Shaenon K. Garrity (shaenon) wrote,
Shaenon K. Garrity

New Smithson!

A little late but none the worse for wear:

Scooter is apparently going through with his "Non-Hits of One-Hit Wonders" concept for the night's show. Being a cartoon character, he has the enviable ability to play songs by both real and fictional bands.

I'm planning to do another Overlooked Manga Festival later this week, and that'll be the last installment for 2006. In the meantime, here's an essay about something I've wanted to get off my chest for a while. It's long, real long, so it's going behind a cut.

Why I Hate Anthony
By Shaenon K. Garrity

If you read comics, you know which Anthony I mean. Very likely you’re already nodding in agreement. I’m talking about Anthony Caine, Elizabeth Patterson’s ex-boyfriend in For Better or For Worse. Friends since grade school, Liz and Anthony dated as teenagers, close to ten years ago in both real time and strip time. Liz went on to university, became a schoolteacher in a remote First Nations village in northern Ontario, and dated a succession of interchangeable hunks, while Anthony stayed in their hometown of Milborough, became an accountant, and married Cruella di Ville. Over the last few years, however, FBOFW has become increasingly dominated by transparent authorial efforts to bring Liz and Anthony back together, presumably in time for the strip’s planned ending sometime next year.

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.

So my feelings are hardly unique. Nonetheless, I find myself asking why my reaction to Anthony is so powerfully negative, why it slides from dislike into outright repugnance. For Better or For Worse has long been one of my favorite comic strips. It’s the last great newspaper comic, a holdover from a time when there was room for accomplished art, clever dialogue, and ambitious plotting in the funny pages. Creator Lynn Johnston is one of the most gifted female cartoonists in North America and an inspiration to women like myself. Beyond that, I have strong emotional ties to the strip. Launched when I was just a year old, it’s been part of my life since I taught myself to read with the Sunday comics. Liz is about my age, Michael is only a few years older, and my parents are Baby Boomers just like John and Elly—and, since the characters age in real time, the experiences of the Patterson family have often hewn close to ours. Growing up, there were always FBOFW strips on the family fridge.

But I hate Anthony. I loathe him. I want to shove a tire iron in his face. Why do I feel this way?

1. The “Beauty and the Geek” plot, already overused in comic strips. In Greg Evans’s Luann, cute blonde teenager Luann has two suitors, hunky Aaron and nerdy Gunther, and nowadays usually ends up with Gunther. A few years ago, Evans held a reader poll to decide which beau should take Luann to the prom; when Aaron won, Evans set her up with Gunther anyway, then arranged for Aaron to be transferred to Hawaii. In Brooke McEldowny’s 9 Chickweed Lane, beautiful, absurdly perfect ballerina Ella has only one heterosexual man in her life, the schleppy Amos, who won her heart in a discreetly-drawn night of passion. In Liberty Meadows, dorky, toy-collecting Frank, who just happens to share a name with creator Frank Cho, is pursued by two beautiful, top-heavy women. Even Jon, Garfield’s hopelessly geeky owner, has finally hooked up with puffy-lipped veterinarian Liz. And who can forget classic beautiful woman/nerdy guy pairings like Lola Granola and Opus the Penguin, or Blondie and Dagwood? (At least the original 1930s version of Blondie provided an amusingly unsentimental explanation for the attraction: she was a gold-digging flapper, and he came from money.)

From Blondie onward, the comics page has long been a cornucopia of male fantasies about nerdy men hooking up with devoted babes despite lacking good looks, social skills, or convincingly-drawn hair. Usually, this phenomenon has an obvious explanation: the strips are drawn by nerdy men (yes, Brooke McEldowny is a man—one who looks more than a little like Amos). But For Better or For Worse is one of the few major newspaper comics drawn by a woman and written largely from the viewpoint of the female characters. Couldn’t Johnston have abandoned this comic-strip cliché and indulged in just a little bit of female fantasy for once? Even Cathy’s husband Irving has more sex appeal then Anthony, plus he had the strength of character to marry a woman with no nose.

