In the Beginning, There Was Chaos: “For Better or For Worse” 2nd Treasury. By Lynn Johnston. Andrews McMeel. $25.99.
Lynn Johnston’s reconsideration of the early years of her For Better or For Worse comic strip continues in her second “Treasury” volume much as it began in her first, Something Old, Something New. The approach in the second book is the same as in the first: Johnston polishes early strips, improves the sometimes clumsy art that she created in the strip’s early years, and adds some 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.
Johnston’s early strips were frequently funnier than her later ones, albeit more superficial; indeed, 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. In the Beginning, There Was Chaos, a handsome hardcover book with more than 400 oversize pages, again gives Johnston’s fans – including ones whose newspapers decided not to carry the “restarted” strips that she offered to papers after she stopped drawing For Better or For Worse in 2008 – a chance to look back on the comic’s early years and relive a family-oriented strip that gained considerable depth and intensity over a run of nearly 30 years.
The strips in In the Beginning, There Was Chaos date to 1981-83, not long after the strip began to be syndicated in 1979. As in the previous “Treasury,” Johnston includes a host of personal revelations (“Of all the household chores, I hate ironing the most”); discussions of which strips are directly based on incidents in her own life (“The dialogue in this strip went exactly as written, except that I kept the punch line to myself!”); photos of herself and her family taken at the time the strips were drawn; and notes on which strips had an “advocacy” element (“Strips like this one were done to support all the smart, productive, and caring moms I knew who were struggling to stay sane”). Johnston reminisces about her feelings about being a housewife part of the time and a cartoonist the rest: “When we accept the role of Mom, we become a nurse, a psychologist, a short-order cook, a laundress, and an alarm clock. Our day seems to belong to everyone else, and there’s rarely time for makeup and hair spray.” And she shows how she worked these thoughts into the strip: the “rarely time for makeup and hair spray” comment accompanies a sequence in which cartoon Elly, Johnston’s alter ego, asks her cartoon husband, John, whether he ever looks around to see if he would rather be with someone else, someone who can “look glamorous before 10:45 a.m.” Elly really is an alternative-reality creation, not Johnston herself, and that is another interesting thing to learn from this book: “The character ‘Elly’ is not me. She is someone I MIGHT have been, given other circumstances. My real life wasn’t nearly as plausible as Elly Patterson’s.”
Although Johnston puts these early strips in context, some of the ancillary material she includes is charmingly (some might say irritatingly) outdated – for example, the newspaper story about her from September 21, 1981, which begins, “Lynn Johnston could be the envy of the coffee klatsch. Sure, she cooks and cleans, mops and shops, just like the rest of us. She even has a career she pursues every morning from nine to noon. But, unlike the rest of us, Lynn literally gets to tell the world about it.” That sort of prose has certainly lost its charm, but Johnston’s own has not, whether she is writing about spice cake from a favorite bakery whose name she included in one Sunday strip or discussing another Sunday’s “trip to the dump” panels in the context of her own family’s adventures with discards. Touchingly, she tells about the gooseneck lamp that her father found at a dump one time and kept for 40 years, after which it passed to Johnston’s brother, who still uses it. “Touching” is, in fact, an apt word for the quality that made For Better or For Worse so special and so popular for so many years. The strips in In the Beginning, There Was Chaos may not have the polish of those of later years, and the story lines may not be as fully integrated as they later became, but this collection shows clearly just how, and why, so many readers were touched so often by Johnston’s take on everyday family life.