April 13, 2006


First Flight: A Mother Hummingbird’s Story. By Noriko and Don Carroll. Andrews McMeel. $14.95.

Crack of Noon: A “Zits” Treasury. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $16.95.

     It is a wondrous thing to watch the young of any species, including our own, getting ready to leave the nest.  It is an everyday small miracle – and it is a story that has rarely been told as well as Noriko and Don Carroll tell it in First Flight.  The Carrolls, husband-and-wife photo illustrators based in Las Vegas, had the luck to move into a house whose prior owner had set it up to attract hummingbirds – and had the enormous skill to take advantage of that fact to produce a truly remarkable nature study.  The Carrolls set up a sophisticated digital camera and flash unit around the nest of the bird they named Honey, and took fabulous photos: of a nest so small it is dwarfed by the clothespins nearby; of eggs the size of pearls; of two teeny hummingbirds hatching; of Honey feeding them; of their growth, their attempts at flight, and – yes – their eventual departure from the nest.  The photos here are simply amazing: extreme close-ups of scenes that are almost impossible for people to see.  The detail is marvelous throughout, and the Carrolls’ ongoing narration is perfectly balanced between matter-of-fact description and a sense of the wonder of it all.  For instance, when the babies, called Ray and Zen, got larger, “the nest was quite elastic and continued to stretch as they grew.  Still, two became a crowd.  Sometimes one baby climbed on the other’s back, slipping and sliding while enthusiastically flapping its wings.  At times they practiced simultaneously with one losing its balance and almost falling off the edge, but recovering equilibrium just in time.”  The well-modulated words and outstanding pictures combine into a book that is remarkable in every way.

     We humans take a lot longer to leave the nest, and the best way to deal with the trauma of doing so – or not doing so – seems to be humor.  That’s what the consistently excellent Zits comic strip is all about.  Just how good is it?  The back cover of the latest Treasury volume cleverly offers only a single comment – “You must have a camera in our house” – followed by a long list (no doubt a partial one) of the readers who have made that remark.  It does sometimes seem that Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman have done just as good a job of setting up cameras in human nests as the Carrolls did to watch hummingbirds.  Certainly 15-year-old Jeremy Duncan’s life is humming right along, whether he is trying to cope with having “abnormally normal” parents (Walt and Connie); trying unsuccessfully to understand his girlfriend, Sara; or trying to manage the ins and outs of school (boys wearing “empathy bellies” to understand what pregnancy feels like; Jeremy and Sara attempting to share a locker; Jeremy seeing other guys in the locker room as Vikings, cavemen and apes; and much more).  As always in Treasury collections, the strips are reprints – these were originally published in Thrashed and Pimp My Lunch – but the Sunday strips are shown in color, and that always makes Borgman’s already outstanding art work even better.  Look at Jeremy and Walt as sumo wrestlers, the Duncan parents being nearly buried by the bad news they see on TV news and rushing to Jeremy’s room to try to be close to him, the expressions on Connie’s face when Jeremy watches cable television, and Connie seeing Jeremy and his friends as Easter Island statues, and you will get a hint of what makes Zits consistently one of the very best comic strips around.  And those are just Sunday strips: the dailies, where Scott’s pithy writing comes to the fore, are every bit as good.  Watching humans nest may not be as spectacularly interesting as watching hummingbirds in closeup, but it has to be said that – at least in the almost-real or all-too-real world of Zits – we Homo sapiens are one heck of a lot more amusing.

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