‘My job is to make people smile’: Comic strip creator discusses his career

‘My job is to make people smile’: Comic strip creator discusses his career

Jerry Scott, co-creator of ‘Zits’ and ‘Baby Blues,’ said family dynamics make comic strips work

  • By Gregory Philson Juneau Empire
  • Wednesday, July 4, 2018 2:06pm
  • NewsLocal News

A paper route and a flashlight.

That was how Jerry Scott, co-creator of “Zits” and Baby Blues” comic strips, found his passion for newspapers at 11 years old in South Bend, Indiana.

“When I was a kid, I loved to read the comics,” Scott said while sitting in the lobby at the Baranof Hotel with his wife Kim Tuesday morning. “I think I got into newspaper business because I got a paper route in South Bend, Indiana. The cool thing for me was always Sunday mornings, early before the sun came out, I would have to get the bundle of papers that were dropped off. I got to read the Sunday funnies with my flashlight before anyone else got to see them.”

That initial interest turned into a career path for Scott. He said writing comics combines two of his passions.

“I like to make people laugh and I like to draw,” Scott said. “If you put those two things together, I found the perfect occupation for me.”

Scott, 62, lives with his family in San Luis Obispo, California and is on vacation with them this week in Alaska. Scott said he started illustrating stories in second grade and was the “art kid” throughout school. Scott, who first worked in advertising, got into writing comics when his wife, Kim, and a co-worker were discussing their husbands.

“One of the women in (Kim’s) office and her were comparing notes one day,” Scott said. “She said ‘my stupid husband thinks he wants to be a cartoonist’ and Kim said, ‘my stupid husband thinks he wants to a be cartoonist.’”

Turns out the other husband was Rick Kirkman, who eventually becomes the co-creator of “Baby Blues” with Scott. The two first met in the mid-1970s. Kirkman taught Scott how to send panel cartoons into magazines. The two worked together for years before coming up with the idea for “Baby Blues.”

“All it takes is 20 years of failing before you succeed,” Scott said of his time before “Baby Blues.”

Scott worked as a cartoonist for 12 years and eventually moved to Phoenix. Scott reached out to Kirkman, who also lives in Phoenix, about wanting to team up on a comic strip.

“(Kirkman) said ‘I really don’t have time because I just had a baby,’” Scott said. “This was one of those moments where everything aligns perfectly. He and his wife were having a lot of trouble adapting to being new parents and me, as an outsider who was not a parent at the time, thought it was funny that this little thing could affect these two otherwise competent adults so completely.”

The two used that idea and turned it into “Baby Blues.” That comic strip’s first appearance was on Jan. 7, 1990 and features husband and wife, Darryl and Wanda MacPherson, having their first baby, Zoe. Since then, the family has had two more children. Scott said the comic definitely reflects real life. A couple of years after it started, he and his wife had a daughter. With a new addition to their family came a new addition to the MacPherson family.

“I sent Rick a note saying ‘Congratulations, we’re pregnant again,’” Scott said. “So Wanda got pregnant again and had Hammie. That allowed me to write a first-person experience about being a new father.”

Scott said after his second daughter was born that led to the Wren being born in the strip. He said the personal moments help guide the comic strip.

“Every time something disastrous happens, I turn it into a strip,” Scott said. “And we get paid for, which is a nice benefit.”


Beginning of ‘Zits’

A New Year’s party is where the idea of “Zits” started.

“A neighbor said if I was ever going to do another comic strip, it should be about a 15-year-old boy because there is a lot of material there,” Scott said.

Scott took that note and began working. He said he had some good ideas but could not get the artwork down. A visit from Jim Borgman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in editorial cartooning, changed that. Initially, the two agreed not to talk about cartoons during the visit. However, on the last day of Borgman’s trip, Scott said he broke the rule. He presented his idea of “Zits” to Borgman. Scott said he explained to Borgman that he could not get the character to look right. Borgman, who had a teenager at the time, told Scott that teenagers take up space and don’t sit but rather drape themselves over furniture. Borgman drew a character and from there, the two joined up for “Zits.”

“Zits” first appeared July 7, 1997. It follows the life of a 16-year-old, Jeremy Duncan, and his family and friends.

Scott said he receives letters from around the world asking how he can make a teenager a universal character. Scott said sticking to simple family dynamics is what works for him.

“Somehow, I have this tuning fork that lets me write relatable stuff,” Scott said.

While working on two strips at the same time, Scott said, while different in theme, the family elements helps them to remain successful.

“For me, the secret of doing these strips is not so much to maintaining being current, as much as it is to get a general pop culture feel and then write about real relationships,” Scott said. “‘Zits’ is really about a family with a teenager where the family is just as important as the teenage element. ‘Baby Blues’ is where the parents and the kids are everything.”

Scott said working on the strips keeps him busy. Having this week off for a vacation is rare since he has to create 14 strips a week and work two months ahead. Having that workload also gives them the opportunity to make people happy on a daily basis.

“My job is to make people smile,” Scott said. “If it makes you laugh, great. If it doesn’t, there is a new one tomorrow.”

Despite the years of writing two comic strips, Scott said he still cannot pick out a favorite.

“It is probably the one I haven’t written yet,” Scott said.

• Contact reporter Gregory Philson at gphilson@juneauempire.com or call at 523-2265. Follow him on Twitter at @GTPhilson.

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