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Crossovers and Changeovers: Reading Lynn Johnston through Margaret Mahy

By Sam Hester

Figure 1. “Hester and Elly.” © 2007 Sam Hester.

On March 21, 2006, Margaret Mahy celebrated her 70th birthday, during a weekend of celebration that one publisher called “the weekend New Zealand children’s literature came of age” (Garrett). One month later, on April 28, 2006, “For Better Or For Worse” character Michael Patterson celebrated his 30th birthday while comics readers across the world watched the “coming of age” of someone they’d known since his childhood. It might seem unlikely that Mahy and “For Better Or For Worse” creator Lynn Johnston could share anything more in common than, perhaps, the popularity enjoyed by any author who has been publishing for decades. However, the fact that Mahy and Johnston are members of (respectively) the Orders of New Zealand and Canada – the highest civilian honors those nations can bestow – offers a clue to a less apparent similarity between the two authors. These awards recognize the significance of their oeuvres as representative of, and contributing to, their countries. For thousands of readers worldwide, Mahy’s name is immediately associated with New Zealand, just as “For Better or For Worse” is synonymous with “Canada”. Despite this recognition by readers, a national setting has not always featured prominently in either Mahy’s or Johnston’s work. This discussion will look at the development of the Canadian setting in “For Better Or For Worse,” examining Johnston’s journey with reference to Mahy’s well-documented evolution as a New Zealand writer.

Margaret Mahy, a New Zealand native, is a two-time Carnegie Medal winner and author of over a hundred children’s and young adult books. First published in 1969, Mahy’s recent accolades include the 2005 Phoenix Award for her novel The Catalogue of the Universe, and the 2006 Hans Christian Andersen Medal.

In 1978, Universal Press Syndicate offered Canadian comics creator Lynn Johnston an unheard-of twenty-year contract to produce the newspaper strip that would become known as “For Better or For Worse,” unfolding in “real time” and taking a generation of readers along with it. She has been creating the strip for almost thirty years, and in 2004, announced plans to draw it to a close in September 2007.

The title for this crossover study has been stolen from Mahy’s 1984 Carnegie Medal-winning novel The Changeover. In that story, the young heroine, Laura Chant, looks across the schoolyard and meets the eyes of the mysterious Sorensen Carlisle, recognizing him for what he is: a witch. With this moment of recognition, the wheels are set in motion for the magical transformation described in The Changeover. As a fan of Mahy, as well as a reader of “For Better Or For Worse”, I sometimes wondered whether, if Mahy and Johnston happened to glance at each other across, not a schoolyard, but the wider divides of genre and nationality, they might, like Laura and Sorry Carlisle, experience some silent, flashing glimpse of recognition and understanding. I observed that they seemed to have something unique in common: they were writers whose work had undergone a magical transformation of its own, over the years, as it shifted to incorporate a heightened sense – even a celebration – of setting.

Figure 2. “He’s a Witch.” © 2007 Sam Hester.

No Real Clues

“You’d think,” says Mahy, interviewed in a 2005 article, “[that] you’d automatically be able to write about the place you’ve lived in all your life – but the stories I’d had read to me as a child [set predominantly in the United Kingdom] somehow disinherited me” (Larsen). Elsewhere, she has explained: “the landscape in which I had grown up and the idiom I heard every day seemed somehow unnatural to me…” (Ridge). Mahy’s changeover from a writer laboring under what she has called an “imaginative displacement” (Ghost 32) from her native New Zealand, to a writer who, decades later, was able to say that she “felt quite triumphant over writing a story set in [her] own country” (Mahy, Interview, HarperCollins), has been well documented, in numerous interviews, as well as in her own book of essays and criticism, A Dissolving Ghost, and Tessa Duder’s 2005 biography, Margaret Mahy: A Writer’s Life.

Mahy writes, “For a variety of reasons, partly because my own childhood reading was so predominantly British, my first stories were set in nowhere – or rather, in that place where all stories co-exist, where story is nothing but itself” (Ghost 13). However, Mahy’s settings began increasingly to incorporate elements of a New Zealand setting, although initially, these elements were not necessarily apparent to readers. Mahy has said of her 1982 novel The Haunting: “In my mind the characters… lived in New Zealand, though there is no real clue to this in the story…” (Ridge).

Figure 3. For Better Or For Worse. © 1982 Lynn Johnston Productions. Used courtesy of the cartoonist & Universal Press Syndicate. All Rights Reserved.

In the same way, most of the early “For Better Or For Worse” strips provide readers with “no real clue” that they are set in Canada. Typical images show the interior of the Patterson family home, where Elly does housework, enjoys a cup of coffee with a friend, or tucks her children into bed at night. Johnston explains that, “in the beginning… I only had a house, two kids, a dog, wife and husband to ‘work with'” (“Responses”). When she was first offered her contract, Lynn Johnston famously held out for a Canadian setting (Tobin). But despite the fact that she was describing a Canadian family, its lifestyle was not one that often took readers beyond its neighborhood. Johnston acknowledges: “During the early years…the strip rarely advanced past the inner goings-on of the Patterson household” (Lives 6). As the characters aged, however, and their lives spread out across the country, “For Better Or For Worse” began to include allusions to more specific avenues of history and culture.