2. The “childhood sweethearts reunited” plot, already overused in For Better or For Worse. In case you haven’t been following For Better or For Worse closely for the last 30 years (and why not?), Elizabeth’s big brother Michael is married to his grade-school sweetheart, Deanna. The two were separated in middle school, then came back together in a dramatic storyline that involved Deanna being injured in a car accident and Michael covering the story for a newspaper. They spent some time apart when Deanna, a pharmacist, went to South America for her residency (a plot which was itself recycled from the backstory of Elly’s friend Connie), then reconnected and got hitched.

It was all very romantic, but it doesn’t need to be done again. By treading the same ground with Liz, 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.

3. The plodding inevitability of the Liz-Anthony pairing. The writing’s been on the wall for a long time. In the 20th anniversary book The Lives Behind the Lines, written while Liz and Anthony were still in high school, Johnston wrote about Anthony:

…he’s the kind of kid that a girl’s mother would point out. “See him? Wait twenty years and he’ll knock the socks off any jock in the city! That’s the kind of guy who’s going t o do well in whatever he chooses to do, and by golly—when he’s got a little gray in his hair, he will be so handsome that every woman at your twentieth high school reunion will wonder why they didn’t beg him to go out with them when they had the chance!” Mothers know these things.

The section on Anthony ends, “After all, I’ve been to my twentieth high school reunion. I know which nuts to pick.”

As Liz’s high-school boyfriend, Anthony was…okay. I wasn’t crazy about him even then, but I could tolerate him. He was earnest, gawky, unremarkable, and generally more interested in hanging out with his buddies than in cultivating any kind of serious romance. In other words, he was a perfectly decent first boyfriend, and very much the type of boy most parents would like to see their teenage daughters date. After all, there was absolutely no danger of him talking a girl into sex.

Since the breakup, however, every appearance of Anthony has been laden with foreshadowing that he and Liz should—nay, must—reunite, that only in one another’s arms can they find true happiness. It grows more oppressive as the strip goes on. And it’s not like their original relationship set the world on fire, so the obsession with shoving them back together is baffling.

4. His stupid moustache. You see that paragraph from The Lives Behind the Lines that I quoted above?


Anthony did not grow up to be handsome. He grew up to look exactly like his twerpy high-school self, but with a receding hairline and a bad moustache. He also looks about twice as old as Liz, inspiring many Anthony detractors on the Internet to refer to him as “Granthony.” (Other popular nicknames: “Blandthony,” “that fucking moustache bastard.”) Meanwhile, Liz matured into a smoking hot blonde, and in recent strips is drawn so glammed-up it’s actually getting a little creepy.

It’s true that nerdy guys often age well, especially the little weedy ones, who start to improve once they reach the age at which being slim and looking younger than you are become pluses rather than minuses. My own circle of nerdy cartoonist friends includes several illuminating examples, most notably my smoldering husband. But it didn’t happen to Anthony. If anything, he keeps getting less attractive.

The rest of the paragraph is also a lie. The adult Anthony does not “do well in whatever he chooses to do.” He seems to get by as an accountant, nothing more, nothing less, and he doesn’t appear to have ambitions beyond doing okay at his dull, sensible job. Nor did he have much success with his first marriage, which seems worth considering as the plot steers him implacably toward his second.

5. Everyone’s constantly talking him up. It’s like the strip has become a FBOFW fanfic written by Anthony. In every storyline in which he appears, at least one Patterson is sure to launch into a speech about how great Anthony is. Maybe it’ll be Elly, commenting wistfully that she’s sorry Liz broke up with him (you know, ten years ago, when they were in high school). Maybe it’ll be John, pontificating on the many virtues of Anthony, most of which are visible only to John. Maybe it’ll be Liz herself, reflecting wide-eyed on how much Anthony has accomplished. Which makes sense, since Anthony, an accountant with a small suburban ranch house and a failed starter marriage, has clearly achieved much, much more in life than Liz, who went straight from university to teaching underprivileged Native American children in the remote north. I mean, there’s no comparison.

