October 25, 2007


The Sopratos: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

Alternative Zits: A “Zits” Treasury. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $16.95.

I’m Ready for My Movie Contract: A “Get Fuzzy” Collection. By Darby Conley. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

Seniors’ Discount: A “For Better or For Worse” Collection. By Lynn Johnston. Andrews McMeel. $12.95.

      As a comic-strip reader, where do you fall on the sweet-to-scurrilous scale? Pick your position and pick your collection – these four books pretty much span the spectrum.

      Pearls Before Swine is as dark, demented, twisted, weird and hysterically funny (if you like this sort of thing) as any comic being created today. Stephan Pastis, who occasionally draws himself as a cigarette-smoking slob (and maybe is a cigarette-smoking slob), is no kinder to his characters than he is to himself. The title of The Sopratos is, of course, a takeoff on TV’s immensely popular The Sopranos, and the cover is a delightfully doom-laden parody of the show, portraying some of Pastis’ major characters dressed as goodfellas, standing in or near a rowboat perched on the edge of a swamp, with various characters that Pastis has killed off over the years in the foreground. Longtime Pearls fans will have a great time naming all the whacked victims, from Hobart the miniature train engineer…to the pancake with a desire for friends around the world (which Pig naively sent to the International House of Pancakes, with predictably disastrous results)…to Mrs. Bootyworth, the promiscuous syrup bottle…well, you get the idea. Or part of the idea. The strips collected here include some of Pastis’ worst puns (“Pelvis has left the building”), some of his strangest concepts (Pig’s toys, the effeminate Viking warriors), and the out-and-out funniest parody he has ever done of any other comic strip: a sequence in which Rat becomes the babysitter for the Baby Blues kids – who drive a car to get beer for Rat and, among other things, blow up a gas station and run over Jeremy Duncan, the central teenage character in Zits. This is dark and thoroughly weird humor that will have you laughing out loud – if Pastis’ twisted sense of what’s funny matches yours.

      If you don’t understand what Pastis is parodying in his babysitting sequence, do yourself a favor and get Alternative Zits, which collects all the cartoons previously published in Are We Out of the Driveway Yet? and Rude, Crude, and Tattooed. You may want to do yourself the favor anyway – even if you already have the earlier collections – because Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman’s always-excellent strip about being a teenager and parenting a teenager is even better than usual here (and that’s saying something). The color Sunday strips really showcase the intricacies of Borgman’s superlative drawing style, and the writing by Scott – who also writes Baby Blues – is so punchy that it can practically knock you out. Take the two-long-panel Sunday offering contrasting “When Guys Hang Out” with “When Girls Hang Out.” The first panel shows guys doing not much of anything except playing and watching video games while saying, “Dude.” The second panel has five girls grooming each other – every one attending to the next one over – while talking so much that their speech balloons merge into an almost indecipherable blob. Another Sunday strip shows “Backpack Geology” – levels of compaction in Jeremy’s vastly overpacked book-and-everything-else carrier. Throw in sequences of Jeremy fantasizing about his 42-year-old guidance counselor, his mom spraying sheepdog scent in the house to cover the smell of wet teenagers, his father discovering that Jeremy’s “oldies are too new for me to have heard of them,” and many more deliciously trenchant observations of everyday life, and you have a winner all around.

      That’s “winner,” not “whiner.” If you’d rather have a whiner, check out Bucky Katt in I’m Ready for My Movie Contract, Darby Conley’s latest Get Fuzzy collection. This strip has really hit its stride, and the interactions among Bucky, Satchel Pooch and Rob Wilco are funnier than ever. Rob is still the weakest character: a perpetually dateless advertising man, he is drawn with stick-thin legs and a great deal of unpleasantly prominent body hair. He also seems to be dumber than either Bucky or the frequently dimwitted Satchel. In this collection, though, Rob’s many lacks become the basis for some excellent sequences. For example, Bucky decides to make statues of himself, so he takes Rob’s valuable Star Wars and Lord of the Rings statues (which Rob is not smart enough to keep out of Bucky’s reach) and turns them into Bucky representations – which then fall into the hands of the ferret in a nearby apartment, who uses them as voodoo dolls. Satchel, trying to help, finds Darth Vader’s head and attaches it to the only doll body he can locate in the dumpster – a Barbie. Thus is born “Malibu Vader.” Add Bucky’s obsessions with destroying beavers and eating monkeys, Satchel’s need for “doga” (dog yoga) to relieve the stress of living with Bucky, some amusing “Rejected Get Fuzzy Storylines” and post-Get Fuzzy “career opportunities” for Bucky and Satchel, and the result is – well, it’s a home in which you wouldn’t want to live.

      You probably would want to live in the Patterson home, though, since this central location in Lynn Johnston’s long-running For Better or For Worse is constantly filled with love, laughter and hints about handling real-world issues. Johnston’s skill lies in telling real-life stories in four-panel snippets that end with just enough of a punch so they work as daily strips. Her characters have no superpowers; her animals behave like animals; the worries in the strip are ones any reader might have. Johnston is perfectly capable of doing something outlandish from time to time: when teenage April, exultant at staying home alone one night, watches a super-scary horror movie, she cannot sleep even though she keeps reassuring herself that “there’s no such thing as demonic flesh-eating roach people.” Then the dogs need to go out, and after they do, guess what April sees – or thinks she sees – under the bed? There are many interconnected stories in Johnston’s strip, and because they are ongoing, collections (including this one) tend to end right in the middle of things. But the stories themselves are warm and human enough to satisfy anyone who wants a touch of sweetness in the comics: Elly decides to sell her bookstore and retire (and gets busier than ever); Mike and Deanna face the realities of being the parents of two children; Elizabeth finds herself torn both professionally and romantically; and Grandpa Jim suffers a stroke. Sensitive and loving, all For Better or For Worse strips encapsulate everyday life as some people live it – and others would like to.

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