Foob Friday

I figure I’ll shamelessly milk for all the column ideas I can give everybody a chance to respond to the meme below this weekend. Meanwhile, the big engagement announcement over on the comics pages has inspired the rant below. Apologies for the length; it’s been coming on for awhile…

Dearly beloved,
We are gathered here today to witness the final nail being pounded into the coffin containing the remains of the once-beloved For Better or for Worse. The comic strip that once helped thousands, including yours truly, understand that there was real humor and pathos and sometimes even joy to be found in the hum and drum of daily life…until realization set in that it was the daily life itself the author was actually celebrating, not the release. Not the flight of imagination and adventure, but the comfort in suppressing it.
The whole thing becomes a rather sad testament to the pitfalls of artists allowing too much of themselves into their work. The occasional transcendent genius – or pathetic monster – aside, most of us really aren’t all that interesting.
Certainly FBoFW creator Lynn Johnston isn’t, very much anyway. She might have been, had she had the vision and courage artistically to rise above what’s been an admittedly fairly tough real life. Her first husband was a dashing biker dude who left her alone with small children to raise; her second (the model for John Patterson, the strip’s paterfamilias) just recently walked out after apparently carrying on behind her back for quite awhile. Her relationship with her grown children, the models for the fictional ditto, is strained at best.
So it’s possible to be sympathetic to her clear desire to find safety and security for her creations, probably more so than if she’d decided to pull a Funky Winkerbean and have them all become bitter recluses who read the obituaries for fun. On the other hand…for awhile there things just looked really promising, y’know?
For the past five years or so, Johnston has been systematically pruning back every interesting facet of the Patterson clan’s lives….well, the kids’ lives anyway, since they were the only ones who had them in the first place. The parents, Elly and John, were always semi-annoyingly saintly, so didn’t have as far to devolve. They just sit round and discuss their saintliness a lot more, these days, occasionally breaking off for a ‘comically’ sloppy supper or drippy dinner (seriously, these people’s eating habits would make a preschool janitor cry).

Naturally, having been raised in the suburbs by these paragons of middle-class virtue, their children Michael and Elizabeth – with an occasional nod to April the Perpetual Afterthought – were the brightest, most promising offspring going. This is where the problems began in earnest, since kids like these no longer daydream of settling down to be just like their parents. They almost literally can’t, anymore, given the sheer ubiquitousness of portals to the global village (which portals are interestingly absent in Patterworld, where even the teen characters are never seen wearing an iPod or using a computer for anything other than email. That Johnston is still going on in interviews about The Time I Introduced a Gay Character a Couple Decades Ago says volumes she never intended.)

