Lynn Johnston's For Better or For Worse has been prominent on the Newspaper Comics scene since its debut in 1979 and ran until 2008, running in over 2,000 newspapers at its peak. Set in Milborough (a fictional suburb of Toronto, Ontario, Canada), the strip's main characters are the Patterson family: mild-mannered parents Elly and John and their children Michael, Elizabeth, and April. All but April are based closely on Johnston's real-life family: herself, (now ex-)husband Rod, and children Aaron and Katie. Johnston claimed that she created April because she wanted another baby, but knew it wasn't practical for her in real life.The strip is perhaps best-known for the fact that, unlike most comic strips, it did not use Comic Book Time, and took place more or less in real time for most of its run. Michael and Elizabeth were a young child and a toddler at the strip's beginning, and by the end had grown into adults, with Michael married and raising his own children while Elizabeth married at the end of the strip. Youngest child April was born 11 years into the strip's run and was roughly 16 at the strip's conclusion.In its heyday, the strip was also celebrated for its realism, eschewing Sitcom stereotypes in favor of a nuanced, relatable look at typical adult, child and teen concerns. A storyline in which a supporting character came out as gay cemented this reputation, as well as various stories dealing with prejudice, bullying, the mentally and physically handicapped, theft, cheating and abuse. The Pattersons were often shown as a good, "normal" family, often forced to deal with others from broken homes or worse situations.Unfortunately, the same intimacy that allowed Johnston such insight also takes in her shortcomings and shortsightedness, something the author herself (a proudly self-described "Child of The Fifties") acknowledged. This became more apparent in the strip's final years, as — concurrent with Johnston's discovery that her husband was cheating on her and the subsequent messy divorce — the strip wound down and the characters all began settling into domestic bliss rather than continue being exciting young adults. Much speculation ensued from disappointed fans over this development (in particular that two of the three Patterson kids married childhood sweethearts due to massively contrived circumstances), in particular whether or not Johnston may have been attempting to deal with her personal trials by creating the life she wanted for herself through the strip.Starting in September 2007, flashbacks to the early years of the strip were interspersed into the present-day plotlines. The last regular daily strip of For Better or For Worse was published on August 30, 2008, and the last Sunday strip was published the next day. Though Johnston had announced her retirement from the strip entirely, she relented, largely due to the collapse of her marriage removing one of her key motivations for retiring. To ramp down her workload, starting in September 2008, Johnston began in effect to retell the strip from the beginning, through what she described as "new-runs". For some time, the strip consisted of a mixture of reprints from the early years with newly drawn strips also set during the era when Michael was a young child and Elizabeth was a toddler. In 2010, the new-run strips were phased out, and the strip remained in syndication but almost exclusively with straight reprints. As of 2012, the For Better or For Worse strips appearing in newspapers generally correspond exactly to those which originally appeared 29 years before. Only rarely does this pattern change, with an occasional new strip being drawn to ensure that holiday-themed strips appear on the relevant holiday.
This strip includes examples of:
Actually Pretty Funny: April uses Elizabeth's bra as a slingshot. When Elizabeth tells on her, Elly is too busy laughing to immediately say anything.
April's sometimes-friend Becky dreams of becoming a star, like the rest of her friends. When she rises to fame, she becomes progressively bitchy, though she does have her occasional sympathetic moments.
Liz showed some ambition, becoming a teacher at a First Nation village, learning their culture and bonding with her students. She gave all of it up for Anthony, though according to the epilogue she did resume her work, presumably in her hometown.
Perhaps rather tellingly, the only one who's shown to have achieved her ambition is the black sheep of the family, April.
And I Must Scream: Grandpa Jim's stroke appears to have left him mentally damaged, but he is in fact just fine mentally. He just can't speak. So we get strips where he mentally begs people to stop babying him, but can only communicate with a loud noise that people take as him thanking them for babying him (or, in one memorable strip, his own grandson calling him 'crazy'). Yeah...
