JERRY SCOTT doesn’t simply feel sorry for challenged grade-school readers. Years ago, swirling in a tsunami of prose, he was that reluctant young reader.
“As a freshman in high school, in Arizona, I was the new kid, and it was scary,” Scott recalls in vivid detail. “In my first English class, I got a paperback of ‘Ivanhoe.’ ”
Scott utters the title of the Walter Scott novel as if conveying the name of a particularly nasty disease, with painful symptoms best left to the imagination.
“Reading it was really hard — it was the worst frigging book,” Scott tells Comic Riffs. “There were no pictures in it at all. I had the hardest time. I don’t think I’m alone in this vast sea of alienation that a lot of kids feel.”
Today, fortunately, Jerry Scott is in a better position than Walter Scott to empathetically help frustrated teen and tween readers navigate those seas. As co-creators of the widely syndicated comic strip “Zits,” he and Jim Borgman have recently turned from comic-strip collections to publishing their first novel, “Chillax” (Harper Teen), which includes a wealth of engaging illustrations to help young readers chart their course.
Now, though, Scott and Borgman had their own challenge: How do you spread word about such a new book when many of your potential customers aren’t especially fond of dipping into unadorned prose?
The cartoonists now had two different missions in mind: One was “literacy,” and the other was “publicity.” But how in the world, proverbially speaking, to kill two words with one stone?
The answer came to them by thinking inside the box — specifically, inside the panels of “Zits” itself; all this week, the strip’s teen protagonist, Jeremy Duncan, is encouraged to read (a copy of “Chillax,” oh so coincidentally) during a library visit with Mom.
“It is a series all about reluctant readers,” Borgman tells Comic Riffs.
“The series is a way to further this whole mission: To try to get kids to read books,” Scott tells us. “But how to tell kids that the book exists?”
Using their syndicated platform to spread the word about “Chillax” seemed like the most natural forum, especially given their lead character. “If we bring up the subject of reluctant readers, Jeremy would say he’s the quintessential reluctant reader,” Scott says. “He doesn’t want to spend his summer doing a summer reading list.
In this week’s strips, Jeremy is reluctant to even check out the young readers’ section of the library — which speaks to a larger issue that the “Zits” creators face: How to encourage grade-school readers through a newspaper feature when fewer kids today, Scott says, even read the newspaper?
“Look, the comics business is changing,” Scott tells ’Riffs, “ and one thing that’s changing with it is the reading patterns. Kids aren’t reading as much as they used to.”
Children are raised largely on fast-paced screen entertainment, Scott notes — that visual competition for young eyeballs. “But newspapers are where you get the reader, where our livelihood is,” says Scott, who always creates the popular strip “Baby Blues” with Rick Kirkman. “Maybe we can help kids get back into the newspaper, or start reading the newspaper, with a book like ‘Chillax’ — something that is a little more accessible.”
On a personal level, Borgman, too, appreciates how comics — as an entry point — can help develop young readers.
“I have a warm spot for Jim Davis and ‘Garfield,’ “ says Borgman, the longtime Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist for the Cincinnati Enquirer. “He taught my son to read when he was resistant to other things -- at ages 7, 8, 9. But he wanted to do ‘Garfield’ books for school assignments. Luckily, at school, he could. ... The next thing I know, he’s reading ‘Jurassic Park.’ “
Part of the power of comics, Borgman says, is that they convert young readers inadvertently. “With pictures, it’s easier to tackle than newspaper [articles] and books,” says Borgman before addressing his professional partner: “Jerry, you think of it as a ‘bridge book’…between ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ and ‘Moby-Dick.’ “
“Yes, we try to take that idea of ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid,’ “ replies Scott, referring to the massively popular publishing franchise, “and push that and take it a step further with the illustrations.”
“I try to make the drawings further the story along,” Borgman explains. “You need the [visual] information to get down into the story.”
Engaging in such big-page visual storytelling not only propels the young reader — it also liberates Borgman from the cramped quarters of the latter-day newspaper comic strip.
