6 Jul 2007, Comments Off on It’s not just the moustache

It’s not just the moustache

Author: Helen


It’s (gag) happened!

Elizabeth and the dweeby, creepy, moustached Anthony have finally realised that each other is their Only Trew Love, and they’re going at it like… well, as far as anyone can go at it in this agressively wholesome, goody two-shoes comic strip. I’m not the only one. There is appalledness all over the internets.

If you don’t know what I’m going on about, it’s the comic strip For Better or For Worse, or the FOOBiverse, which has been infesting the funnies page of the AGE for the last few decades. I’m drawn back to it time and again by the seeming inevitability that somehow, sometime, something interesting has to happen… and it never does. The strips ususally end with a bad pun, or a trite piece of folksy wisdom, in the final frame.

For years, young twentysomething Elizabeth has been seeing various attractive helicopter pilots and other charismatic, if one-dimensional, characters who inhabit her teaching zone in far north Canada, or wherever it is. Meanwhile, her dweeby High School boyfriend languishes in her home suburb (just around the corner from her parents), married to the evil Therese (who works full time while Anthony looks after their child – you see, he wanted a baby, she didn’t, and she acquiesced when he told her he’d be a SAHD. Well, she.. she… well, she took him at his word! Sheesh! She is the evil to end all evils.) Naturally, everything in the FBOFW plot is grinding hopelessly towards what Shaenon Garrity describes as “the plodding inevitability of the Liz-Anthony pairing”.

If indeed you haven’t seen this strip before, you also won’t know that Anthony, up to now, has sported a truly horrifying porn ‘tache. And for this strip, he’s SHAVED IT OFF! Which means I’ve won the bet I made with myself a couple of years ago: Creepy Anthony will shave off the ‘tache one day, and that will be the moment he will be … revealed … as the … prince. (Quick, the bucket!) Am I not correct? And.. he looks just like her Dad. Which, according to many veteran observers– or even the author herself— isn’t accidental.

Shaenon Garrity again:

I hate Anthony. I hate him more than I’ve ever hated a cartoon character, and, yes, I’m including both Scrappy-Doo and Ted Rall. I’m far from the only one; Anthony supporters appear to be a tiny minority among FBOFW readers, and most of them can’t muster much more enthusiasm than, “Hey, he’s not that bad.” Josh Fruhlinger, of the popular comic-strip blog The Comics Curmudgeon, rips into Anthony every time he appears. Venerable comics journalist Tom Spurgeon describes himself as “anti-Anthony, pro-anybody else, up to and including Snuffy Smith.” A woman on LiveJournal with the username ellcee writes elaborate anti-Anthony fanfics in which he appears as a murderer or the mustache-twirling villain of a Victorian romance.

The Anthony story follows the general theme that makes FBOFW so saccharine, that kids never really grow up or escape parental control.

Johnston gives the peculiar impression that she thinks everyone ought to be paired off with their first loves. Already, there have been exchanges hinting that teenage April’s forgettable boyfriend Gerald is the man with whom the youngest Patterson sibling is destined to spend her life. Since April and Gerald have known each other, if I’m remembering correctly, since preschool, this may be the ultimate FBOFW match: April will get to marry the first person outside her immediate family she ever met.

The strip has made no bones about why childhood sweethearts are preferable: the parents know them and get to oversee the courtship from beginning to end. Liz’s parents, Elly and John, haven’t shown much fondness for any of the men Liz has met outside Milborough. But they’re elated about the increasingly prominent role Anthony is playing in her life. When Liz and Anthony first ran into each other as adults, John and Elly (and their middle-aged friends) gloated about the “good news” and pushed Liz to attend a New Year’s Eve party with Anthony as her date—even though both Liz and Anthony were involved with other people. While April fretted about her sister’s infidelity (April has loved all of Liz’s non-Anthony boyfriends, which is held up as a sign of her immaturity), John and Elly exchanged a high-five in the background. Finally, a nice local boy they could keep an eye on! It’s Crossing Delancy on the comics page.

Anthony also follows the Nice Guy™ script, while demonising his wife for not following the submissive wife script.

Therese’s sins, for which she was constantly excoriated by the other characters, included having a career; continuing to work after getting married; not wanting children; agreeing to have a child but wanting her husband to take care of it; being jealous of her husband’s friendship with his ex-girlfriend (which, as it turned out, was eminently sensible of her); and a host of minor grievances such as asking for money at her baby shower. Therese’s heartless behavior is consistently linked to her status as a liberated career woman with no interest in becoming a stay-at-home mom. In some strips, her disinterest in children and possession of a career are discussed as if they were every bit as scandalous as her infidelity.

Every storyline involving Anthony during his married years included at least one scene in which characters shook their heads over his misfortune at having shackled himself to an unnatural, unfeminine woman who didn’t want to quit her job to raise his children. Before long, I came to instinctively recoil from any appearance of Anthony, bracing myself for the anti-feminist scolding that was sure to come. That instinct remains, lodged in my reptilian hindbrain, and stirs to action every time Anthony rears his moustachioed head.

… Liz has been set up to oppose her as the Good Woman in the conflict, which is why, upon learning Anthony was single again, she promptly quit her job and moved home. Forget having a life of her own; she can push her kids into whatever career she regrets not having, like Elly has done with Michael. And little Françoise still needs a mother, dammit.

Garrity’s essay is the best exposition out there on the Disaster that is Anthony. Read the whole thing.
Crossposted at Hoyden About Town

Comments (0)

  • phil says:

    Well stuff, meaningless twaddle, whatever. Why do we get so entranced by the (forgive me) irrelevant?