As I observed what looked like a trend towards a heightened sense of the Canadian setting in “For Better Or For Worse,” I wondered if Johnston’s journey had anything in common with Mahy’s. Had Johnston struggled to come to terms with her home setting, after grappling with an “imaginative displacement”? Mahy’s “displacement” is accredited (in a 2004 interview) in part to “the default assumption then, [when Mahy was a child] and for a long time afterwards, …that New Zealand experiences were less interesting and valuable than British or European ones” (Ridge 2004). Contributing to this kind of assumption was the absence of a solid oeuvre of New Zealand writing. Mahy explains elsewhere: “Other contemporary New Zealand writers also had difficulty in writing about New Zealand at that time, partly because there was so little to draw on. The indigenous writing of the 1930s and 1940s was very self-conscious” (Eccleshare). As Mahy says of her reaction to this literary climate: “I didn’t imaginatively believe my own New Zealand stories in the ways I believed in the fantasies and such things that I’d been writing” (Larsen).

Some aspects of New Zealand’s developing literary climate could be said to have had their parallels in Canada. Jennifer Andrews has written that the respected Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock “may have believed that Canadian humour… was better positioned to compete on the world stage when it was not overtly defined as Canadian” (“Humouring”). A traditional view of Canada’s cultural output was expressed by British children’s literature critic John Rowe Townsend in 1976: “Canada, in children’s books as in much else [including, presumably, comics], remains in the American shadow” (210). Did Lynn Johnston keep her Canadian setting in the background at the outset of “For Better Or For Worse” (I wondered), owing to what Mahy has spoken of as “insidious social reinforcement” (Writer’s Life 52) leading to a “default assumption” that American (along with “British or European”) experiences were more interesting or valuable than Canadian ones?

In recent years, comics that tell distinctly Canadian stories (such as Chester Brown’s graphic novel Louis Riel and Seth’s Clyde Fans) have begun to enjoy wide acclaim. Was it possible that the more recent “For Better Or For Worse” strips, with their celebration of setting, marked an arrival or homecoming for Johnston as an “unselfconscious” Canadian writer?1

Figure 4. “Why I Wrote this Far-Fetched Essay.” © 2007 Sam Hester.

Johnston concurs: “Yes, …Mahy’s story sounds like mine. Perhaps we are similar in that we are producing a lot of material and ‘what we know best’ is where we go for our resources.” However, whereas Mahy has passionately advocated the need in New Zealand for “stories with local content and local idiom to help… children become New Zealanders” (Writer’s Life 113), Johnston denies feeling a sense of responsibility to write about Canada. “I make this small sequential glimpse into a family history as believable and ‘hospitable’ as possible – and it ‘just happens’ to take place in my country – Canada!” (“Responses”). If there has been any homecoming in “For Better Or For Worse,” it has not been for Johnston but for her readers – welcomed, as they have been, first into the Pattersons’ living room, and later, into their country. This discussion will suggest that although the settings in “For Better Or For Worse,” and in Mahy’s oeuvre, have evolved in a similar fashion, the reasons for this development have not been the same. Mahy’s evolution as a writer seems to have involved an inward journey, linked with a need to come to terms with her roots as a New Zealand storyteller; for Johnston, however, always confident in her sense of a Canadian setting, it was a matter of recording a family’s outward progress from a neighborhood to a nation. I offer a general outline of this development here, along with an invitation to scholars to take a closer look at Johnston’s brilliant and complex storytelling.

Fifteen Kilometres & A Two-Cent Piece

In A Dissolving Ghost, Mahy has noted with satisfaction that the work of New Zealand authors is becoming less self-conscious and “increasingly free of unnaturally deliberate reference” to New Zealand settings (33). Mahy herself can certainly not be accused of having made unnaturally deliberate references to New Zealand in her early work. On the contrary, early stories were praised by overseas publishers because “nobody could tell” that the books were New Zealand books (Writer’s Life 115), while simultaneously rejected by local publishers who “wrote… back notes saying, we don’t think they’re sufficiently New Zealand in their content to enable us to publish them” (102). Mahy was inclined to steer clear of any specific references to New Zealand – a seemingly self-imposed restriction which undoubtedly presented a tricky situation whenever details about setting became necessary. For example, 1985’s The Catalogue of the Universe, according to Mahy, is set in “a version of Christchurch” (Larsen), but like her earlier novel The Haunting, it provides readers with “no real clue” to this location. However, midway through The Catalogue, we find a single reference to “three two-cent pieces” (96). To me, a Canadian reader who had been trying unsuccessfully to guess the story’s seemingly generic setting, this detail suggested that The Catalogue was probably a British book badly edited for American readers. In this case, a single discreet reference was more confusing than an upfront, unapologetic New Zealand setting would have been.

Figure 5. “Two-cent pieces.” © 2007 Sam Hester.

