All this week in the comic strip For Better or For Worse, Elizabeth Patterson is getting married to her junior high school sweetheart, Anthony.
All this week, all last week, all this month, all the past year---in fact, it's feeling to longtime fans that the strip's creator, Lynn Johnston, intends to make the wedding her sole subject from here on out, so exclusive and obsessive has the storyline become.
According to the blonde, who has followed this (mainly via The Comics Curmudgeon), fans have been baffled by Johnston's sentimental and insistent presentation of Anthony and Elizabeth's engagement and wedding as part of one of the great love stories of our time. They don't understand why Elizabeth, who had been living an interesting and independent life as a teacher on an Indian reservation up by Hudson Bay, had to be yanked out of there, dragged back to her parents' dull suburban home, have her teaching career effectively taken away from her, be cut off from the two men who were in love with her, one a cop, the other a helicopter pilot, only to be married off in a blur to the boy she had sort of dated back when she was fourteen or so.
Not only did Johnston seem to be punishing Elizabeth by squashing her career and her soul and reducing her from self-sufficient young woman to just John and Elly's eldest daughter again, second fiddle and foil to their other, still lively and independent younger daughter, April, the budding rock star, but the boy Johnston was marrying her off to, Anthony Caine, is universally regarded, and reviled, among fans as one of the most boring characters Johnston has ever created.
To the degree that Anthony---Bland-thony as he's affectionately known---has a character, it is that of an asexual, masochistic milquetoast.
Anthony's only place in the comic strip up till recently has been wussily carrying a torch for Elizabeth and bleeding all over her about it whenever they've bumped into each other over the years, his come-on line being, basically, "Feel sorry for me because I still love the little girl you once were."
Not only is Anthony boring, sexless, ineffectual, childish, and, when you think about it, kind of sick, but when Johnston decided to bring him and Elizabeth together again, he was married.
Unhappily married, but married nonetheless. And with a kid, to boot.
Johnston, however, treated his unhappiness as the root of his and Elizabeth's future happiness. Despite having no reason to be interested, Elizabeth was irresistibly drawn to him out of pity.
She fell in love with him because she felt sorry for him---and for his little girl.
Johnston seems blind to the fact that she has set up Elizabeth and Anthony for domestic disaster, or would have if she were writing a novel instead of drawing a comic strip. In real life, assuming that a real Elizabeth would be so foolish as to marry a man out of pity, it wouldn't take her very long to realize she'd made a big mistake. He wake up call would be her wedding night when she found herself in bed with a stranger she had no erotic feelings for and whose feelings for her were pure sentimental rubbish. If she didn't rush out to find a divorce attorney as soon as they got home, it would be because she'd run straight to the computer to fire off plaintively hinting emails to the cop and the helicopter pilot.
For Better or For Worse isn't a novel, of course---or even a soap opera in comic strip form like Rex Morgan and Mary Worth---but it has been novel-like enough over the years that touches of realism have graced its panels and the drawings have had the feeling of shadows cast by real people, and Johnston has often done her best to be true to life in the sense that nothing happens that couldn't happen in real life.
Even when avoiding life's real pain and horror she'd acknowledged that it was there, that she was avoiding it. But with Elizabeth and Anthony she's indulging in pure fantasy.
I would never have expected a storyline in which Elizabeth was disappointed by Anthony's impotence on their wedding night or one that had her cheating on him or running out on him after they were married. I just would have expected one in which, if she had to meet up with Anthony again---and I doubt any fans would have been disappointed or even noticed if she hadn't---she was smart enough to recognize trouble when she saw it and put as much distance between her and Anthony as she could as fast as she could.
In fact, if I recall correctly, there was such a storyline, and Johnston revisited it to undo it, shutting her eyes to what she knew was the more realistic outcome of bringing them together the first time.
