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Family Room

Jim Borgman and Jerry Scott are living proof that you don't have to be a dermatologist to earn a very good living from Zits. These award-winning cartoonists changed the complexion of the comics page in 1997 by creating a warm, witty riff on the turbulent teen years through the adolescent exploits of Jeremy Duncan. Borgman (a father and Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist) and Scott (a dad also honored for his work on the strip Baby Blues) put down their pens long enough to talk with us about Zits, teenagers and what parents can do to help the pill of adolescence go down a little easier.

How did you forge your partnership and decide on the subject matter for Zits?

We got to know each other fraternally as members of the National Cartoonists Society. Then one year we rented a couple of cabins in Arizona, mainly to get away from cartooning for a few days.

But I'd been working on this idea for a strip about a teenager. Everything I was doing was feeling right, but not looking right. So I took it to Jim.

I like to draw teenagers in my editorial cartoons. I also live with a teen. I've always found them to be colorful and interesting. I love the clothes, the slouch, everything. That day at the cabin I just drew what came naturally and what came out was about 95 percent of what Jeremy looks like now.

We fought the idea of developing Zits together. A daily comic strip is a lot of work. Neither one of us wanted to commit to that. But in the months that followed I'd fax Jim sketches and ideas, and he'd fax back brilliantly drawn strips with suggestions …

We realized we were on a plane that had already taken off. There was no turning back.

Let's talk about Jeremy. What inspired this modern teenager, and how much do you rely on experiences from your own lives?

Much of that character is us, plus a lot of memory and some observation of teenagers we see and know. But Jeremy mostly reflects what I would have liked to have been as a teenager. I don't think any of us in retrospect consider ourselves "successful" teens.

If you're a hands-on parent, which I try to be, the stage your child is going through is your current fascination. I've always thought that the teen years were underappreciated. They tend to be talked about in our society with a sneer and a roll of the eyes and an "Oh boy, what a pain in the neck kids that age are." That's partly true, but the bigger truth is that they're going through the biggest adventure of their lives. It's fascinating! As a parent, if all you see is the spilled Coke on the kitchen floor, you are missing the point of these years.

That's just a byproduct.

Yeah. They're inventing themselves, trying to figure out who they are. If you tune into that, it's much more fascinating than the challenges we face in our daily lives once we get into adulthood. I watch my 16-year-old son, Dylan, all the time and it brings back memories about those years. I just share 'em with Jerry. Jerry's the one who knows how to craft these things into the mini-movies people read in the paper. My job is mainly to reflect what goes on in our house. A lot of people look at Dylan and ask, "Are you Jeremy?" The answer is, "Yeah, every now and then."

How does he feel about that?

Borgman: He loves it. I was careful to distance him, thinking he might want more anonymity, but he embraces it. He was glad to hear his dad was finally going to draw something his friends would actually read.

Some cartoonists show the families in their strips moving through different stages of life. Others have chosen to keep their characters the same age. Will Jeremy grow up over time?

We're pretty clear that we want him to stay 15 for a long time because there's a lot to mine from those years. It was a conscious decision. At 15, you've sniffed the wider world. You know it's out there and are part member of it …

Scott: An associate member.

Borgman: (laughs) That's right. You can't drive. And you're still very much within the orbit of your parents' rules. So the tension between wanting to hit the world running and still having to rely heavily on Mom and Dad is where much of the strip's humor comes from.

Even in the midst of normal angst and rebellion, he seems to maintain a moral conscience. That's good to see.

Scott: We both wanted to make a character that we liked and that other people would like. Therefore, he had to have a good core, a good conscience and good morality. When your strip appears 365 days a year, you want people to want to visit with your characters. He's a fairly moral kid with some ragged edges.

Do you find that teen issues are essentially the same today as they were when you were younger?

I think there are more similarities than there are differences. Even across cultures. I talked to the Scandinavian agent who sells Zits in that part of the world, and asked him, "How are we doing? Does this translate well?" He said, "Teenagers are teenagers. That's exactly how they act in our country, too."

Borgman: Early on, we had to make some decisions about whether we would try to stay on the cutting edge of slang and styles and so on. While we never want the strip to look like it's been drawn by a couple of old guys, there's probably no way of betraying yourself quicker than if you try to look like you're a hip teenager and get every trendy expression in there. We want to join the more universal conversation of what teenage years are like.

Scott: And truthfully, most kids aren't on the cutting edge. Jeremy sort of represents that. He's in the center somewhere. He's normal.

One of the most delightful things about Zits is that, without being disrespectful to parents or teens, you poke fun at both. Is that your way of encouraging readers from either generation not to take themselves too seriously?

Borgman: Very well said.

Scott: I think that's it. We didn't want this to come off as, "Look at this wacky teenager and his silly ways." It shows respect to Jeremy by putting the joke on Mom and Dad once in a while. As parents, we have to look at ourselves and find the humor there. I am such an idiot half the time. I'm glad I can laugh at myself.

Borgman: We don't want this to be a make-fun-of-teenagers strip, nor a make-fun-of-parents strip like a Homer Simpson character. I think Jerry lives inside of Jeremy's head. And just by the fact that I live with a 16-year-old son, I kinda live inside the dad's head. So, in talking out ideas, we tend to balance each other and keep it from swinging too far in either direction.

The issues of music and media appear frequently as points of conflict between Jeremy and his parents. How has that subject hit home with you personally, as teens or as dads?

Scott: I was musically retarded in high school—not very adventurous in terms of what I listened to. I didn't go to my first concert until I was in college. I think it was The Captain & Tennille or something embarrassing. Jim actually went to a real concert.

Borgman: Yeah, mine was Little Feat. I remember it well. But in my case, when I was Jeremy's age, I was falling in love with art. It translates. Just change the word "music" to "cartoons" and you have the same adolescent fascination.

Scott: Music is a great device to help Jeremy gain an identity apart from his parents and keep them at arm's length. If they like the same stuff, of course he feels obliged to change his taste. We've used that a couple of times. It's something that he can go out and explore and bring home and his parents have no concept of what he's listening to. They ask, "Where do you get this stuff?" That's just gold for a teenager.

Very true. Looking at the big picture, what would you tell stressed parents to help them ease tension and improve relationships in their homes?

Borgman: Relax and trust. Those are big words. Relaxing is tough. That involves a sense of humor which, hopefully, Zits can help with. Some of the nicest compliments we get are from people who say, "I was stressed out, but I read your strip and it dealt with what was going on in our house that day. It's good to know other people are going through this, too."

Scott: That's the part of doing a comic strip that makes it all worthwhile.

Borgman: Also, stay connected to your kids. We always have dinner together, and I see them in the morning before school. Be available and satisfied when that oyster opens up—those rare occasions when they want to share what's going on inside. Drop everything and be there for them. The rest of the time, assume that the world is unfolding as it should and that they're going to be okay on the other end of it.

Gentlemen, thank you for giving us Zits.

Plugged In Plus
When we conducted this interview with Jim Borgman and Jerry Scott in the fall of 1999, Zits was appearing in approximately 750 newspapers. By 2010, the total had risen to more than 1,500 newspapers worldwide. Zits also has the distinction of being the only comic strip to run in every issue of Plugged In magazine from March 1999 until the print version was retired in February 2009.