For better or for worse, comic strips are evolving and enduring

I can't remember the exact date, but sometime during the fall of 2001, I spent about 45 minutes sitting next to Lynn Johnston, the creator of the beloved comic strip For Better or For Worse. How I became a comic strip writer is a long story not worth recounting here, but suffice it to say that I managed, in 2001, to live out a career fantasy, co-creating a comic strip called Dear Dudley, which centered on the misadventures of an advice columnist whose own life was a mess. And so I was at this seminar for comic strip writers and illustrators when suddenly, Ms. Johnston chose an empty seat in the auditorium, which just happened to be next to me. I didn't summon up the nerve to talk to her. I already knew that Dear Dudley was probably doomed to soon be a distant memory. I think we had seven newspapers carrying us when our strip ended on December 31, 2001. For Better or For Worse was a cultural phenomenon and still is, appearing in over 2,000 newspapers and 20 countries around the world.

I've been thinking about my almost-encounter with greatness because the last few weeks have been difficult for anyone who loves reading the comic strips in the newspaper, and yes, for those of you who read all of your headlines online, newspapers still exist.
Two Sundays ago, cartoonist Lynn Johnston ended her beloved For Better or For Worse, or she sort of ended it, anyway. She wrapped up story lines and gave us a glimpse of the characters in their future, and then she announced that she would be re-doing the comic strip at the beginning, how it started back in 1979. The way it's working since September 1, is that we're seeing a mix of original comic strips and some reprinted classics. But the characters won't be aging, or aging very minimally perhaps, and instead they'll exist in some sort of age-limbo like Charlie Brown, and Jeremy in Zits and Beetle Bailey and so on.

Elly and John Patterson will be young parents, and Michael and Elizabeth, little kids. April isn't even a twinkle in the Pattersons' eyes. From my perspective as a reader, it's a little weird, and yet kind of sweet -- seeing them all in their youth. And I can see Ms. Patterson's point of view. From what I've read at her web site, Ms. Johnston was getting pretty drained, crafting all of the storylines for the various supporting characters that had been added to the strip, and even the art work had become extremely complicated. She had to make certain the floor plans of the characters' houses matched up to previous strips or risk getting comments from sharp-eyed readers.

And then for those who follow Opus, the Sunday only comic strip spin-off from Bloom County, the plots have hinted that perhaps the comic series may be coming to an end--again, and I say again, if you consider that first we had Bloom County (1980-1989) and then a spin-off comic that sometimes featured Opus (Outland, from 1989-1995), and then Opus began running on Sundays in 2003. All I can say is, Mr. Breathed, please, say it isn't so. You are kidding, right?

Anyway, all of this possible turmoil naturally brings controversy. Believe me, readers take comic strips very seriously. I used to work part-time as a features writer at the now-defunct Cincinnati Post and remember sitting at my computer and occasionally watching my editor grimace and hold the phone away from his ear as irate readers complained about an old comic strip being replaced by some new upstart.

Meanwhile, the younger cartoonists are always complaining because they can't get their work read, because editors are loathe to pry beloved comic strips off the pages and try something new. I'm glad, frankly, that I wasn't near the telephone of the features editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, since they did wind up dropping For Better or For Worse and replaced it with a new comic strip called The Pajama Diaries.

But, for better or worse, if you're ramming your head into a wall because you live in Cleveland or some other city that dropped For Better or For Worse and wanted to read it in its new incarnation, or you dropped your newspaper sometime ago but miss the comic strips, people should realize that you can still read them online. For Better or For Worsehas its own web site, which is updated daily, and you can even create your own comics page of sorts at sites like, and GoComics, where, if you want comics sent to you every day, you'll have to pay a fee.
  • It's $19.95 a year at, where you can have up to 70 comic strips delivered to your emailbox every day. (They have some other memberships, from free to paying even more, but that's the basic price.) Some of their comic strips include Pearls Before Swine, Frazz and Monty.
  • It's $11.95 a year at, where you can get unlimited comic strips delivered to your emailbox every day--up to 180 comic strips. If I spent every day reading 180 comic strips, I don't think I'd have a job. But some of their comic strips include For Better or For Worse, Doonesbury and Garfield.
  • King Features, or their comic web site Daily Ink, has a yearly subscription of $15. Some of their 100 comic strips include Mother Goose & Grimm, Flash Gordon and Hagar the Horrible.
It's primarily a convenience thing, since you can generally find every comic strip out there for free, such as at this site.

At any rate, all of this should give anyone hope when they look at the ever-shrinking newspaper and wonder how their favorite comic strips fit into the equation. You may someday get your comic strip fix strictly on a computer screen, but it doesn't really matter. For those of you who feel like the Pattersons are part of your extended family, or if you have an inexplicable urge to see what's going on day-to-day in the world of Marmaduke or Family Circle, you never really have to say good-bye, even if they do part your morning paper. It's a relief to know that in the end, no matter what the future of the newspaper industry, comic strips are probably going to have the last laugh.

Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist, former comic strip writer and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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