November 13, 2008


Pierced: A “Zits” Close-Up. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

The Future’s So Bright, I Can’t Bear to Look. By Tom Tomorrow. Nation Books. $16.95.

     Anyone wondering what the difference is between a good comic strip and a great one can get the answer – or one answer, anyway – from Pierced, the latest collection of Zits strips. Unlike earlier Zits Sketchbook collections, this 13th compendium (not counting seven oversized “Treasury” volumes) homes in on a single character instead of simply reprinting an entire sequence of strips in the order in which they originally appeared. The character, Pierce, is a close friend of central character Jeremy Duncan and is – on the surface – as unlike Jeremy as can be imagined. Where Jeremy is essentially a nice, middle-class guy who dreams of becoming a “rock god” but whose appearance and actions scream “future dentist, like his father,” Pierce has so many metal parts that he is practically a cyborg – and he is always ready for another piercing, tattoo, or dangerous stunt. He is thus, on the surface, a “foil” (in the Shakespearean sense) for Jeremy; but that, it turns out, is not all he is. For underneath the rebellious, devil-may-care exterior, it turns out that Pierce is – gasp! – a nice, decent guy. And that is what makes this character, and the strip he inhabits, great rather than merely good: there is depth to Pierce, and to Zits. But before it starts sounding as if this strip is an intellectually challenging one, it’s worth pointing out that Pierce’s character, including its touching elements, is presented in ways that are out-and-out hilarious. For example, Pierce is an animal lover – especially of vermin – and doubly especially of his pet rat, for which he arranges a colonoscopy, a heart-lung transplant and subsequent life support. Pierce decorates for Christmas – by hanging ornaments from his many facial piercings. He wishes Jeremy and Hector “Merry Christmas” in the middle of an extended “AAAAAAAAAAAAA” as he runs past, with birds pecking at his seasonal suet-and-sunflower-seed earrings. He has his driver’s license, and agrees to drive a group home from the beach when the parent who drove them there loses her glasses – but he insists no one mention that he is a cautious and polite driver. Pierce is fun, and funny, and real (to the extent that any unreal comic-strip character can be “real”); and he is a perfect example of anti-stereotyping in Zits, since it’s certainly possible that he’ll one day have a dental practice just down the hall from Jeremy’s – even though he looks like someone who has only a small chance of making it in so-called polite society.

     And speaking of politeness: there is little of it in Tom Tomorrow’s latest collection, and that’s just fine with the cartoonist and the sorts of publications that run his strips (principally The Village Voice and various so-called “alternative newspapers”). Tomorrow’s weekly “This Modern World” comics are a deliberate blend of 1950s-style drawing with up-to-the-minute left-wing political commentary. Many of them do not wear very well – only readers who have stayed intimately in touch with every bit of political minutiae since 2005 will understand all the references in The Future’s So Bright, I Can’t Bear to Look. But that is a flaw of editorial cartoons in general. Tomorrow’s strips are a lot to take in book form, even if you agree with their underlying premises (most of which involve the Bush administration as the root of all evil). Individually, the strips are often pointed and somewhat less often funny. Collectively, they are repetitious and, after a while, dull. But there are high points throughout the book. The occasional appearance of Sparky, an angry, masked penguin who seems to be Tomorrow’s alter ego, is frequently entertaining in its own way, although Sparky does get to launch many of the longest-winded attacks on Bush administration policies. Tomorrow’s art is best when it tweaks the conventions on which it…err…draws. One strip on the housing market, for example, features a character who could come straight out of the 1950s – except that his head is a hand. The periodic appearance of newscasters from Planet Glox (with the strip’s title shown in “alien” lettering) is a highlight – the newscasts parody Fox News, one of Tomorrow’s frequent targets. Interestingly, some of the funniest Tomorrow strips are the ones that unexpectedly go against type by attacking Democrats. For instance, a strip based on the famous Charles Atlas ads showing a beach bully taking advantage of a boy who needs some muscles is recast as a contest between bully George W. Bush and weakling Harry Reid, with Bush coming out ahead even after Reid “bulks up” by leading the Democrats to take over both houses of Congress. The Future’s So Bright, I Can’t Bear to Look is worth a (+++) rating for cleverness, persistence and a unique approach to art. Fans of its politics will surely rate it higher, while opponents will rank it lower. Both of those responses would no doubt suit Tomorrow very well.

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