November 21, 2013


Squared Away: A “Doonesbury” Book. By G.B. Trudeau. Andrews McMeel. $25.

Zits en Concert. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

     Talk about a story that spans the generations: Doonesbury is in its third generation of characters as well as its fifth decade of production, and shows no sign of slowing down, much less stopping. The latest handsome hardcover, full-color collection, Squared Away, is as sprawling and complex as this saga has been for many years – as reliably leftist in political orientation – as focused on issues and on characters as illuminations of those issues rather than as developed individuals – as elegantly drawn and carefully plotted as always – and as well-integrated a mixture of the real world and a kind of surreal one as you will find anywhere. That Doonesbury is a phenomenon all its own is old news, as is the fact that G.B. Trudeau continues to paint an ever-larger canvas in the strip. Squared Away combines a broad view of the world with small family issues, such as 12-year-old Alex getting rid of the dolls she no longer plays with – talking to them as she throws them away and having them reply. It has the “Occupy Wall Street” crowd chanting a demand for “nothing!” (“When do we want it? NOW!”) It has the usual political forays (which as usual seem much more dated than the rest of the strips), such as one with airport security going through Newt Gingrich’s personal baggage (“pee-YEW!”) and another “celebrating” his malapropisms and misstatements. It has Alex proposing marriage to Leo, with the attendant wedding jitters and some elements that Trudeau handles masterfully, such as Leo worrying about donkey carcasses and having an Afghanistan-war flashback while driving, resulting in his turning their truck into a cornfield. Duke, one of Trudeau’s best characters, is here, too, although not as often as his fans might like – still slimy, still representing brutal dictators, still disconnected from reality in some ways while connected all too closely to it in others. Iraq and Afghanistan still loom large in Trudeau’s consciousness, and so do the political classes (almost always Republican) that he likes to attack, upbraid and demean. Trudeau is quite well aware of the expansion of his strip into a focus on newer-generation characters, even having one Sunday presentation of “Mike’s Summer Daydream” (a recurring feature) involve Mike, the original Doonesbury, “giving the helm to Alex” and thus saving the newspaper industry. Indeed, Doonesbury is very much a creature of the newspaper industry, and Trudeau is well aware of it, as several strips here show; it is also very much a creature of a certain political viewpoint, about which Trudeau is quite unapologetic. Whether sea changes in news dissemination and politics will ever disrupt Trudeau’s comfortable positioning is impossible to know – but on the basis of Squared Away, it certainly seems that he is staying the course for the duration (a phrase he would mock if a GOP politician said it), and is doing so very well indeed.

     Zits, the marvelous strip by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman, is multi-generational by design and far less fraught than Doonesbury – and, as a result, far more timeless. The Scott/Borgman blend of reality and the surreal is subtler and more elegant than Trudeau’s, and the smaller, family-focused canvas of Zits is a great deal easier to take in – and a great deal funnier. The two strips actually show, between them, just how much can be accomplished in newspaper-comic form. Zits en Concert is all about being a teenager or raising (if “raising” is the right word) a teenager – from handing food through the window of your house because “everything tastes better served through a window,” to knowing you are in love because you adore the way your girlfriend says that “cold slaw” is her “Achilles tooth.” Borgman’s art is wonderfully consistent: Jeremy is in the jaws of a huge crocodile at one point, as his oblivious mom says she bets he is ready for “that beast of a chemistry test,” and he is carrying a huge pyramid labeled “crushing expectations” as he goes to take his S.A.T. There is a marvelous full-week series in which Jeremy, responding to various everyday questions, is drawn as all sorts of objects: a gigantic clam when asked about his day, a dripping faucet when asked several parental questions, a chained and locked safe when asked how things are going between him and Sara, and so on. Scott’s writing is every bit as delightful: Jeremy gets a pizza-delivery job, receives a nice tip at one house, and announces he has just become a capitalist; he comes down with PDRD (Parental Directive Retention Disorder); he considers Harvard as a safety school in case all his other choices – all party schools – don’t work out; and he insists that his mom provide the “elevator pitch version” of her day. The best Zits strips seamlessly mix writing with picture-perfect pictures, such as one in which Jeremy and Sara argue and she throws the verbal equivalents of a razor blade and a couple of knives at him, leading Pierce to ask “sharp words with the little woman?” while Borgman’s picture shows Jeremy neatly filleted. Throw in the occasional genuinely brilliant Sunday strip – such as one in which very long arms emerge from Jeremy’s brain and wrap all around Sara, who asks him to “stop mind-groping me” – and you have all the elements of consistent newspaper-comics-page superstardom. Now if only someone can figure out how to prevent newspaper comics pages from lurching to oblivion….

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