February 05, 2015


Wetter, Louder, Stickier: “Baby Blues” Scrapbook 31. By Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.

Peace, Love & Wi-Fi: A “Zits” Treasury. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.

     Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear. Or real-er. And certainly funnier. Said objects being the through-the-looking-glass families of Baby Blues (the MacPhersons) and Zits (the Duncans). In one memorably reflective set of panels, we even find the DunPhersons – that’s the Zits strip in which dad Walt remembers how cute teenage Jeremy was as a baby and metamorphoses temporarily into Baby Blues dad Darryl.

     This is probably Jerry Scott’s fault, since he has a hand, or a foot, or part of a brain, in both strips, writing sequences that inevitably resonate with anyone who has ever been a baby, child, teenager, parent or some other member of that thoroughly odd creation known as the modern middle-class family. “Who thinks this stuff up?” readers are known to chortle amid their guffaws. Um…it’s Jerry Scott, folks. Blame him.

     Or blame the visuals guys who bring all those words and concepts so delightfully to life. Rick Kirkman’s Baby Blues characterizations, no matter how overdone (e.g., Darryl’s nose being nearly the same size as his already elongated head), always seem subtle: he is a master of minimalist expression changes, in which the new placement of the pupil of an eye, a mere dot, changes a character’s entire look. He is also very thoughtful about what the strips indicate about the real world, as in a Sunday one about digital photos in which he observes (in commentary below the panels in Wetter, Louder, Stickier) that old traditional photos looked their age, giving “a real sense of elapsed time” so that parents felt they “earned those pounds and that gray hair or lack of hair”; but because digital photos always look freshly taken, “it feels like all that change happened in an instant.” Thought-provoking, yes?

     The commentaries by Kirkman and Scott in the latest Baby Blues collection add to the fun and creativity. In one strip, Wanda and Darryl are out adventuring with baby Wren for three panels – and in the fourth, that all turns out to be a dream, with Wanda commenting that she has kids even when she is dreaming, and Darryl asking, “Ours, or better ones?” Elsewhere, Darryl gives Wanda chocolates for Valentine’s Day, and she comments, “Candy. Good plan. After I eat myself into an early grave, you can run off with some young, skinny tramp.” For Mother’s Day, Hammie gives Wanda a certificate promising one hour of his best behavior, and when she asks why only one hour, he replies, “I love you, Mom, but I know my limits.” Ever-observant Zoe explains to Wren that her entire life consists of “Eat. Sleep. Poop.” And so does Daddy’s on weekends. Darryl and Hammie bond by doing yard work while talking like pirates, leading Zoe to observe that that is “another stupid guy thing” and Wanda to agree: “There’s still no cure.” Zoe and Hammie go to camp, and Wanda brings along an apology in advance for whatever Hammie does, but the camp director says that is not necessary: “I think we still have last year’s apology on file.” Wanda sends Hammie to see what a crying Wren wants, and Hammie returns completely messed up (Kirkman draws messed-up especially well) with the comment that his baby sister is looking for “total world domination.” And in one of the many Hammie-and-Zoe-irritating-each-other strips (every one of them a gem), Zoe asks her younger brother why he has to be such a pest all the time, and he replies, “It’s a preexisting condition.” Side stitches, nose snorts and accidental inhaling of beverages into one’s lungs are not, however, preexisting: they are consequences of reading Baby Blues.

     And over in Zits land, the family-ness is just as intense, although there are no creators’ commentaries in the latest collection and the art is quite different. Jim Borgman, a first-rate editorial cartoonist, brings his talent for caricature and exaggeration to this strip again and again. Just looking at some Zits strips is a, well, eye-opening experience. There is the one in which Sara transforms her school locker into a complete makeover region. One in which six versions of Jeremy trying to stifle “the seventh bell yawn” are beyond hilarious and into hysterical. One in which he borrows some of his dad’s “volumizer” shampoo and ends up with hair about four times the size of his head. One in which Borgman shows the relative complexity of teenage girls and boys by portraying Sara as having dials, knobs and indicator lights all over her body – while Jeremy sports a single on/off switch. One in which mom Connie turns cartwheels, creates a parade balloon of Jeremy and takes an exuberant selfie after her son agrees to take out a bag of trash. One hilarious one in which much-pierced Pierce and D’ijon become impossibly entangled amid exclamations of “nose stud!” and “belly button ring!” And a series in which Walt gets the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine stuck in his head and walks about for days wearing the sub as a hat – while, in ensuing strips, Connie wears Puff the Magic Dragon and Pierce’s head pops open to reveal a seething mass of monsters. The amazing thing about Zits is that the stranger the art becomes, the truer the theme of the strip seems to be – life as or with a teenager really is bizarre. Yet it also has more-or-less mundane moments, and they are equally enjoyable here – such as a sequence in which Connie takes Jeremy to a bookstore (he asks, “Is that still done?”) and he ends up selecting a book called Zits: Chillax (a touch of the self-referential there).

     So the recipe for success in modern family-focused comic strips is abundantly clear: simply mix a super-perceptive writer who has weirdly skewed sensibilities about life with highly talented artists whose unique styles and perspectives make their work immediately recognizable as “real life exaggerated” in one way or another. And that’s why there are dozens and dozens of strips as good as Baby Blues and Zits. Um…hold it…

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