Art Evolution: Leading to Lynn Johnston having to consciously imitate her earlier style for the post-2008 "new-runs".
Artistic License - Pharmacology: Deanna's claim that she, a licensed pharmacist, didn't know switching birth control meds would leave you more fertile between cycling off the old and starting the new. (The dual result of this "oopsie" was their first child, Meredith — conception occurred on their honeymoon — and the fan theory that she deliberately did this.) This is lampshaded later when Elizabeth's friend Candace points out how unlikely it would be for a pharmacist to make such a mistake. (It's not hard to interpret this as intentional, however.)
Author Avatar: Elly Patterson. In fact, the entire Patterson family was modeled after the Johnston family, with each character's first name being the middle name of their real life counterpart — except Elly, who was named after a childhood friend of Lynn Johnston who died at a young age, and April, who was created to fulfill Johnston's desire for a third child that she never actually had.
Author Filibuster: The (long) series in Mtigwaki where Elly narrates about the Natives' lives; Shannon's speech about the disabled. Regarding he latter, however, see YMMV for whether or not that was an anvil that needed to be dropped.
Babies Make Everything Better: Played with: Anthony invokes this by pressuring Thérèse to have a child, despite her repeatedly telling him that she's not ready yet. He goes so far as to outright lie to her, promising that she can go back to work after recovering from the birth and he'll be primary caretaker, while fully expecting that once she's popped the baby out, mysterious female hormones will kick in and make her give up her career in a heartbeat for becoming a housewife. Didn't work. He flat-out admits this while recounting this to Liz later, seeing absolutely nothing wrong with this, and honestly believing that its failure means something is wrong withThérèse, rather than him.
Bowdlerization: In the lead-up to Michael and Deanna's wedding, Deanna's mother threw one more massive hissy fit about Michael allowing Lawrence, an openly gay man, to be his best man. However, unlike the earlier Lawrence stories, an alternative storyline was also circulated to papers that deemed their readership too sensitive to the subject that changed the fight to being concerned with a flower arrangement. Notably, both strips used the same art, simply reworking dialog slightly to make both of them work - and in the censored version, Lawrence had provided the flower arrangement, hence he remained relevant.
Michael and Elizabeth enjoy throwing Super Teddy at people in the early years of the strip. Decades later, Michael teaches it to his kids.
Canada, Eh?: The strip is set in Canada, where the author lives. Averted because the strip, while being comfortable expressing its Canadian setting and reflecting cultural trends and history, rarely called special attention to it or played up traditional stereotypes-moose, beer, hockey, "eh", etc. The strip's only prominent police officer (sometimes thought of as a "Mountie" by Americans, but actually a member of the Ontario Provincial Police) showed up near the end of the comic. The only time Johnston really played with it was when she had Michael go to post-secondary school in the mid-sized city London, Ontario, which is only about 300 kilometers west of Toronto, knowing that there would be people who would think that the boy was studying in the British city.
Canada Does Not Exist: The problem is that Mrs Johnston's severe case of the cultural cringe makes her edit out any elements that might confuse Americans. This is why during the show trial of Howard Bunt, she made a point of using American legal expressions and why she never bothered pointing out that Canadian Thanksgiving is in October. The rumor started by certain people that she fears that doing so would lead to calls for an invasion to force the Canadian people to celebrate it in November is a rather arch and mean-spirited joke told by people who want to take a swipe at a sitting duck.
Ceiling Banger: The Kelpfroths, Mike and Deanna's downstairs neighbors in their old apartment. To the point where they eventually caused actual damage, which finally gave the landlady (who hated them as much as Mike and Deanna did) the excuse to evict them.
Cerebus Syndrome: Early comics, as shown by some of the reruns Johnston has done, were gag-a-day strips with the same general range of humor as Marvin or Baby Blues. Later on, the strip developed a serious streak where the jokes would be mild to nonexistent for brief periods; for example, the coming-out story often had very gentle jokes in the last panel at best. The strip went into turnaround mode as it neared the end, ending almost every single strip in a groan-inducing bad pun, no matter how serious the content is supposed to be.