However, as Mahy recounted in a 2004 interview: “I began, as time went by, to move into a natural relationship with my immediate surroundings” (Ridge). Fittingly, Mahy’s definitive move is found in the celebrated opening lines of her novel The Changeover, which describe the heroine, Laura, taking a shower: “Although the label on the hair shampoo said Paris …it was forced to tell the truth in tiny print under the picture. Made in New Zealand, it said…” (1). The word forced suggests that the shampoo bottle, in announcing its origins, is performing a regretful duty. By placing New Zealand in direct contrast with the glamorous city of Paris, Mahy clearly establishes not only the story’s setting, but Laura’s underlying feeling of resignation with being “made in New Zealand”. The narrator goes on (with, one senses, some degree of sympathy) to describe Laura’s resignation: “These were facts of everyday life, and being made in New Zealand was another” (1).

Figure 6. “Paris.” © 2007 Sam Hester.

However, despite any resignation felt by Laura or the narrator, The Changeover’s bold, front-page assertion that “being made in New Zealand” was a “fact of everyday life” was a departure: a changeover of sorts for Mahy as a writer, and a challenging invitation to her readers to cross over into unknown territory. As Anna Smith writes of an empowering metamorphosis from Mahy’s novel The Tricksters: “Through naming her experiences, [the heroine] can transform them and make them new” (56). With one mention of New Zealand, Mahy sets the whole tone for the novel and simultaneously does away with any need to mention the subject further. She liberates herself from a “self-consciousness about details” which she has described as arising from “always [having] to be aware that… readers cannot take their settings for granted” (Danielson); after an opening statement like that one, Mahy can mention all the two-cent pieces she likes and not feel self-conscious at all.

Figure 7. For Better Or For Worse. © 1982 Lynn Johnston Productions. Used courtesy of the cartoonist & Universal Press Syndicate. All Rights Reserved.

Johnston doesn’t have this option: owing to the serial nature of “For Better Or For Worse,” readers might not catch all the strips which advance storylines about the Pattersons’ life in Canada. Though often establishing her setting firmly within one strip, Johnston has faced the challenge particular to a newspaper strip, of constantly re-establishing it when those particular four panels become yesterday’s news. For readers who are not paying close attention, occasional early references to Canada, such as a solitary road sign posted in kilometres, could be as distracting as a two-cent piece.

Johnston has said, “In a comic strip, you have to hook the readers a little bit, day by day” (Hogan’s Alley). Johnston has had to walk a fine line between avoiding “unnaturally deliberate references,” and consciously introducing vital elements of setting that became necessary as the story evolved. “As Michael and Elizabeth grew up,” writes Johnston, “they needed room to grow!” (“Responses”).

Hooking the Reader Day by Day

Figure 8. “They’re All Over.” © 2007 Sam Hester.

Like Laura Chant’s changeover, Johnston’s incorporation of an authentic Canadian setting into her strip has been not so much a shift in nature, but rather an outward manifestation of qualities that were always understood, though unspoken. Regarding the Pattersons’ evolution, we could borrow a phrase from Mahy’s novel The Tricksters, when she observes about the heroine’s family that “the changes had been there, planted in their family life, ready to occur in the right season” (303). Johnston says of the Pattersons: “They changed when they were ready to change” (Lives 6).

For the first three years, the Patterson children stayed the same age. However, Johnston explains, “I’m not a gag-a-day cartoonist. …After an incident that provoked a smile, my mind begged ‘and THEN what happened?'” (“Responses”). The story began to unfold in “real time.” When Michael Patterson declared in 1983: “I think I’ll stay seven forever!” (Little 76), it was in defiance of an acute awareness, by then undeniable to both Michael and the reader: he was growing up. Johnston’s pursuit of “and THEN what happened” pushed the story forward, thus “breaking the stasis that has kept [the story] pinned to the endless repetition of one moment in history” – to borrow a phrase from Ruth Feingold’s essay on Mahy’s New Zealand setting (218). Feingold is describing the emotional breakthroughs in Mahy’s novel The Tricksters which allow for progress, change, and growth to enter the life of the heroine’s family. Johnston’s pursuit of the Pattersons’ progress would set “For Better Or For Worse” apart from other daily strips, which, “set in nowhere” like Mahy’s early stories, ultimately did find themselves limited by the “endless repetition of one moment in history.” It should be noted that the fact that Johnston’s characters age in time, although a hallmark of the strip, is not a device unique to “For Better Or For Worse”: Frank King’s classic strip “Gasoline Alley” also featured characters who aged, as have other contemporary strips such as Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury.”

By giving her strip a realistic Canadian setting, even in the days when the Patterson family never left their neighborhood, Johnston had at her fingertips a wealth of material to draw on when she felt it necessary. However – where in Canada does “For Better Or For Worse” take place? I conducted an informal survey of readers who knew that the strip was set in Canada. A typical response ran along the following lines: “Of course – I know those people! I read that strip every day! They’ve got relatives in Winnipeg… and now What’s-her-name’s teaching up north… but where they live? I have no idea” (Ross). The fact that no one guessed that the Pattersons’ home on Sharon Park Drive is in the fictional town of Milborough, Ontario, is surely a situation of which Johnston is aware and could amend if she desired. Instead, she chooses to keep Milborough in the background.

