The best final installment of a popular comic strip appeared in January, 1996. Calvin and Hobbes hopped on their toboggan to discuss life’s possibilities and headed down the slope into a blank canvass of snow. Eloquent, understated, and poetic. Clearly Bill Watterson had other projects waiting for him on his easel, but he ended his ground-breaking strip with the dignity and respect it deserved.
Charles Schulz wrote a simple thank you to Peanuts fans that appeared the day after he died. The timing was accidental, yet fitting for a man who had devoted 50 years to the strip and his entire life to comics. Sadly, the syndicate continues to run the strip like a zombie cow from which it squeezes undead milk.
Berkely Breathed ended Bloom County on a sad, bitter note. Familiar locations such as Milo’s Meadow showed none of the strip’s popular characters, only a cold wind blowing through. In the final panel, toting a suitcase and donning his flower hat, Opus walked off into the sunset. Of course, Opus came back — not only once, but twice. Breathed has revived a few old faces, most notably Bill the Cat and Steve Dallas. Some characters stay with their creators, demanding new life and speaking with their unique voices on the world as it carries on. Sometimes a creator discovers new reasons to return to beloved characters.
That said, I don’t know what to make of this Sunday’s installment of For Better or For Worse. While I patiently await Josh Fruhlinger‘s acerbic assessment, I’ll do my best. It’s a mess. A giant, unattractive, wordy mess. As anyone who has been following the strip in the papers (or through Josh’s curmudgeonly lense), the wedding scene is no surprise. If I had been reading Lynn Johnston’s website, with it’s long-winded character profiles and even blogs from the characters themselves (sure, Achewood does it, but then Achewood is a creature of the InterNetz), maybe I would have been better prepared for panel after panel of “future lives” for each one of Johnston’s increasingly tedious characters.
There was a time — a long time ago — when I enjoyed FOOB. The kids were funny, the humor was grounded in real life, at least insofar as suburbanites experience it. Gentle, yet realistic, Johnston’s humor was grounded in human folly. And as she allowed her characters to age — a bold move, even after Gasoline Alley — they grew more complex and her humor more nuanced. There was plenty of cornball slapstick and schmaltz, but even these were informed by real life. Johnston’s most controversial story line, the coming out of Lawrence, was daring, respectful, and truthful in its depiction of the conflicting emotions families and friends go through when forced to confront their own homophobia.
Somewhere down the line, the strip jumped a shark. I don’t know if it started with the creepy relationship between Liz and Anthony, but I remember the strip slipped into melodrama around the time Johnston killed off the family dog, then replaced it with a nearly identical model. Then Liz got too old to be the cute little one anymore, so Johnston brought in April. It was as if Johnston retreated to the cute kid antics for a breath of saccharine “reality” while the soap opera lives of her adult characters spun into the absurd. Better minds than mine have dissected the self-loathing and misogyny of Johnston’s later writing. I’ll only add that for all of Johnston’s overworked puns, the strip stopped being amusing just as it stopped being realistic.
Well, it’s dead. But, wait, no it’s not! “Please join me on Monday as the story begins again,” Johnston invites. “Looking back looks wonderful!” So it’s the worst of both worlds: a zombie strip — like Peanuts — that it’s creator won’t stop tinkering with — like Breathed, only lacking the nostalgia of the former nor the creativity and relevance of the latter. Switching media, it’s more like George Lucas adding unnecessary scenes and background clutter to Star Wars. Yet even he managed to move on and create new characters and new stories; crappy characters and stories, true, but still new!
Johnston requires a therapist. The comics require new talent, but not until someone finally and completely slays the undead roaming the funny pages.