    What makes me most angry is that when I get to FBFW in the Sunday Mail, the text is so small I get a headache deciphering it. But I still do, when Calvin and Hobbes absolutely pisses over everything else (especially the inevitable shock ‘n horro front page).

    Why do we bother? It’s like John and Janette go to Canada!

  • Helen says:

    The answer is, it’s not irrelevant. Every day, in many little ways, writers like Johnston (and filmmakers, ad makers etc) project their conservative ideas onto the stuff they make -it’s sugarcoated with a story, but the narrative is telling girls who read it (and boys who read it) a lesson based on the writer’s worldview.

    It’s a small thing – just a brick in the wall of popular culture – but the wall isn’t small.

    Read the “Whole storyline about the wife…” section.

    This last section summed up how FBOFW makes me feel (look away, look away!)

    Anthony represents the death of youthful dreams. …

    …After getting her degree and certification, Liz moved to the remote village of Mtigwaki to teach elementary school. The last few years of the strip have devoted much space to Liz’s adventures in Mtigwaki, where she’s learned local customs, made friends among her students and neighbors, and adopted a cat. She’s also dated Warren, a dashing helicopter pilot, and Paul, a hunky if poorly-defined half-Native cop.

    This year, it all ended. Liz’s move away from Mtigwaki was foreshadowed with strips, scattered over the course of several months, in which she talked about being homesick and vaguely unhappy with the life she’d made. After her mother told her that Anthony was back on the market, the homesickness rapidly increased. Liz quit her teaching job, said her goodbyes to the people of Mtigwaki, and moved home—not just to her hometown, but back into her parents’ house. One of her first orders of business: taking a tour of Chez Anthony and cooing over his home office and Françoise’s fenced-in basement playhouse.

    In retrospect, Liz’s story arc is clear. Many readers—particularly, no doubt, young readers of Liz’s age like myself—thought that Liz’s enthusiasm for her teaching career and exciting life in Mtigwaki represented a young woman’s development into an independent person capable of fulfilling her dreams and making her way in the wide world. To Johnston, however, Liz’s young-adult life—the fulfilling work, the exploration of new places and cultures, the sexy boyfriends—has been nothing more than playtime. She’s had her fun and sown her wild oats, and now it’s time for her to grow up and adopt a “real” adult life: a life as much like her parents’ as possible, complete with prefab house, prefab toddler, and a husband picked out by Mom and Dad.

    For years, characters have periodically commented on how much Anthony resembles Liz’s father, with the implication that this makes him perfect for her. By reuniting with him, Liz will accept her destiny as a pale copy of her mother, keeping house right down the street from her watchful parents. The path to adulthood doesn’t lead to independence and a vast horizon of possibility; it leads right back to the childhood doorstep.

    This is why I, and so many other readers, hate Anthony. His joyless, colorless, sexless presence hovers over us like a sulky specter, the Ghost of Dreams Deferred, reminding us of the deadly dull version of adulthood we might one day awaken to find ourselves trapped within. Even in the funny pages, traditionally the one haven of childlike fun in the gray, grown-up world of the daily newspaper, we can’t hide from the clammy fate that Anthony represents. So we hate him, in a deep, primal way.

    Johnston’s portrayal of the native americans in Mtigiwaki (sp?) is also problematic to many people.

  • TimT says:

    Great review! Anthony, the primal moustachioed monster…

    The PC storylines always seemed to me to be rather soap-operaish. I suspect Johnson puts in native Indians, or April’s current disabled schoolfriend, as a plot device to make her principal characters to appear ‘understanding’ and ‘caring’.
    And yes – there is something horrifyingly addictive about the comic. The suspicion that something interesting may happen… that must be what keeps me coming back to it.

    As a quibble, I wonder how some US readers see the moustache? The mo is no go in Australia, but in parts of the States, a broad moustache still seems to be quite de rigeur (think Morgan Spurlock in ‘Supersize Me’, for instance). But then, I suppose it’s meant to represent daggy conservatism, or something like that.

  • Lad Litter says:

    Loved your examination and comments on a comic strip I have occasionally dipped into. It seems to have a slightly updated Norman Rockwell-style view of contemporary American life.

  • Helen says:

    Thanks Tim and Lad. Lad, what does your blogname mean? I’ve often wondered!

  • Helen says:

    Oh, and Tim, the use of the term PornTache (which I have now added to my lexicon) suggests that Anthony’s Tache is less than acceptable to some US bloggers. The strip itself, though, is Canadian.

  • Lad Litter says:

    Speaking of blog names, I work quite near Hal Porter’s Belair St cast iron balcony. There was a biography of Porter written by his close friend Mary Lord that’s a pretty good read.
    The blog name is a play on the lad lit oeuvre (writers like Nick Hornby et al) which itself owes a debt to the British late 50s early 60s angry young man style (Alan Sillitoe; Stan Barstow et al). And I thought the litter part might be disarmingly self-deprecating.
    The sub-title on the blog is from Burns. It’s a great line, and puts a twinkle in just about everyone’s eye.

  • Helen says:

    Jsmith, that is truly fascinating.

    To others: Go and read that. The first half is fascinating in that it spells out the gritty reality of Johnston’s upbringing. It makes sense to me that someone who had been physically and mentally abused, and felt so challenged by parenthood herself (as her own parents hadn’t provided a good example) that she invented this parallel world where Dad’s always calm and nice, Mum is… well, calm and nice, and all the characters are… well… mostly nice. And the idea to go with the safe-and-boring guy rather than the exciting guys makes sense. It may not work in practice – as others have pointed out, a real-life Anthony may be bursting with passive aggression and self pity. But I can relate to the feeling.

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