Something for Everyone to Hate

The "For Better or for Worse" family now will only look back.
The "For Better or for Worse" family now will only look back. (By Lynn Johnston -- Universal Press Syndicate)
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The end of the world is here: Lizardbreath has married Blandthony. Grandpa Jim is on his deathbed, with pitiable second wife Iris at his side. Our protagonist, Elly Patterson, is a Kleenex-clutching mess, as ever. She can't believe how the years have gone by a wrinkle at a time, blah blah blah, and worse, she can't shut up about it.

Somebody says something disgustingly pithy every panel now. You can feel the comic-strip family saga known as "For Better or for Worse" (known to some as "FBOFW," and to others simply as "Foob") coming to a close, in a cataract haze of soft focus.

Foobsters everywhere, weep. Creator Lynn Johnston is semi-retiring, repurposing her archives beginning with next week's strips. A comic strip that unfolded in real time -- year by year, in which characters aged and changed and sometimes even died -- will now only look backward, with enhanced reruns. As a farewell, Johnston seems to have made an extra effort to drench this week's wedding of characters Elizabeth Patterson and Anthony Caine (if you read it, this is bigger than Luke and Laura) in even more sentimental goo than faithful readers have come to expect.

And so, on that note, let us now honor a particular kind of "For Better or for Worse" devotee: the haters.

These are the many millions who live to despise every last thing about the comic strip, and, as such, have never missed a day. For them, Foob has never been worse -- worse puns, worse sap, even worse life choices. (Which, in a sick way, means "For Better or for Worse" has never been better!)

Elly became intolerably sentimental as a retiree, after she sold the bookstore. Her husband, John, the dentist, retreated into a symbolically sexless world of model railroads. Their son Michael hit it big with a best-selling novel (About what? We never learned) and he and his wife, Deanna, bought the old Patterson family home, somewhere in the suburbs of Toronto. Little sister April Patterson's band, the Archies-esque 4-Evah, broke up, then got a new singer, making them 4Evah & Eva. Elizabeth (a.k.a. Lizardbreath) gave up her new life teaching native people in the Canadian hinterlands to move home and marry Anthony, her boring high school boyfriend.

If all of this means nothing to you, then carry on with your life.

For everyone else, let's take one more opportunity to cringe.

For a long time you could live under the delusion that only you and your mom were reading it (and groaning at it). Once in a while you'd let it slip into conversation and discover that the whole world was reading "FBOFW," too, and had been for decades. Brilliant economists, security guards, cool Web designers, punk rockers -- all read it, and not only read it, but can remember when Farley the dog died after rescuing April from drowning, and when Lawrence came out of the closet. They can tell you why Paul was wrong for Elizabeth, but Warren wasn't, or vice versa. (Judging from the "Elly's Coffee Talk" comments board at the comic strip's Web site, almost everyone agrees that Anthony is wrong for her.)

Readers can take their Foob fascination and ire as deep as they want. Online, there are pages and pages of disturbingly funny psychoanalysis. The Comics Curmudgeon routinely eviscerates it, hammering Johnston for its overly simplistic worldview. Yet you can sense the love, even in the Curmudgeon's recent observations of the ghostly reappearance of Grandma Marion (RIP). She appeared as the wedding preparations came to a froth, invisibly "helping" Lizardbreath at a fitting of the same dress she wore to her own wedding:

"Grandma Marion is learning the sad truth about the comics afterlife," the Comics Curmudgeon observed. "Despite the fact that you no doubt remember yourself as the ravishing young bride who actually wore the dress that you're ectoplasmically helping to mend, you instead only get to come back as aged and potato-nosed. You're also wearing an apron, because even in the Great Beyond, you're expected to cook."

True Foobsters loved to underscore their particular peeves: The way the characters ate ("smork, chomp, chew, smack") or laughed with their mouths open and tongues out. Some loved to hate Elly's obsession with housework, or Deanna's blankly pretty face and lips. Little things can cause a Foobster to hurl the newspaper to the floor -- especially the bad puns in the fourth panel, with those little Fooby bon mots about life. Lynn Johnston may think she has fans, but does she know she has such devoted anti-fans?

"I save up all my vitriol for this piece of . . . art," says a woman named "Lia," seen on a YouTube video posted last week, in which she critiques Elizabeth's nuptial moment and wistfully ponders the end of a very long era.

"I predict [Elizabeth] will become a binge drinker, get a raging case of herpes and will eventually have to leave Anthony," Lia says, with that special blend of devotion and cynicism unique to Foob analysis.

So here's a question: Why did we spend the last three decades absorbed in the lives of the most boring people in Canada? Maybe it's meant to be a puzzle, an emotional Sudoku. Truly understanding "FBOFW" (so as to be more fully irritated by it) requires more subtextual skill than, say, loathing "Cathy" or "The Family Circus" -- where nothing ever changes, where nobody ever ages. "FBOFW" kept evolving, as did its magnificent ability to irritate.

On whom can we now direct our darkest wishes for tragedy? (Jeremy from "Zits"?) Who is worthy of both our love and our scorn?

Farewell, sweet Lizardbreath.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company