So anyway, up to a point, they didn’t conform. Michael, for instance, apparently turned out a Sensitive Artiste, though all the samples we get read like Serious Novel parodies he might in real life have written in HS. Going with it for the sake of residual affection, however, readers were rewarded with a kinda charming take on a young journalism major facing reality. He wrote some stuff, he got it published random places, he became a grunt at a magazine. Meanwhile Elizabeth had become a teacher, and headed out to a remote First Nations community to Make a Difference. As I say, promising stuff. The legions – self included – who had grown up with these characters now eagerly awaited their adventures as they followed us out into the wider world.
Then…they didn’t. Michael re-encountered and married his grade-school(!) steady, a pharmacist (pay attention, this’ll be on the test) who promptly gave up her own plans and dreams in lieu of blatantly trapping him into fatherhood…she got the pills mixed up, she said. Even the other characters didn’t buy that one – but the readers clearly were supposed to cheer for child production, no matter how screwed-up the circs. This is about where I realized this strip beloved for honesty had done the dirty on me finally and irrevocably. That it should feel like a real friend’s betrayal is foolish I admit, but there you are.
Still, there was Elizabeth, who was always more interesting anyway, fulfilling her dreams out in a remote First Nations community, teaching and learning and even falling in love with a handsome Mountie. We knew they were meant for each other, because Elly herself had introduced them after noticing his door read ‘Constable Wright’. ‘Wright = Right”, get it? No? Yeah, sometimes I have trouble remembering why I loved this strip so much, myself.
As it turned out, though, that was the apex of a very looooong arc. From there the downhill slide has resembled the first snowmobile ride I took as a kid, only with less (if any) exhilaration and more in-your-face bland, cold whiteness. Nobody in Patterworld, it became clear, was going to be allowed to have adult relationships, much less lives, outside their circle of constant content. One by one the girlfriends and boyfriends fell by the wayside, shallow cheaters all – quite literally; either Johnston has no idea of the complexities of a real YA relationship or she’s just a lazy storyteller, both work OK. At any rate, in this universe you better have picked out a winner in kindergarten, because you’re stuck with ‘em for, well, better or worse.
That was the thing, though – it was all for the better. They were all winners, because they had remained in the ‘burbs and espoused their virtues. This is not a strip that was ever particularly subtle in re: character development, and lately the lack has become almost, well, comic. Everyone who isn’t a Patterson or doesn’t share their virtues is a harridan, visually and audibly…unless they’re an adult male, in which case they’re just a despicable cad whose only redeeming virtue is that they love Elizabeth.
Enter Anthony Caine. Elizabeth’s HS steady. Who always gave the impression he was one of those [Insert More Interesting Character Here] placeholders who accidentally made it to print. As more and more of Johnston’s Grand Design was revealed, however, it became clear that he was, in fact, the Ultimate. The guy, his creator herself shamelessly insisted, who was overlooked now, but boy, would he make a splash on your arm at your 20-year reunion. Did I mention his creator has also shamelessly admitted to being “a child of the 50’s”?
So…exeunt handsome Mountie, dashing chopper pilot, charming college rogue. None of them – as Elizabeth’s parents made clear to her in a strip that changed my hurt to active hatred – would be ‘there for her’ the way they should be. This was illustrated for the really slow readers in a further series of strips wherein Elizabeth
1) Gets word of Anthony’s divorce back in the ‘burb;
2) Abruptly develops a crushing case of homesickness almost literally out of the blue;
3) Makes plans to hightail it back to Casa de Patterson ASAP; and
4) Becomes furious when Constable Right points out that just possibly she might have discussed their future with him beyond a blithe ‘Oh, I kinda figured you’d wanna move 600+ miles south to be there for me!’ as she was packing.
It was her intent all along, Johnston later explained, to use Elizabeth’s story to illustrate the reality of young people who think they want adventure, only to discover when the crunch comes and they have to commit that they can’t handle the stress of leaving the nest for good. That this was by no means the only reality available, that she had it in her power to help inspire a generation to think and plan and dream on a scale they – certainly she – had heretofore never been able to conceive…well, yeah, not so much with that. Safety first, kids! If you never light a fire, you never have to deal with putting it out!
No worries about fire re: Anthony, that’s for bloody well sure. In his strenuous efforts to seem as safe and non-threatening as possible he comes off as a horrific caricature of the Modern Sensitive Male, for all the world as if he were the mascot for a seriously unimaginative anti-feminist lobby. If this is truly Johnston’s take on her dream man, I feel sorry for the woman. Clearly she’s been messed up even beyond what she’s shown the world. Which is a lot.
In a nutshell: Anthony married another despite making it very clear to her and everyone else that he was still attracted to Elizabeth. Then he couldn’t think of anything better to do with his beautiful, sophisticated French wife than dump her into a split-level while he went off to be an accountant at the local used-car lot. Then he got upset when she didn’t seem thrilled with the prospect of the kid he whined her into having. (Later, after she’s run off – all but wearing a big red arrow reading ‘Scheming Bitch Right Here, Readers!’ – we learn that brave strong Anthony has coped with single fatherhood by building a literal pen for his daughter in the basement.) Oh, and she thought he’d look better with facial hair, so he grew a grotesque moustache that actually makes him look 75.
We know all this, because upon making his dashing re-entrance into Elizabeth’s life by literally saving her from the Cad du Jour, he sat her down under a tree…and promptly started whining “Wait for me! I have no home!” Verbatim, very-pre-divorce quotes. Just to recap: this is his reaction seconds after the woman he loves has almost been raped. Our Hero, ladies and gentlemen. Always there for her, yes indeedy.
Thus began the long, stately Bataan Death March towards the Lizardbreath/Granthony axis. See, despite being destined and all, they can’t do anything as foolish as actually have chemistry together; maybe take a little delight in exploration and discovery. No, both have been Hurt and must needs Take it Slowly, which would still be OK, except by this point in her imaginative journey Johnston has been reduced to borrowing the concept of ‘caution’ from State Farm Insurance. Throw in a precocious two-year-old to ‘comically’ interrupt the merger negotiations with ‘needs’ (most of which brilliant educator Elizabeth solves by handing her ice cream), and you have some idea why the entire Comics Curmudgeon community has been reveling in this relationship for years now.
When, that is, they’re not exulting re: Michael’s deathless prose. See, somewhere in here he’s written a book called Stone Season – no, I am not making this up – and it’s apparently a masterpiece of CanLit (you can tell, because it’s set in post-WWI Saskatchewan). Sure, you scoff now, but just wait till it runs all the major prizes. Just as soon as Johnston gets around to arranging that little ‘accident’ at the Convenient Gathering of Every Other Literary Talent in Canada.
Meanwhile, of course, he’s been neglecting his wife and kids to serve his ‘muse’ – oh yes, Johnston’s idea of the writer’s life leaves no cobblestone unturned on that dark and stormy night. Speaking of which, fleeing their burning apartment during one, our Sensitive Genius here went back for his laptop rather than help his family down a rickety fire escape. I forget whether the strip where he called his stroke-ridden old grandpa ‘crazy’ (to his face) when he didn’t react appropriately to the news of publication came before or after this sequence, but you get the idea. (And no, Johnston has never said any of this was intended to show Mikey as simply young and foolish.)
Yes, kids, Men are Scum. Except Anthony, he is Kind and Good and will Never Let You Down. Primarily because he, uh, can’t get it up to begin with, but that is Not the Point! The point is that you should be happy to be stuck right where you are, waiting patiently for that one little frisson of excitement at your twenty-years’ reunion, because there is joy and pathos and humour to be found in everyday life, damnit! Haven’t you been paying attention? Well, if not, I’m gonna keep mentioning Charles Schulz and churning out the reruns until you do!
…God help us all, I think she means it.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. rj_anderson
    Mar 14, 2008 @ 20:12:51