Unlike Mahy, for whom acclaim coincided with the confidence to write about the settings she knew, Johnston found that recognition brought the need for privacy. She decided on a fictional location “in order to protect our privacy, our children and my own sense of proportion” (“Responses”). In her 20th-anniversary anthology The Lives between the Lines, she explains that “in my mind, this town is a composite of all the places that I have lived” (10) and places it “somewhere in southern Ontario, Canada” (9). At the time of that anthology’s publication in 1999, however, the town appears still to have been unnamed. Early strips confirm that the Pattersons live in Ontario (Little 68), and a 1986 strip depicts Elly exclaiming with delight that her friend Connie is “moving back to Scarborough” (Downhill 82), but in general the Pattersons’ home is depicted as existing in a seemingly generic suburbia. The name “Milborough” first appears, to my knowledge, in 2004 (Wink 105) – presumably at a point when a nameless town had become inconsistent with the rest of the Pattersons’ increasingly well-conceived environment.

References to Setting in “For Better of For Worse”

My search for references to setting in “For Better Or For Worse” gradually evolved into the table shown here – ironically, a rather rigid format for a study that was intended simply to suggest a general trend in “Canadian content.” As my search progressed, I found it useful to distinguish four different types of reference. The first three, “direct,” “cultural,” and “ambiguous,” are discussed here; the fourth, “Mtigwaki,” which refers to Johnston’s invented northern Ontario native community of that name, is discussed near the end of this analysis.

Figure 9. References to Setting in For Better Or For Worse. © 2007 Sam Hester.

Direct References

The red lines indicate what I have called “direct” references: clear, unambiguous references to Canada that should be evident to most non-Canadian readers. Examples include a picture of a Canadian flag or a reference to a Canadian city like Toronto or Winnipeg: “They’re living in TORONTO!!!” (Ring 59). Less well-known locations such as Parry Sound, Marathon, and Sturgeon Falls have also been considered “direct” references, because although they may not be as well known, they still constitute references which locate “For Better Or For Worse” within Canada – they are all real places that a reader, if he or she were so inclined, could find on a map.

Cultural References

The yellow lines represent what I have called “cultural” references. This category, intended to demonstrate the general trend of Johnston’s increasingly well-conceived portrayal of setting, was necessarily much more ambiguous, and its definition had to be, to some degree, arbitrary. It goes without saying that what might be considered a Canadian “cultural” reference to some readers might not mean the same thing to others. Indeed, Johnston draws attention to the absence of identifiable Canadian traits in a 2003 strip which shows Elly’s father making some humorous suggestions about Canadian traditions and culture: “what do we do here that makes us truly Canadian?” (Ring 90). Elly’s response is to observe that “if we don’t have a strong sense of ourselves… at least we have a good sense of humor [sic]!”2

My observations, too, should be considered with a sense of humor and with the understanding that they are intended merely to illuminate Johnston’s contribution to Canadian comics, not to presume to offer a definition of Canadian culture. Another reader’s chart of Canadian “references” (and I would be interested to see one!) would almost certainly look quite different than mine; however, my goal was not to create a definitive list, but to illustrate a general trend. Tessa Duder writes about what we could call “cultural” references in Margaret Mahy: “…although detailed description of landscape and environment is infrequent in her work, New Zealanders know from subtle but clear evidence where her heart lies” (Writer’s Life 30). Perhaps the simplest way to define what I looked for in “cultural” references is to say that these are instances of “subtle but clear evidence” that, although “For Better Or For Worse” tells a universal story, its heart is in Canada.

Figure 10. For Better Or For Worse. © 1983 Lynn Johnston Productions. Used courtesy of the cartoonist & Universal Press Syndicate. All Rights Reserved.

What I have attempted to record here are places where Johnston took a risk and included specific references to Canadian subject matter, despite the fact that they might not be accessible to all readers. Examples range from a reference to Canadian musical icon “Stompin’ Tom Connors” (Middle 122); the CBC Evening News, featuring the well-known Canadian newsman Peter Mansbridge (Sunshine 62); the use of the word “pop” instead of the American “soda” (Pregnant 87); to Connie’s comment that Phil is “bilingual” (a reference to French-language speakers in Montreal) (Days 35). Not all references are textual; I also included visual references, when it seemed that Johnston had gone to some trouble to draw them to the reader’s attention. She has written that, often, her settings are “just backgrounds” (“Responses”); however, some images, such as a 1982 picture of Rocky Mountain scenery (Little, 66), seem clearly to constitute the principal subject of a panel. This image and others like it were considered “cultural” references, even when not accompanied by identifying text.

And of course, as Johnston has emphasized, “For Better Or For Worse” is about the story and its characters’ relationships – clearly, Johnston draws her inspiration from her immediate surroundings, but a reference to those surroundings is usually not meant to constitute an overt comment about Canada. It might not be a coincidence that one minor character (a high school classmate of Michael Patterson’s), Allyson Creemore, has a name that sounds like a distant echo of the two neighboring Ontario towns Alliston and Creemore; but a reader who saw such details as anything but contextual would be missing the real story.