Many of Anthony’s supposed good qualities are informed attributes: they come from what other people say about the character, not from the actions of the character himself. On more than one occasion, for instance, John has commented on how smart and funny Anthony is. Despite his stereotypically nerdy appearance, Anthony has never come off as especially smart, and I can’t recall him ever exhibiting a sense of humor. Not as a teenager, not as an adult. And this is in a strip where most of the characters are constantly cracking jokes and making groan-worthy puns.

Anthony’s most exemplary action to date has been taking responsibility for his young daughter (with help from his unseen mother), but even that’s just basic decency. Most people, after all, take care of their children. It puts him a cut above his evil ex-wife, but that’s about it. And readers might be more inclined to think kindly of Anthony’s fatherly devotion if the characters in the strip didn’t keep jumping in to gush over it.

This nonstop chatter about Anthony’s greatness may be the element that most turns readers against him. If he were just a dull, dorky loser, he’d annoy us. But he’s a dull, dorky loser whom we’re expected to hold in awe, and therefore we hate him.

6. He’s boring, whiny and pathetic. End of story.

About a year and a half ago, Johnston tried to butch Anthony up with what may be the most misguided storyline in the history of FBOFW, in which Anthony saved Liz from a would-be rapist down at Lawrence’s landscaping business. (At the time, I was desperately hoping that Lawrence would be the one to save Liz, because how cool would that be, the strip’s resident gay guy breaking stereotypes and kicking rapist ass?) After playing out this literal rape-and-rescue scenario, Anthony proceeded to ruin any veneer of heroism he might have earned by breaking down in front of the still-shocked Liz, crying to her that his marriage wasn’t working and he needed her to “wait for me!” When Liz replied that she wasn’t a “homewrecker,” Anthony wailed, “I have no home!” Liz, who does have a home, went there and filed a police report with the help of her parents, Anthony being useful only for punching and whining. (And, yes, Liz’s parents used the opportunity to muse on what an incredible person Anthony was and what a pity it was that Liz wasn’t dating him.)

More recently, Liz and Anthony were summoned to testify in court against the rapist, a situation requiring them to spend plenty of time sequestered together while John and Elly speculated about whether romantic sparks might fly. The attempted rape has thus brought them closer together, ramping the courtship up from uncomfortable to outright icky.

7. He’s not a nice guy; he’s a Nice Guy[tm]. Cranky female bloggers often rant about the phenomenon of Nice Guys[tm], hangdog, nerdy men who complain endlessly about how women don’t appreciate them enough. In their minds, all other men in the world, especially the good-looking ones, are abusive date-rapists, and therefore women are idiots for going out with those jerks instead of a Nice Guy like themselves. Nice Guys have a huge sense of entitlement where women are concerned; they don’t think they need to be attractive, intelligent, witty, or even polite, as long as they’re “nice.” They’re also incapable of seeing themselves as anything other than Nice Guys, so they never take the blame for anything that goes wrong in a relationship. It’s always the woman’s fault; she’s a bitch who didn’t appreciate him.

Or, as John puts it in his December 2006 letter on the FBOFW website (all the main characters write monthly online missives):

Anthony has certainly come through, though. He always was incredibly reliable. Maybe that's why Liz never appreciated him. He was too reliable, and treated her too well. I am always amazed how girls seem to prefer guys who mistreat them. I suppose it is more exciting! There's always lots of drama! It makes me glad that Elly fell for a dull, reliable (but incredibly good looking) guy like me!

(See what I mean about everyone talking Anthony up?)

Anthony is a classic example of the self-proclaimed, self-pitying Nice Guy, as his first marriage illustrates. A few years after breaking up with Liz, Anthony married Therese, a French-Canadian woman who immediately emasculated him by entering the world of vaguely-defined high-powered finance. A cold-hearted career woman, Therese made it clear that she didn’t want kids, but Anthony kept begging for them. Finally, Therese agreed to have a baby if Anthony would take total responsibility for it. Anthony leapt at the chance to bring a child into their loveless household, and baby Françoise was born. The marriage continued to decay, until Therese finally revealed she was having an affair and skipped town, leaving Anthony with their toddler.

