June 02, 2011


Pearls Blows Up: A “Pearls Before Swine” Treasury. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

Drive! “Zits” Sketchbook 14. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Big Nate: Boredom Buster. By Lincoln Peirce. Harper. $10.99.

     It’s one thing to be funny…well, actually, no, it’s not one thing. It’s a number of different things, as these books show. Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine is funny-snide-sarcastic, with its cast of misfit animal characters and its continual violation of traditional comic-strip conventions – for instance, by having Pastis himself as a recurring character, drawn as a sloppy, unfunny chain smoker who (in this book’s laugh-out-loud cover) is blown up, along with numerous other Pearls denizens, when the strip’s adorable little kitten (who stockpiles weapons of mass destruction) sets off a charge prominently labeled “T-N’T.” Pearls is also bad-art funny, with Pastis making repeated comments about how lousy his drawing is – thereby thumbing his nose at all those who think the pictures are what really matter in a comic strip. A small sampling of his comments from beneath the strips in this book: “There is a good way to draw water and a bad way. This is a worse way.” “The way you know that’s an antelope and not Goat is by looking at the dialogue bubble where the hyena calls him an antelope.” “This breaks a cardinal rule in Pearls: Never draw anything with wheels. Why? Because it comes out looking like that thing.” “I am the Martin Scorsese of the comics page but without the fame, money, or talent.” Pastis does have talent, though: he is very good at killing characters (the body count in Pearls is sky-high, as are some of the characters; at one point Pastis even kills himself off) and making weird animals that look vaguely like doodles (and in fact got started as doodles) into hysterically funny commentators on just about everything, including themselves. Pearls Blows Up is an oversize “Treasury” collection, which means everything in it has been published before (well, except for the nine pages of family photos at the end). The strips come from two smaller-size collections, 50,000,000 Pearls Fans Can’t Be Wrong and When Pigs Fly. But Pastis is insidiously clever (or maybe just plain insidious): the many comments he writes specifically for the “Treasury” collections of his work really do add something to the strips as originally published, so even people who already own the smaller-size books will likely want Pearls Blows Up as well – and if not for the remarks, then for the two inside covers (front and back) showing outtakes of the “exploding Pastis” scene used as part of the cover. If Pastis is crazy, he’s crazy like that proverbial fox.

     The sly snickers produced by Pearls are very different from the guffaws and snorts that accompany Zits, the outstanding being-a-teenager-or-raising-one strip from writer Jerry Scott and artist Jim Borgman. The 14th Zits “Sketchbook” (which is actually the 18th Zits book in this size, thanks to publishers’, writers’ and artists’ unending attempts – successful in the case of Zits – to wring ever more uses from available material) not only has now-16-year-old Jeremy Duncan going through one of the great rites of teenagerdom by getting his driver’s license, but also has him using it in typical Zits fashion: he doesn’t just get lost, he gets LOST, as in driving to the Eiffel Tower and Sydney Opera House, then returning to what he thinks is home – only to find a woman there speaking Russian and threatening him with a frying pan. Bad-driving jokes are easy and familiar, but Scott and Borgman make them new in Zits, and for that matter bring the same freshness to other elements of parent-teenager relationships. The Sunday strips are a particular joy in this regard, such as the one in which mother Connie changes costumes in every panel as she explains to Jeremy that she is his teacher, coach, disciplinarian and so on – but “I never nag” (in a panel showing her as a centaur). Then there is the strip in which Jeremy tries to explain to his father, Walt, some elements of image editing, and Walt is captured perfectly with that deer-in-the-headlights look – as a deer at night, on a road, caught in the headlights, with eyes wide and bewildered. Scott and Borgman have tremendously clever ways of showing just how teens and parents communicate – or, far more often, fail to do so. Connie nods so enthusiastically when Jeremy says they need to talk that her head falls off; and her mouth (saying “yabba yabba yabba”) separates from her body and follows Jeremy around as he tries to ignore it. Before Jeremy’s driving test, Walt tells him, “I hope you don’t screw this up too badly,” explaining that “when I can’t come up with ‘meaningful’ or ‘inspiring,’ I usually go with ‘obvious.’” For his part, Jeremy texts a smirk when he sees the clothes his father is wearing for yard work, and drives his mother to explode in a burst of fireworks by explaining that he has waited until the last instant to remind her about “the mandatory thing you have to attend if I want to graduate or something.” Also in this collection is Connie’s lament, “I’d be a better full-time mother if I had a part-time teenager,” showing her surrounded by just a few of all those teen-mom interactions. And Scott and Borgman do not forget Jeremy’s peers: Jeremy stuffs Pierce in his backpack to smuggle his detention-sentenced friend out of school, and Sara attempts to improve Jeremy’s kissing, because “every time we kiss I’m afraid you’ll swallow my lip.” Toss in a few “Love Isn’t” parodies (“offering her your toaster strudel after you’ve licked the frosting off”) and you have another heaping helping of Zits hilarity, still with plenty of frosting on top.

     Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate is not quite a teenager yet – he’s in sixth grade – but it’s easy to see what a mass of hormones and overconfidence he is going to be in a short time. He’s actually there already, except for the hormones. Big Nate: Boredom Buster is the third book from Harper based on Nate’s adventures; and like the two earlier ones (Big Nate: In a Class by Himself and Big Nate Strikes Again), it combines cartoon strips with activities, commentary on his friends Francis and Teddy and his enemies Gina and Mrs. Godfrey, and much more. But unlike the two earlier hardcovers, it has no plot. That is not a criticism – the plotlessness is there by design. Boredom Buster is designed to keep readers engaged (that is, not bored) during detention, dull family events or pretty much anytime. There are tests about the strip and many samples of it, but much of the book simply uses Nate and other characters to introduce puzzles and games of all sorts: “Francis’s Fantastic Secret Alphabet,” “Poetry Slam Rhyme Time” (to which Nate contributes “Ode to a Cheez Doodle”), a place to draw yourself as a superhero and another in which to list superpowers and pick which you would most like to have, “Cosmic Cookies” containing fortunes that need to be decoded, a list you create of “Top 5 Things for After-School Fun,” even places to doodle. There are also “scrambles” to solve (find 20 kinds of pets or 22 words that are important in Nate’s world, for example), a place to list “your top 10 worst foods ever,” and speech bubbles to fill in to help Nate get revenge on his big sister, Ellen (among other things). One of the most amusing elements of Big Nate, the comic strip, is that Nate himself is a cartoonist, so we have a cartoonist drawing cartoons about a cartoonist, which means Nate’s cartoons (which are Peirce’s meta-cartoons) carry a lot of the narrative of the strip and are a big part of Boredom Buster as well. This book is only for existing Nate fans – it does introduce and even explain the strip’s various characters, but anyone not already familiar with Peirce’s work is unlikely to want to start with it here. But it is a clever expansion of the comic-strip-collection concept, and for those who already know Big Nate and enjoy his antics and infinite sense of self-importance, Big Nate: Boredom Buster will be a highly amusing way to…well, relieve boredom.

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