November 21, 2019


Not Sparking Joy: A “Zits” Treasury. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.

“Peanuts” Collection No. 13—Charlie Brown: All Tied Up. By Charles Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     Over time, good comic strips change. But the great ones evolve. Cases in point: Zits and Peanuts. From their origins, each strip had a basic, foundational premise: for Zits, what life is like with a teenager, and what life is like if you are a teenager; for Peanuts, how young children might react and interact if they could think and talk in largely adult ways (kids-talking-like-adults actually being a trope of comic strips at the time Peanuts came into being). For the two-decades-plus of Zits so far and the eventual five decades of Peanuts, the strips held fast to their roots while branching out into a wide variety of new areas that, however, remained always connected to their underlying designs. Every new collection of these strips shows how they have flowered while still being planted firmly in their original soil.

     Thus, in the latest Zits collection, Not Sparking Joy, 17-year-old Jeremy Duncan (formerly 15, then 16 in an evolution with major importance when it occurred, since it allowed him to start driving) retains his trademark almost-sensible analyses of things in his world, as when he describes beef jerky as “a good source of protein that’s compact, nonperishable and an excellent study aid” – by which he means it is not only food but also a bookmark. Jeremy still has a love/hate relationship with technology, which means he uses it but does not always care for the results, as when “an app that shows what you’ll look like when you’re old” displays an aged Jeremy looking exactly like his father, Walt – leaving Jeremy wondering whether he could sell his soul for a different outcome. Jeremy also retains his trademark set of expressions, always marvelously drawn by Jim Borgman, which dad Walt and mom Connie have learned to interpret by creating a gigantic wall hanging of a “scowl chart.” Jeremy is smart enough to promise his parents not to break curfew again so he will not be grounded again, but tricky enough to make the statement replete with asterisks and similar symbols – and when Walt and Connie try to see the footnoted words, Jeremy says that “nobody reads the terms and conditions” (an example of the way excellent writing and illustration mesh seamlessly in Zits). The strip’s evolution over time has resulted in some genuine warmth and subtlety – not too much, since after all it has to be funny (and always is), but just enough for a little leavening. Thus, in one Sunday strip, Jeremy says he made Walt something for Fathers’ Day, and when Walt asks what, we see Jeremy turning down alcohol, breaking up a fight, and giving food to a homeless man – then telling his father, “Three good decisions.” The final panel of the two hugging each other is simply perfect. Indeed, the Sunday strips have always been even more outstanding than the weekday ones, since Borgman uses the additional space so creatively. For example, there is nothing particularly unusual about imagining the piled-up dirty dishes in a 16-year-old’s room, but the way Borgman shows it in a single-panel Sunday strip – with Jeremy and his pile taking up half the whole huge panel – is superb. Actually, Borgman also does exceptionally well with daily strips in single-panel form, where Scott’s pithy writing really shines – for instance, in the panel showing Jeremy and much-pierced friend Pierce at a table in a coffee shop, where Pierce has a gigantic, snarling lizard on a leash, facing three utterly terrified people. The dialogue is almost unnecessary, but it certainly emphasizes the point: Jeremy says Pierce’s “therapy iguana is freaking people out,” and Pierce replies, “And I find that very therapeutic.” That is a perfect encapsulation of Pierce’s personality. In Zits, strip after strip is used to explore the nuances of personal relationships – and, every once in a while, to pay tribute to other great strips. One example in Not Sparking Joy is the strip showing Jeremy as a baseball pitcher, making a “pitch” to his mom in hopes of getting permission to spend winter break in Cancun. The final, no-dialogue panel shows Jeremy upside-down above the pitcher’s mound, expression shocked and shoes flying off his feet, as the ball speeds past with the single word “POW!” And that is a marvelous tribute to the ever-feckless Charlie Brown and his ever-failing sports endeavors in Peanuts.

     Charles Schulz’ strip lasted a full half century, until Schulz died in 2000, and long outlived the notion of kids-talking-like-adults as a formative influence. In fact, the strip evolved so brilliantly that it picked up on and discarded a whole set of trends and fads, as the many reprints continue to show decades after Schulz moved on to, presumably, draw on an even higher plane. Thus, in Charlie Brown: All Tied Up, there is a highly amusing sequence in which sports-focused D-minus student Peppermint Patty pairs up with dust-and-dirt-shedding Pigpen for a Valentine’s Day dance and ends up falling for him – a delightful focus on two of the strip’s lesser characters, and one that works despite its setting, which is the disco era. Yes, Pigpen is seen making some disco moves on the dance floor, and they will mean nothing to today’s young readers (or many of today’s adults). And Patty asks him disco-era questions that readers today may find strange, if not off-putting: “What’s your sign?” and “Do you come here often?” But Schulz, as always, homes in on the characters he has created and the way they interact as a result of their respective personalities – the specific music era in which the events happen fades into insignificance, and in fact, so does the dance, as Schulz explores his characters’ feelings after the event at much greater length. The way Schulz handled the kids-talking-and-thinking-like adults theme of Peanuts was always brilliant and is as impressive today as it was in the past – as in one Sunday strip in which Sally, trying to persuade big brother Charlie Brown to help with her homework, offers a long discussion of the way Leo Tolstoy’s wife, Sonya, overcame many difficulties to help him with War and Peace by copying it for him seven times. There is no possible way Sally would know any of that in anything approaching the real world, but Peanuts, for all its real-world appearance, actually takes place in a finely tuned fantasy where Sally’s success in getting Charlie Brown’s help with homework occurs by melding her personality and his to just the right degree. Charlie Brown’s trials and tribulations were the glue that held Peanuts together, and there are certainly plenty of them in this latest collection. In one strip, he tells Snoopy the various ways it is possible to know if someone is boring – and Snoopy reacts in every one of those ways, showing readers how boring Charlie Brown is (although he is not boring to readers but only to other characters in the strip: part of the Schulz magic). In another sequence, one of the many featuring Charlie Brown’s baseball team, Lucy invents the “schmuckle ball” after explaining that she will be playing right field and can offer “a misjudged fly ball” or “nice bobbled ground ball” and will “be back in a moment” to take his order. Of course, not even the “schmuckle ball” can bring this team victory: one pitch inevitably leads to the same famous “POW!” panel, with Charlie Brown’s clothes scattered everywhere and with him flipped upside-down above the pitcher’s mound, to which Zits pays tribute. Thus does one of the greats respond to and expand upon another, without ever upstaging it. Or intending to.

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