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Comics: Meet the Artist
With Jim Borgman
Cartoonist, "Zits"
Editorial Cartoonist, Cincinnati Enquirer

Hosted by Suzanne Tobin
Washington Post Comics Editor

Friday, April 4, 2003; 1 p.m. ET

Welcome to the Washington Post Style section comics discussion, hosted by Comics page editor Suzanne Tobin. This week, Tobin is joined by Jim Borgman, artist of the comic strip "Zits," on which he collaborates with Jerry Scott. Borgman is also the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Tobin and Borgman were online Friday, April 4 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss "Zits," and the art of creating editorial cartoons.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

washingtonpost.com: Hello, comics fans! Welcome to "Comics: Meet the Artist." Today our guest is Jim Borgman, the artist for "Zits," your No. 1 favorite comic (according to our comics survey last April)! For his "day job," Jim is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Cincinnati Enquirer. Jim is joining us from his office at the paper. Welcome, Jim!

Washington, D.C.: How do you guys do it? My sons, 26 and 20, both say you've got the teenage mind down pat. My wife and I know you've got the parent of teenager mind down pat. Did you live in my house or what? Seriously, do you get the ideas from your own experiences or do you have a group of "contributors" who send you plot lines?

Jim Borgman: The answer would be different from me than from Jerry. Jerry, who writes and initiates most of the ideas for “Zits,” lives in Malibu with two young daughters who aren’t even in double digits yet. So I’m not quite sure how he does it, no matter how closely I work with him, it remains a mystery to me. I think he just gins it up. He does what really good writers do, which is come up with a character and let the character talk to them.

Charlotte, N.C.: Your drawings have such life to them. How do you do that?

Jim Borgman: I live and breathe drawing. I have since I was a kid. I learned from some great cartoon masters. People like Chuck Jones, Mort Drucker, Pat Oliphant, Jeff MacNelly, whose work is full of life. I aspire to have my drawing feel like there's some electricity running through them and that the characters have expressive faces and lively gestures.

Zitsylvania, Ky.: Who came up with the title of your comic, "Zits"? How was the name determined? What do you think of the name, in retrospect?

Jim Borgman: Jerry was the first person to mouth, "Why don't we just call it 'Zits'?" We were thrashing about for a name. When you are doing a comic strip, you want it to have a name that says succinctly what the strip is about and to convey an attitude. And there's nothing that says teenager like the word zits. It felt edgy and a little daring. And all the suits at the syndicate in New York were nervous about it so we knew were on the right track.

Current Events: As an editorial cartoonist, don't you find it tempting to comment more on current events? Say, do a strip about Jeremy's take on the war in Iraq. Or do you get that out of your system with the editorial cartoons?

Jim Borgman: The latter is true. I have a soapbox, so when I have big pronouncements to make about the world, I do it in my editorial cartoons. Which leaves the strip free to be just an oasis from the news. You'll notice that
we don't take on big issues in the strip. It's not that we couldn't or we wouldn't, if we heard the call. At the moment, we enjoy being a resting spot in the newspaper.

Juarez City, Chihuahua, Mexico: Dear Mr. Borgman:

I must say I just love the way you draw. And my questions are:

  • When is Jeremy going on his trip with Hector?
  • What size do you draw the strip?
  • What materials do you use?

    Thanks so much, and keep doing such a great strip!

    Jim Borgman: I appreciate the kind words.
    Jeremy and Hector inadvertently got the van started last summer and drove it around the block. That was probably a harbinger of things to come one day, because the great cross-country road trip is what they dream about night and day. There is something acutely uncomfortable about the age of 15, which is where Jeremy is. He has sensed the bigger world out there and can't wait to meet it. But he's still too young to drive, legally, and he is still stuck in his parents' home under his parents' rules. That sort of tension is exactly what the strip is about. If he really could take off with the van, it would no longer be a strip about a home with a teenager in it.
    On the technical questions, the daily strips are drawn about 14 inches x about 4 1/2 inches. I draw them on a smooth Bristol board using very fine-tipped red sable brushes and whatever ink is on sale.

    Alexandria, Va.: We all enjoy "Zits" immensely. I am interested in seeing some of your editorial cartoons. Can I view them on the Cincinnati Enquirer's Web site? If so, what is the Web address?

    washingtonpost.com: Jim Borgman at the Cincinnati Enquirer

    Jim Borgman: It's borgman.enquirer.com. And it's quite an extensive Web site. My paper has done a great job with it.
    Glad you enjoy the strip. It's always a pleasure to find that ideas that originate in my home or Jerry's home end up making sense to so many people around the world.

