therapy, you could call it”: “When I start to draw the hunched and disheveled housewife, eyebags drooping, mop in hand, grimacing as she removes junior from the dog’s dish, I am cleansed.” Evidently, Johnston’s cartooning against guilt, her laughter that momentarily drowns out the self-condemning inner voice, was a kind of therapy for her readers, too.

The strip’s recent return to its beginnings by reprinting this old material using various framing devices involving characters in the present has fittingly returned to the theme of guilt that animates the early strips as well. The weekend comic from October 7th (top) is a savory blend of the strip’s current nostalgic direction and its longstanding confessional tone. As the reprints of the earlier strips remind us, Elly isn’t kidding: she really did want those precious kids to hurry and grow up; the split between an idealized maternal experience and a “selfish” desire to live her own life remains starkly unresolved—at least on its own terms as an historical event. Here, as Elly sees it in retrospect, however, her confession to the reader apparently “resolves” the contradiction. Now, we might infer, she is in a position to render a judgment on her earlier self and can finally embrace the maternal role she struggled with when her children were young. Of course, this kind of retroactive nostalgia is all too easy, coming, as it does, so long after the experiences in question, and after so many of the deferred satisfactions have been realized. And perhaps the strip, which looks nostalgically over Elly’s shoulder at the photo albums that stand in for the very newspaper strips of the 70s and 80s that are currently being reprinted, allows us to see this too. For the photo album’s selective preservation of happy memories—the memories that support Elly’s judgment on herself as an impatient young mother, necessarily tell only half the story. The other half—the half that is being put before us each week in the reprints of those early strips—must be temporarily suppressed in order for Elly’s internal conflict to be “resolved” in the rather pat manner presented here. All of which is to say that, for me, Elly’s ironic, self-recriminatory punch-line does more to sustain the comic’s delicious ambiguities than it does to secure a finally nostalgic representation of motherhood because the rift between the idealized photograph album and the cannier reprinted strips make any such resolution elusive.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating, Jim! I've never been a fan of this strip, and always a bit puzzled when Schultz' name has come up in connection with it...but then since I didn't like it, I guess I never looked at it very closely.

Wendy Withers said...

For Better or for Worse has always been my favorite comic. I think it has lasted throughout my childhood and now into adulthood because of the serious themes presented in a realistic manner. Feminism, gay teens, rights and empathy for the disabled, and rape are all covered, yet the family and its inhabitants still persevere. I identify with Liz, even though she's a few years older than me and can think of April as a kind of little sister. I agree with pretty much everything you have to say, although I'm not the biggest fan of the flash-back panels, and I'm glad Johnston is now planning on extending the series until she's finished with the story arc as it is.