Maybe she's not closing her eyes as tightly as that. I just remembered a strange series of strips in which Paul the cop showed up at Elizabeth's door to re-kindle their romance and Elizabeth shoots him down. She has some high-minded reason for doing it, but she's also clearly disgusted by the idea that Paul wants to have sex with her. Johnston, that storyline made me realize, had been very cagey and careful about keeping Elizabeth a virgin into her late twenties. And now by marrying her off to the emasculated Anthony and ignoring the psychological implications and potential danger of the totally un-erotic basis of their romance, she's found a way to keep Elizabeth's virginity essentially intact after marriage.
Actually, Johnston has been pretty agile in denying a sex life to all three of the Patterson children.
There's a limit to what she's been able to show, naturally. It's a family-oriented comic strip, after all. But she's always let it be more than just implicit that John and Elly enjoyed a healthy and mutually satisfying sex life---John and Elly clearly dug each other in every way---although for a long time now that's been acknowledged mainly in jokes about how John keeps forgetting that that part of their married life is over and how he's not getting any and is not going to get any any time soon. (Johnston even gave the poor guy the archetypal hobby of sexually frustrated but good and understanding husbands who've learned to sublimate like crazy---he's a model train nut.) But still there's no sense that their three kids came into this world out of nowhere.
And even Jim, Elly's dad, now incapacitated by a stroke, is still allowed to remember that once upon a time he was a randy young man with a string of girlfriends.
But the Patterson kids have lived strangely sexless lives. All their romances have been not much more than intimate, but not particularly intense, friendships, with no sign of physical urgency or even attraction involved. April, I think, had a couple of close calls, but that's it, and that's how they were treated, as close calls. Even when she liked her feelings, she was rescued from them, in a way. It's not that I've been expecting to see them naked in bed with their lovers, a la Joannie Caucus and Rick Redfern in Doonesbury. It's just that they all got through their teen years, and Michael and Elizabeth almost through their twenties without Johnston giving us any hints that the possibility of winding up naked in bed with a lover was part of their attraction to any potential lover. Michael got married and became a father without ever having been close to the randy young man his grandfather was.
Deanna, the girl he married, a cipher almost blander than Anthony, is drawn in a way to suggest that she's beautiful, but that doesn't seem to matter to either her or Michael, and now Anthony and Elizabeth are even less interested in each other as bodies than Michael and Deanna are. Even though Johnston has been lavishing attention on making Elizabeth a knock-out in her wedding gown, she's let Anthony's thinking nothing throughout the ceremony except sentimental nonsense.
I'm sure I've missed some important plot developments over the last few years. I stopped following For Better or For Worse regularly when Johnston robbed Michael of his young manhood by rushing him into marriage with Deanna and making him a father as fast as she could after that. It seemed to me that she lost interest in Michael as a character when she sent him off to college. He supposedly wanted to be a journalist, but Johnston never bothered to show him thinking or acting like an aspiring journalist. He wasn't an intellectual or a bohemian. He was political. He wasn't even a writer, not in the sense that he looked at life with an artistic and critical eye. He didn't have any of the restlessness that all the journalists and writers I've known over the years have enjoyed or suffered from. The girl he fell in love wasn't at all artistic, bohemian, intellectual, or even ambitious in her own right either. She was just...there. After graduation he didn't go to work at a newspaper or a magazine or a television station. He was a free-lancer but never had to leave home to chase a story. From the start, he worked at home, without any adult companionship, with no adult workplace related problems to deal with, with no outside demands on his time at all. He's just sat at his desk with his children climbing into his lap and that's his life. It didn't take long for me to realize that Lynn Johnston had given him her life when she was a young, budding cartoonist. And that was the point. She was using Michael to re-tell the story of her life, and since she'd already done that with her comic strip for years, Michael's story was redundant, so I stopped reading the strip every day.
I think she's doing the same thing again with Elizabeth, only taking it a step farther. She had started out by telling her life story through the story of John and Elly, and now she's going to use Elizabeth, and Anthony, to re-tell the story of John and Elly.
By giving Elizabeth a ready-made family she's made Elizabeth what Elly was when the strip began, a young wife and mother with a toddler and a nice but bland and easily forgettable husband. Elizabeth will probably be pregnant before the year is out and we'll be back to the very beginning of For Better or For Worse. Johnston is starting all over again.
