Tuesday, September 27, 2005

History of the Foobiverse, Part 1

In the late seventies a wave of new writers, like Jim Davis, Cathy Guisewite, and Mike Peters brought a breath of fresh air to the comics pages. Their irreverent sense of humor livened things up and added new voices and perspectives to the rather ossified strip of the day. They then set up camp in the Style section of the paper for the next 25-30 years proving once again that the new boss is the same as the old boss. These strips may not sound fresh and innovative to people who have been reading them all their literate lives and are now used to edgier, more daring fare, but then cultural context is the key. Knotts Landing, Eight Is Enough, and BJ and the Bear were still on the air when these strips were getting their shore legs. How many other relics of the late seventies have stayed continuously popular for so long?

The den mother of these Young Turks was Lynn Johnston, whose comic strip For Better Or For Worse is arguably on of the most popular strips in print, appearing in over 2000 newspapers around the world, having outlived far brighter but quicker burning fare such as Bloom County, Calvin & Hobbes, and Farside. Her strip is also notable as one of a handful in history where the characters live and age in real time. They have real birthdays where the calendars actually roll over. They graduate from school, get jobs, and start families of their own.

I recently spent an evening at Borders thumbing through Suddenly Silver, her latest retrospective, which has sample story lines from the 25-year history of the strip with Lynn writing little essays about how the strip has changed over the years. I was completely underwhelmed with how little has actually happened. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Mike gets a crush on little Deanna.
  • John buys a sports car.
  • Ellie goes back to school. (What did she do with that degree?)
  • Ellie gets pregnant and gives birth to April.
  • Ellie goes through menopause.
  • John and his brother get lost on a camping trip. No one squeals like a pig.
  • Mike’s pal Gordo is revealed to be the victim of domestic abuse from his violent dad.
  • Farley the family dog dies after rescuing April from drowning.
  • Mike and Deanna hook-up again and get married.
  • John buys a vintage sports utility vehicle.
  • And that’s about it. I think more happens in a season of According To Jim than in all 25 years of FBOFW. Even the more controversial storylines, like where Lawrence, Mike’s other boyhood pal, comes out of the closet, would barely make interesting afterschool specials.

    There’s also a strong strain of old-fashioned values that underscore the stories. When Liz’s boyfriend Eric suggests she share his room at college, she makes his other roommate sleep on the couch instead. Mike and Deanna secretly get married rather than live together because she’s “not that kind of girl”. April’s pal Becky learns the hard way that senior guys don’t respect the trashy underclassmen they go “roadside” with.

    The strip treads a fine line between slice-of-life and soap opera with the strip getting a little sudsier every year. A recent storyline has grown daughter Elizabeth become the victim of a sexual assault only to then have to shoot down the advances of her unhappily married high school sweetheart in the same day. A real opportunity to give a message about sexual harassment in the workplace is used merely as a springboard to close out a long simmering plot thread.

    The creepiest parts of Suddenly Silver are the testimonials from Lynn’s family about how great it has been to be a comic strip character. I’m not sure if this is to atone for years of airing family laundry on the funny pages or a misplaced sense of our interest in Johnston’s inspirations, but the whole theme has a little whiff of rationalization about it. It’s like Lynn is saying “It’s all right that I have strip-mined the personal lives of my children and closest relatives for a quarter century because they really, really love me.” As long as everybody is OK with that, who am I to snipe?

    Lynn threatens/promises to end the strip when her current syndication contract ends in 2007, causing (in comic-geek circles at least) a lot of speculation of how the strip will end. Based on the low-key pace of the past 25 years, I’m predicting whimper rather than bang.

    Or more likely a long syrupy sweet “AWWWWWW!”

    The next installment of my FBOFW vivisection is Meet The Foobs. For a fuller hagiography of Lynn Johnston, see this article. There is also an extremely candid interview about her traumatic childhood here.

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    YoursTruly said...

    HEy, Michele sent me!

    Bonvallet said...

    I never heard of Suddenly Silver either. You mentioned The Far Side. Now that was a cartoonist. I wish he would make more.

    One time my friends and I went on for about a half hour telling our favorite Far Side cartoons. There's just so many.

    J.Po said...

    Saint Lynn will NOT be happy with you, yellojkt.

    Anonymous said...

    I liked "More happens in a season of 'According to Jim' than in 25 years of FBOFW" - haw!

    Another good point how, though we hate to admit it, those "young turk" strips were once actually "edgy" (and in the 60s, BC and Wizard of Id were somewhat edgy)