Thursday, December 28, 2000

'Zits' drawn from life

Borgman, Scott bring joys, tragedies of their own families to popular comic strip

By Laura Sessions Stepp
The Washington Post

Jeremy drawn by Jim Borgman.
        Families come in all shapes and sizes these days, and this is a story about three of them.

        Walt Duncan, an orthodontist; Connie, his wife; and their perpetually sloppy 15-year-old, Jeremy, live in a white clapboard house that occasionally is home to Jeremy's best friend, Hector, and a rock band named Goat Cheese Pizza. As every family with a teen-ager must, Jeremy, Connie and Walt are figuring out who they are together and who they are apart.

        Jerry and Kim Scott spent their first 10 years of marriage figuring out who they were together without a child. Then they arranged to have a baby under circumstances that gave new meaning to the term “blended family.”

        Jim and Lynn Borgman were raising two children, a teen-age boy and a young girl, until Lynn acquired a mysterious, debilitating disease. Today this family, Jim, Dylan and Chelsea Borgman, is learning how to live without a woman it adored.

        All these stories are real. It is only incidental that the Duncans are the central characters in the comic strip “Zits.” They are the creation of Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman, who have been writing and illustrating the strip for three years. Mr. Borgman is also The Enquirer's political cartoonist.

  • Age: 46
  • Birthplace: Cincinnati
  • Residence: Cincinnati (Hartwell)
  • Winner: Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in The Cincinnati Enquirer, 1991; Reuben Award for outstanding cartooning, 1993; Ohio Governor's Award, 1990
  • Other work: Newsweek contributor; author of Smorgasborgman, The Great Communicator, The Mood of America, Jim Borgman's Cincinnati, Disturbing the Peace, and five Zits books
  • Web site:
  • Age: 45
  • Birthplace: South Bend, Ind.
  • Residence: Malibu, Calif.
  • Winner: Best Comic Strip Award for Baby Blues from the National Cartoonist Society, 1995
  • Other work: Gumdrops, Nancy and five Zits books
Borgman and Scott
        Combined, the Duncans, Scotts and Borgmans remind us of how families are created, how they can drive us out the door one minute and drag us back in the next, offering laughter, love and inspiration.

        Jeremy Duncan loves his guitar and a girl named Sara. He thinks of himself as “a pretty cool, edgy kind of guy.”

        “Yet I go to class, complete every assignment and basically do everything my parents want me to do,” he continues in a recent strip.

        Slumped over his desk at school, obviously wigged out over this, he concludes, “I have a Dawson's Creek head, stuck on a Brady Bunch body.”

        To which thousands of families must have said, “Yes!”

        You see, we're tired of teen-agers portrayed exclusively on screen as vamps or Rambos. If we see one more bumbling dad or shrewish mom, we'll scream. It's not that we don't know dads can be idiots and moms can be nags, or that teens sometimes seem like an alien species. It's just that families are so much more than their stereotypes. “Zits,” much like the faded family sitcom The Wonder Years, is appealing because it mirrors all our sweet complexity.

        Jeremy is done in by girls in tight sweaters and by the chaos theory of the universe. Walt washes the family laundry, and Connie drives aggressively. Sure, the Duncans sometimes scream at each other. But they manage to negotiate the hard edges of family conflict without ignoring the soft emotional core.

Characters "like each other'

               “Jerry and I never have to tell each other, "Remember these folks like each other,'” Mr. Borgman says.

        Jeremy, of course, hates to admit this. And so he berates Connie in public for calling him “Cowboy” in front of his friends, before assuring her privately that she can use that name at home. He agrees to shop for clothes with her, but puts a bag over his head when classmates approach.

        His parents never have to be reminded that he has one foot out the door. He sends away for his own credit card, only to get caught when the new hot tub arrives. He sneaks into the family van to practice driving and steers into the garage door. He informs Connie and Walt that he has narrowed his career objectives to two professions, microbiologist and pirate.

        Walt handles his approaching departure better than Connie, perhaps because Walt enjoys the cushion of a daily job. Connie, Mr. Borgman says, knows that Jeremy is “preparing to launch, hears the engines rumbling, and clings.” Her sadness at Jeremy's ultimate exit is coupled with questions about her own future.

