For Better or For Worse

This article is about the comic strip. For the documentary, see For Better or For Worse (film). For other uses, see For better or worse.
For Better or For Worse

The Patterson family, the center focus of For Better or For Worse
Author(s) Lynn Johnston
Current status / schedule concluded; reruns
Launch date Sept. 9, 1979
End date

Aug. 31, 2008 (original)

July 11, 2010 (new "reruns")
Syndicate(s) Universal Press Syndicate (1979–1997, 2004–present)
United Feature Syndicate (1997–2004)
Publisher(s) Andrews McMeel Publishing
Genre(s) Humor
Slice of Life

For Better or For Worse is a comic strip by Lynn Johnston that ran originally from 1979 to 2008 chronicling the lives of a Canadian family, The Pattersons, and their friends. The story is set in the fictitious Toronto-area suburban town of Milborough, Ontario. Now running as reruns, For Better or For Worse is still seen in over 2,000 newspapers[1] throughout Canada, the United States and about 20 other countries.

History and background

Johnston's strip began in September 1979, and ended its original daily black-and-white run on August 30, 2008, with a postscript epilogue (as a full-colour Sunday strip) running the following day. Starting on September 1, 2008, the strip began re-telling its original story, using a mixture of straight reruns and retouched strips which featured altered dialogue. This new format, however, was dropped after less than two years and in July, 2010 the strip switched entirely to reruns. The strips in papers 2016 were originally from 1987.

A signature element[1] of For Better or For Worse during its original run was that the characters aged in real time.[2] The strip's title is a reference to the marriage service found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer as well as in the wedding ceremonies of other faith traditions: have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health...

Johnston's work on the comic strip earned her a Reuben Award in 1985 and made her a nominated finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in editorial cartooning in 1994.[3] The strip led the Friends of Lulu to add Johnston to the Women Cartoonists Hall of Fame in 2002.[4] In the same year, Will Eisner described For Better Or Worse as "the best strip around currently," saying "It's humane, human, it has humor to it, and good artwork."[5]


Original characters

The strip focuses on a family known as the Pattersons:

In 1991, a third child was born:

As John and Elly's children grew older, the strip began to focus on neighbours and friends as well, creating an ever-changing roster of characters.

The comic's main characters were initially based upon Lynn Johnston's real family, but Johnston has made significant changes.[6][7] When her children were younger, she asked their permission before depicting events from their lives;[8] and she only once used a "serious" story from their lives, when Michael and Josef photographed an accident before Michael realized he knew the victim. Unlike Deanna, the real-life victim did not survive[9] Johnston says that she dealt with the bad news of her own infertility, by creating a new child (April Patterson) for the strip.[10]

Key storylines

The fictional suburban town of Milborough is located near Lake Simcoe. On the For Better or For Worse website, Milborough is described as being about a 45-minute to one-hour drive from Toronto and resembling Newmarket or Etobicoke,[11] and a location map places the town on Highway 12 near Cannington and Beaverton in the northernmost part of Durham Region.[12] The family's house is located on Sharon Park Drive.

In the comic's quarter century, the strip has featured a variety of storylines, as the characters and their friends age. These include Elly's return to the paid work force (The Last Straw), John's mid-life crisis, the birth of a friend's six-fingered daughter (Keep The Home Fries Burning), Elizabeth's needing glasses (What, Me Pregnant), friends' divorces and relocating to distant towns, the coming out of Michael's best friend Lawrence Poirier (There Goes My Baby), child abuse (perpetrated by Gordon's alcoholic parents), the death of Elly's mother Marian Richards (Sunshine and Shadow), and Elizabeth's experience with sexual harassment and assault at the hands of a co-worker (Home Sweat Home).

The strip has shown a multiracial cast, but in a way that reflects Canada's geography instead of being preachy or using tokenism. The Pattersons are a middle class white English-speaking family, there have been recurring characters of different backgrounds, including Caribbean immigrants, Asian, Latin American, Franco-Ontarian and First Nations cultures. Elizabeth's favorite high school teacher, who inspired her to study education herself, was paraplegic.

Other issues are also addressed. During her second year at college, Elizabeth moves in with her boyfriend, Eric Chamberlain, insisting that she will maintain her own bedroom. Elizabeth later breaks up with Eric when she finds out he is cheating on her. Storylines sometimes concern the Pattersons dealing with difficult acquaintances such as Thérèse, the ex-wife of Elizabeth's friend Anthony, who resents Elizabeth's presence, or the helicopter parenting of Deanna's mother, Mira Sobinski.