Character Development: Hard to avoid in a strip that uses real-time and various characters age from childhood to adulthood. April moved from a standard goofy kid to a fairly bratty teenager, and Elizabeth went from nerdy and loud to a thoughtful young woman. A few villains later turned up having done a Heel-Face Turn. And notably, Elly used to be a fussy, angry, crabby young mother prone to outbursts, and developed into the more calm "voice of reason" of the strip, and John became a lot less of a snarky character (he used to poke fun at Elly constantly, much to her consternation).
Candace notably - she is pretty much held up as a deviant girl who acts out... but over the course of the college era, eventually gained a mother figure in the form of her aunt. Becky was April's best friend... then lost that status in high school... but then worked to become April's friend again once she started to mature.
Characterization Marches On: In Mira's early appearances when Deanna brought Mike home to meet her parents, she was called "Eva" and was a perfectly pleasant woman with no hint of the meddlesome control freak she became.
The Kelpfroths downstairs are implied to be this as well, since the main thing they complain about is the presence of child's toys and various other child-related items being strewn across the property. Despite this being a rather reasonable complaint in a shared living space, the strip naturally took the view that only people who loathed children would dare ask for a clean property.
Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: With the size of the cast, it is perhaps inevitable that certain characters would be written out of the series. However, several simply vanished without an explanation, until rather contradictory prose accounts were written some years later. Iconic examples would be Connie's stepdaughters Molly and Gayle, who vanished without warning after two years of being the focal point of some drama.
Cleaning Up Romantic Loose Ends: Paving the way for the eventual marriage of Liz and Anthony, Liz's boyfriend Paul cheated on her, and her on-and-off boyfriend Warren started being depicted as a manipulative, unstable quasi-stalker. Meanwhile, Anthony's bitchy Clingy Jealous Wife Thérèse left him for another person after years of (justified!) jealousy over Anthony's feelings for Liz, but her final appearance in the comic is less resolution and more of the comic making one last attempt to get the readers to hate her.
Partially inverted; Elly frequently complained and carried on about how horrible and thoughtless her family was, although their crimes weren't always as obvious as was clearly intended.
The Kelpfroths were horrible neighbors because they chronically complained about Michael and his family, for reasons both valid and invalid. They were also known to repeatedly violate the terms of their lease, so that the landlady could be all gleeful when she finally got an excuse to evict them.
April, as The Unfavorite, often had the odd opinion out and was meant to be seen as having the wrong opinion.
Cool Uncle: Elly's musician brother has made a few appearances, and the kids just adore him. Hilarity Ensues when he attempts to take them off the parents' hands for a night and he wears himself out trying to get them to bed.
Cordon Bleugh Chef: A lot of the humor of the first few years of the strip was based on the family's dreading meal time owing to Elly's love of cooking stews and casseroles and insistence that they go into gastric distress to prove their love for her.
Cuteness Proximity: John with baby Lizzie, although he tries to deny it. Elly isn't fooled.
Deadpan Snarker: John in the early days was pretty likely to just make a joke at Elly's expense when she was being particularly fussy or crabby about something. It usually went unappreciated.
Derailing Love Interests: Pretty much any guy Liz was romantically involved with who wasn't Anthony would be revealed to be a Jerk Ass, cheat, or rapist, in order to make Anthony look better by comparison.
Felony Misdemeanor: One example had Elly throwing a fit about her horrible spawn April and prompted John to loom ominously over his youngest daughter, implying he intended to beat her if she didn't immediately come down and apologize to her mother. And why, do you ask...? Because April politely told her she wasn't eating dinner with the family that evening, in order to finish her homework.
First Girl Wins: Both Liz and Michael end up marrying their elementary school sweethearts.
Flanderization: Pretty much everyone in the last few years of the strip.