It should be noted that my observations as to what constituted “Canadian subject matter” were made from the point of view of a Canadian living in Canada; so that aspects of the strip that might appear distinctly Canadian to non-Canadian readers may have escaped me. Similarly, many references which might perfectly describe life in Canada to a resident of Ontario (freezing rain; summers at the beach; the use of the word “bargoon” which the “For Better Or For Worse” website ( explains is Canadian slang for “bargain”) might not apply to Canadians who live elsewhere in Canada (I have yet to hear anyone say “bargoon”). However, if “For Better Or For Worse” presents a primarily Ontarian idiom, setting, and perspective of life in Canada, it should come as no surprise to readers, since, after all, Ontario is where Johnston (and the Pattersons) reside. Furthermore, Johnston has clearly gone to great lengths to depict a wide variety of Canadian cultures and landscapes. Some, of necessity, will not apply to all Canadians. (I took Johnston’s word for it and counted “bargoon” among the “cultural” references.)3

In recording “cultural” references, I noted that early references usually evoked well-known Canadian stereotypes such as bilingualism (Days 35), cold weather (Little 13), multiculturalism (Home Fries 30), scenic landscapes (Hug 44), and hockey (Downhill 27, 66). (A subject such as “cold weather” was not considered if, for example, snow was depicted in the background of a panel, but rather, if the winter weather constituted the primary subject matter of that panel. Actually, references to cold weather were the only ones found consistently in every single “For Better Or For Worse” collection, perhaps suggestive of the pervasiveness of that particular subject in a portrayal of life in Canada!) Later references began to consider specific elements of Canadian history and culture, some extending into longer episodes, such as one storyline featuring Michael and Weed’s landlady, Mrs. Dingle, beginning in 1997 (Love 89). Mrs. Dingle’s reminiscences about her life as an emigrant to Canada provide Michael, Weed and the reader with insights into Canadian history.

Ambiguous References

The Pattersons make frequent trips to Canadian destinations such as Winnipeg and Vancouver; but references to these and other Canadian cities do not always define the Pattersons’ home as being in Canada. An active reader would certainly infer it; a casual reader would not necessarily do so. Johnston at times employs the phrase “North America” as a reference to her story’s setting (Washload 74). In doing so, she includes Canadian readers, without excluding readers from the United States, thereby creating a convenient, inclusive ambiguity.

Figure 11. For Better Or For Worse. © 1998 Lynn Johnston Productions. Used courtesy of the cartoonist & Universal Press Syndicate. All Rights Reserved.

References to setting in “For Better Or For Worse” are often ambiguous. Elly complains to her friend Connie: “There are so many superstores coming into this city” (Middle 106). Michael’s friend Weed is asked, “which poverty-stricken country does she live in?” to which he answers simply, “this one” (118). John Patterson meets a taxi driver who says of his Ethiopian family: “soon I will bring them here” (Baby 82). Elsewhere, John explains to April, “…We were born here. Our home and our family are here. We have all put our roots down here” (Weed 24). And in the 1998 image shown here, John exclaims: “At home, there’s freezing rain – and we’re in Florida!” (Middle 31).

Active readers must infer that “home” refers to Canada. With these ambiguous references, Johnston has successfully balanced a well-conceived setting with her priority of making sure the story comes first. All the evidence for a Canadian setting is there if the reader is paying attention – but the setting is not “center-stage” to distract readers who are just dropping in to visit.

Johnston has gone to some lengths to accommodate non-Canadian readers (as well as readers who reside in different parts of Canada) by using inclusive phrases such as “this city”; references that speak simply of “home” (Reality 114) (as opposed to “Milborough,” for example); and even by ensuring that Milborough itself remains a quiet, almost generic town. As her characters’ placement in Canada became increasingly well-established over time, I wondered whether this trend would accompany a decrease in such ambiguous references to setting. Accordingly, I looked for “ambiguous” references (represented by the gray lines). I found that the number of “ambiguous” references to setting increased at about the same rate as the number of “direct” and “cultural” references, indicating that Johnston is still just as interested in providing readers with an inclusive, accessible story that could be taking place anywhere. Her priority is still the story, not the setting, and despite its increased appearance, she makes sure that it stays in the background.

Furthermore, references that would have been ambiguous even ten years ago, such as “up north,” or “the west coast,” are now increasingly understood within their context. References that may relate basic “surface” information to casual readers may convey more to those who know the story’s history. Readers who have been paying attention know that Elizabeth is teaching “up north” – in northern Ontario. Such readers know that Elly is from “the west coast” – from Vancouver. They know these people – and knowing them, know where they live, and where they are from.

Commiserating With Canadians

Figure 12. “Disneyland.” © 2007 Sam Hester.

The fact that much of Johnston’s readership is in the United States has almost certainly contributed to her efforts to create a “universal” story that would be just as compelling to readers south of the border and elsewhere. Many “For Better Or For Worse” strips refer to both American place names and cultural icons such as “Gilligan’s Island” (Washload 1), “Late Night with Letterman” (Looking Up 125), and “Custer’s Last Stand” (Downhill 56), with the resulting ambiguity allowing American – and Canadian – readers to assume that the story is happening in the U.S.A.

Johnston does not create this acknowledged ambiguity with the intention of misleading readers, but instead to highlight how much we have in common: as she writes, “There are people everywhere living lives that are parallel, in many ways, to the Pattersons’… most of whom live in the States and are surprised to find that they’re commiserating with CANADIANS!” (“Responses”).

