January 17, 2019


Some Clever Title: A “FoxTrot” Collection. By Bill Amend. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.

Mother Is Coming: A “FoxTrot” Collection. By Bill Amend. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.

     There is no shortage of nerd comics online. The best of them is xkcd by Randall Munroe, but others also have much to recommend them, such as SMBC (Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal) by Zach Weinersmith. However, in the days before there were any Internet comics, or even any Internet in the sense in which we know it now, there was one comic strip that fearlessly (OK, maybe fearfully) carried the tattered banner for science geeks everywhere. That was Bill Amend’s FoxTrot, which dates all the way back to, believe it or not, 1988. FoxTrot was an unusual mixture of hoary suburban-family humor with highly sophisticated (especially for its time) play with math and physics concepts (Amend has a degree in physics). The strip had the usual three-kids suburban family: feckless father whose inability to light a simple barbecue grill was a recurring thematic element; down-to-earth mother whose obsession with healthful eating was her recurring theme; older, sports-focused high-school-age brother; early-teen, fashion-obsessed sister; and math-and-physics whiz kid brother whose antics quickly became the focus of the strip and its most unusual element by far.

     FoxTrot was genuinely funny, and Amend skillfully walked a fine line between too much geekiness for the strip to resonate with non-nerds and too little for it to be distinctive. And it is not quite fair to speak of FoxTrot in the past tense, because it is still around. But it is scarcely the same: Amend discontinued the daily strip at the end of 2006 and since then has produced it only on Sundays – during years when the newspaper industry, where FoxTrot thrived, has shrunk to near-unrecognizability and papers’ comic strips have shrunk along with it. The antics of father Roger, mother Andy, and kids Peter, Paige and Jason have continued in much the same vein in the years since FoxTrot became a once-a-week offering, but the strip’s continuity has disappeared, and it would now be quite difficult for someone who has never read FoxTrot to piece together its underlying approach from the Sunday-only strips.

     It is worth trying, though, at least when those strips appear in collections such as Some Clever Title and Mother Is Coming, which allow readers to absorb and enjoy more than 130 of the Sunday appearances per book and get a sense of the characters’ personalities somewhat akin to what readers of the dailies used to obtain. The mixture of FoxTrot themes has not really changed very much. Some strips offer traditional suburban-family humor, as when Roger announces that he put the charcoal in the grill upside-down and flames burst through the bottom of the unit, or Roger tells Peter about his plan to climb a ladder and lean out far enough to cut a tree branch that is next to a power line – asking Peter to talk him out of doing it. Or Paige carefully selects sherbet by color until she has eight scoops held in an arched rainbow shape between two cones, announcing that this is her way of getting rainbow sherbet. Or Andy has “the talk” with Paige – not about sex, but about Paige’s desire to have her mom stop posting on Paige’s Facebook wall. And that Andy-Paige talk is also a mild version of the real heart of the strip, which involves the many ways in which Jason confuses and upsets and occasionally charms family members and/or readers through knowledge, behavior and antics that have very definitely kept up with the latest trends in nerdiness.

     For example, Jason is a longtime World of Warcraft devotee (as is Amend), and the game makes fairly frequent appearances that will mean little or nothing to the uninitiated. Jason is a comic-book fan as well, and readers need to be fans themselves to understand a strip such as the one in which a super-long arm stretches past Jason and others who are standing in line for a cartoonist’s autograph: “Wait your turn, Reed Richards,” Jason says, and if you do not know that is the name of super-stretchable Marvel character Mister Fantastic, the strip will be unintelligible. Some Jason behavior is a bit more mainstream, as when he and friend Marcus create geographical features such as Lake Jason and Marcustown National Park in the hope that Google Maps will be taking satellite photos at just the right time. Then there are the references to TV series such as Dexter, about a blood-spatter expert who is also a serial killer: Jason pours cran-grape juice into a topless blender, turns it on, and analyzes the resulting kitchen splatter patterns as a tribute to the show. Or take Game of Thrones: it provides the title of Mother Is Coming as well as cartoons in both these collections. And then there are the math strips: Paige has her rainbow sherbet, but only Jason would ask for ice cream in a hexagonal prism, dodecahedron or ring torus rather than an ordinary cone. And only Jason would bring math tests with perfect grades for show-and-tell – a different perfect one every time. And it takes Jason’s mind to come up with “trig or treat,” in which he and Marcus maximize their Halloween candy haul by telling people “you can either give us lots of candy or listen to us do trigonometry problems.”

     To be sure, FoxTrot has plenty of non-Jason humor, and some of it is really first-rate, such as the strip in which Peter discovers the apps that Andy, who is a writer, has on her phone: Instagrammar, Angry Words, Pendora, Nouncloud and Prefacebook. That entry is both nerdy and suburban-humor-y – a rare combination and a delightful one. FoxTrot itself is a rare and delightful combination of comic-strip tradition with the pioneering spirit of a strip whose focus on math and science was trailblazing 30 years ago and remains unusual even today. Some Clever Title and Mother Is Coming may not entirely make up for the absence of continuity that FoxTrot had as a daily offering, but these full-color collections show just how good Amend still is, even at reduced frequency (insert pun relating to electromagnetic radiation here).

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