Fun with Flushing: April flushed something, probably a toy boat, down the toilet when she was a toddler. It was the punchline of a strip where they define the word "goomby" or something similar (that's what April says upon flushing it; rhymes with "good-bye"). The following strip shows the father with a plunger, and eventually picking the commode up off the base, saying "Whoever called that thing a convenience never had small children!"
Generation Xerox: Michael's family life is exceptionally similar to that of his own parents, with him eventually moving into their house with his similarly-made-up brood. Also one of the major criticisms of Elizabeth's relationship with Anthony: Elizabeth eagerly shed teaching school amid a different culture in exchange for settling down to be as much like her homebody parents as possible.
High School Sweethearts: Liz and Anthony, Gordon and Tracey, plus elementary school sweethearts Mike and Deanna. In fact, a running mockery of the strip has become that everyone in the Foobiverse must marry the first non-related person of the opposite sex they meet. The last non-"new-run" strips reveal that April moved to the other side of the country and hooked up with an unnamed "country boy", a fact which elicited cheers; the readers just wanted to see one Patterson kid escape the web.
Housewife: Elly Patterson, and seen as the "natural role" of women in the strip, despite Elly hating the job.
House Fire: The December 2006 story arc where Michael, Deanna and their children are forced from their duplex home due to a fire in the downstairs unit (caused by the occupant smoking in bed).
Hypocritical Humour: A staple, especially in the strips involving Elly's parenting or home-making skills.
One week-long arc had Elly and John flipping out when April wanted to skip eating dinner with them and finish up her homework. After being forced to apologize and join them, Elly lectures about how mealtimes are for them spending time as a family and discussing their day. Cue both parents completely ignoring their daughter after dragging her back into her place.
Idiot Ball: Michael picked up a huge one when he left Deanna to get their two young children out of the apartment alone during a fire, while he rushed back up to his "writing room" to collect the laptop containing his freshly completed first novel. Even published writers who were fans of the strip criticized this. (Adding exponentially to the surreality, Johnston later admitted she was using the laptop in this story simply as an update for "paper manuscript" and thus hadn't considered backups, the fact that Mike had emailed his mother a copy, etc.)
I Just Write the Thing: Johnston has alluded to this in the form of "The Characters Said So", although it may just be trying to deflect criticism.
Impossible Leavening: Elly's attempt to hide a large mass of dough she'd added too much yeast to is foiled when it starts exploding out of the trash can as John comes home.
Informed Ability: Michael's writing "genius", when shown excerpts of his writing are generally regarded as cliché at best or junk at worst; Anthony's positive traits and suitability as a husband as related by everyone Elizabeth knows.
Anthony's ex-wife Thérèse is given a myriad of informed flaws. She rarely appears in the strip proper, so for the most part we have only Anthony's point of view and the local gossips to provide us with these "facts". The only times we see her acting on any of them are fairly mild and sometimes even justified (i.e. her jealous suspicions that her husband was still obsessed with Liz).
April is supposedly a rebellious teenager, yet is only occasionally shown talking back to her parents. Note that in the strip's eyes, things like deciding to skip dinner to focus on finishing her homework, insisting that somebody is stealing from her mother's store and abusing her trust, and reminding them of promises they've completely broken all count as being "defiant".
Lack of Empathy: The Pattersons are frequently accused of this, due to Protagonist-Centered Morality. Perhaps best illustrated by Michael when he witnessed a car accident; unlike his friend Weed, who wanted to help, Michael was more interested in snapping photos of the wreck for an exclusive story, and became outraged when police shooed him off. He only briefly regretted his actions upon learning his childhood crush Deanna was in one of the cars; this did not, however, stop him from insisting that the accident was "fate bringing them back together".
Like Parent, Like Spouse: Anthony was often compared to John, by other characters and John himself. Naturally, this is why he was the perfect man for Liz.
Limited Wardrobe: Usually played straight, but for awhile, as the plots became more complicated, the characters' outfits started to get more complicated and varied. By the end of the strip, however, everyone, men and women, appeared to just wear a t-shirt and pants outside of special occasions.
