April 30, 2009


My Bad: A “Zits” Treasury. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

Stop and Smell the Roses: A “Mutts” Treasury. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

     Andrews McMeel “Treasury” collections are a great way to get a big dose of your favorite comic strips in larger-than-usual format – larger than you will find in most collections, and much larger than the increasingly diminutive size in which comics are being printed in what seem to be America’s rapidly vanishing newspapers. Strips whose art work is a big part of their charm, such as Zits and Mutts, do especially well in the oversize “Treasury” format, which strongly emphasizes the visual quality of the strips. In Zits, for example, the multiple piercings of Jeremy’s friend Pierce show up in all their oddly shaped glory in My Bad. The 12 poses in which Jim Borgman draws Jeremy’s girlfriend, Sara, dancing – contrasted with Jeremy standing stock-still on the dance floor – come through with great clarity here, as do Sara’s many expressions as she moves to the music. A Sunday sequence in which Borgman illustrates how much mental space Jeremy takes up in the mind of his mom, Connie, is hilarious – and poignant – in drawings that show the 15-year-old crawling out of his mother’s ear. But excellent drawing without top-notch writing does not make an outstanding comic strip, and Zits is outstanding. Jerry Scott (who also writes the differently but equally wonderful Baby Blues) comes up with dialogue that fits the parents-raising-teenager scenario perfectly. For example, Jeremy objects to a 10-minute wait for Connie to pick him up because “ten minutes is a larger percentage of life at my age than it is at yours.” Pierce finds out the high school has a dress code that he is not violating, and is upset because “I hate it when I inadvertently conform.” After the school year ends, Jeremy suggests to his mom, “This summer why don’t you assume that I’ll procrastinate and I’ll assume that you’re ticked off at me? That way, you won’t have to nag and I won’t have to wonder if I’m in trouble” – and Connie is worried because “that almost makes sense.” In fact, a lot of things in Zits almost make sense – both in the writing and in the often-surrealistic art. When Jeremy and Sara call each other names (“immature,” “chicken,” “pig” and so on), the dialogue has the ring of reality, and the drawings – which show the characters changing into whatever they are called – add hilarity. It is this sort of thing that makes Zits a treasure of a strip – even more so in “Treasury” format.

     Mutts is precious, too, in both senses of the word: valuable and almost a little too sweet. Patrick McDonnell both write and draws the strip, so it is clearly 100% what he wants it to be; and what he wants is the most animal-friendly comic around, involving not only domestic creatures but also wild ones (such as tigers and other endangered species) and semi-wild ones (suburban denizens such as squirrels). McDonnell’s art, with its clean lines and abundant white space, is something of a throwback, and it is clear from the cartoonist’s introductory Sunday panels – which often pay loving tribute to great comics and “high art” of the past – that this is exactly how he wants his comic to look. McDonnell frequently gives his central characters, Earl the dog and Mooch the cat, week-long or even longer adventures, although they are not very adventurous in a traditional sense – instead, they are explorations of topics from a variety of angles. In Stop and Smell the Roses, for example, Earl and Mooch try to figure out how to hibernate; quotations from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Evelyn Waugh and others are used as reflections on Valentine’s Day and the animal-human relationship; other quotations (from Albert Einstein, John Muir and others) are used to reflect on “Earth Days”; a beach vacation features the ever-irascible Crabby the crab; and so on. Mixed in with these multi-day sequences are single-day jokes, such as a Sunday strip in which Mooch gets an “arm extender” so he can reach items on high shelves and knock them off, and a weekday strip each of whose three panels represents one-third of a sofa over which one of Mooch’s alleged owners (one never really owns a cat) is climbing to search for the exercise DVD that Mooch has hidden. Other strips feature Mooch as “the Shphinx” that “sees all, knows all”; McDonnell’s regular “Shelter Stories” sequence that encourages adoption by having animals plead their case directly to comics readers; Bip and Bop, the squirrels who constantly bonk other characters with acorns; and plenty of warmth-filled lines, such as the perpetually chained-up but nevertheless sweet Guard Dog’s thought, “The chain’s around my neck, not my heart.” McDonnell lays things on a touch too thickly at times, but the strips that cloy are more than compensated for by the ones that amaze – such as a Sunday sequence of Earl and Mooch riding a toy car through all sorts of far-flung landscapes, ending up in what can only be Coconino County from George Herriman’s famed Krazy Kat. McDonnell knows his history, his art, his characters and his readers, making Stop and Smell the Roses a very worthwhile stopping point indeed.

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