October 26, 2006


Are We Out of the Driveway Yet? “Zits” Sketchbook 11. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

Luann 3: Sixteen Isn’t Pretty. By Greg Evans. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

She’s Turning into One of Them! A “For Better or For Worse” Collection. By Lynn Johnston. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

Nowadays there’s more solid information on what it’s like to be a teenager, or live with one, in comic strips than in news stories, books or movies, or on TV. Many of the best cartoonists working today endow their teenage characters with depth, warmth, intelligence and real-world problems and concerns far beyond what you’ll find in most other media. The very best strips make teenage angst and uncertainty amusing even as they explore some of its more serous sides.

The funniest and best-drawn teenage comic strip around is Zits, which combines the wit and cleverness of Jerry Scott (who also writes Baby Blues) with the surrealistic sensibilities and talent for exaggeration of Jim Borgman, who is also an outstanding editorial cartoonist. The 11th Zits sketchbook (there have also been five oversize “Treasury” volumes) features slices of modern teen life: everyone in the movie audiences sending and receiving text messages to enhance the experience of watching a big-budget film. It includes brilliant depictions of how teens see their parents’ concern: Jeremy Duncan, 15, cast as Gulliver, tied down by multiple Lilliputian versions of his parents, Walt and Connie, who are using strings marked “curfew,” “chaperones” and “no parties.” Parents’ feelings get their turn, too, as when Connie literally unzips teenage Jeremy to get to the little boy inside, with whom she always had such a good time. Then there’s Jeremy portrayed as actually being in the center of his own universe…letting all the knowledge drain out of his ears after finals are over…and remembering to compliment his girlfriend’s shoes – when she is barefoot. It all adds up to a near-perfect portrait of modern teenagerdom – except that Scott and Borgman make it more enjoyable than most real-life families find it to be.

Greg Evans goes more intensely into real life and real-world troubles in Luann than do the creators of Zits. Evans has, for example, dealt with teenage drinking and had a character survive cancer. But the stock-in-trade of Luann is relationships, or the lack thereof, and that is the focus of Luann 3: Sixteen Isn’t Pretty. This is actually far more than the third Luann collection – it’s just the third from Andrews McMeel. And it continues the stories of Luann, who manages to be lovable despite lengthy bouts of superficiality, and her best friends, Bernice and Delta. Luann’s slug of an older brother, Brad, surprises himself (and his family, and readers) with some genuine growth in this volume, where his story becomes intertwined with the romance of Bernice and Zane – an older, wheelchair-bound hunk who works with Bernice in a bookstore where a near-tragedy is averted by Brad’s brave action. Also in this volume, Luann’s nemesis, Tiffany – a manipulative, gold-digging, flirtatious cheerleader who is the most stereotyped character in the comic strip – gives a makeover to “nice guy” Gunther, in whom Luann really ought to be interested but never is, quite. The results are intriguing – as are all the ongoing stories here.

The best-developed of all ongoing family stories in the comics are those of the Pattersons in Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse. Here too are people – and they really seem like people – facing the everyday vicissitudes of life and handling them with understandable difficulty but with good humor, family solidity and a strong sense of ethics. Johnston’s juggling act with her large cast of characters is almost as impressive as Garry Trudeau’s in Doonesbury. But Johnston has none of Trudeau’s cynicism and none of his preoccupation with politics – hers is a “family values” strip par excellence. This can sometimes become a bit cloying – everyone is just so well-intentioned and well-mannered – but Johnston always stays true to the personalities she has created for her characters. She’s Turning into One of Them! focuses in large part on April, the Pattersons’ “bonus baby,” who is now 13. But there are other kids here: for example, the Pattersons’ first child, Michael, already a father, is about to become one again. And then there is the “mentally challenged” Shannon, who takes some classes with April – and who, although 15 years old, is academically and socially slow. April’s affinity for Shannon, and her increasing distance from boy-chasing best friend Becky, is exactly what Johnston’s strip is all about. It is only when Becky shows vulnerability and suffers pain that she and April become closer again – a bit treacly, perhaps, but still far more realistic than most of what passes for family life in the comics…and far more uplifting.

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