London England Syndrome: When readers learned that Michael was heading to a university in London, several naturally thought he was going to London, England, and not the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario. Lynn herself said that this was deliberate to get this kind of response.
Manipulative Bastard: Emotional blackmail of the most repulsive sort is a recurring theme in the strip; most of the time, it involves a parent tricking a child into acting against his or her own best interests by subjecting him or her to a logical fallacy that has as its basis the belief that willingly inconveniencing yourself is the only way to be a good child.
Maternally Challenged: Thérèse has no real desire for a child, and only agrees to have one when Anthony promises he'll feed it and clean up after it and everything while she resumes her career — while secretly hoping all the while that pregnancy will cause some sort of maternal instinct to kick in. When it doesn't, this is shamelessly used to clear Anthony's moral path to the much more conventionally-minded Elizabeth.
Meddling Parents: Both Deanna's parents and the Pattersons, though the former is treated more severely than the latter.
Mistaken for Racist: Elly in one strip thinks Mike is going to comment on the new neighbours' ethnicity and shushs him, but he surprises her when he says "They're MY age!"
My Own Private "I Do": Michael and Deanna secretly married before moving in together. Later, his mother-in-law Mira got to plan a big, fancy wedding for them, while Mike, Deanna, and everyone else let in on the secret mocked her behind her back, making light of all the fuss.
Not So Different: John and Anthony. They not only resemble each other a lot, but Anthony cheated on Therese with Elizabeth, and there are implications that John had cheated on Elly.
Only Sane Man: April at times, who doesn't have her family's lack of empathy, marries someone who is not a childhood sweetheart, and is pretty much supposed to be Lynn's Butt Monkey...
Overreacting Airport Security: The family gets in trouble when the kids play with toy ray guns, which no one in their right mind would confuse for real weapons. Luckily, a more reasonable security officer defuses the situation.
Playing Pictionary: One strip has young Elizabeth showing her father a painting after a day of preschool. Her dad starts to comment on what a nice face it is — until Elizabeth interrupts to tell him that it's just a pizza.
Protagonist-Centered Morality: By definition, the Pattersons are their creator's mouthpieces... which becomes a serious problem when their creator needs to work out issues. Over time, a distinct "if you're not with the Pattersons, you're against them" theme emerged.
Pungeon Master: Almost every punchline is a horrible pun like this. Grandpa Jim can't even speak much and is close to death, and he STILL makes puns in his head.
Rape as Drama: The "going after". Lynn later stated that she was surprised that readers actually wanted to see Howard punished — the attack had been his only role in the story, and she saw nothing wrong with simply letting him leave afterward, as who cared about what he might do afterward so long as he didn't bother the Pattersons again?
Romantic False Lead: Mason and Julia, thrown in at the last minute to (rather unsuccessfully) add suspense as to whether Liz and Anthony would finally hook up.
Romantic Runner-Up: Anthony. Or, at any rate, he seems like he should be one of these, and the strip's insistence on making him Elizabeth's "man of destiny" regardless of this goes a long way toward explaining the extreme antipathy he inspires in the readership.
Self-Serving Memory: The reason for the Patterson's inability to learn from their past; Elly, for instance, honestly believes that she was a loving, firm, fair and calm parent, when in fact she was none of those things.
Self-Inflicted Hell: Elly constantly complains about how nobody ever helps her with the chores... but berates anyone who tries because they're "doing everything wrong". She uses passive-aggressiveness on her husband, then laments that he never gets the message; wobbles and wrings her hands over punishing her children for misbehaving, then whines that she simply doesn't understand how they could be so rowdy.
Series Continuity Error: A common accusation leveled at the author, over everything from basic fact-checking to apparently being unable to keep elements of her own strip straight, causing character ages, appearances, personalities and even names to flux wildly, particularly in the last few years. She has on occasion openly admitted that her readers keep better track of her continuity than she can be bothered to.