Admittedly, Therese is a horrible person. But at no point in FBOFW has anyone broached the idea that maybe the failure of the marriage wasn’t 100% her fault: that maybe Anthony shouldn’t have pressured Therese into having a baby she didn’t want, that maybe Therese’s affair would seem more clearly in the wrong if Anthony weren’t always mooning after Liz, or that, at the very least, it was kind of stupid of Anthony to marry a woman who was obviously (and, the later years of FBOFW not being noted for their subtlety, I do mean obviously) pure evil. If nothing else, it might be polite for Anthony himself to say something along those lines, if only so the other characters could reassure him that it really wasn’t his fault. But no: Anthony is good, Therese is an evil harpy. Nothing more to see here.

Incidentally, much of the story of Anthony’s marriage was communicated to readers via a week of New Year’s party bathroom gossip, with a group of young women clucking over how awful Therese was for having a job and not wanting a baby. Which reminds me…

8. The whole storyline with the wife is fucking sexist. Lynn Johnston has never made any secret of the fact that she’s not a feminist and doesn’t look too kindly on working women. In The Lives Behind the Lines, she comments that Connie, one of the strip’s earliest supporting characters, “was opinionated, abrasive, and designed to be a sort of feminist nemesis to Elly: someone who would flaunt her career and her lifestyle, someone who was, if not critical of, then slightly sorry for Elly, who had given up other goals to focus on her family.” She was supposed to be the career-oriented Evil Woman who would provide a counterpoint to Elly’s domestic, maternal Good Woman. Soon, however, Johnston developed sympathy for Connie’s situation as a single mom and respect for her job (she’s a radiologist who previously worked at a children’s clinic in South America—and you know what cold, career-obsessed bitches those pediatric nurses are.) Like all good writers, Johnston had a natural tendency to empathize with her characters, even the ones who were supposed to be villains, and develop them with depth and nuance. Instead of a nemesis, Connie became Elly’s best friend and one of the strip’s central characters.

Somewhere along the line, Johnston lost that empathy, and her “bad” characters became one-sided villains. Therese, her most recent effort at a “career woman,” may be the most evil character in the FBOFW universe. Even the rapist had a certain human pathos. Even before she abandoned her family, 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.

Therese is the cardboard Evil Woman Johnston originally intended Connie to be: an inhuman homewrecker who destroys men, abandons children, and, worse, dares get between a Patterson and happiness. 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.

9. Anthony represents the death of youthful dreams. Liz is hardly perfect herself, and she’s had many exasperating moments (although, to be honest, most of the recent examples are tied directly to Anthony, and involve her behaving stupidly, thoughtlessly, or out of character in order to speed up the reunion). But she has her appealing qualities, chief among them her spirited personality and dedication to teaching. Unlike Michael, a straight arrow who got busy recreating his parents’ model of marriage, suburban home, and one towheaded kid of each gender as soon as he was financially solvent, Liz has followed a less beaten path, one that’s taken some surprising turns. It’s also consistently involved seeking a life distinct from her family’s—again in contrast to Michael, who chose the writing career his mother always wanted to have, settled down in his hometown, and is now poised to take over the family homestead after John and Elly retire.

Liz developed an interest in teaching through an inspiring high-school teacher, Miss (not, of course, Ms.) Edwards, who became her friend and confidant. (Even this was seen as straying dangerously far from family togetherness:The Lives Behind the Lines praises Miss Edwards’s positive influence, but adds darkly, “Her mother wondered in silence why she was not the one Elizabeth was turning to.”) 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.

That, and the moustache.
Tags: for better or for worse, smithson

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic
    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.
← Ctrl ← Alt
Ctrl → Alt →
← Ctrl ← Alt
Ctrl → Alt →