        In a moving strip a few weeks ago, she picks up a photograph of the family and asks, “Who am I going to be?” The next frame shows her sitting on the floor, her back to a closed door, thinking, “I just wish there was someone who understood what I'm feeling.” In the next room, sitting with his back against the other side of the door, is Jeremy. “What am I going to do?” he is asking himself. “Who am I going to be?”

Began with a suggestion

               Mr. Scott was dogged by similar questions in early 1996. His popular strip about life with a toddler, “Baby Blues,” had been snapped up by the WB network, but his livelihood as an independent cartoonist was only as good as the next gag. During a New Year's Eve bash, a friend suggested doing a strip about a teen-age boy, and Mr. Scott picked up his pencil.

        There was only one problem. Every character he drew looked like Nancy or Sluggo, the little round-headed kids he had penned for United Feature Syndicate in the 12 years after Ernie Bushmiller's death.

        Mr. Scott mentioned this problem to his friend Mr. Borgman, as the two spent a weekend in the foothills of Sedona, Ariz. Mr. Borgman had a teen-age son and loved drawing teen-agers. “Teen-agers are so visibly creating who they are,” he says. “It's all there to see in the clothing, hair, words, attitude.”

Flying faxes

               Over the next six months, faxes flew back and forth between Mr. Scott's home in Malibu, Calif., and Mr. Borgman's in Cincinnati. Mr. Scott would sketch a panel, including the dialogue, and Mr. Borgman would turn Mr. Scott's characters into the Duncans. King Features Syndicate, already distributing “Baby Blues” and Mr. Borgman's editorial cartoons, snapped up the strip in 1997.

        Since then, “Zits” has been picked up by almost 900 newspapers, a fast start unheard of in the cartoon business, according to newspaper analysts. The strip has claimed the top award of the National Cartoonists Society two years in a row, as well as several international prizes.

        The best cartoons have almost always been the work of one person, cartoon historian R.C. Harvey says. “Scott's and Borgman's is a unique combination.” Like the partners in a good marriage, each provides the other with something the other doesn't have. “We are better together than apart,” Mr. Borgman says.

        Jerry and Kim Scott got an early start together, falling in love in high school in Arizona as he played a motorcycle-riding Dennis Hopper to her Michelle Phillips. They married in 1975 when she turned 18.

        He put her through college and nursing school by drawing Roto-Rooter ads and selling the occasional cartoon to magazines. “Nancy,” in 1983, was his first full-time strip, paying $36,000 a year. In 1991, he joined a friend, Rick Kirkman, to produce “Baby Blues.”

        Having a baby of their own was the farthest thing from their minds at the time. “We were centered on how we were going to get ahead and wouldn't-it-be-great-to-have-a-Camaro kind of stuff,” Mr. Scott says.

Warming up to dad thing

               But as they approached their 30s, being together alone wasn't enough. It felt like a partnership, not a family. When Kim finally asked Jerry seriously about having a child, he replied, “I don't hate the idea as much as I used to.”

        “There needed to be something else at stake,” he now says. “Something you want so much that you're willing to change your life and literally die for.”

        He is sitting in khaki shorts and faded gray polo shirt in a protected volcanic cove of the Pacific, a ruddy, quietly funny man suddenly serious about the next chapter of their story. Kim couldn't get pregnant the usual way, he says, so they tried other approaches, including in vitro fertilization, all unsuccessfully.

        “It became an obsession,” Mr. Scott admits. “We said, "We've been able to do everything else, why not this?' Then we got into the question of whose fault it was, an awful thing to worry about.”

        They considered and rejected adoption. Then, on the evening of Mr. Scott's 37th birthday, his older sister Jo Ann Evans telephoned from Sacramento.

        Jo Ann had been Jerry's nemesis in childhood, much as Jeremy's older brother Chad is in “Zits.” She made all A's in school, was every teacher's pet. Jerry attracted attention by sticking scissors in electrical outlets and, on one particularly mischievous afternoon, cutting holes in Jo Ann's skirts and dresses.

