January 27, 2011


Something Old, Something New: “For Better or For Worse” 1st Treasury. By Lynn Johnston. Andrews McMeel. $25.99.

     This is the first, but not the first, collection of early cartoons by Lynn Johnston; and it is a complicated saga that Johnston herself feels obligated to explain at the start of the book and to try to clarify throughout. Johnston ended For Better or For Worse in 2008, but instead of simply dropping the strip – and to the annoyance of some younger cartoonists, who were hoping to take over Johnston’s slot amid the fast-shrinking availability of newspaper space – Johnston then proceeded to begin the strip all over again. And although many papers dropped the “starting over” strips, many did not. Furthermore, Johnston did not merely rerun or redraw her early panels. She polished them, improved the sometimes clumsy art that she created in the strip’s early years (1979-80), and added entirely new sequences to take the story in somewhat different directions or flesh out some characters or plot points to which she had paid scant attention in the original originals. To do that, she improved some of the early drawings – and attempted to re-create an improved version of her original style (which was quite different from her later, much more refined style), so that newly inserted strips would have both continuity and artistic complementarity with the redrawn originals.

     This was a very complex undertaking, and not a wholly successful one on all levels, since some of the early strips really were out of keeping with the much later ones, and in returning to her roots, Johnston also removed much of the depth and soap-opera elements that made For Better or For Worse such a big success for so many years. On the other hand, the early strips were frequently funnier than the later ones, albeit more superficial, and not all readers necessarily enjoyed the complex, interwoven and often rather dour plot elements of the later strips, which followed aging characters of multiple generations through life, love, disease, old age and death. Something Old, Something New, a handsome hardcover book, gives Johnston’s fans – including ones whose newspapers decided not to carry the “restarted” strips – a chance to judge for themselves whether the time-machine experiment was, as a whole, successful or not. And it includes a fair amount of commentary by Johnston, who (among other things) reveals which strips are based on real-life incidents (for example, ones about buying life insurance while young and about what different characteristics a woman might look for if she ever remarried after her husband’s death). Johnston knows the strips in the book do not flow entirely naturally: at one point, she says “you’re seeing this collection – warts and all!” But on the whole, they do flow reasonably well; and some of Johnston’s insights into her work are genuinely enjoyable, as when she comments that “you sometimes resort to an old gag” to meet a deadline, then talks about “the fun of drawing the third panel” in a four-panel strip in which husband John gets a shock while trying to fix a plugged-in toaster.

     There are also some very serious thoughts about parenting here, not only in the strips but also in Johnston’s remarks about them. In one especially sensitive Sunday strip, her surrogate comic-strip self finally loses it when little Elizabeth and Michael misbehave and don’t listen – there is yelling, there is anger, and afterwards there is regretful gazing at beautiful sleeping children, as a single tear rolls down the comic-strip mom’s face and she wonders, “How did you end up with a mother like me?” Beneath the strip, Johnston explains that the drawing was “an earnest plea for forgiveness,” and marvels at “children’s ability to see the best in you – even when you’re at your worst.” It is this sort of insight, built into the strip and expanded, in this collection, through Johnston’s comments on her early work, that makes For Better or For Worse special – and that ultimately makes Something Old, Something New quite a wonderful book, for all its occasional imperfections of continuity and style. The redrawn strips are by no means perfect, and Johnston’s decision to start again instead of making way for younger cartoonists who have been struggling to find their own voices and newspaper placements is certainly questionable, if understandable. But taken on its own terms, this sensitive, family-focused comic strip continues to charm, inform and entertain on a very high level indeed. In the final analysis, Something Old, Something New is simply a collection in which Johnston in her current form reexamines Johnston in her earlier form, letting readers see what has changed and what has remained the same – for better or for worse.

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