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September 18, 2007

CR Review: Things Are Looking Up…

imageCreator: Lynn Johnston
Publishing Information: Andrews McMeel, soft cover, 128 pages, 1992, $9.95
Ordering Numbers: 0836218922 (ISBN)

Things Are Looking Up... collects a pivotal period in the life of Lynn Johnston's now slowly fading from view For Better or For Worse. It falls about halfway through what will end up being the strip's run, and comes just following the pivotal birth of youngest daughter April. Other than the passing of actor Nicholas Colasanto and the subsequent casting of Woody Harrelson on Cheers, I can't think of a mid-run character addition that had a greater effect on a piece of recent pop entertainment. With April anchoring the baby role, the Patterson teens consolidated their part of the feature as a competitive center of the strip, balancing nicely against the adult leads. Johnston got another chance at a round of harried mother and confused baby gags after a decade-plus of improving her craft chops. Audience members that might not have been as willing to see the strip grow out of the childhood stuff all together were reassured that this would be the focus for several more years yet. Without the decision to add a third child, I doubt the strip would have grown another 50 percent or so, as it did, and the identification fans feel for the characters in their age groups would likely be less pronounced.

The two things that surprise about this collection of strips is how quickly Johnston kept things moving, and how effective her art had become at this point. Johnston doesn't have a huge cast, but she doesn't allow any single set piece to drag. Other features might spend months on son Michael's trip to the farm, but Johnston punches the whole thing out in about two and a half weeks. In fact, there's so much going on that you're almost four-fifths of the way through the book before you see what could be a set piece able to fit in any year -- some dentist gags featuring John -- and even those set up a theme Johnston hits hard of the family's patriarch finding the time to enjoy his newest child. There's also only one major sour note in terms of subject matter, a couple of weeks spent with Elly's not very interesting brother Phil. Johnston's art helps the eye pass through the work; she suggests more than she renders, which is interesting because she depicts far more of what's in that reality she's created than most cartoonists. She used a lot of mid-torso-and-up perspectives back then, which might have become static except that Johnston had developed a much looser line than what she would have years later when other people would be finishing her art. It flows quite well, and it's hard to believe by the last page you've devoured a full book's worth of material.

If you're a Johnston fan, I have to imagine that this book reflects one of the feature's better periods. Unlike some cartoonists, Lynn Johnston was much more effective mid-run than she was her first year or two. One secret to the success enjoyed by For Better or For Worse over the years is that the Pattersons are less like one's own family and more like that friend's family one might escape to in order to have a respite from your own contentious clan, a long home-cooked meal with Mom and Dad on hand and very little yelling. That's also one of its shortcomings: the strip isn't always convincing in its depiction of squeaky-clean adolescence and aging. Not only does oldest child Michael not get arrested for drunk driving and possession of a quarter ounce of dope, you know five minutes in that the chance of such an event ever happening is completely off the table. Still, it's pleasant to read the feature at the height of its powers in order to better appreciate it in that sense of wish fulfillment, even if the portrayals aren't always convincing, even if something about their natural, assumed cohesion always reads a little unexamined and maybe even false. One hopes for the Pattersons' set of problems. One hopes for Johnston's list of creative shortcomings.
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