“It’s fun to break out of the little boxes ... ,” Borgman tells us. “In those little boxes, you can contort yourself down into that size if needed. But I did [bigger] editorial cartooning for some 30 years, and I like a big space to stretch out in.”
For Scott, the writing transition from a newspaper comic to a novel was unusual. “It was just very odd,” Scott says. “I’ve done syndicated strips for a long time, so it’s funny to have an editor say instead: ‘Can you make it longer?’ “
(Scott notes that rather than feel confined by them, he likes the pithiness of strips. “I love the rhythms of comics strips,” he says, “the way you can distill down a line of dialogue until it’s almost haiku.”)
To “make it longer,” Scott and Borgman tried a wide array of techniques after they’d outlined the book, including a road map of all the plot-points they wanted to hit. Sometimes they would pass their prose back and forth, paragraph by paragraphs; other times, one writer would take on a chapter, to be honed by the co-author.
“This was my first time to take a real, significant crack at writing ...,” Borgman says. “I would start and have the vision for it, and Jerry would flesh it out. He’s way better at that, but it was fun to take a shot at being part of [creating] the story.”
Scott and Borgman say they work so seamlessly together because neither is strictly a “writer” or “artist.”
“One thing that’s always worked for us is that we’re both cartoonists,” Borgman says. “In other [comic-strip] partnerships, the roles are always pretty distinct. With us, it really helps that we’re both seeing the same thing with the writing and drawing.”
As co-cartoonists, that easy seamlessness has been there since the beginning — since that mid-’90s all-nighter in Arizona that really launched the strip.
“He was trying to do a strip about teenagers,” Borgman says of Scott, who had already launched “Baby Blues” and ended his run on “Nancy.” “He asked me to take a look, and [the characters] tended to be squatty little figures. ... My son was 15 at the time. I drew [a cartoon of] the way I see him — draped over furniture, lanky and his clothes falling off. We stayed up that night and talking about this strip.”
“We really did stay up the whole flipping night,” says Scott, jumping in. “Jim had no interest or background in comic strips, but we started drinking beer and talking about it. I told him: ‘Here’s how the business works, and here’s how it works for me. But I’m not looking for another partner. I didn’t want to be a partner.’
“I really wanted to do something on my own, so people could see that I draw. … ,” Scott continues. “But once a guy draws Jeremy [like that], draped over a chair, that’s it.
“I thought: This could really be good. Sometimes two heads are better than one.”
That ability to deftly render and spoof the truth won over King Features, and hundreds of newspaper editors, and millions of fans. Today, whether writing three panels or 200-plus pages, Scott and Borgman continue to hew to the humor that springs from truth. “I have a sort of internal tuning fork,” Scott says. “I know when something feels genuine. ... To be accurate and real is more important than being funny. And you try to speak out of your authentic self.”
And that truth resonates with readers. “If you ever could read the e-mails we get,” Borgman says. “It’s uncanny — the percentage of people who say verbatim: ‘You must have a camera in our house.’ It’s just about the highest compliment you can get.”
That authenticity great and small ripples through “Chillax,” as Jeremy and best friend Hector plan to go to their first real rock concert. Scott and Borgman not only infuse their story with the details of being parents, or observing teenagers as parents — but also specific inspired nods to the rock music of their own youth.
“We lived through, as teenagers, the best music,” Scott says. “So much incredible creativity, musicianship and wonderful lyrics were written in the ’60s. “
“We can get away with it in the strip and the book,” Borgman says of the allusions to ’60s and ’70s songs, band names and rock paraphernalia. “It’s authentic, and there are those kids around today who appreciate the history.”
Even as they share anecdotes about writing their first book, Scott and Borgman — Reuben Awards winners both — are well into writing their follow-up to “Chillax.” And they already have a rocking title: “Shredded.”
“It’s about a road trip,” Scott says.
“Which for us is like making a record on warm vinyl,” Borgman notes.
Fittingly, their first illustrated novel is as warm and inviting as those great ‘60s stacks of wax. Now, if only they can successfully lure more young readers to the bandstand.