Farley's death

Since the comic happens in real time, it eventually became apparent that the Patterson's first Old English Sheepdog, Farley, was starting to get fairly old. When he is fourteen years old, Farley saves April from drowning in a stream near the Patterson home. Farley cannot take the shock of the cold water or the exertion of saving April and dies of a heart attack.

The death provoked a lot of reaction from fans. "People's emotions were kind of raw," said Johnston of the time. "I received 2,500 letters, about one-third negative. I didn't expect the response to be so great. The letters were open and emotional and honest and personal, full of stories and love."[13]

When Johnston told fellow cartoonist (and close friend) Charles M. Schulz that Farley was going to die, Schulz jokingly "threatened to have Snoopy hit by a truck if Johnston went through with the plan".[14] He thought Snoopy, being more famous, would take the spotlight off Farley. In the end, Johnston kept the timing of Farley's death a secret from Schulz.[14]

The official For Better or For Worse website has a section dedicated to Farley; this includes the strips depicting his heroism and death, plus a selection of "Farley's Spirit" strips.[15] Farley was also named after Canadian author Farley Mowat, a long-time friend of Johnston.

Johnston has allowed the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association (OVMA) to use Farley's name and likeness for the "Farley Foundation", a charity established by OVMA to subsidize the cost of veterinary care for pets of low income seniors and persons with disabilities in Ontario.[16]

Lawrence comes out

Panel showing the coming out of Lawrence to his mother.

In 1993, Lawrence Poirier's coming out generated controversy, with readers opposed to homosexuality threatening to cancel newspaper subscriptions.[17] Johnston did receive supportive mail on the issue generally from social workers and politicians, who praised her for portraying it with realism and avoiding vulgarity. Opposed readers who believed that a homosexual character was highly inappropriate for a family-oriented strip wrote Johnston many letters. While few letters were vicious, Johnston did say that many who opposed the story arc did so in a poignant manner. Johnston said one that was particularly hurtful was from a longtime fan who said she felt it was against her conscience to continue reading the strip; the woman's letter did not have any foul remarks, but the envelope contained returned yellowed FBoFW strips the fan had kept for a long time on her refrigerator.[18] Over 100 newspapers ran replacement strips or cancelled the comic.[19] Johnston's syndicate said that the uproar was greater than they anticipated, and even some homosexuals objected to it on the basis that Johnston was making a fast buck at the expense of their deep personal issues and the Lawrence arc was a way to revitalize her lagging strip, which had been in a ratings slump since 1991.[20] Three years later, Lawrence introduced his boyfriend, giving rise to another, though smaller, uproar.

Explaining her decision to have Lawrence come out as gay, Johnston said that she had found the character, one of Michael's closest friends, gradually "harder and harder to bring... into the picture." Based on the fact the Pattersons were an average family in an average neighborhood, she felt it only natural to introduce this element in Lawrence's character, and have the characters deal with the situation. After two years of development, Johnston contacted her editor, Lee Salem. Salem advised Johnston to send the strips well ahead of time so that he could review the plot and suggest any necessary changes. So long as there was no overt or licentious material, and Johnston was fully aware of what she was doing, Universal Press would support the action. Johnston's personal reflections on Lawrence, an excerpt from the comic collection It's the Thought That Counts..., are included on the strip's official webpage.[21]

One result of the storyline was that Johnston was made a jury-selected "nominated finalist" for the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1994. The Pulitzer board said the strip "sensitively depicted a youth's disclosure of his homosexuality and its effect on his family and friends."[3]

The story goes that Connie adopts a dog to deal with her pre-empty-nest syndrome, and as Michael and Lawrence are talking about her desire for grandchildren, Lawrence mentions that he probably won't be giving her any, and then confesses that he's in a relationship, but with another young man. Michael reacts in disbelief to the news and struggles to understand. Realizing that Lawrence is not "hot for him", Michael understands Lawrence sees him as a friend and not a lover. Michael then insists that Lawrence needs to tell his parents. Lawrence himself is unsure of this, claiming that he really ought to see how his family has thought about homosexuals and that it could be hurtful to them if he comes out, which is not his intent, but Michael retorts, "it'll be a lie if you don't". Hearing the news, Connie reacts with desperate denial, then orders her husband Greg to speak to him. Greg throws Lawrence out of the house, challenging him to see if "his kind" will take care of him the way Connie and Greg have all these years.

