December 28, 2017


What Was THAT All About? 20 Years of Strips and Stories. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $24.99.

     The answer to the question in the title of this collection of Zits strips may be found on page 49, and it is an answer of such sense, sensibility and sensitivity, such intelligence and awareness, that it bears branding into the consciousness not only of cartoonists but also of anyone who reads, enjoys, loves, tolerates, accepts, puts up with, collects, is appalled by, or otherwise interacts with comic strips. All this, despite the fact that the answer is written by the artist half of the Zits team, Jim Borgman, rather than the writer half, Jerry Scott. Unless the two swapped brains somewhere along the line, which, as this book shows, is entirely possible.

     This is another book in Andrews McMeel’s Handsome Hardcover series of comic-strip retrospectives; and no, there is no such official trademark, but doggone it, there ought to be, and double doggone it, now Andrews McMeel can rip off the idea. Well, it is a small gesture of gratitude to a company that takes comic strips seriously no matter how un-serious their content may be, which leads it from time to time to produce collectible hardbound volumes in designs ranging from elegant to clever. That includes this one, with its cover cutout through which eternal teenager Jeremy Duncan can be seen noticeably rolling his eyes. The book’s title and subtitle – and the strip’s name, which does not appear in either of them – are printed in several sizes, colors and type styles around that central cutout.

    About the strip’s name: that is just one of the many matters into which readers get insight here. The book is divided into sections with labels including “Happy Festivus, or Whatever,” “Six Bricks,” and “Chillax and Shredded.” One such title, “Making the Suits Squirm,” shows some of the many titles that Scott and Borgman considered for the strip before settling on Zits. The introduction to this particular section is by Scott, and among the many potential titles seen scrawled on scraps of paper are “Grounded for Life,” “Planet Jeremy,” and “Yo.” There are also three versions of the same panel showing Jeremy sprawled amid some of his possessions while his bemused dad looks on, one using the title “Jeremy and Stuff,” one called “Wild Thing,” and one with the final title, which even earned a backhanded compliment (the best kind) from Charles Schulz of Peanuts. Clearly the decision on what to call the strip was a very big deal: it is also the topic of a second section, “From the Wayback Machine,” which is introduced by Borgman and gives his take on the awfulness of some almost-used potential titles.

     Each of the book’s 21 sections (one of which gets introduction-style Roman numerals rather than standard numbers to make it look as if there are, like, 20 sections for 20 years, yippee) probes some element of the strip, with relevant examples then proffered not sequentially (as might be expected in a retrospective) but in a certain amount of depth. And one thing that comes clear again and again (and again) is that Zits is not only wonderfully written but also amazingly illustrated. As surreal-but-realistic strips go, Zits has no equal. The gorillas charging into the locker room as a tiny monkey flees before them are a perfect representation of high-school seniors as perceived by a younger student after gym class. The numerous ways Jeremy finds to make noise while descending the stairs in his house (including one showing both an elephant and a rhinoceros) are perfectly imagined. The tour of world landmarks, from the St. Louis Gateway Arch to the Eiffel Tower to the pyramids of Egypt, fits perfectly with Jeremy’s attitude toward after-school errands with his mom. A marvelous school-picture strip that includes five photos of guys with attitude (James Dean, Sylvester Stallone, Clint Eastwood et al.) whom Jeremy is supposed not to emulate is, well, picture-perfect. The way Jeremy’s long-winded explanations and complaints fit within single words or twine around the room as he attempts to get out of something-or-other provides exactly the right touch of absurdity and accuracy in equal measure. The horde of locusts stripping the Duncan family kitchen bare is just the right visual metaphor for teens descending on a food source. And all this comes on top of superb verbal and visual characterization of every single major character in the strip, from Jeremy’s long-suffering parents (emphasis on “suffering”) to best bud Hector, girlfriend Sara, much-perforated Pierce, and many others. Oh – and then there are the super-clever “repeat” strips, such as the guide to a teenager’s feelings that features 20 identical pictures of Jeremy’s face, and the one explaining why the family car is out of gas that shows 20-plus images of Jeremy looking forward, then back, as he practices getting out of and into the garage.

     So what is the answer to the question posed in the title, What Was THAT All About? “Putting something singular and remarkable into the world takes time and thought, usually many attempts, and the patience to stay with it when the first ten tries fail,” writes Borgman. “You should be thinking about working late into the night when everyone else has gone to bed and sometimes watching the sun come up as you put on the finishing touches,” he explains to a would-be cartoonist. “This is how cartoonists create worlds for their characters to live in and that seize the imaginations of their readers. It’s a beautiful feeling.” Wow, that is good. And wow, that is preachy. And wow, does Borgman know it, since he places next to his own words a picture of Jeremy’s mom, her hand smack over her eyes in the traditional comic-strip pose that means, “Oh, for crying out loud.” And wow, does that explain why Zits so often has readers laughing out loud. It’s a beautiful feeling.

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