July 21, 2022


Bingeworthy Zits. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

     The really great thing about Zits is – well, there isn’t one. Or, to put the emphasis where it belongs, there isn’t one. There are, in fact, too many to count. Well, it is at least possible to count the years: 25. Yes, there have been 25 years of Zits, meaning central character Jeremy Duncan was about -8 to -10 when Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman started the whole thing. Mom Connie and dad Walt have a lot to teach biologists.

     The whole family actually has a lot to teach – well, maybe not teach, exactly, but show to other families, especially ones containing teenagers, and ones containing kids who will eventually become teenagers, and ones containing kids or parents who at one time were teenagers. This is not a narrowly focused strip.

     Zits does, however, drill down to the meaning, which is to say meaninglessness, of so much teenage life. Everything just fits so neatly. For instance, someone from “TP Now” tosses a roll of toilet paper up the steps to Jeremy, whose hand sticks through the open (obviously bathroom) door to catch it – a pointed commentary on the gig economy. Or: Jeremy has a problem with mixed messages when his mom says to have fun and not do anything stupid. And: Jeremy actually makes coffee in the morning – mixing it with Lucky Charms cereal. Also: Walt considers a second career and asks Jeremy what it should be, and Jeremy suggests “donut company mascot.” Plus: Connie waxes ecstatic and poetic over the sandwich she can make for a hungry Jeremy, going on and on about “a sprig of fresh dill,” “a hefty slice of sourdough,” and other such niceties, as Jeremy walks past, lifts the refrigerator, tilts the whole thing toward his mouth, and consumes whatever falls off the shelves in his direction.

     Well, all right, that last event is an exaggeration. But it is a small one, as parents of teens know. And what it does is deepen the contrasting characterizations of Jeremy and his parents – something both Scott (writer) and Borgman (artist) do exceptionally well. The revelatory elements of Zits tend to sneak up on readers, as in an unusually straightforwardly drawn Sunday strip in which Connie and Jeremy walk side by side while she asks him typical “mom” questions, such as whether he did his laundry or brought his dirty dishes to the kitchen, and Jeremy simply says “no” each time. In the middle of the questions is one about whether he acted “as the designated driver for your friends who were drinking at the party last night,” and to that one, and only that one, Jeremy answers “yes” – leading Walt, who appears at the very end of this entry, to think to himself (and to readers), “Time-release adulting is better than no adulting at all.” Yup. Think about it.

     There is actually quite a lot to think about in Zits. Scott and Borgman have become so adept at limning the interactivity among the characters that one of the highlights of Bingeworthy Zits is a series in which one participant in the strip at a time disappears. First “the writer” is “on furlough” for a strip that needs no words; then “the artist” is away, leaving behind some writing that calls for lots and lots and lots of detail in the drawing; then Mom is away, and then Jeremy (resulting in a strip with the box score “peaceful: 1, funny: 0”); and then Dad is away, and then the editor (resulting in a strip with a supremely silly sort-of-pun that some editors probably would censor). In this sequence, Scott and Borgman manage to have fun with the idea of a strip such as Zits while still creating the strip in ways that make sense – one of those “meta” experiences that are much harder to pull off than they seem to be.

     Less difficult to manage are the inevitable strips tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is just not much to do with that topic, although Scott and Borgman do give the inevitable concepts a Zits twist: a new sink in the classroom labeled “please wash hand before raising,” eating lunch together while talking on the phone from two sides of a jail-like partition, and so forth. The topical Zits strips tend not to hold up as well as more-generalized ones, some of which lurch perilously (or delightfully) close to slapstick – like one in which balding Walt tells Jeremy he is having trouble covering his top-of-head bald spot, Jeremy says he just got something delivered that could help, and the next thing you know, Jeremy has opened the box, emptied it, and turned it over into Walt’s head. The best strips of all, though, are the ones that explore the characters’ foibles and the interactions that result. Those are not only within Jeremy’s family: a laugh-out-loud series in Bingeworthy Zits – at least for those who have followed the strip long enough to be thoroughly familiar with much-pierced, hyper-tattooed Pierce – has Pierce dressing conventionally, using proper grammar (“seen whom?”), talking prep (“spiffy sport coat”), and wearing loafers, all to try to convince his girlfriend’s parents that he is not “a total antisocial nonconformist spazzball.” She, however, brings the whole experiment to a screeching halt by screeching, “I miss my spazzball!”

     Clearly a quarter of a century has scarcely been enough time for Zits to explore all the ins and outs of teenagers and their world – even though that world itself has changed dramatically since the strip started. Actually, change of all sorts is a recurring theme of Zits, as when Jeremy wanders into his home’s attic and discovers two accordions, leading his parents to backtrack from their youthful foibles in words usually applied to, ahem, non-musical sorts of activities: “We were young and just experimenting.” Jeremy then tells them that “you both know that the accordion is a gateway instrument,” and Connie exclaims, “There was no polka! We swear!” Ah, yes – these occasional bouts of absurdity are among the best features of Zits. And speaking of absurdity, there is one multi-strip series in which Jeremy, while trying to wrap a package, wishes he had three more hands – which, of course, instantly appear, leading his dad to suggest a “high twenty-five” and his girlfriend, Sara, to comment that “our New Year’s Eve hug should be interesting.” (Yes, the whole thing turns out just to have been a dream, but so what?) Bingeworthy Zits really is bingeworthy: it is hard to imagine not reading the entire collection in one sitting. But that’s not all! The book’s back cover shows a big stack of other collections of Zits, making it possible to binge on this one and then binge some more and more and more and moremoremoremoremoremore until…well, until the next collection comes out. If you can wait that long. (And if you can’t, feel free to start over and binge again!)

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