    I stopped reading the moment Constable Paul Wright turned out to be a no-good cheater. Words cannot express how ANGRY I was that LJ would take a character she had built up to be a decent, honorable man with a sincere interest in Elizabeth and a heartfelt commitment to serving people, and turn him suddenly into a two-timing cad with no guts or integrity whatsoever, just so she could match Liz up with her boring white public school boyfriend. I mean, even without the racist connotations of “people should stick with their own kind”, Liz giving up her dream of teaching in the north for no good or obvious reason and then expecting Paul to follow her down south with hardly any discussion or consideration of his feelings at all (which of course was the beginning of the end for Liz/Paul, but of course we were supposed to sympathize with her and not him, because the Pattersons can Do No Wrong) was just so BADLY WRITTEN it made me want to SCREAM.

    Feh, I say.

    I was keeping up with the bitterness on for a while, but after the Liz/Paul breakup I couldn’t even bear to read the snark anymore.

  2. shoebox2
    Mar 16, 2008 @ 00:09:11

    You hung out at the binky_betsy group too? Coolness. I participated myself for a little while, just before the ‘hybrid’ began and other writing projects supervened.

    Anyhow, I totally hear you. One of the graet mysteries of this whole sad saga is how LJ refused to recognize the brilliantly satisfying storyline she herself had created re: Liz and Paul. A lot of the anger at Anthony is I think just that total bafflement at how un-worth it he is.

    On the plus side though, Paul did manage to escape the pervasive blandness relatively unscathed…say, if you’re still looking for a lighthearted writing project, there’s probably a nifty fic in here somewhere.

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