        Years later, when Jo Ann called to wish him happy birthday, she and Jerry chatted about her job as a junior high school teacher and about her own three teen-agers. “And then she said she had talked to her husband, Spike, and they had agreed that if we were interested, she would have a baby for us,” Mr. Scott recalls.

A crazy idea

               “That's crazy, I thought. Kim will never go for it.”

        But Kim did. “I immediately thought, it could work,” she says. “Jo Ann's a methodical person. Physically and mentally, she probably could give a gift that big.”

        The next question proved more difficult: Who would be the biological father?

        “I had seen the movie Deliverance,” Jerry now jokes. “I knew it couldn't be me.”

        How about Kenny, Kim had asked. Ken Anderson was her brother, a former Navy helicopter pilot selling real estate in San Diego and already a father of three. “He's a lot like Jo Ann, a solid, nurturing man living a very complete life,” Kim says. “I thought he could take on the role of uncle and not feel "That's my kid you've got there.'”

        Their plan gave new meaning to the term “blended family”: Jerry's sister as “mother” and Kim's brother as “father.” A baby that would be as biologically close to their own as possible.

        Jo Ann and Kim approached several fertility centers for assistance and were turned down because of fears arising out of the Baby M case in which a surrogate mother wanted to keep the child she was carrying. Nurse Kim knew, however, that it didn't take an advanced degree to have a baby. “I said, we can do this on our own.”

        Once a month for five months, Jo Ann in Sacramento, Kim in Phoenix and Ken in San Diego would arrange to meet at one of their homes. Late in the evening, Ken would retire to a bedroom with a plastic cup, then hand the cup out the door to Kim. Kim would draw the semen into a syringe and carry the syringe to Jo Ann.

        On the sixth try, Kim was out of town on business. The little group was staying at Jo Ann's house, and Jerry was asked to be the runner.

        Slaving away over a “Baby Blues” strip in the basement, he forgot to come upstairs at the appointed time. So Ken, a veteran by now, simply carried his plastic cup to Jo Ann's bedroom, handed it to Spike and growled, “This one better work.” It did.

        Jerry and Kim stood next to Jo Ann during a C-section in the delivery room. They were there when the obstetrician, Nancy West, her hands plunged into Jo Ann's abdomen, asked Jo Ann, “Did you know you only have one ovary? It's amazing you got pregnant.” They were there to hold their daughter, Abbey, when Dr. West pulled her out.

        Jo Ann insists today that she gave Abbey up without hesitation. “I always thought of myself as her long-term baby sitter. I had seen how incredibly sad Kim was, and how hard Jerry was trying to be brave. I just decided this was something I could do for them, to make them happy.”

        Families frequently have one member around whom everyone else revolves. For years, Lynn Borgman, wife, mother and feminist, played that role.

        Jim met Lynn Goodwin in their senior year at Ohio's Kenyon College in a class called “Jesus and the Gospels.” They married one year after graduation and had two children: Dylan in 1983 and Chelsea seven years after that. They suffered through two miscarriages in between; like Jerry and Kim, they worked hard to produce a family.

Carrying on connections

               Lynn, who was collecting and publishing Jim's editorial cartoons, was a natural at making connections, whether it was between two books she was reading or two friends from different spheres. Within her family, she understood that connections are accomplished in the details. Jim drew on this for a memorable Sunday strip that showed Jeremy and his mom eating breakfast together, laughing over the funnies together, playing basketball, quilting and listening to music.

        In the next to last frame, Jeremy passes by a vase of roses with a sign underneath from Walt that reads “Happy Mother's Day.” “AAGH?” Jeremy screams in the last panel. “I forgot to give you a Mother's Day gift!”

        “Wanna bet?” Connie responds, pecking him on the top of his head.

        By the mid-1990s, Lynn was having trouble keeping everything going. She would make plans for the kids and then be too tired to carry them out. She complained of fatigue and pain. Jim cooked supper, washed laundry, read to the kids at bedtime, transported them to and from school.

        Lynn took long naps, tried yoga, acupuncture, meditation. Eventually her doctors diagnosed fibromyalgia, a chronic disorder of the musculoskeletal system whose origin is unknown.

        “Fibromyalgia sets up shop in your family before you have a name for it,” says Jim, a bear of a man with curly gray hair and kind eyes the color of slate. “It involves a slow evolution of duties passed from one partner to another, a slow fading away of that person's presence in the family.”