    Albuquerque, N.M.: How did you and Jerry hook up? How long did you spend working out the details of the strip: character designs, character personalities, etc. before you felt the strip was "ready?"

    Jim Borgman: Jerry and I have known each other as fellow cartoonists for about 10 years, I guess. The way we really bonded was that we were on our way to a cartoonists' gathering in Sarasota, Fla., about a decade ago and the airplane we were both on blew a tire on the runway so we had to sit together for about five hours while they changed the tire. And that gave us a chance to get to know each other and learn that we both aspired to do another comic strip. Fast forward to 1996, I was going to give a talk in Phoenix, Ariz., where Jerry lived, so I called him and asked him how I should extend the trip into a long weekend, and he suggested I go to Sedona, Ariz., and before long he had talked himself into coming along with me. We spent the weekend NOT talking about cartoons, but on the last day, he wandered over to my cabin with his sketchbook and told me about an idea he had about a strip about teenagers. He didn't like the way he was drawing it, so I began drawing teenagers on the porch of that cabin and before you knew it, we had gotten into something we couldn't get out of.
    The strip was launched a year later, so during that year we faxed sketches and ideas back and forth, and started talking almost every day.

    Akron, Ohio: I don't have a question, but please tell Jim Borgman I dearly love his work and have searched diligently to find it since leaving Cincinnati.

    Denise in Akron

    Jim Borgman: We miss you in Cincinnati, Denise. See the answer about the Web site above.

    Southington, Conn.: You have created a cartoon that speaks to all parents with teenagers. I regularly clip and send to my boys -- you are my hero! You must have children or draw on past experiences. Tell us about it.

    Jim Borgman: My son, Dylan, was 15 when we started the strip, which is not a total coincidence. He's now 20. But my daughter Chelsea is 13 now, and beginning to furnish material to us. Additionally, I am getting married this June to a woman with 3 more teenagers, so I'll now be the father of 5 teenagers.

    Herndon, Va.: Who is most responsible for the Zits "situations?" As the father of three teen-aged boys, let me note you hit it right on the head all the time.

    Jim Borgman: Jerry and I are both very careful not to put our children's lives on public display. Nothing you see in "Zits" really happened in our family lives. But living with teenagers brings up issues and Jerry and I like to depart from those issues with our own storylines.

    Haverford, Pa.: I'm a college freshman, published weekly in her school newspaper, who wants your career. How did you get your start, and what advice would you offer to someone looking to break into cartoons?

    Jim Borgman: It depends on whether you're talking about editorial cartoons or comic strips. With editorial cartoons, you need to get your cartoons in front of ALOT of editors, because the only way to develop a career in editorial cartooning is by being hired by a newspaper for a staff position. That's how I did it. I "shotgunned" my portfolio of college work to every newspaper I could think of. You're looking for a newspaper who doesn't already have a cartoonist of their own, and the way to impress them is to draw cartoons about their local issues.
    In the case of comic strips, you need to submit six weeks worth of work just as you would have it run in a newspaper to one of the six or eight major syndicates. And begin a dialogue with their comics editors.
    Don't be discouraged...you'll run into many walls, but I firmly believe that good people get noticed.

    Simsbury, Conn.: What do your own boys think of your strip?

    Jim Borgman: I'm always careful to tell people that Dylan is NOT Jeremy. But Dylan tells everybody that he is.

    L'Enfant Plaza, Washington, D.C.: Hello! So will you have much input when "Zits: The Movie" comes out? Any ideas on who will play Jeremy, Chad and Hector? Thanks.

    Jim Borgman: Universal Studios had a three-year window of time to develop a "Zits" movie, and that just elapsed without coming to fruition. So the project is in limbo, and we'd love to see it happen someday. I would be particularly excited to see an animated movie, rather than live action.

    Herndon, Va.: Have you consciously set up boundaries about what topics you will and won't bring up in the strip?

    Jim Borgman: We don't rule out anything, but don't feel much desire to be political in the strip. We've touched on the pregnancy of a classmate. One of the minor characters, Tim, had a mom with cancer. So we'll touch on these things. I don't know about you, but when I read the newspaper, it is so heavy with BIG issues, that I go to the comics pages for relief.
    We prefer to deal with the day-to-day challenges of navigating life through the teenage years.

