November 23, 2016
(++++) IT ONLY LOOKS EASY
Gross! “Baby Blues” Scrapbook 33. By Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.
Many Faces of Snoopy. By Charles M. Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Virtuosos make things seem so simple. There are only four strings on a violin, after all, and what could be so hard about moving a bow back and forth on them? Good luck with that if you actually try it. Well, okay, but that is “high” art. Comics are “low” art, and what’s the big deal? Draw a circle and you have Charlie Brown’s head. Use a couple of ovals and squares and a blimplike shape here and there, and you have the MacPhersons; and as for what happens in Baby Blues, just use what happens in all families. No big deal, right? Oh yes, right – just try it. You’d be better off with the violin. The great thing about comics such as Baby Blues and Peanuts is that they encapsulate so much with such apparent simplicity. But the difficulty of doing what they do is quite obvious from the vast number of unsuccessful and less-successful strips out there, of interest to students and historians of popular culture but not to the mass audience that the best strips reach so effectively day after day, year after year.
Baby Blues has gotten to an almost embarrassing level of consistency and reliability. There just aren’t any “bad” strips in the world of Rick Kirkman (artist) and Jerry Scott (writer). The 33rd and latest collection continues a long history (perhaps longer than Kirkman and Scott would care to acknowledge, given what it implies about their own ages) of chronicling events that are realer than reality. They seem as if they could happen in any family – and indeed, some of them have happened in Kirkman’s family or Scott’s – but within the strictures of comic-strip panels, they happen with pointedness and sometimes poignancy beyond what Baby Blues readers encounter in their duller everyday lives. And that is one of the great strengths of the strip: readers recognize what is going on as akin to reality, laugh at things that would not necessarily be funny if or when they happened in their own families, and finish the few panels refreshed and hopefully ready for the next thing that raising kids will throw at them – secure in the knowledge that whatever it is will probably show up in Baby Blues eventually. Which brings us to Gross! There is nothing specifically gross here, or nothing any grosser than usual for the MacPherson clan, but there is plenty to laugh at, if not to gag at (although there are lots of, umm, gags). As in previous oversize-page collections, Kirkman and Scott provide snippets of commentary throughout the book – so readers learn, for example, that the great Sunday strip at the book’s start, in which Wanda rehearses lectures to her three kids, is based on Scott’s wife’s real-life behavior. On the other hand, a strip in which Zoe and Hammie send Darryl a card saying they love him, then imploring him to stop whatever fight they were in when they drew the card, may never have happened in real life, but it reads as if it should have. Or could have, anyway. In one comment, Scott reveals that he is a middle child, which may explain some of what Hammie does in his between-Zoe-and-Wren existence. In this book, the dynamic among the three kids gets even more interesting than it has previously been, since this is where baby Wren learns to talk – for example, Zoe teaches her to say, “Mom! Make Hammie stop!” Of course, some things in Baby Blues never change: Darryl goes shopping for Wanda and, when he tells the salesperson that he is looking for a gift for a woman with three kids, the woman suggests six weeks in Tahiti. Darryl is not very good at buying the right thing, but he has a knack for occasionally saying the right thing, as when he calls from work to tell Wanda, “Hi, beautiful,” and catches her kneeling atop a plugged toilet with the three kids playing in or trying to avoid the bathroom flood. An exhausted Wanda’s response, “Good timing,” is perfect. Then there are strips in which Zoe refines her ability to tell on Hammie: in one, she is “pinch-scolding” while Wanda is in the tub with Wren, and in another, she is “text-tattling” while Darryl and Wanda are trying to have a quiet restaurant meal. In addition to the humor, there are insights into the strip’s creation sprinkled throughout the book. For instance, Baby Blues is known for multi-day strips that are variations on the same topic, such as “5 Ways Parenthood Is Like College.” Each of the five strips is introduced by the same title panel, and Kirkman says those panels take longer to do than the strips’ content – and explains why. Kirkman also explains a couple of strips in which he cleverly muted the background colors to put the characters in the foreground into stronger focus. Also here is an amazing sequence in which a Kirkman family emergency led Scott to do some remarkable things to get newly written strips put together – with reused art. And the hybrid strips really work – talk about teamwork! On the much lighter side, Kirkman at one point notes that he sometimes uses his own kids’ art and lettering “for reference,” as in a series in which Hammie creates a “grafik novel” about “Robot Sister,” which goes pretty much as readers of Baby Blues would expect. And it is nice that the commentary is occasionally reserved for a touch of self-praise, as when Kirkman says, “One of the best opening lines, ever” in reference to Scott’s writing, for Hammie to say, “Mom, do we have any hand grenades?” After all, even virtuoso performers need to appreciate themselves and each other once in a while.
The appreciation of Charles Schulz has not diminished in the years since his death in 2000, and his Peanuts strips continue to appear in multiple forms: new collections, desk and day-to-day calendars, even gift books that would make great stocking stuffers – such as Many Faces of Snoopy. This little five-inch-square hardcover includes a small smattering of the iconic beagle’s appearances in eight roles – none of which is as spokesbeagle for MetLife, by the way. Several of these Snoopy alter egos were integral to Peanuts and responsible for a great deal of its weirdness – the strip was odder and more surrealistic than many people realized when Schulz was still drawing it. The World War I flying ace, eternally at war with the Red Baron, is perhaps the most famous “alt-Snoopy” of all, but the Beagle Scout leader (of bird scouts Woodstock, Conrad, Olivier and Bill) also appeared frequently; and collegiate big-man-on-campus Joe Cool showed up from time to time – much more often than his opposite number, Joe Preppy. In addition to those four roles, Snoopy is seen here as a secret agent in search of Linus’s missing blanket, the Masked Marvel arm wrestler, “Flashbeagle” (trading in his famed “happy dance” for a flashdance), and a fierce pirate sporting an eye patch originally given to Sally to help with her amblyopia. Many Faces of Snoopy will bring smiles of enjoyment to Peanuts fans and likely send them – and anyone out there who is not yet a Peanuts fan – in search of more-extensive stories about Snoopy’s multiple-yet-singular roles. And for anyone who might still think this sort of thing is easy – just check out the ways in which Schulz keeps Snoopy’s underlying personality the same even as he changes his outward appearance just enough to match whatever persona he may be donning. What’s the big deal? Many Faces of Snoopy is. And so is Gross!.