Shown Their Work: In the Animated Adaptation when Michael is working at a hot dog stand, his boss explains to him that, out of a pack of six hot dogs being sold, only the sixth sale generates profit. All the rest go to overhead. Granted, this really isn't something that only a business major would know, but it actually is nice to see someone explain that not every sale of something equals profit, especially in an animated show.
Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome: Lynn Johnston's notorious inability to remember the ages of her characters led to interesting things like Mike's one year older friend Gordon (with spouse Tracey) aging from their twenties to their sixties in the space of a few years, Anthony's two-year-old daughter Francie speaking and looking like an exceptionally articulate ten-year-old, and Liz's student Jesse transforming from adorable seven-year-old tyke to tall and teenaged in the space of only three years. (Johnston later admitted in interviews that she'd just decide to change the way a character is depicted sometimes, leading to some abrupt shifts in age and appearance.
Connie originally was this in the earliest strips. According to Johnson this was so Elly could have a nemesis]], but she became more sympathetic over the years.
Strip Archive: All the strips, even ones that were never put into collections, are now available for free on the strip's website. They have put a block over strips that are due to be reprinted in the near future, however, along with a line about "Not spoiling the surprise".
Sudden School Uniform: The unnamed public high school institutes uniforms sometime between when Elizabeth graduated and when April started. John and Elly note to each other the additional expense in the strip.
It seems that Lynn had originally planned to pair Liz off with Christopher Nichols; when she placed his family under embargo because of his parents' marital problems, she created a look-alike with freckles and eyeglasses: Anthony.
Take That: The "new runs" seem to be one long series of these toward her now ex husband.
That Came Out Wrong: When April, having a guitar malfunction in a concert, complains that "(her) G-string broke".
Toilet Humour: Used sometimes within the strip. Used almost constantly in the author's daily notes accompanying the strips on the official website.
Tomboy April likes animals, plays in a band, and moves away to a city in another province and stays there for good, vs. Girly Girl Elizabeth who chooses a traditionally-feminine profession, moves back home because she becomes homesick in Mtigwaki, and marries her high school boyfriend.
Career woman Therese does not want children, does not stay home after giving birth, and lets her ex-husband have full custody of her daughter, vs. Deanna getting pregnant by "planned accident" and leaving her career to start a sewing school.
Totally Radical: Johnston, in an attempt to avoid dating the strip too badly (and probably also to get around syndicate censorship), tries to create her own teenage slang for stuff. Some of these are so ridiculous-seeming that one, the insult "foob", became synonymous with the strip, hence the Fan Nickname. One website mocking the strip still sells T-shirts with the phrase "Roadside", an attempt by Johnston to create her own slang for frisky teens.
The Un Favourite: April is treated as if she's a selfish little monster for, you know, her parents having her late in their lives and thus being ready to retire when she's not old enough to kick out of the house. If a person, thing, or activity was supposed to be viewed negatively it's because April adored it. These "negative" acts included things like adoring her ailing grandfather and going out of her way to spend time with him, disapproving of Anthony cheating on his wife with Liz...
Unishment: April is once sent to her room for misbehaving - and instead takes a nap.
Unusual Euphemism: Often mixes with the wholly invented slang mentioned in Totally Radical above, where characters will use an Unusual Euphemism that Johnston invented... and then have to explain it by using a more standard euphemism. ("Boxcar!")
Wants a Prize for Basic Decency: Elly and John seem to be under the mistaken impression that feeding, clothing and housing their children is a sacrifice on their part instead of the moral obligation it actually is. What makes it worse is that exploiting their children's hard work because they did the least that a human being is supposed to do is seen as a wonderful thing instead of an example of sleaze and evil.
Wish Fulfillment: Many have pointed out that the picture-perfect wedding between Elizabeth and Anthony followed suspiciously closely on Johnston's real-life divorce. Others have suspected that she may not have been pleased with how her real children, upon whom Michael and Liz are based, lived their own lives. In a less depressing vein, April was born because Johnson had wanted (but not had) a third child. Lynn knew it wasn't really practical in real life and said in the Animated Adaptation that she did the next best thing.