For Better or For Worse

Is there any omen more distressing than getting married on the same day as a character from the comic strip For Better or For Worse? Josh Fischel thinks not.

Fourteen months ago, I asked my wife to marry me. Once the summer was over and we’d moved into our apartment in Somerville, we unsuspectingly settled on a date: August 23, 2008. And so we started on our inexorable path towards one of my worst fears, right up there with being slowly eaten by pterodactyls, which is to have anything in common with any of the characters in For Better or For Worse, the most maudlin comic strip in the history of the universe.

For Better or For Worse is a Canadian strip, and thus has always felt slightly foreign to me. It revolves around the Patterson family, based not loosely on cartoonist Lynn Johnston’s own family. I’ve always imagined its most faithful readers to be jolly women with inspirational posters at work and embroidered throw pillows at home—the type of woman who could have ardently supported Hillary Clinton, but became a fierce devotee to Sarah Palin.

I read it because it’s the equivalent of rubbernecking on a highway, but without, you know, the actual tragedy. While it used to be relatively harmless—sort of a Cathy meets Calvin & Hobbes, with puns for punch lines—For Better or For Worse years ago jumped the shark to tackle serious issues (a tertiary character comes out, a beloved dog dies after saving the youngest Patterson from drowning; there’s divorce and attempted sexual assault and a house fire and copious teenage angst), with a precious helping of treacle. The family members—parents John and Elly, and kids Michael, Elizabeth, and April—seem as untouchably righteous (and, if it’s possible, less funny) as the characters from TV’s Full House.

Imagine my horror, then, when I read an interview with Johnston in which she said that Elizabeth would get married in the strip on August 23, 2008. Had we not already sent out invitations, I would’ve tried to change the wedding date. I guess it’s akin to my hypothesis that the least popular day for procreative sex is December 11, because no one wants their kid’s birthday associated with terrorist attacks. In the same way, I feared that my own wedding would be forever linked with the queasy coupling of Elizabeth Patterson and her insufferable beau, Anthony Kaine.

A quick review for those who don’t know: Anthony has hungrily lusted after Elizabeth since junior high; they dated briefly here and there, but nothing ever really worked out, and after a while, Anthony gave up and married Marie-Thérèse, a hateful bitch whose presence in the strip served no other purpose than to divorce Anthony, largely because of his fanatical attachment to Elizabeth. In the series of strips of their wedding, Marie-Thérèse is shown immediately post-ceremony asking a mustached Anthony, “Your friend Elizabeth is with a very handsome man. Are you jealous?”, to which her new husband lamely replies, “Thérèse, don’t. Not now.” Their relationship was about as romantic as watching Emperor Palpatine court young Anakin Skywalker to the Dark Side. Somehow, it produced a daughter.

Once Liz had returned to her hometown—after breaking up with her part-Indian, all-hunky policeman boyfriend from northern Ontario, Paul Wright, and refusing to get back together with her old, debonair helicopter-pilot ex-flame, Warren Blackwood, the wheels were set in motion for Liz to make the safest, lamest choice she could: Anthony Caine. Anthony, who manages the garage of yet another Patterson Family friend, Gordon Mayes—a made-up character who could have any job, and he is the manager of a garage. This sort of thing earned him the nickname Blanthony from readers of the snarky website The Comics Curmudgeon.

Anthony is actually representative of the biggest problem with For Better or For Worse: it’s petty and infuriatingly boring. John Patterson is a dentist and a model railroad enthusiast. April martyred herself for Shannon Lake, her special needs friend, by announcing in the school cafeteria, “Quiet, everyone! Shannon Lake wants to say something!” Shannon then takes three days worth of strips to say this (I’ve removed the ellipses in the interest of space):

“I want to say stop! Stop making fun of us! We’re dif’rent from you but, so what?!! Don’t give us a hard time. Give us a chance! You tease me about the way I talk! I was born with a cleft palate! They couldn’t fix it until I was four! I had to learn how to speak all over again and that is why I talk like this. I can’t change the way I talk, but you can change the way you listen!! Kids with special needs are people, too! We have a lot to offer! Get to know us! Don’t tease us! Please! Enough is enough!”

Implausibly, this is met by rousing applause and cheers of “Woohooo!!”, “Yesss!”, and “Yah!” from the Canadian adolescents.

This, my friends, is boring. I don’t enjoy reading a comic strip that tries to make me feel guilty for pleasure; like a devoted liberal listening to Rush Limbaugh (which I am and which I do), I only read it to enjoy the anger it inspires.

What’s worst is that, of all the Pattersons, Elizabeth had a chance to be more exciting. Lynn let her out of the exurbs of Toronto long enough for her to travel north to teach in Mtigwaki, a native village—sure, the stories from up there could be equally hokey, but it was something different, at least.

O, how mortifying to share our wedding day with characters in the most predictable, terrible comic strip ever committed to ink! What would people think when we told them the date of our anniversary and they recoiled, ever so slightly. “Oh,” they’d say, searching each other’s eyes for diplomatic words. “That’s the day—Isn’t that when—?”