"Not what I signed up for'

               His elbows are propped on the sketch table next to dozens of markers arranged by color and a box of tissues. He reaches for the Kleenex. “Lynn would never know on any given day how she would feel. A certain resentment began to creep into our relationship, with me feeling this was not what I signed up for.”

        At the same time, he knew he had no bigger supporter, no better sounding board for his ideas. It is not a coincidence that in his strip, Walt and Connie Duncan are partners who take turns at being right. “The fact that they are all together at the end of the day is a given,” he says of the Duncans, though he could easily be talking about the Borgmans before Feb. 3, 1999.

        On that day he had brought Lynn home from the hospital, where she had undergone surgery to relieve neck and back pain. While he was preparing a bowl of cereal for her in the kitchen, he heard strange, deep breaths coming from the living room. Jim found her slipping in and out of consciousness. He dialed 911 and then pulled up a chair in front of her, knee to knee. He took her face in his hands.

        “Stay with me,” he begged.

        But she couldn't. Physicians told Jim that a blood clot had developed in a leg after surgery and, while she was home, traveled to her brain.

        In the grief that rolled through the family and community, one person threw out a lifeline: 16-year-old Dylan Borgman.

        Children constantly surprise us. They can appear not to be paying the least bit of attention, as Jeremy did when he finally noticed, a week after his father visited the barber, that Walt had gotten a haircut. Then something happens, and we realize they are carrying whatever we have managed to give them.

The son also shines

               Lynn had been a quilter and had collected bolts of bright-colored fabric. Dylan suggested to his dad the day before the funeral that they cut up pieces of his mother's cloth and pass them out at the service. He knew many of the people who would be there, for his parents had almost always included him and his sister in their social life. He wanted to give this truly extended family a piece of his mom.

        They spent that night on the floor with their scissors. At one point Jim said, “Someone will have to tell everybody what this means.” The next morning, wearing a gray suit and purple sunglasses purchased for the occasion, Dylan took up the challenge.

        “When you leave here today, take with you a piece of her fabric,” he said in a sure, strong voice. “Look at its texture, its color, its individual beauty. . . . Every one of these pieces is a part of her mind and body. . . .

        “One might think that her final quilt has been shattered, but there is nothing farther from the truth. By talking about her, sharing her stories, and your grief, you sew each piece of fabric together. . . . Her fabric is there to remind you that as we find our places in the world; her quilt will always be there to comfort us. . . . Together, we can warm the world when it is cold.”

        Jim, telling this story, grabs another Kleenex. “People still come up to me in the street, pull out their wallets and show me their little pieces of fabric,” he says. “Dylan changed in my eyes that day. I realized I no longer have to put an apple in his lunch box.”

        After Lynn died, Jim continued to work on “Zits,” sketching and crying and realizing Dylan was right. “I'd draw something that looked just like her and say, "Wow, she's still around.' ” The Mother's Day strip is an example. He drew it three months after her death and hung the original next to the front door. His kids see it each time they leave the house.

        And they are leaving. Dylan, a high school senior, has applied to college in California. Chelsea Borgman will turn 12 soon.

        In Malibu, Abbey Scott, 7, has learned to ride a bike.

Jeremy won't grow up

               So where is Jeremy Duncan going?

        Nowhere for the time being, Mr. Scott and Mr. Borgman say. He will always be 15. The strip is built around the fact that “he's seen what's out there and is ready to go on, but is stuck under his parents' rules,” Mr. Borgman says. Without that tension, there would be no story.

        Mr. Borgman says Jeremy may struggle in the future with deeper issues — AIDS, drugs, premarital sex. “I can see a day when it turns up one of his friends is in deep water, and we'll talk about that.”

        Mr. Scott, though, is not so sure he wants to see the 6 o'clock news — or the stuff of Hollywood — on the funny pages. He reminds Mr. Borgman that the Duncans go up on families' refrigerators next to faded crayon stick figures. They may stay there for years, in the heart of the home, along with outdated soccer schedules, missed doctor appointments, dorky school photographs and all the other memorabilia that tell a family's stories.


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