In the middle of the night, Elly wakens Michael and tells him to find Lawrence (as he was the primary instigator). Connie and Greg fought for hours over Greg's banishment of Lawrence, and now Connie simply wants Lawrence back. Michael locates his friend at a donut shop, where they talk until dawn, and Lawrence ultimately returns home, welcomed by Connie and an apologetic Greg, who address life afterward with "Que Sera Sera". From this, Connie decides to name the new dog "Sera". Johnston had originally stated she was going to address the issue once then leave it alone, however she went back on her word and made future story arcs about Lawrence's homosexuality, which fueled belief she did it in order to cook up publicity and money.

In 2001, when Michael chose Lawrence to be best man at his wedding to Deanna, Johnston ran two sets of comic strips– one for readers who had not been allowed to read the earlier coming-out story. In the primary storyline, Deanna's mother Mira Sobinski objects to having a gay man in the wedding party, while in the alternate storyline, which used the same art but modified the dialogue, she instead objects to the flowers that Lawrence, by this time a professional landscape architect, has given Michael and Deanna to decorate the church.

In 2007 when she was asked about why she did the storyline, Johnston said

Because it was such a good story. For me Lawrence had always been particularly [long pause] I don't know: gentle, unique, sensitive. It just seemed right – he just always appeared that way to me. Plus, I've had a number of friends who were gay, and what made me decide to do this story was that one of them [Michael Boncoeur] was murdered. Michael was a wonderful comedy writer for the CBC, and I had known him since we were in about Grade 8, and when Michael was murdered the authorities in Toronto reacted to it in a very cavalier manner – like "Well, that's one more of them off the streets." In the end, the young man who took a knife to him [following a scuffle over his bicycle] was ultimately seen as the victim.

His death really prompted that story, because I wanted people to know that this young man, that you've grown up with for so many years, is still the same person. Just because his sexual orientation is suddenly different, he's still the young man who helped you in the garden, helped carry your groceries and sat with you when you cried at school.[22]


Mtigwaki is a fictional Ojibwe community in Northern Ontario near Lake Nipigon, where Elizabeth Patterson taught from 2004 to 2006.[23] While in school, Elizabeth took a practice teaching job in Garden Village near North Bay.

The community was created with Baloney & Bannock comic creator Perry McLeod-Shabogesic, of the N'biising Nation (Anishinabek Crane Clan). McLeod-Shabogesic collaborated with Johnston to create an authentic world for the characters to inhabit. His son, Falcon Skye McLeod-Shabogesic, created the Mtigwaki First Nation's logo, which is inspired in part by a dreamcatcher, and his wife Laurie assisted Johnston with the Ojibwa language and was written directly into the strip as a teaching assistant in Elizabeth's classroom.

For the series of strips in Mtigwaki, Johnston was awarded the Debwewin Citation for excellence in Aboriginal issues journalism by the Union of Ontario Indians in 2004.[24]

2007 and 2008 changes

Johnston had planned to retire in the fall of 2007,[25] but in January 2007, she announced that she instead would be tweaking her strip's format beginning September 2007. Storylines would now focus primarily on the second-generation family of one of the original children; scenes and artwork from older strips would be reused in new contexts; and the characters would stop aging.[26] Johnston announced that the changes were to provide more time for travel and to accommodate health problems, including a neurological condition (dystonia) she controlled with medication.[1]

In September 2007, Johnston said she and her husband, Rod, are separated and probably would divorce, telling the Kansas City Star,

... I have a new life. My husband and I have separated. I am now free to do just about anything I want to do. We still communicate. We still have children in common. It’s a positive thing for both of us. And I just see so many things in the future.

But when asked if this would be a storyline for the strip, Johnston replied, "No, not a chance. I only want to live through this once."[27] Johnston said in September 2007 that she would continue to produce new installments.[28]

The changes in the strip over the next year were not major, although, as announced, the stories did focus more on Michael, Elizabeth and April than on Elly and John.

During the summer of 2008, Elizabeth and Anthony carry out their wedding plans, which culminate in a ceremony that takes place in late August. This joyous occasion is marred by a crisis: Grandpa Jim has had another heart attack. Elizabeth hears about this after the ceremony and visits her grandfather and her step-grandmother, Iris, in the hospital. Jim is hanging on and responding with his post-stroke responses of "yes" and "no". In the final daily strip, Iris gives advice to Elizabeth and Anthony, who are both touched by her devotion to Jim. The strip concluded with Iris saying "It's a promise that should last a lifetime. It defines you as a person and describes your soul. It's a promise to be there, one for the other, no matter what happens, no matter who falls ... For better or for worse, my dears ... for better or for worse". This final daily strip had a message from Lynn Johnston saying, "This concludes my story ... with grateful thanks to everyone who has made this all possible. ~Lynn Johnston".

