November 01, 2018

(++++) PARENTING 101 AND 201

Adult Time: “Baby Blues” Scrapbook 35. By Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.

Dance Like Everybody’s Watching! A “Zits” Treasury. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.

     It has often been said that kids should come with instruction manuals – but never by fans of Baby Blues and Zits, which are instruction manuals. They won’t make it any easier to conceive children (that’s biology) or decide to have them in the first place (that’s sociobiology), but they sure as heck will make it easier to keep child-rearing in perspective (that’s necessity). There is something both deeply knowing and charmingly subversive about these comic strips, which have two very distinct styles even though both are written by Jerry Scott, who is apparently some sort of parenting polymath. In the latest Baby Blues collection, Adult Time, the three MacPherson children – Zoe, Hammie and Wren – are definitely aging a bit, not so much in appearance as in interactivity. This is most pronounced in Wren’s case: she has Zoe’s (and father Darryl’s) red hair and some of Hammie’s mischievous personality, and “has now become a force to be dealt with,” as Rick Kirkman comments in one of the many notes that he and Scott provide throughout the book. Kirkman’s drawing of toddler Wren fits her into the family just perfectly, and it serves the big siblings right when Hammie is forced to say, “Wren can defend herself,” and Zoe to reply, “The free ride is over!” So it is, but then it was never much of a free ride for Darryl and Wanda, who have had to contend not only with three high-strung (if adorable) children but also with some of the largest noses in comic strips. As Scott points out at one point, “It’s always a logistical problem having Darryl and Wanda directly facing each other. Somebody’s nose always has to overlap.” True, and if you think that is an issue, check out the strip here that leads Kirkman to say “sometimes I creep myself out” – the one in which Darryl and Wanda imagine starting to look like each other, complete with internasal exchange. Creepy indeed, but hilarious. Thankfully, most of the material here is hilarious without being creepy, such as Hammie joining Wanda and Zoe in a sewing class and doing exceptionally well there, explaining why to Daryl: “You just grab some fabric and shove it under a razor-sharp needle that’s stabbing up and down about a million times a second.” (OK, maybe that’s a little creepy, especially in light of Hammie’s expression when he says it.) The homespun adventures here all have the usual Baby Blues twists to them, such as the dinnertime trip to “Mr. Giggles’ Funtime Family Zone,” which caters to kids through games and crowds and noise and to parents through “twenty-four beers on tap and free earplugs.” Business opportunity! And it is actually just one such: there is also the notion of getting some relaxation at the gym by having a nice, comfortable seat for Wanda while Wren, suitably protected, engages in her frequent run-as-fast-as-possible activity on a treadmill. What could be better for parents than all this? Well, it depends on the age of their children. One strip here contains an ominous hint, akin to the red button on the control console in the film Inside Out (a movie that parents and potential parents should definitely see). The Baby Blues version of the button is a set of loud complaints by Zoe that lead Darryl to say, accurately, “Puberty preview?” Oh, yes.

     And that brings us to Zits, wherein puberty is ever-present in all its hormonal glory. Walt and Connie Duncan may have a few pointers for Darryl and Wanda MacPherson, but it won’t matter much, since by the time the MacPherson kids are in their mid-teens, like Jeremy, all the rules will have changed. Including the rule that there aren’t any rules. There are no creator comments with the strips in the latest Zits collection, Dance Like Everybody’s Watching! (Which, by the way, should be called “Dance as if Everybody’s Watching,” for all the grammarians out there.) But there is a blend of writing and art that is quite different from what Baby Blues has to offer. One Zits strip shows Jeremy and friend Pierce about to engage in a medieval-style joust using riding mowers as steeds and a mop and broom-handle-with-boxing-glove-attached as weapons, as an exasperated Walt asks, “Have you thought this through?” Jeremy’s reply perfectly encapsulates the strip: “About as much as anything else.” (Oh, and yes, the guys are wearing helmets – a perfect touch, one of many here.) Jim Borgman’s art exaggerates and enlivens Zits very differently from the way Kirkman’s illustrates Baby Blues. The Zits strip in which Walt and Connie handle routine morning matters while listening to an unseen Jeremy complain about pretty much everything is a classic, ending as it does with Connie’s observation that Jeremy is “just in one of his moods.” At this point, Jeremy does appear, loudly asking, “And what mood is that??” And Borgman draws him as a gigantic crab. Perfect! Borgman also draws a great Tolstoy caricature – yes, that Tolstoy – showing him as a little Russian-speaking man whose foot repeatedly smashes against Jeremy’s rear end as Jeremy explains that when it came to his reading list, “Proust and Kafka weren’t too bad, but Tolstoy is kicking my butt.” Even the renditions of Jeremy all by himself have touches of brilliance: in one, he is seen scaling a gym’s climbing wall, whose three sections are labeled “Calculus,” “Economics” and “Chemistry.” And just when he negotiates those, there is a huge blank space on the wall, with nothing to grab or hold onto, at the top of which is a single handhold labeled “Finals.” Got that, parents? Then get this: even when teenagers behave like incipient adults, you will not believe them. Zits shows why – for instance, in a strip in which Jeremy offers to help with yard work and his parents are so suspicious of his motives that they ground him, leading him to explain to Pierce that his crime was “attempted maturity.” But don’t worry, parents of teens or teens-to-be: there is not too much of that in Zits or, for that matter, in real life (which is a lot like Zits and Baby Blues, only not as funny). In fact, in another apparent-helpful-behavior setting, something is indeed afoot, as Walt observes, while Connie dons her bicycle helmet and says, “Buckle up. We’re being taken for a ride.” This turns into a sequence about an unsupervised weekend trip by Jeremy, Pierce and Hector to Hector’s family’s lakeside cabin, where girlfriends Sara, Autumn and D’ijon show up for one day – and no, there is no significant hanky-panky (an old-fashioned word quite appropriate for the old-fashioned notions perpetuated by comic strips, because they are created for the old-fashioned medium of newspapers). The reason there is nothing overly hormonal happening is quite up-to-date: the hovering parent-controlled drone seen in the last panel of the series. Got that, parents? Tips on using modern conveniences to cope with the age-old inconveniences of raising children – what more could you want from a “how to” book? Or two of them?

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