In the weeks leading up to our wedding, I read For Better or For Worse closely, searching for ways to differentiate our nuptials from theirs. Here’s what I found out about the Patterson/Caine proceedings:

  • Everyone started getting dressed for the ceremony and reception on August 4, 2008, a full nineteen days before they needed to.
  • John Patterson hates the very idea of wearing a tuxedo. “I look like a clown in this bow tie,” he whines to his youngest daughter. April explains that he has to wear one because “Anthony’s uncle owns the business!” Really? The uncle can’t be, like, an assassin? Maybe a moose?
  • Everyone seems to contribute something—Lawrence, the token gay man (and, as it happens, token African-Canadian) does the flowers. Gordon’s garage arranges for six (six?!) limousines. Weed, Mike’s childhood friend, who happens to be a professional photographer, takes pictures. Anthony’s mother makes the freaking cake.
  • One of the bridesmaids suggests before the wedding, “Let’s make a pact, girls. We are gonna be friends forever, OK? No matter what happens…” They respond in unison, “Friends forever! Forever! Forever!!!” This strikes me as a terribly weird thing to do before the wedding, especially if all the bridesmaids knew each other before. Do weddings usually mark the end of friendships, since the wives reconcile themselves to living only for their men?

Exactly a week before the wedding, Jazzy Uncle Phil (so named because he is a jazz musician), phones from the hospital that Elly’s father, Grandpa Jim, has had a heart attack. Finally, I thought. Something to prevent the wedding from happening!

I was briefly gleeful. Then, my mother called me up to tell me that my grandmother, Beatrice, was in the hospital—she’d fallen and cracked her pelvis. Well, shit. Not only was my grandmother—the Feisty Old Lady, as she enjoys being called—suffering, but we seemed to be helplessly merging with a terribly crappy story line. Fortunately, Bea’s injury ended up being non-life-threatening; unfortunately, so was Grandpa Jim’s. His heart attack was a red herring, an excuse for the newly married couple to rush to the hospital and hear generational advice from Jim’s second wife, Iris: “We made a commitment—just as you did today—and although it’s not easy,” blah blah blah.

Still, the synergy of events made me wonder if a lot of weddings are doomed to fall into familiar patterns, something The Bygone Bureau has railed against in the past.

I was relieved, though, that the actual For Better or For Worse ceremony—which, requiring the space of the Sunday funnies, took place on Sunday, August 24—adhered to the strip’s form, providing enough distance for me to feel comfortable. Their minister offered nothing but platitudes. “Marriage is a challenge, but so, too…it is love. Marriage is patience and giving and caring and faith,” etc, etc.

My wife and I got married in her grandparents’ backyard, overlooking the ocean. We made a chuppa out of driftwood that we found on a beach in Maine. A man played the Dobro for us during the ceremony, and we replaced readings from 1st Corinthians with a one-page Dave Eggers story and two poems we found by skimming the poetry section at a Barnes & Noble for an afternoon. Our guests drank sangria we’d made earlier that afternoon before the ceremony started. We arrived at the reception wearing aviators and entered the tent to “Sabotage.” Sure, plenty of staid traditions made their appearance—we largely kept to the usual order of events, and I stepped on a glass to seal the deal—but it felt so much better because A) the ceremony felt very much like our own and B) unlike Elizabeth Patterson, I was marrying the right person.

Lynn Johnston didn’t even give her readers the opportunity to become more comfortable with her ill-conceived union; the strip ended its story line with Elizabeth and Anthony’s visit to Grandpa Jim at the hospital. We didn’t see them celebrating at their reception, or going on a honeymoon; presumably, finally free of the inevitable march of events, Johnston could have relaxed their relationship and maybe even made it seem easy, unforced. Instead, they merely fulfilled their gloomy obligations and were left in perpetual tuxedo and gown, as though trapped in a snow globe, unable to escape their perfect boredom.

On the last Sunday in August, Lynn produced one more long strip, telling us what became of her characters down the road. “Elizabeth,” she wrote, “continues to work as a teacher. She’s devoted to her work and to her family, loving Anthony more each day.” This seems to imply that, even though she and Anthony have been friends and/or more-than-friends for nearly two decades, it’s taken some work to figure out that her marriage to him was anything more than a desperate impulse on her part. “Anthony,” Lynn concluded, “manages the Mayes Motors empire, has drawn his bride into ballroom dancing [which is how he met Marie-Thérèse, incidentally], and looks forward someday to opening a small bed-and-breakfast.”

I take solace in the fact that my future might not be so pat as to be able to be described in a single panel of a comic strip, and I take an equal measure of satisfaction in knowing that this iteration of the international nightmare that is the Patterson family’s lives is no longer.

Josh Fischel lives near Boston with his wife and their dog. He teaches sixth grade humanities, and has been published in The New York Times, The Believer, and Bean Soup.