October 01, 2020


Screentime: A “Zits” Treasury. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

     The final proverbial nail in the proverbial coffin of newspapers may have been driven when Berkshire Hathaway sold its 30 daily and 49 weekly newspapers early in 2020: Warren Buffett has been a vocal longtime proponent of newspapers, particularly for their ability to cover local news with more depth and understanding than other media can or choose to bring to such stories. The papers are not going out of business yet – the group was sold to Lee Enterprises, of which Buffett spoke highly, and that company now owns 75 dailies and about 350 specialty publications. But to buy the papers from Berkshire Hathaway, Lee Enterprises had to get financing from…Berkshire Hathaway. So even though the financing is not a gift but a loan (at 9% interest), the whole thing amounts to Berkshire Hathaway lending Lee Enterprises money to take the newspapers off its hands. And this from a huge company whose chairman speaks proudly of delivering newspapers as a boy.

     It is not just news, local or otherwise, that disappears when newspapers do. Less discussed, perhaps less noticed, but in many ways equally important, the demise of newspapers destroys non-Internet comic strips, one of two quintessentially American art forms (the other being jazz). It has been a long slow downward spiral for newspaper comics, longer and slower than the one for the papers themselves: the size of comic strips inexorably shrank for decades, boosting the market for super-simple, quick-gag strips and ones with art that, to put it politely, is not just simple but simplistic – and therefore easy to shrink (think Garfield and Dilbert). To see graphically (that is, visually, in the way comics themselves do) just what has long since disappeared, it is only necessary to pick up one of Peter Maresca’s Sunday Press books offering reprints of hundred-plus-year-old comics: in one, every single Sunday strip of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo measures 15 x 20 inches. Wow!

     And wow, is that depressing to contemplate while surveying the strips of the 21st century – except for a very, very few, such as Zits. Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman are among the last of the Old Guard cartoonists, and although that probably makes them both feel ancient, it is meant as a compliment. Very, very few cartoonists working today know how to build to a final panel as effectively as Scott does with his ideas and words; very, very few know how to produce art that tells a story and limns its characters as well as Borgman does. Every Zits book – which shows all the strips much larger than they ever appear in newspapers nowadays – confirms anew just how good this strip is, how inventive it remains, how fresh its ideas and drawings are even after almost a quarter of a century (see? Old Guard).

     Zits does keep up with the times, witness the title Screentime, but also has a timeless quality to which anyone who has ever raised a 16-year-old (or been a 16-year-old) can relate. Yes, the new collection has Jeremy agreeing only to text his mom in full sentences, because it takes her too long to look up the abbreviations. Yes, Jeremy finds that he can scroll through social media with either thumb and is therefore “instagrambidextrous.” Yes, mother Connie tries to explain what a postcard is and comes up with the formulation, “It’s like Snapchat on a rotary phone.” Yes, dad Walt tells Jeremy to swat the wasp in his room with something like a newspaper, and Jeremy ends up with “wasp parts on my N.Y. Times app” (that particular newspaper is still around, for now). But up-to-date Zits elements like these coexist with non-time-bound ones, such as a strip in which Sara is worried that she might have a facial wrinkle, Jeremy says they should consult an expert, and he calls his mom over (Connie’s expression is one of the many that Borgman draws with absolute perfection). Jeremy complains that he feels as if he ate a whole buffalo, his mom is concerned and asks what he actually ate, and he says, “Half a buffalo.” The food thing, an ever-present issue with teenagers, looms large in Zits: the strip in which Connie starts to ask Jeremy if he is hungry, only to turn around and see him literally taking bites out of the refrigerator, is a perfect example. The feelings of parents as their kids grow are also a source of continuing amusement, plus occasional levels of real warmth, as in a four-panel Father’s Day strip showing Jeremy at various ages, hugging his dad each time – with the final panel showing Walt standing barely as high as Jeremy’s waist and Connie observing, “Get used to it.” And there is plenty of character-driven comedy (along with touches of seriousness) in Zits as well. Notably, in Screentime, much-pierced and much-tattooed Pierce creates a hover app and sells it for a billion dollars. Yes, a billion. He then uses the proceeds for “giving away three hundred million pairs of prescription eyeglasses to the rural poor in India,” explaining, “If I have a choice between hoarding money I don’t need and helping millions of people, I choose helping.” Pierce is a superb disproof of the notion that weird-looking, bizarre-acting teens have no value and no values. In a later billionaire-related strip, Pierce looks at his phone and complains, “GAH! More stock dividends,” then makes a call and says, “Evelyn, eradicate hunger in another sub-Saharan country, please.”

     It is the writing that makes the Pierce-as-billionaire strips so effective and, in their own way, poignant. But sometimes Zits is purely a celebration of cartoon art. That happens most often in the color Sunday strips. In Screentime, there is a wonderful and hilarious four-panel one in which the first three panels show Connie as overly clingy animals where Jeremy is concerned: a constricting snake, an octopus, and a kangaroo with Jeremy in her pouch (leading to Jeremy’s fourth-panel observation that only one letter separates “mothering” from “smothering”). Just as marvelous and just as creative is a Sunday offering with a huge middle panel showing Jeremy’s many, many expressions and activities as he interacts with his friends and the world. To the left of this panel is a tiny one in which Connie sees him coming home, and to the right of the huge panel is another tiny one – in which Connie asks, “What did you do today, Jeremy?” and her quintessential 16-year-old replies, “Nuthin.’” That is parenting-of-a-teen in a nutshell. It is no wonder that, in a daily strip that sums up so many charms of Zits, Jeremy is telling Walt that he has no real plans for the day, “Just a pool party, paintball fight, burgerfest and a movie,” leading Walt to say to Connie, “I want to be a teenager again,” and Connie to reply, “Why? Aren’t you still tired from the first time?” Now there is a question for the ages, perfectly posed by, to and for the Old Guard.

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