I'm not surprised. In fact, I think I understand why she might have felt she had to. This is her way of solving the problem she set herself up for as a cartoonist when she decided to allow her characters to age in real time.
Call this the Gasoline Alley Dilemma.
The tragedy of aging is that it's another way of saying dying. Life is the slide into death. If you have your characters age at a normal rate and your comic strip lasts long enough, some of them are going to get old enough to die of old age, if of nothing else. Death is not all that funny. So, either you let them die and let your strip not be all that funny for a while or you wind up with what was going on in Gasoline Alley where Walt and Skeezix were about a hundred and forty and a hundred and ten respectively, aren't they?
(How old are they really supposed to be? This is a job for the Linkmeister!)
I think whoever's in charge of Gasoline Alley these days has finally been allowing characters to fade away, if not actually kick the bucket---although I hear Walt's wife Phyllis has died---but the other problem of having the main characters living on and on was solved long ago by the strip's having a large cast of characters and by bringing new characters onto the scene and letting their stories take front and center. Walt and Phyllis, Skeezix and Nina, and now Clovia and Slim, slid into old age and into the background, remaining onstage to provide continuity, as younger characters took the limelight. Over the years, though, there was always one character who was essentially Walt in his youth and the heart of the strip beat strong in him or her. This and all the other new stories allowed fans to ignore the fact that time was passing and the original Walt ought to have entered the Guinness Book of Records by now. The strip changed but did not change.
Johnston has always been good at introducing new characters, but they've mostly been ancillary. Few that I can think of have taken on lives or storylines of their own. She's created hundreds of bit players, but she's been content with only five main characters and a handful of supporting ones and hasn't shown any interest in expanding beyond that. Thus setting up the problem. John and Elly, Elly especially, are getting old. And I don't just mean chronologically. Johnston can't think of anything to do with them now that they aren't the parents anymore. I'm guessing this is because that in her mind For Better or For Worse has always been about one thing, the comedy of raising children. Gasoline Alley is about a whole town. For Better or For Worse is about one family. Johnston has chosen to get back to basics simply by re-tooling. Elly and John have become Elizabeth and Anthony. Anthony even already looks like the young John. Look at that jaw!
This explains why very few comic strips follow the Gasoline Alley model. The most successful of those that have is Doonesbury, and Garry Trudeau fudges. His characters' ages are fluid. It's not quite clear how old the main characters are now. Not as old as they should be if they were in college during Vietnam and Watergate, that's for sure. They seem to be about fifty, with B.D. maybe just enough older that he could still have plausibly served in Vietnam and still be young enough to have been called up to go to Iraq. But if Trudeau needs to, he'll lower their ages again or slow down the rate at which they are aging. Still, the problem may have to be dealt with someday.
It's been just about forever since Doonesbury was only about college life, but that aspect of the strip has been revived through Alex and Zipper. Zipper's relationship with his football coach, B.D., is reminiscent of Zonker's relationship with his quarterback, B.D. and it's enough to remind old fans of the good old days, which Trudeau has no desire to bring back. He has enough characters on hand, enough in storage, and has shown the willingness and ability to introduce new ones and new storylines, that there's no danger of Doonesbury becoming about his main characters getting old. Still, they will get older and eventually some of them will get old enough.
I don't know if Trudeau plans to keep at it long enough for it to become an issue, but he's already dealt with it by doing what it took Gasoline Alley forever to do---he's let characters die.
We probably won't see the strip where Zonker, his ponytail gone gray at last, goes out all alone for one final dip in Walden Puddle, the last member of the commune remaining. Trudeau will probably lay down his pen before Mike and the gang can cash their first Social Security checks. But I won't be surprised he has at least one of his original characters shuffle off their inky coil before he does. I thought he'd done it with B.D. in Iraq. I was afraid he hadn't survived the attack on his humvee. And I still think it's going to be B.D. B.D.'s not recovering from his PTSD. He's been getting worse in some ways and I'm worried that that there's only one end to this for him, an Iraq War veteran's issue that Trudeau hasn't addressed yet but which I know he's not afraid to tackle.