The Sunday strip on August 31, 2008 revealed what each character would do in years to come. Elly and John retire to travel, volunteer in the community, and help raise their four grandchildren. Elizabeth continues to teach. She and Anthony have a child, James Allen, presumably named in honor of his great-grandfather Jim Richards. Grandpa Jim lives to welcome the child, then passes away at age 89 with Iris at his bedside. Anthony continues to manage Mayes Motors and its various related businesses, introduces Elizabeth to ballroom dancing, and hopes to eventually open a bed-and-breakfast. Michael has four books published before signing a film contract. Deanna opens a sewing school and teaches Robin how to cook. Meredith enters dance and theatre. April graduates from university with a degree in veterinary medicine. Following her established love of horses, she gets a job in Calgary working with the Calgary Stampede, continues to live in western Canada, and has an unnamed boyfriend there.


In the last panel of the strip's original run (August 31, 2008), along with a caricature of herself at the drawing table, Lynn Johnston thanked everyone for supporting her and concluded with, "If I could do it all over again... Would I do some things differently?... I've been given the chance to find out!! Please join me on Monday as the story begins again... With new insights and new smiles. Looking back looks wonderful!"

The next day, September 1, For Better or For Worse ran as usual, but Michael was once again a small boy, asking his young mother, Elly, to get him a puppy. This began what Johnston called "new-runs", restarting her storyline with a roughly 50/50 mixture of reruns of early strips, and re-workings of 1980s strips that featured the original artwork (sometimes slightly retouched) with new dialogue. The time frame appeared to be 29 years before the present day; the family is correspondingly younger. Michael looks to be about five or six years old, Elizabeth is a small child learning to talk, and the family is also raising a puppy.[29]

For the next 22 months, the strip ran in this format. On July 12, 2010, without fanfare, the strip quietly switched to straight reruns of material from the 1980s. However, these straight reruns have had slight alterations as well. The daily strips, which were originally inked, have been digitally colorized. In the December 31, 2012 installment, dialogue that referred to the initial date of publication (1984) was altered, so that the strip was seen to be taking place in the present day. Another slight touch up to show a present-day timeline is where a child Michael invites his friends over to play on a video game console he recently got as a present and they are seen using a Nintendo Wii; in the original strip a second generation video game console was played. Some strips have had altered panels, in particular those dealing with child discipline, because of the increased social and cultural opposition to corporal punishment. Occasionally in the original strips Michael or Elizabeth would be spanked. The new strips have modified the artwork to eliminate the device of stars coming out children's butts denoting the after-effect of a spanking, or in certain cases, have made a whole new panel to change the punishment to a "time out" (being made to sit in a corner or like isolation) instead of a spanking.

Cartoonist Stephan Pastis poked fun at Johnston's decision in his comic strip Pearls Before Swine. In the strip, Pig referred to For Better or For Worse as "that great strip that was gonna retire, but then did not, then started running repeats, then did not, then ran new ones, but then fixed up the old ones, and now is gonna run new old un-new new ones".


The strip is perhaps best known for the fact that, unlike most comic strips, it took place more or less in real time for most of its run. Michael and Elizabeth were a young child and a toddler at the strip's beginning, and by the end had grown into adults, with Michael married and raising his own children while Elizabeth married at the end of the strip. Youngest child April was born 11 years into the strip's run and was roughly 16 at the strip's conclusion.

During its run, the strip was also celebrated for its realism, eschewing cartoon stereotypes in favor of a nuanced, relatable look at typical adult, child and teen concerns. A storyline in which a supporting character came out as gay cemented this reputation, as well as various stories dealing with prejudice, bullying, the mentally and physically handicapped, theft, cheating and abuse. The Pattersons were often shown as a good, "normal" family, often forced to deal with others from broken homes or worse situations.


Animated series and specials

In 1985, Atkinson Film-Arts of Ottawa, in association with the CTV Television Network, produced an animated Christmas special based on For Better or for Worse entitled The Bestest Present. In the United States, it was first broadcast on HBO, and in later years, on The Disney Channel. Lynn's own children, Aaron and Katie, provided the voices of Michael and Elizabeth, and Rod Johnston made a cameo appearance as the voice of a mailman.

