December 15, 2016
(++++) CARTOON TIME WELL SPENT
Extra Cheesy Zits: A “Zits” Treasury. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.
Year of Yesh: A “Mutts” Treasury. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.
Consider, for a moment, the complexities of time, comic-strip style. One classic Sunday strip in the late Richard Thompson’s much-loved Cul de Sac had older brother Petey trying to explain comics to younger sister Alice. She was convinced that the cat in later panels was angry at the one in earlier panels, and Petey simply could not get her to see that it was the same cat, with the panels representing progress in time. There is, indeed, no instinctive human realization of how comic strips work: it has to be learned, perhaps between Alice’s age (four) and Petey’s (eight), or perhaps at some later time. The best cartoonists have so strong an understanding of comic-strip time that they can play with it, even to the point of having different characters in the same strip operating in different time schemes (you have to see that sort of thing to believe it: S. Clay Wilson had one notorious sequence of that type in an underground comic, involving a demon and two humans).
Now consider the reality that the concept of “time” means different things for teenagers than it does for many comic-strip readers, and you have a recipe for some amazing time expansion, contraction and confusion – and a source for humor of all types. Jerry Scott (writer) and Jim Borgman (artist) are absolute masters of time manipulation and understanding in Zits. They know that the circadian rhythms of teenagers, such as Jeremy Duncan and his friends, are as different as they can be from those of Jeremy’s parents, Walt and Connie, and other hapless and feckless adults. Partly as a result, Zits is a strip that invites readers to spend more time with each sequence than is usual with comics, many of which can literally be read in seconds. Try that with Zits and you will often miss the point. For example, in Extra Cheesy Zits, the latest “Treasury” collection (with commentary by Scott and Borgman), Connie wonders if Jeremy would like his shirt washed, since he has been wearing it for a month. No, he says: “It doesn’t offend me yet.” And Jeremy calls his parents to explain that he’s finished at the movie and will now be staying at friend Hector’s house for a while to binge-watch Game of Thrones and play “Halo,” so obviously the evening is just getting started – while we see Walt getting ready for bed and Connie already asleep. Aside from the clear difference of time sense between parents and teens, there is a lot to see in these panels, which is why the reader’s time comes into the equation as well. Skim the night-just-getting-started strip too quickly, for instance, and you may miss the details of just what Walt does to get ready for sleep. And definitely do not skim the one in which Jeremy and girlfriend Sara almost have an argument about a movie they have just seen – until Jeremy, realizing that Sara is about to blow up (Borgman has given her a grenade head, out of which the pin has just popped), thinks quickly and rescues the situation by revising his interpretation (and putting the pin back into the grenade, which turns back into Sara’s head). Obviously differences of time perception are not the only source of conflict and amusement in Zits. There are other, equally hilarious perceptual differences, like the one responsible for an amazing diagonally laid out strip in which Walt and Connie are rolling Jeremy’s huge head up a slope, only to have it roll back down right over them as he explains that the water bill may be high because he “fell asleep in the shower again.” This leads Walt to wonder whether Sisyphus had a son, and Borgman to comment beneath the strip, “Every twenty years or so we like to do a strip just for the Greek majors.” Matters of perception are a kind of stock-in-trade for Jeremy and, by extension, teenagers in general, and he and they will use them for their own purposes – as when Jeremy says he will not mow the lawn because “our gas-powered mower will increase my carbon footprint, and my morals simply won’t allow it.” Walt points out reasonably (reasonably to an adult, anyway) that Jeremy just drove his van to the mailbox, and Jeremy explains, “My morals are task-specific.” Ah, yes. Everything is a matter of perception, and time lies at the center of so much. One strip in Extra Cheesy Zits encapsulates this neatly in just two panels. Connie asks Jeremy if he plans to do anything today, and he says, “This is my down-time.” She asks if he doesn’t “need to have some up-time before you can have down-time,” and Jeremy responds, “Not at my level of experience.” There you have Zits in a nutshell, or a driving-parents-nuts-shell. Readers’ time used to peruse and examine Zits is always very well spent indeed.
The complexity of the story lines and visual images in Zits contrasts strongly with the simplicity of design and tale-telling in Mutts, at least at first glance. Patrick McDonnell’s strips can often be read in a matter of moments, and there is a childlike quality to their themes and art that is immediately appealing and does not requires introspection – again, at first glance. But Mutts operates on two levels. There is the surface warmth and simplicity that make the strip quite suitable for children and give it a veneer of bright, homey amusement. But there is also the level of strong animal advocacy, particularly the “Shelter Stories” segments, in which all sorts of animals are saved and given a full life by caring human beings who adopt them; the strips warning about the imminent disappearance of various endangered species; and, artistically, a remarkably high level of drawing skill that takes off from fine art as well as a thorough knowledge of and understanding of the comic-strip medium itself. McDonnell does not really poke fun, even gently, at earlier strips – he adopts and adapts them to the world of Mutts with gentle, sometimes wry understanding, as when he changes Otto Soglow’s “The Little King” into a series called “The Little Cat King,” a perfect way to describe cats in general and Mooch in particular. The central characters here – Mooch and his dog pal, Earl – are a marvelous blend of the realistic and the imaginary. They may talk to each other and have adventures together and with other animals, but they do not speak to the humans in the strip, and as far as human beings go, they retain standard animal characteristics: Mooch snubs his food and plays obsessively with his “little pink sock,” while Earl gobbles his meals in an instant and goes into paroxysms of joy whenever his human companion, Ozzie, comes home. McDonnell’s strip is a constant balancing act, and his tightrope skill is amazing. “Yesh” is the way Mooch says “Yes,” and this is a speech characteristic, not a speech impediment, with the result that it is all the more endearing. Year of Yesh includes, yesh…err, yes…a full year of Mutts strips, giving readers a chance to follow McDonnell’s characters, and his art, through weather of all sorts and events of all types. McDonnell is fond of multi-strip series devoted to specific occasions: six of them, each a large rectangular single panel, containing quotations about spring; a cleverly designed six-panel Sunday entry for Earth Day that starts with “my yard” and gradually widens out to “my home” (Earth as seen from space); an exceptionally touching, beautifully drawn and very big single Sunday panel for Mother’s Day; and many more. McDonnell regularly pays visits to Coconino County of Krazy Kat fame, and the many sequences in which squirrels Bip and Bop “bean” other animals, and people, with acorns, are directly derived from George Herriman’s masterful strip – a fact made particularly clear in this collection by a strip in which Mooch gets “bonked” and Earl strikes an Offissa Pupp pose while imagining the squirrel in jail. And then there are the recurring just-for-fun sequences, such as “Dear Diary” entries for Mooch and Earl. And there are gentle and gently silly “tribute” strips, such as a sequence in which Dennis the Menace, Charlie Brown, Little Orphan Annie and other classic characters get bopped by acorns – plus a Sunday offering in which McDonnell beautifully and very amusingly reinterprets the classic cover from 1938 of the very first Action Comics edition featuring Superman. Mutts is a strip with which it is possible to spend a very short amount of time to “get” the basic gag each day, and one on which it is equally possible to dwell for a very extended period indeed to savor the quality of the art, the nuances of the writing, and the uniformly loving impulses that equally underlie the overt advocacy strips and the ones that “merely” show a world that is recognizably ours, but better. This is, yesh, marvelous storytelling and characterization that just happen to occur in comic-strip format.