November 14, 2019
(++++) COMIC-STRIP THINKING AND RETHINKING
Surviving the Great Indoors: “Baby Blues” Scrapbook 36. By Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.
Nancy’s Genius Plan. By “Olivia Jaimes.” Andrews McMeel. $7.99.
Virtuosity is its own reward. And its own challenge. Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott somehow continue to manage to create infinite variations on a theme – of parents and their kids, a longtime fixture in the world of comic strips – in ways that make the perennial challenges of child-rearing seem ever-new. And, of course, ever-messy and ever-frustrating. Both newspaper readers (a fast-declining bunch) and lovers of webcomics (a fast-rising bunch) tend to skim comic strips quickly, enjoy them briefly, maybe stick particularly good ones to the refrigerator (hint: do not stick your computer to the refrigerator). Most such readers have not the slightest idea of how much thought and work and fine-tuning goes into the best comic strips, of which Baby Blues is very definitely one. That is, most do not know unless they buy collections of the strip, the latest of which is Surviving the Great Indoors. Throughout the book, Kirkman and Scott make comments on their work, explain their thinking, and – a particular source of enjoyment – even show some of the “blue lines,” the rough sketches that eventually turn into final strips and sometimes differ from those final ones in small or not-so-small ways. The content of all the Baby Blues collections can be described the same way: Darryl and Wanda MacPherson deal to the best of their ability with the everyday troubles, traumas and occasional terrors of raising their three kids, Zoe, Hammie and Wren. (And just consider those three names. Lots of thought obviously went into them.) However, the “plot” of Baby Blues is only as important as the initial statement of a theme in a set of musical variations: it is a starting point, but not what really matters or what makes the whole thing worthwhile for an audience. For instance, the fact that Wanda would love a much-remodeled, much-improved house is no surprise, but the words about her dreamed-of “French farmhouse kitchen” with “wide-plank flooring, and a stone fireplace” – plus the marvelous illustration superimposing her dream on the family’s real, barely adequate kitchen – are exceptional. Add the fact that she then throws her arms around an imagined hunky remodeler named Chip, while in fact hugging unprepossessing Darryl, and the exceptional becomes even better. Then add Zoe’s last-panel line, “When Mom goes into fantasy remodeling mode, she goes all out,” and you have a perfect encapsulation of how Baby Blues works. And then add, as a bonus, the rough panels in which “Chip” is named “Bruce,” and the explanation of the change, and you have a kind of super-ultimate-amazing-wonderful-insightful view of how a great comic strip is made. Baby Blues is timeless in its portrayal of family life, at least for thirtysomethings such as Darryl and Wanda, but it does have some characteristics that reflect on the ages of Kirkman and Scott, who are, ahem, a bit more seasoned (if not necessarily more mature). There are, for instance, the references to classic films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Blazing Saddles (1974). And there are the tributes to other first-rate cartoonists such as Sergio Aragonés of Mad magazine, whose marginal drawings get some fond imitation (although they would likely be nearly invisible in today’s comic-strip layouts), and Charles Schulz, whose Peanuts character interaction visibly influences one strip and whose concept of the Great Pumpkin is the topic of another. On the other hand, there are elements in Surviving the Great Indoors that could only appear in a Baby Blues collection, such as the hilarious strip (laid out here on two full pages) in which Wren counts Darryl’s nose hairs, leading to a marginal discussion of what size the nostrils should be when someone possesses a nose the size of his entire head, from forehead to chin. The only real criticism that can be leveled at Surviving the Great Indoors is that it will be a disappointment to nitpickers. There are three errors in the book: a missed period in one strip, the word “tablet” misspelled “tab let” in another, and the word “look” instead of “lock” in a third. But alas, Kirkman (who hand-letters the strip) calls attention to them all, making it impossible for readers to say “neener, neener, neener” to the cartoonists. Those who are disappointed will just have to be glad that Darryl gets to say “neener, neener, neener” to Zoe in one of the strips.
The exact elements that make a comic strip “classic” can be argued (and often are: academics have to have something to do), but certainly the amount of detail in the art is not a determining factor. A strip such as Baby Blues is exceptionally intricate, while Nancy by Ernie Bushmiller (1905-1982) was simple to the point of a Zen kōan. Those needing proof of some cartoonists’ versatility should note that Jerry Scott not only co-creates Baby Blues but also writes the equally elaborately illustrated Zits – and in addition, for more than a decade after Bushmiller’s death, did Nancy. Now, though – specifically since 2018 – Nancy is under the aegis of the pseudonymous “Olivia Jaimes,” a Web cartoonist who for some reason chooses to remain anonymous. “Jaimes” has reimagined the deliberately bland style of Nancy for the Internet age, keeping the precocious eight-year-old as super-simple as always in drawing style but having her interact on a regular basis with modern technology. And she also interacts with readers – at least in the form of a board book, something Bushmiller would never have created (although he did do plenty of comic books, initially focused more on Aunt Fritzi than on Nancy). Nancy’s Genius Plan is a particularly interesting blend of “old Nancy” and “new Nancy,” although the very young children for whom board books are created (and their parents) will not know Nancy’s history and have no reason to consider it. The “plan” here is simply for Nancy to get the warm cornbread that Aunt Fritzi made for everyone to share, but that Nancy wants for herself. Nancy enlists readers to help – through some clever interactivity that the youngest children can easily accomplish, such as knocking on a window to distract Aunt Fritzi and turning the book upside down so Nancy can walk on the ceiling and walls. Of course, selfishness cannot be encouraged in kids’ books, so by the end of this one, Nancy is happy to be sharing the cornbread with her friends – who include not only the traditional Sluggo but also, in accordance with contemporary inclusive sensibilities, African-American and Hispanic buddies. The book is clever and its reinterpretation of Nancy is quite well done, keeping the character’s extreme simplicity of appearance while adapting her behavior for a time when comic strips, if thought through carefully, can be new-fashioned out of distinctly old-fashioned material.