In The Changeover, Laura Chant ironically sums up the way in which Canada and the United States are often lumped together indiscriminately: “Well, it amounts to the same thing, doesn’t it? Canadians are Americans with no Disneyland” (43). That New Zealanders might share some sympathies with Canada’s situation is suggested by Laura Chant’s ironic comment, and alluded to in New Zealander Dylan Horrocks’s 2001 graphic novel Hicksville. The novel, which deals with the theme of homecoming, depicts the self-professed American journalist Leonard Batts as he undergoes a changeover of his own, finally confessing to his New Zealand hosts that he’s actually Canadian: “I just say I’m from L.A. because it’s less embarrassing” (Chapter Nine).

Taking a nod from Leonard Batts, Johnston has sometimes found it convenient to let “For Better Or For Worse” pass for American – not because being Canadian is “embarrassing”, but to accommodate non-Canadian readers. However, she seems to have taken equal delight in debunking this notion with the occasional wake-up call to educate her readers and make sure they’re paying attention. Of her decision to send her character Michael to Western University in London, Ontario, she writes: “Why London? Because I knew that millions of American readers… – for as long as I could string them along – would think we were talking about London England!… ‘Hah, so you have a normal blue collar family, hum? And now you’re sending the kid to OXFORD?'” Later, Johnston sent her character Elizabeth to Nipissing University in Northern Ontario, with a similar enjoyment of the puzzle this might present to readers: “Who’d believe that a cartoon name like that really existed?” (“Responses”). In her strategic references to setting, as well as in her more frequent omissions of reference to setting, Johnston has made demands upon her readers to participate actively in the understanding of the setting, in a way which recalls Hatfield’s observation that “comics, in recent criticism, are not mere visual displays that encourage inert spectatorship but rather texts that require a reader’s active engagement and collaboration in making meaning” (33).

A Celebration of Setting

Figure 13. “Carnival’s Hide.” © 2007 Sam Hester.

“For Better Or For Worse” has always mentioned Canada, consistently if sparingly. However, simple “direct” references to Canada are increasingly accompanied by visuals and contextual descriptions which enhance the reader’s sense of setting. In 1992, Elizabeth’s choir visits Ottawa in an episode that includes a realistic depiction of the Canadian Parliament buildings, along with mentions of local landmarks such as “the National Art Gallery… [and] the new museum” (Baby 77). Such involved representations of setting have become much more common in recent years of “For Better Or For Worse,” as a definite trend of increased Canadian subject matter represents the way in which the Pattersons’ lives have spread out across their country since 1980.

It should be noted, however, that this kind of treatment reflects an overall trend in Johnston’s work, not restricted to her depiction of Canada. She has asserted that “comics show the way people live… [and that] cartoons and other art from years ago ‘preserve our history'” (Astor); accordingly, she increasingly takes advantage of the strip’s ability to educate about, and to celebrate, different locations and cultures, as in Elly and John’s trip to Mexico, and in Michael and Weed’s trip to Japan (Striking 77). As the Pattersons absorb their new surroundings, Johnston passes their lessons on to the reader; so that, without sacrificing her punch line, she is able to provide both visual and textual information about world traditions and history. Elly and John’s Mexico vacation includes a panel with the text: “…the Temple of Kukulcan was built by the Mayans during the Post Classical Era, between 900 to 1200 A.D” (Wink 118); and a visit to Ireland includes a realistic depiction of an Irish town in which sheep are being herded down a street (Graduation 49). Depictions like these foreshadow the Mtigwaki storyline, in which Johnston achieves the perfect marriage of a good story and an educational experience about a local culture.

Figure 14. For Better Or For Worse. © 1996 Lynn Johnston Productions. Used courtesy of the cartoonist & Universal Press Syndicate. All Rights Reserved.

Back at home, the Pattersons’ lives increasingly reflect specifically Canadian subject matter. A 1995 image shows Elizabeth’s classmate Candace saying, “This is me in grade 9, baby”, quoting a song by the popular Canadian band “The Bare Naked Ladies” (Scratch 52). In 1997, a strip showed Elly reading a newspaper with the headline “funding cuts to education,” in a rare – if indirect – possible commentary upon the Ontario Provincial Government’s cuts to education funding at that time (Weed 50). The references, however, that seem to best depict what Johnston wants to convey about her characters’ surroundings, are those that celebrate the beauty of the Canadian setting. Through both her text and artwork, we receive strong impressions of Canadian scenery from the shores of the St. Lawrence River, (Big 5-0 33) to the open spaces of the Canadian prairie, about which April asks reverentially, “…do you think the word ‘prairie’ comes from the word ‘prayer’?” (26 Aug. 2005) In a 1996 strip, Elly and her father sit on a windswept beach as Elly says: “Everything about Vancouver is such a part of me, dad… the parks, the ocean, the smell of cedar after a rain” (Love 54). In images like this, the setting is a presence as alive as Elly or her father. Johnston uses both text and image to bring the setting alive for the reader – just as she did in 1981, back when the setting was often just a living room.

Such “celebratory” settings in “For Better Or For Worse” recall scenes from Margaret Mahy’s 1986 novel The Tricksters, of which Mahy has said, “it is one of the first books in which I felt truly in touch with a story set in New Zealand” (HarperCollins). The Tricksters is set on a sunny beach during a midsummer Christmas, literally a celebration of New Zealand culture and landscape.