    Albuquerque, NM: I teach high school journalism and 10th-grade English, so Jeremy's experiences at school especially hit home for me -- sometimes with a knowing smirk, sometimes with such a loud belly-laugh it startles my wife. The strip is often a great visual aid when I'm trying to explain my day in the classroom to her. (At other times it helps me keep a sense of humor about what I'm going through.) Thank you very much!

    Question: What advice would you give to high school students who might be interested in a career in art, specifically cartooning?

    Jim Borgman: My first, second and third pieces of advice is to carry a sketchbook wherever you go. And always be working on developing your own ideas and drawings. Learn from the people whose work excites you, but then move on to your own voice. Put your work in front of people who can hire you. Be courageous and approach community or neighborhood newspapers. This will give you the chance to see what it's like to have your work printed, and how it feels when people react to it.
    In addition to cartooning, work hard at your other subjects. Many young cartoonists just want to draw, but readers will not continue to be interested in a person who has nothing to say.

    Germantown, Md.: Hi Jim. "Zits" is consistently one of my favorite cartoons. I write gags daily that could be used in a strip(family) a panel, or editorial. I would rather read a consistently funny cartoon than one with particular characters. Some like "Zits," "Pearls Before Swine," and "Baby Blues" are fortunate enough to have both. If given a choice, would you prefer characters or laughs?

    Jim Borgman: Characters. I think readers bond with characters and will stick with them through thick and thin.
    A laugh is not always the highest priority. Sometimes you want to hit a subtler note to evoke sympathy or compassion or some other nuance or feeling.

    Mt. Adams Refugee: Jim --

    You are still a must read for me, even after being away from Cincinnati for almost 20 years (I feel old now). What do you enjoy more -- "Zits" or the editorial cartoons? There is not a lack of material in Cincinnati. My dad still has a panel that you did either in the late 70's or early 80's when the river got up pretty high and the tagline, was "thank goodness we live in Mt. Adams."

    Jim Borgman: Cincinnati is a quirky city and furnishes me with tons of material. I enjoy my rapport with people here in my own backyard. We feel like me know each other. So there are always some editorial cartoons I just draw for local readers.
    The two art forms complement each other. When I'm tired of making big pronouncements about the state of the world, I can retire to the strip, where it's about life inside one house. And then, when that feels claustrophobic, I get back to the podium again, and talk about Iraq or the stock market or the school levies. I don't find that either cartoon detracts from the other.

    Lisboa, Portugal: How old were you when you realized that you wanted to draw cartoons for a living?

    Jim Borgman: I was naive. I didn't know you could draw cartoons for a living until I was 20, I guess. I was just drawing for pleasure all that time. It was in college that a friend helped me to understand that this could be a viable career for me.

    Lyme, Conn.: If you had not become a cartoonist, what else do you think you would have done with your life? (Incidentally, we are all glad "Zits" is the path your like took. The strip is great.)

    Jim Borgman: As a child, I dreamed of becoming a Catholic priest, or a zookeeper. Let's just say I'm glad I became a cartoonist.

    Washington, D.C.: In past strips, the father has mentioned seeing Moby Grape in concert, and inevitably the date and place he gives for the show is the date and place of an actual Moby Grape concert. So which of you is the Moby Grape fan?

    Jim Borgman: I have to be honest and say I couldn't identify any Moby Grape music, but I remember the bands from that era, and these are ways of establishing Walt, the dad, as a baby boomer. So we throw in those references whenever we can.
    We don't do any research, so the date and place must be pure coincidence.

    Rhode Island: Do you have any stories involving a newspaper editing your work without your knowledge?

    Jim Borgman: I'm sure it has happened. I remember hearing about editors changing captions on editorial cartoons to fit their beliefs, but I haven't heard of that in a long time, I would guess that the frequency of these things is exaggerated.

    Cartoonist Wannabe: I have been a watcher and reader of editorial cartoons since I was in high school 20 years ago -- even tried my hand at drawing a few, mostly in MacNelly's style. One of the elements that always impressed me about his work and yours, too, is your ability to convey your message without always having to label everything to ensure the reader understands. It seems to me that a key to a good cartoon is that the drawing speaks for itself, and anything that is said by figures in the drawing adds the "Zing." What do you think?

