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Because the characters in ``For Better or Worse' age, the days of the family's pet were numbered.


If he had to go, at least he went out a hero.

Fans of the popular comic strip ``For Better or For Worse' got the bad news recently. The family's beloved 14-year-old sheepdog, Farley, died.While such news wouldn't rank up there with similar tidings of, say, Snoopy or Marmaduke, comic strip artist Lynn Johnston knows that her millions of readers have been grieving. And she's sorry - but, just as in real life, these things do happen.

``I've been thinking about this for a long time,' says Johnston, who lives in Corbeil, Ontario. ``I knew I had to do it.'

Johnston set herself up for such eventualities when she started the strip back in 1979. The characters that populate ``For Better or For Worse' do what few other comic-strip characters do: They age.

``If the strip is true to life, I can't very well have the oldest dog in the world,' she says. ``I really didn't have a choice.'

And so the die was cast when 4-year-old April slipped into the raging waters of a swollen river. Courageously, Farley jumped in to save her, clamping the little girl's coat collar in his mouth, holding her head above water while Edgar - Farley's son and the family's new addition - ran to get help.

John and Ellie Patterson, along with daughter Elizabeth, successfully dragged the little girl and Farley out of the river. But Farley's heart hadn't stood the strain of the rescue.

Johnston looks upon the Pattersons as part of her own family. Still, she says, drawing the tragedy didn't prove as traumatic as her fans might think.

``I'd said goodbye to Farley a long time ago,' she says. ``I knew he'd be a hero. My focus was, does this really look like a river? Does Farley really look like he's had his last breath? I was concentrating so hard on the artwork, I didn't focus on the emotional part of what was happening.'

What was difficult later, she says, was showing the strip to friends and family. ``They were all saying, 'This is so sad.' '

Death, particularly of a major character, is almost unheard of in the daily strips - an art form with an implicit promise of amusement. Previously, the most notable death occurred in 1991, when Andy, an occasional character in creator Garry Trudeau's strip, ``Doonesbury,' died of AIDS.

But Farley's death is hardly Johnston's first foray into serious subjects. Two years ago, her teenage character Lawrence - a friend of the Patterson son, Michael - revealed that he's gay.

Most recently, the creator unintentionally set off a minor tirade among readers when Farley made a clandestine visit to a neighbor's dog, who was in heat. (The resulting pregnancy produced Edgar.)

``I've been getting a lot of mail that Farley should have been neutered a long time ago,' she says.

Because of that response, she says, Edgar is probably destined for an ominous trip to the vet.


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