Just as she did with her novel The Changeover, Mahy sets the tone with the very first words of her novel. She starts with the setting, inviting readers to come along for a Christmas holiday at her characters’ home of Carnival’s Hide:

Any Christmas visitor looking for Carnival’s Hide dropped down from the hilltops by a shingle road that elbowed its way across farmland already scrawled over by sheep tracks… Then, enclosed in a great, green, summer bouquet of poplars and silver birches, the steeply pitched, iron roof of the house, also green, rose up like a magician’s sign. (1)

The setting of The Tricksters, a version of New Zealand’s Lyttelton Harbour (Larsen), at times almost seems a character in its own right. Its importance has been discussed in Feingold’s essay “Gardening in Eden: Margaret Mahy’s Postcolonial Ghosts and the New Zealand Landscape.” Like The Changeover (and Horrocks’ Hicksville), The Tricksters features a character who is not from New Zealand. The device of a foreigner, through whose eyes New Zealand can be presented, provides a link for non-New Zealander readers. As Feingold observes, the novel’s characters are a bit defensive about how New Zealand might appear to their British visitor, noting that their description of Carnival’s Hide as “old” is qualified with: “Old for this part of the world, you know” (221). However, Mahy herself is not defensive about telling their story and describing their home setting in all its glory. Quite on the contrary, The Tricksters is almost defiant in its challenge to readers to feel at home in an unfamiliar setting. Later works by Mahy, such as Alchemy, Twenty-Four Hours, and Memory, are set in New Zealand more comfortably, and less defiantly. As she explains, successful stories should not require overtly self-conscious New Zealand settings, because “[the] setting of New Zealand would be inside the character” (Writer’s Life 168). These later novels no longer employ the foil of a foreign visitor; and more significantly, Mahy no longer feels it necessary to apprise readers on the first page that they must be on their guard for a journey through parts unknown. Like Johnston, she knows she has successfully ‘hooked’ her readers.

After The Tricksters, says Mahy, “I moved more and more into being able to write New Zealand stories, and now I feel that I’ve been restored to the place that I’ve lived in all my life” (Larsen).

Figure 15. For Better Or For Worse. © 2005 Lynn Johnston Productions. Used courtesy of the cartoonist & Universal Press Syndicate. All Rights Reserved.

In “For Better Or For Worse,” the themes of Canadian storyline culminate in the Mtigwaki storyline, first introduced in 2004, which describes Elizabeth Patterson’s life as a teacher in the northern Ontario Native community of Mtigwaki – like Milborough, a well-conceived fictional town. Johnston’s colleague, Stephanie Van Doleweerd, describes the pronunciation of Mtigwaki as “mm-TIG-walk-eh, with the “eh” part being kind of blunt and sounding more like “heh” than “hey,” if that makes sense” (“Re: One more question”). The Mtigwaki strips, which constituted over ten percent of all strips in 2005 (see “Mtigwaki” references, shown as brown lines in the graph above), not only referenced names and places, but frequently discussed cultural issues and educated readers about Native Canadian culture. Johnston used the device of visiting “Southerners” (first Elizabeth, and later Elly, as well as a new teacher) to show Mtigwaki through the eyes of characters who were as unfamiliar with this kind of setting as most readers were presumed to be. As Elizabeth adapted to her new home and was accepted by its residents, readers shared her experience. The added “hook” of Elizabeth’s evolving love life provided the perfect incentive for interested readers to look forward to visits to Mtigwaki. In 2004, the Union of Ontario Indians, which represents the forty-two communities of the Anishinabek Nation, awarded Johnston the Debwewin Citation for excellence in Aboriginal-Issues journalism (“Cartoonist’s”). It is perhaps significant that, for both Mahy and Johnston, telling stories set in their homelands has involved the incorporation of their countries’ indigenous peoples and their ancestral lands.

Of Mtigwaki, Johnston affirmed in 2006: “At present, yes – there is a distinctly Canadian element in the strip,” but stressed that although she had taken the strip in a direction that was important to her, “the ‘increasingly Canadian content’ is simply a reflection of the times” (“Responses”). Johnston’s assertion that the Mtigwaki storyline was not a logical destination for her story, but rather just another chapter, was supported in June 2006, when Elizabeth Patterson moved back to Milborough; and confirmed in January 2007, when, on a visit back to Mtigwaki, Elizabeth found that her boyfriend, who still lived there, had ended their relationship. Elizabeth’s decision to leave Mtigwaki and her subsequent breakup with her northern boyfriend have been subjects of animated discussion among fans; the success of “For Better Or For Worse’s” ongoing storyline is hotly debated on comics websites such as “The Comics Curmudgeon” ( Although many fans were surprised (and disappointed) to see the Mtigwaki storyline apparently withdrawn, Johnston’s decision to put it aside bespeaks her ability, as ever, to throw her fans a curve ball.

Despite the fact that Mtigwaki has, at least for now, ceased to play a central role in the strip, the success of the Mtigwaki storyline suggests a changeover in attitudes towards non-traditional settings among both readers and writers. Writers like Mahy and Johnston, by having the courage to write about their own countries, and having faith that readers would follow them there, have undoubtedly contributed to the receptiveness of new audiences towards such non-traditional settings.

