December 09, 2021


Stink Eye: “Baby Blues” Collection 38. By Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

     Cliché time: the more things change (in Baby Blues), the more they stay the same. Thirty-one years since it got its start, the strip now boasts (if that’s the right word) parents who are apparently the same thirtysomething years old they were in 1990, and children who have aged at varying rates so they are now, respectively, nine (Zoe), seven (Hammie) and two (Wren). The way Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott manage these time-twisting oddities and odysseys deserves further exploration as a method of beginning to explore distant star systems.

     While we wait for that, we can delve into the many other ways in which Baby Blues changes but doesn’t. Thus, the latest collection, Stink Eye, starts with mom Wanda becoming a YouTube star – something unthinkable just a few years ago (because there were no “influencers” then). Of course, stardom gets its unique Baby Blues twist, since Wanda is dubbed Yelling Mom after Zoe uploads video of her mom, well, yelling. Wanda finds that she takes to Internet stardom rather well, as it turns out, and given her occasional frustration in earlier years at being a stay-at-home mom (even though she wanted to give up her career to raise her kids), the YouTube gig definitely has promise (“the bitter mom demographic is huge,” explains Zoe to Hammie – definitely one of Scott’s better lines).

     Wanda’s YouTube channel is not the only sign that Baby Blues metamorphoses just enough to stay in tune with whatever times it happens to be in. For example, Wanda and dad Darryl hire a babysitter who controls the kids by warning them that she can post a “really negative review” on “” (although one suspects that would be just fine with Hammie). Elsewhere, Wanda asks Alexa for the forecast and is warned of “an increasing chance of frown lines by the afternoon” (and never mind that Wanda is dreaming: there will be no smart speaker in the MacPherson home!).

     It is not just the plot elements of Baby Blues that continue to advance. Kirkman’s art is becoming more adventurous as time goes on. His transformation of little Wren into a gigantic, looming, hyper-muscled Hulk lookalike is laugh-out-loud funny; his panel of splattered carpet-steamer instructions after Wren, sitting on Darryl’s lap, has a huge sneeze, is hilarious; and his variation on the old “airplane coming into the hangar” trick as Darryl tries to get Wren to eat oatmeal – featuring Darryl’s right arm doubling in length and becoming half-ellipse-shaped – is a perfect action pose for a situation that plenty of parents know all too well.

     Despite all the changes – let’s call them “refinements” – the basic storylines of Baby Blues remain always recognizable, and the characters’ personalities are so well established that their interactions make perfect sense even when the externals of technology and (slow) aging are taken into account. Wren, now fully mobile and talkative, is a larger presence in Stink Eye than in some earlier collections, and has become a contributor to the family dynamic in her own inimitable way – as when Darryl tries to teach her to say “popcorn” and it comes out “cop porn.” Hammie is very much Hammie, choosing the stinkbug as his spirit animal and teaching Wren how to tell time by showing her how to ask Siri what time it is. And Zoe is in firm command of the oldest-child role, asking for the fallback plan when she sees that Darryl is grilling burgers for dinner (turns out Wanda has already ordered pizza), tattling on Hammie at every opportunity (there are many opportunities), and practicing extortion when Darryl hits his thumb with a hammer and utters a curse that he does not want the family to know about. In addition, the palpable exhaustion of both parents is an ongoing (and underlying) Baby Blues theme that never gets old, as when the three kids see Darryl and Wanda sitting on the couch after a particularly obliterating day, shriek in horror, and say, “while you guys rest, we’ll be in our rooms behaving.” (Fat chance of that in real life, but hey, Baby Blues deserves some latitude.)

     Aside from being tremendously funny and clever, Baby Blues is a strip that really understands the possibilities and limitations of the newspaper medium – a shame, given that the “medium” has now become a “small” and shows every sign of continuing to skid closer to disappearance. The MacPhersons are still newspaper readers, doggone it, and in a particularly well-done collision between old-style and new-style communication, one Sunday strip in Stink Eye has Darryl and the three kids reading Sunday comics together and having a great time – until Hammie gets frustrated when he wants to read more and Darryl has to explain that there will be no new ones until the following week. Hammie gets suitably angry that “we can’t binge-read a whole season” and wants to know, “What kind of distribution model is that?” Well, it’s certainly a primitive one by current standards, but doggone it, it’s a good primitive one, and the nice thing about collections such as Stink Eye is that they are the closest newspaper comics can come to being a binge-watching experience. These collections are one thing about comics that stays the same even as many things change. Long may the distribution model flourish!

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