Beginning in 1992, another Ottawa-based studio, Lacewood Productions, produced six more specials, also for CTV. In the United States, these were seen on The Disney Channel. According to Lynn Johnston, the set designs (for instance, for the Patterson's house) which these and subsequent TV programs required led her to develop a much more sophisticated background style in the comic strips, with the layouts of homes and even towns consistent from story to story.

The six specials produced by Lacewood were:

In 2000, Ottawa's Funbag Animation produced a new animated series for cable TV network Teletoon, which began airing on November 5, 2000,[30] and ran until December 16, 2001.[31] Featuring introductions by Lynn Johnston herself, the show looked at three related storylines from three different eras of the strip—the 1980s, the 1990s, and the 2000s.

The series consisted of two seasons with eight episodes each. On March 23, 2004, Koch Vision released the complete series on DVD.


In 2001, Visual Arts Brampton's Artway Gallery exhibited Johnston's work.


  1. 1 2 3 Popular Cartoon Will Stay On — As Old/New Hybrid, a Universal Press Syndicate news release
  2. Although some other comic strips feature aging, including Gasoline Alley, Doonesbury, Funky Winkerbean, Baby Blues, and Jump Start, they are usually not aged contemporaneously with the strip.
  3. 1 2 The Pulitzer Prize Nominated Finalists Retrieved 10 October 2007. Archived March 23, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  4. Past Lulu Awards Winners from the Friends of Lulu website
  5. Eisner/Miller, Dark Horse Books, 2005, p.222
  6. Aaron Johnston wrote: "[T]he strip, though based in part on our family and our personalities during the early years, mostly comes from Lynn's own imagination. … I think that in the late '80s and early 90s there was a real split … [i]nstead of being a reflection of our family, they truly became Lynn's own imaginary family with a life all their own." - Suddenly Silver: Celebrating 25 Years of For Better or For Worse
  7. "Elizabeth is me at the age of two melting crayons on the radiator; Michael is me at the age of six feeling jealousy and rage at the coddling of a younger sibling." - from A Look Inside For Better or For Worse: The 10th Anniversary Collection by Lynn Johnston.
  8. Aaron Johnston relates being asked for permission to use his experiences with wearing glasses in the strip in Suddenly Silver. Aaron "dreaded" Michael getting glasses, and suggested that Elizabeth get them instead.
  9. Tobin, Suzanne (October 8, 2004). "Comics: Meet the Artist". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2007-06-30.
  10. Described by Johnston in All About April
  11. "is The Official Website of Lynn Johnston's comic strip For Better or For Worse". Archived from the original on 2012-01-19. Retrieved 2012-01-19.
  12. "Who's Who: Your official guide to the characters who make up the FBorFW universe". Archived from the original on 2012-02-19. Retrieved 2012-01-19.
  13. Neutering Edgar, Gina Spadafori
  14. 1 2 Good Grief! Author Describes Bio of Charles M. Schulz — And Oldest Son Offers Critique from the Editor & Publisher website
  15. Remembering Farley on the "For Better or For Worse" official website.
  16. "Farley Foundation". Farley Foundation. Retrieved 2012-01-19.
  17. The Lynn Johnston Interview, Hogan's Alley #1, 1994
  18. "CBC: Life is a comic strip". 2008-01-06. Archived from the original on 2008-01-06. Retrieved 2012-01-19.
  19. Zucco, Tom. "Comic controversy", St. Petersburg Times, Sept. 4, 2001. Johnston's web site says that about 40 newspapers ran replacement strips.
  20. The Lee Salem Interview, Hogan's Alley #7
  21. Official website
  22. "Family affair". CBC News. Archived from the original on 2011-03-15.
  23. More information about Mtigwaki and how it was created is available on the official website.
  24. Deirdre Tombs, "Cartoonist's ordinary Native people celebrated". Windspeaker, 2005.
  25. "''For Better or For Worse comic winding down'', CTV News, Sept 24, 2007". Retrieved 2012-01-19.
  26. Brad Mackay, "Family affair: Lynn Johnston winds down her famous comic strip", Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) News, August 24, 2007
  27. "Lynn Johnston's For Better or for Worse will continue in flashback form", The Kansas City Star, September 7, 2007
  28. "End of Marriage Leads to New Content in Revamped Strip", Editor & Publisher, September 7, 2007.
  29. "is The Official Website of Lynn Johnston's comic strip For Better or For Worse". 2008-08-30. Archived from the original on 2012-02-07. Retrieved 2012-01-19.
  31. "Television Program Logs". Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. 2016-03-02. Archived from the original on 2016-05-16.
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