The fact that the strip revolves once again around the Pattersons’ house in Milborough (in which, as of January 2007, the entire Patterson clan is residing) underlines Johnston’s statement that her story begins and ends with characters and relationships. She is proving that, just as when she started the strip nearly thirty years ago, all she needs is “…a house, two kids, a dog, wife and husband to ‘work with'” (“Responses”).4 Just as Mahy asserted that successful New Zealand stories should not require self-conscious New Zealand settings because “the setting of New Zealand would be inside the character,” Johnston’s story does not require an “actively” Canadian setting, such as Mtigwaki, in order for any fundamentally Canadian elements to be apparent – however subtly. The Canadian setting is inside the characters: Elly Patterson reflected, “Vancouver is such a part of me,” and Mtigwaki will be a part of Elizabeth, even if she’s back home in the suburbs.

Mahy and Johnston have clearly faced different challenges in creating a sense of setting as a result of the different genres in which they work; as noted, Johnston has had to re-establish her setting in each strip, a task not required of a novelist. However, as has been seen, Mahy’s sense of her New Zealand setting developed over many years and dozens of published works. In each, the setting was re-established in a way which marked Mahy’s understanding of her characters’ placement in New Zealand at the time. Although a novel and a four-panel comic strip are obviously on a different scale, Mahy and Johnston have shared in common an evolution as national storytellers – in each case, a process that spanned years. And in each case, it is not from any single piece of work, but from their complete oeuvres, that a full sense of the setting emerges. The whole story of their respective national settings is to be found in each author’s whole body of work; in the fruitful pauses between the stories (or the panels) – and, undoubtedly, in the work that is still to come.

The Next Chapter

In January 2007, Johnston revealed a change of plans: instead of ending “For Better Or For Worse” in September 2007, she will allow the strip to continue – with a significant alteration. Johnston explained in an interview with the Toronto Star that the characters will be “frozen in time.” This interesting decision, presumably made at least in part to satisfy her fans, may take away from them exactly the element of “For Better Or For Worse” that they have enjoyed so much: its “real time” storyline. However, Johnston promised “new material that would include revisiting storylines from the past and expanding on them.” Clearly the strip’s new format, which will allow Johnston to retire as planned, while accommodating loyal fans, will be a completely new kind of “For Better Or For Worse.” As Johnston explained, “(readers) are going to discover how I’m doing this as I discover it because it’s a totally new concept” (DeMara). One thing seems certain: the decision reveals that Johnston, as ever, is not afraid to take a risk for the sake of a good story.

Conclusion: Why a Crossover Study?


[1] The question of whether Johnston, as a Canadian comics creator, might relate to Mahy’s experience, first occurred to me since I myself (a Canadian creator of comics on a much humbler scale) found that Mahy’s comments resonated strongly with my own experience. “Available reading, and no doubt insidious social reinforcement too” contributed to Mahy’s feeling that “things produced in New Zealand were innately inferior to anything produced overseas” (Writer’s Life 52). Travels in Europe convinced me at a young age that Canada could be described as New Zealand is ironically described in Tessa Duder’s Alex in Rome: a place with “no culture, you know, theatre or concerts, no proper pubs, nothing to do at weekends” (73).

My disenchantment with Canada was reinforced by a further falling-out with my hometown of Calgary. In Mahy’s The Catalogue, the young hero Tycho recalls the naiveté of his “five year-old self, optimistically looking forward to school… still confident he was naturally loveable” (141), and how he had to deal with the awful reality that, outside the bosom of his family, he might not be perceived that way. That’s the experience I had of Calgary, the city where I grew up: it came as a shock to me that its reputation elsewhere in Canada was not that of a “naturally loveable” city, but rather, a “red-neck”, conservative, culture-less town with an undeservedly high opinion of itself. After this mortifying discovery, I found myself consistently writing comics which discreetly omitted any mention of my home as Calgary. I couldn’t help wondering whether Lynn Johnston, who wrote comics which seemed clearly to be set in Canada, but ambiguously within Canada, had shared any part of this experience.

[2] Ironically – or perhaps fittingly – Johnston uses the American spelling of “humor” in the very strip which discusses the elusiveness of a Canadian identity. Despite a helpful proviso about “Canadian Content” on the “For Better Or For Worse” website which advises readers about Canadian spelling, the use of both Canadian and American spelling has been – if it is possible to say so – consistently erratic throughout the strip’s history. Some words are usually spelled the Canadian way (cheque, theatre), others the American way (center, neighbor, behavior) – but there are exceptions in each and every case. However, the strip’s inconsistent spelling is quite reflective of many Canadian spellers (exposed, as they are, to both American and British spelling), and thus, quite appropriately representative of Canada. The Oxford Canadian Dictionary frequently recognizes more than one version of a word’s spelling (i.e. “analyse” or “analyze”; “meter” or “metre”; “neighbor” or “neighbour”).

[3] To my surprise, the Oxford Canadian Dictionary also includes “bargoon” – who knew?

[4] Indeed, it seems more and more likely that the strip will end in 2007 with a situation much like the one in which readers first discovered “For Better Or For Worse”: Michael and Deanna, young parents with two young children, seem poised to buy the old Patterson home, where the story first began. A new version of the strip, focusing on Michael’s young family, will bring the Patterson family’s odyssey full circle.

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