    Jim Borgman: I think that's very observant. The generation that included Jeff MacNelly and Pat Oliphant changed the art form. It had been far more heavily labeled, more like a blunt instrument. MacNelly and Oliphant changed all that. Their cartoons were and are sharper, more sly and more pointed. And that's what turned me on to trying it myself.

    Staten Island, N.Y.: I love when you humiliate the male characters for no reason at all. The father is a good provider and a loving husband -- he DESERVES to be ridiculed by his son and wife. I like when the girlfriend hit Jeremy with the snowball, and she got away with it. I show your comics to my little son to teach him that he should expect to get hit by his wife, and that he will DESERVE it. Oh, don't hit women. That would be sexist, of course. Thanks again!

    Jim Borgman: The overall feeling of the Duncan household is loving and respectful. Anyone who follows the strip for long that these people love each other and are always there for each other. Of course there's a lot of sarcasm in a home with teenagers and occasionally doors do slam, but most readers will see that this is a strip without malice.

    Charlotte, N.C.: Do you use PhotoShop at any point in the process? Also, I'm working on a comic submission -- do you or any other cartoonists give aspiring cartoonists feedback?

    Jim Borgman: I do use PhotoShop, but only after the drawing is complete. I scan the drawing into the computer and then edit or move things around. It's a helpful tool, but I use it only in the final steps.
    I do color any editorial cartoons or Sunday strips on the computer and, of course, we digitally submit the strips now to our syndicate.
    I try to respond to people who send me their work within the limits of my time and ability. You might want to look at the National Cartoonists Society Web site, www.reuben.org, for their suggestions to aspiring cartoonists.

    Blandings Castle: Hi. Whenever I get a copy of a "Zits" book for my father for Christmas, I buy a second copy for myself. Not many strips can ring that well with both generations.

    I do have a question for you. You seem to be replacing Hector with Pierce. Nothing against Pierce; he's funny in his own right. But are you getting bored with Hector? It would be a shame to lose him. He and Jeremy were always such a good fit.

    Jim Borgman: We still love Hector. He and Jeremy will always be best buds. There are some friends you never lose. Pierce is a easy character to write for and draw because he's colorful and "out there." He fills one need in the strip. Hector fills another.

    Washington, D.C.: How do you explain the popularity of editorial cartoons, something that's been around since the invention of the printing press? You guys (and gals?) are not reporters or politicians, and yet you have such great political and social influence.

    Jim Borgman: It's a world where we are inundated with more and more data all the time. So readers continue to need people who can distill and cut their way through that jungle. Good editorial cartoons crystallize an issue, while commenting on it. And that's still a valuable commodity in most people's lives.

    Where's Chad?: How come you haven't included big brother in the strip for a long time? As I recall, the last time Chad was home from college, he came and went without Jeremy even knowing he was there.

    Jim Borgman: We get asked about Chad alot. Chad's main value in "Zits" is to be the perfect older brother against whom Jeremy pales in comparison. So Chad doesn't really have to be on the scene much. His shadow looms over Jeremy all the time. We find when the attention shifts to Chad the strip becomes a "college" strip, which really isn't where our interest lies. So it's more important that Chad exists, than that he actually show up.

    Sperryville, VA: My last question hasn't come through. Will Jeremy stay 15 forever? If not how will you work that.

    LOVE his enormous feet and how you draw them.

    Jim Borgman: Jeremy will stay 15 for a long time. Once he turns 16, he'll be able to drive and the focus of the strip would change. I hate to say it, we enjoy keeping him frozen at 15, which is a maximum moment of stress and tension in a person's life, which is the source of humor. Once he can drive, he's no longer stuck in his parents' orbit. "Zits" is really about the interaction of teenagers and their parents.
    The big shoes have become a favorite symbol for people. They spring from those NASA-like engineered shoes that sell for hundreds of dollars. I just like drawing them.

    Jim Borgman: Well, Suzanne, I still have an editorial cartoon to draw today, so I've got to go.
    Thanks for making this a fun experience.

    Suzanne Tobin: Thanks to you, Jim, for all the laughs you've given me, not to mention a little bit more tolerance for my own two teenage sons. Join us again in two weeks when Rick Kirkman of "Baby Blues" will be our guest on "Comics: Meet the Artist."

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