May 10, 2007


Briefcase Full of Baby Blues: “Baby Blues” Scrapbook 22. By Rick Kirkman & Jerry Scott. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

Rude, Crude, and Tattooed: “Zits” Sketchbook 12. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

      There’s a factory out there that seems to have solved the problem of perpetual motion. Day after day, it churns out warm, witty and wise parenting advice, disguises it with little pictures, then ships it out to more than 1,000 newspapers, a bunch of periodicals and all over the Internet. It also has exceptional quality control, producing better and more refined ideas over time, with no sign of breaking down or even slowing down.

      We have it on good authority that it is shaped like Jerry Scott.

      Scott is the writer of two of the best family-oriented comic strips being produced today, Baby Blues and Zits. One of the most remarkable things about both is how easily readers accept their excellence: there seems to be nothing special about how special they are. Every collection of the strips shows the writing becoming more pointed, more refined, more carefully shaped to deliver maximum impact, and maximum enjoyment, in minimal space.

      But comics are, of course, a visual medium, and none of the writing would be as effective without excellent illustrations as part of the strips’ packages. Scott is either incredibly lucky or inordinately skilled in picking artist partners, because Rick Kirkman and Jim Borgman have grown with their strips just as much as Scott has, and both strips so seamlessly integrate words and pictures that they seem to spring from interconnected group minds rather than separate individuals. Funny group minds.

      Many of today’s comic strips are at best occasionally chuckle-worthy, but Baby Blues and Zits rate four guffaws on a scale of one to four: they may provoke wry laughs, occasional sighs, even a tear or two, but most of the time they are simply hilarious. Any collection of either strip shows this. The latest books show it best of all – since both strips just keep getting better.

      Briefcase Full of Baby Blues features a highly unusual cover, with Hammie McPherson in a Men in Black suit and sunglasses within two vertical blue panels on the front, the rest of the cover being black; while the back displays 45-rpm records (anyone remember those?) with song titles relating to the strip: “Minivan Mama,” “Terrible Twos Stomp” and more. Inside this attractive wrapping is mom Wanda’s recipe for handling Hammie when he gets bratty – an approach so attractive that dad Darryl remarks, “I want to be a brat.” Elsewhere, Darryl observes, “The dullest day of being a kid is more exciting than the best day of being a grownup.” Baby Wren learns to mimic blender and flushing-toilet sounds. Oldest child Zoe says she likes beagles, and when Hammie says he does, too, she says he can’t pick the same dog and has to like something else, leading him to remark, “I hate liking things I don’t like.” Zoe tattles on everything Hammie does, then explains that she is “an eyewitness correspondent.” And Kirkman draws everything these kids and parents do so well that parents can instantly identify with every character. The picture of Zoe expressing mock sympathy to Hammie when he has to go clean his room – she is wide-eyed, lying on the floor, with one hand partly over her open mouth – deserves framing in any house with young and competitive kids. Everything in Baby Blues makes such perfect sense that parents will nod knowingly when not holding their sides laughing: Band-Aids as a fashion statement, recycled-art projects that outlast carefully made crafts, permission cards for tantrums that take all the fun out of throwing them. Yup – it all will nearly make parents eager for their kids to get a few years older.

      Nearly. Because then there’s Zits. This is where 15-year-old Jeremy Duncan gives his friends a “look backward in time” tour of his home, focusing on a TV without remote control and his father’s wardrobe; Jeremy and his girlfriend, Sara, break up, and everyone knows within 10 minutes through instant messaging and MySpace, while Jeremy moans, “It’s a broadband world and I have dialup emotions”; dad Walt takes the Duncans to a cabin in the woods because, says mom Connie, “It wouldn’t be a summer vacation if we weren’t forcing you to have fun.” The expressions of Jeremy and his friends are inevitably perfect, with Borgman bringing his wonderful sense of surreality to the nearly-real life of the Duncans: Jeremy literally carries the world on his shoulders (he is complaining about chores); he walks out of the house invisibly, in a cloud of body spray; and his behavior leads his mother to sprout question marks around her head, to the point that they obscure her hair and most of her face. In one strip that parents of teenagers will instantly absorb, Connie smiles broadly while holding baby Jeremy, who grows larger in each panel until he emerges, 15 and surly, in the final one, leading Connie to comment, “Reality is highly overrated.” And so it is – but Baby Blues and Zits are there to help parents cope with it.

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