December 08, 2005


Our Server Is Down! “Baby Blues” Scrapbook 20. By Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

Pimp My Lunch: “Zits” Sketchbook No. 10. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

Never Wink at a Worried Woman: A “For Better or For Worse” Collection. By Lynn Johnston. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

     If the only thing that mattered in cartooning was consistency, the most popular comic strip in the world would be Garfield.  (Okay, it is extremely popular, but that says more about some readers’ tastes than about the strip itself.)  The best comic strips provide a consistently high level of quality and, if they are story-oriented strips, consistently interesting and believable (or at least recognizable) characters.  But they also provide constant variation, so you never quite know what to expect from one day to the next – except that it will be something delightful.

     Jerry Scott has a hand – specifically, whatever hand he writes with – in two of the strips that are most adept at staying at the highest possible standard.  Baby Blues has remained a delight from its earliest days, when Zoe was born, right through to now, when Zoe is seven, brother Hammie is five, and sister Wren is a toddler.  That’s impressive consistency – but even more impressive are the always-bright writing, the exaggeratedly appropriate art of Rick Kirkman, and the endless variations on the theme of irrepressible children interacting with overworked and overstressed parents.  The “server” in Our Server Is Down! refers not to a computer but to mom Wanda, who spends so much time serving her kids that she eventually collapses into sleep.  Dad Darryl has his share of reasons for exhaustion, too, from trying to save money for the kids’ college educations (finding change in the dryer’s lint trap will double the college fund), to pulling everyone else out of the family minivan because the ice cream that keeps the kids quiet also attaches them to the seats (“sticky kids or whiny kids – take your pick,” says Wanda).  This collection includes “Ask a Mom/Ask a Dad” strips highlighting different parental responses to the same question, several hearty helpings of sibling rivalry (and as many of sibling revelry), and the family visiting the zoo – where Darryl asks for five tickets, “two roundtrip and three one way.”  What parent hasn’t at least considered that prospect?

     Eventually, of course, little kids grow older and bigger, out of diapers and temper tantrums and into teenagerdom – which makes many parents long for those earlier, simpler days.  But there’s no way to go back, so one must go forward into Zits, which adds a healthy dose of surrealism to the tale of Jeremy Duncan, his family, his friends and his world-weariness.  At 15, Jeremy knows just what he wants: fame and fortune without work.  But he is not sure what to say to get him where he wants to be (he compliments his girlfriend, Sara, by saying she looks like “workout Barbie”).  Jeremy is prone to fantasies (he imagines the attractive school guidance counselor wearing a leopard-print bikini and hanging upside-down like a trapeze artist) and insecurities (he changes into his “question authority” T-shirt only after leaving the house).  Jim Borgman, one of the best artists in the business, is a major reason for the strip’s success.  He perfectly captures Jeremy’s expression as he wakes up, yawns, and says, “Hello, world.  Now entertain me.”  He also shows Jeremy’s mother, Connie, literally hitting the ceiling, and sticking there; Jeremy’s dad blasted by a jet engine when Jeremy cranks up his new amp; Jeremy and his friends as inscrutable Easter Island heads when Connie suggests they place Yahtzee; and much more.

     Both Baby Blues and Zits exaggerate reality to show it more clearly.  For Better or For Worse mostly just displays reality as it is – with a few nips and tucks here and there to fit a daily four-panel format.  Lynn Johnston’s strip could fairly be called a soap opera if the phrase did not have so many negative connotations.  It chronicles the ins and outs of the Patterson family with pervasive affection and so much realism that the characters seem like next-door neighbors.  In the latest collection, daughter Elizabeth becomes a teacher and deals with an “obnoxious little twirp” in her class by remembering how she handled her older brother, Michael – who is now married and a father himself.  The third Patterson child, April, is now a teenager and a member of a rock band that does surprisingly well in a competition – until April breaks a string on stage.  Parents John and Elly remain the center of the strip’s universe, but this book focuses more on others, such as Grandpa Jim, who has a memory lapse that leads to an accident, unwanted dependency and the need for a walker; and Elizabeth’s high-school boyfriend, Anthony, who marries a woman whose jealousy of Elizabeth is truly cutting (she literally “looks knives” in one strip).

     Different all these strips surely are, but in one crucial way they are similar: readers know the characters intimately, have a strong sense of their personalities, and know they can count on the writers and artists to stay true to those personalities while keeping the day-to-day occurrences lively and engaging.  That is the formula for lasting quality and popularity.  And in strips as good as these, there is nothing formulaic about it.

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