May 07, 2009


Just a Simple Wedding: A “For Better or For Worse” Collection. By Lynn Johnston. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Ink Pen. By Phil Dunlap. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     After 29 years of intricacy worthy of a novel and emotion worthy of a prime-time soap opera, For Better or For Worse came to an end last year, as Lynn Johnston wound up the story of multiple generations of the Patterson family and their many friends, neighbors, acquaintances and hangers-on. Just a Simple Wedding is the final collection of the strip, and fans will be dripping with nostalgia long before the last page. Johnston does not bring all the elements of her long-running tale together, but she knits up several of the major story lines and provides a full-page Sunday strip at the very end saying what happened to some characters in their later lives. Of course, these are simply drawings – they have no “lives,” earlier or later – but because Johnston’s strip has always been steeped in realism (and is partly autobiographical), these drawings feel real to millions of people. The arc of this final collection primarily includes the deteriorating health of Grandpa Jim and the challenges facing his wife and by-necessity caregiver, Iris; and the increasing closeness of Elizabeth and her high-school boyfriend, Anthony, who is now divorced and has a child. The marriage of Elizabeth and Anthony provides the book’s title and the strip’s climax, but much else occurs before it happens, including Michael’s growing success as an author and the ongoing daily trials he and his wife, Deanna, face in raising their children, Meredith and Robin; “bonus baby” April, now a teenager, learning to drive and discovering what she wants to do in life; John and Elly Patterson facing the realities of aging; and much more. Tossed in among the “story” strips are slice-of-life ones, including some of the wordless or nearly wordless Sunday strips that are a Johnston hallmark: an autumn family outing with leaf collecting; a winter scene with snow, featuring gloves turned into playthings; April’s battle with an umbrella during an intense rainstorm; and more. Fans of For Better or For Worse will be drenched in memories before the end of this book – and fanatical fans will no doubt be happy that Johnston did not exactly retire: she decided to re-draw the entire story from the start, with different perspectives and using some of the knowledge and cartooning skill that she has gained over the years. Still, Just a Simple Wedding stands as the summation and more-or-less conclusion of a remarkable comic strip, and it is impossible not to wish the nonexistent Pattersons well in the continuation of their unreal-but-somehow-very-real lives.

     Will Ink Pen last 29 years? Doubtful – it’s not likely that newspapers in their current form will last another couple of decades, and without them, the entire nature of cartooning is bound to change. But Phil Dunlap’s new strip has the potential to go on for as long as he wants it to, because Dunlap is really on to something here. Johnston’s chronicle-of-life concept was an old one that she handled with unusual skill. Dunlap’s chronicle of cartoon characters trying to find jobs for other cartoon characters by running an employment agency is something new – and seems so obvious, and so amusingly self-referential, that it is a wonder no one thought of it before. There were hints of this sort of approach in films such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit – think of the cigar-smoking midget whose job, within the movie, is to play a baby, or of Jessica Rabbit saying she isn’t bad, that’s just the way she is drawn. But no one has done this in comic-strip form, and it works wonderfully and often hilariously. Dunlap’s chief characters include a corporate-looking dog named Fritz who runs the employment agency, talks like a traditional boss, but lapses into canine behavior and four-footed locomotion when, say, a doorbell rings; a dirty and ugly rat named Bixby who is second-in-command and is a former child star who quickly outgrew adorableness and now spends much of his time wallowing in garbage; a pig named Hamhock who wants quality work but keeps getting jobs as food; a well-spoken rabbit named Ralston who seeks sophistication but gets only slapstick work because he is so good at getting hit and steamrollered; a super-dumb superhero called Captain Victorious and his nemesis, Mr. Negato, who got their powers at the same time and go out for beer together when not thrashing each other; and a number of just-passing-through characters, from another superhero named Dynaman (whose powers may come from steroids), to Joggles the Clown (“I’ve even painted a permanent smile on my face so as to never slip and hint at the searing pain and desperation lying deep in my soul”), to Jenn Erica (“generic,” with a feminine “a” ending), an all-purpose but easily forgettable female character. Dunlap manages to make this motley crew recognizably human through some strange power he appears to have to cloud people’s minds, and the characters’ interactions actually make sense within their weirdly skewed world. Ink Pen is a highly unusual strip that deserves a chance to be seen much more widely – it has the potential to grow in all sorts of interesting ways. And it’s plenty interesting already.

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