They’re not as recognizable as their creations, but the three men sitting at Eureka! restaurant in San Luis Obispo are daily comic-strip stars.
Arroyo Grande resident Jerry Scott is rarely seen with his two collaborators — Rick Kirkman and Jim Borgman — because they live in three different states. But on this day, Kirkman, the Phoenix resident who draws “Baby Blues,” and Borgman, the Boulder, Colo., artist who illustrates “Zits,” are in town for a meeting with their distributor, King Features. (“Zits” appears in 1,600 papers daily; “Baby Blues” in 1,200.)
“It’s good to catch up and just talk about what we’re doing,” says Scott, who writes both “Baby Blues” and “Zits.”
Coincidentally, the three cartoonists do have a lot to talk about. This month, both “Zits” and Kirkman are up for Reuben Awards — the comic-strip version of the Oscar — which Borgman and Scott have previously won. And this week, Scott and Borgman will see the release of “Zits: Chillax,” an illustrated novel targeted to young teens.
Seizing on the chance to have the trio together, we spoke to them about their comic triangle.
Scott and Kirkman lived in Phoenix when they met.
SCOTT: Originally, our wives worked together in the 1970s. It was one of those classic moments. They worked in an office, and they were having lunch one day. And Rick’s wife said, “My stupid husband thinks he wants to be a cartoonist.” And Kim said, “My stupid husband thinks he wants to be a cartoonist, too,” and they introduced us.
KIRKMAN: That was my ex-wife.
SCOTT: She still thought you were stupid. Rick showed me, after that first meeting, how to prepare a cartoon for magazine sales. I sold one to the Saturday Evening Post and thought I was on my way because I made, like, $125. It wasn’t more than three years before I sold my second one. That’s the kind of success we started out with. Then we decided that the guys who were seemingly making money at this were the ones that had comic strips in newspapers. So we tried doing that.
BORGMAN: Were you guys partners, or were you two guys working side by side?
SCOTT: We were two guys that had lunch together, and we’d show each other, “This is stuff I came up with last night — what do you think of it?” And it was, “Yeah, that was funny” or “That would be funny if that wasn’t a dog — if it was a llama.”
KIRKMAN: We got totally sucked in by Mort Walker’s book, “Backstage at the Strips.” We thought syndication was like, “Ah, you write a few funny things in the morning, you go play golf and drink martinis the rest of the day.”
Scott and Kirkman eventually worked together designing Yellow Pages ads. Meanwhile, they partnered on a short-lived strip,“Copps & Robberts.” From the outset, Kirkman drew; Scott wrote.
SCOTT: Probably because Rick was always a better artist. I could write jokes, and he could draw pictures. Then I moved to California for a few years. (Scott took over the syndicated strip “Nancy” for a while.) When I came back to Phoenix, I called Rick and said, “Hey, I’m living in Phoenix again. We should try to write a strip.” And he said, “I can’t — I just had a baby.” It wasn’t too long before we looked at each other and said, “That sounds like a good idea for a comic strip.” And we put that together, and it was “Baby Blues.”
KIRKMAN: It was just therapy sessions for me that turned into a comic strip.
Several years after “Baby Blues” launched, Scott met Borgman on a plane. Sometime later, Borgman — then an Ohio native working for the Cincinnati Inquirer as an editorial cartoonist — was set to give a talk in Phoenix, so he called Scott about things to do in the area. When Borgman arrived, the two met again.
BORGMAN: We had this agreement not to talk about cartoons, but you can easily slip into it.
The idea was to just hike around and forget about all that for the week. And we did until the last day. I remember sitting on the porch in my cabin when he came over with a sketch book. And he said, “I’m trying to do a comic strip about teenagers, and it just doesn’t look the way I think it should.” And, you know, would I look at it? And I looked at it.
My memory is that the figures were kind of squatty, which would be natural. He had been working on “Nancy” and “Baby Blues,” so it was sort of the big head, small body thing. And my son was 15 at the time, and I said, “Teen-agers drape themselves all over the furniture, with their clothes kind of falling off them, and they’re much more slouchy.” So I started drawing some teenagers in my sketch book.
SCOTT: It was one of those moments, like, “Wow, I can’t do this so well.” And we talked about it, and I said, “Would you ever consider doing a strip? And he said, “No — I have a full-time job.” And I said, “Good, because I don’t want another partner; I want to do one on my own.” And we went home without agreeing to do anything together.
BORGMAN: I kept drawing these things — these Sluggo-looking teenagers — and I’d fax them to him. And he’d fax back a better drawn version.
SCOTT: Just for fun.
BORGMAN: It had a feeling of inevitability — almost like neither of us ever really chose to do it.
SCOTT: Really reluctant.
BORGMAN: I was drawing six editorial cartoons a week for my hometown paper, and we were syndicated, too. It was as much as I wanted to do. You never want to make cartooning sound like it’s digging ditches, but reading the paper, coming up with ideas that are going to make sense to a lot of people and drawing them by the end of the day was — yeah — that was plenty.
I didn’t know I was looking for anything else. But it’s funny when you look back on your life, how it feels like things led somewhere. Who knew that editorial cartooning as a profession would basically evaporate 10 years later? Now it’s 15 years later. There’s still some people who make a living at it. When I started in the mid-’70s, there were 350 people making a living at it in American newspapers. Now I think I heard there are like 30 or 40. ... I didn’t lose my job; I took a buyout, and I was ready to do it. That was in 2008, I think. I was happy to simplify my life and move on.
Seven years after “Baby Blues” was launched in 1990, Borgman teamed with Scott to produce a second syndicated strip, “Zits.” While “Baby Blues” deals with younger kids, “Zits” focuses on life with teenagers. Borgman and Kirkman primarily do the artwork, though they occasionally send ideas to Scott.
BORGMAN: When we started doing “Zits,” my son was 15.
BORGMAN: And then shortly thereafter, within five years or so, I remarried. I brought two kids to the table and Suzanne had three. So for a while we had five teenagers in the house. So even if I wasn’t the writer, I was kind of like the embedded reporter — the embedded cartoonist — taking field notes and sending them to Jerry, just about themes that come up and tensions. I’m not good at writing full scripts, but feeding that meat into the grinder — I enjoy doing that.
KIRKMAN: It was the same with me. When we started, I had two kids, and Jerry didn’t have any kids. So all of those things going on at home kept coming out at some point. So I just unloaded on Jerry. Jerry’s got a remarkable ability to take a long, boring story and boil it down to two or three panels. And suddenly it’s funnier and more potent.
SCOTT: The best stories are the ones people don’t know are stories. They’re about frustrations or anger or fright.
KIRKMAN: I had a tennis coach, and he’s got three kids. He knew I was a part of “Baby Blues” so he would tell me all these cute stories about his kids. And I said, “I don’t want stuff like that. I want humiliating stories that make you want to crawl under a rock.”
SCOTT: The payday for comic strips is the “Oh my God, that happened to me — you must have a camera in my house!” When we hear that — and we do often — that’s when we say, “OK, we’re doing the right thing.” We’re always looking for the universal in the specific.