Comic Spotlight

Creating a Zits Sunday Strip

By Jeremy Meltingtallow

Jerry: The division of labor between Jim and me on Zits is, well, murky. We’re both artists and writers, and we use that to our advantage. It’s not like I write and he draws. It’s more of a sloppy overlap of input between the two of us that makes the end product greater than the sum of its parts. Although I do most of the writing chores, I also generate pencil roughs of each strip for Jim to show him what I’m thinking. And Jim has a lot of input on the writing end, from concepts we call “starters” to fine-tuning dialogue and punching up punchlines. One of our most valuable tools is the telephone. From the early beginnings of the strip we’ve talked on the phone nearly every day about anything and everything: weather, kids, car troubles, spouses, childhood memories and a little about Zits. It’s amazing how much material can be sifted out of the silly yakking we do. Maybe that’s because Zits is about life in a house with a teenager, and we both have lives in houses with teenagers. Makes sense, I guess. But when the talking is finished, I sit down with a sketchbook and start drawing and writing… well, scribbling.

When I have what seems to be a decent idea, I draw a tighter version of my initial sketch and polish up the dialogue. This is the part of my job that I like the best. The pressure of the blank page is gone and now I’m bringing ideas to life with words and pictures. Then the tighter sketch gets scanned and emailed to Jim.

Jim: At some point every desperate cartoonist wishes for a magic machine that has a button you could just press and an idea for a cartoon would come out. When I hear my email ping and see that a rough has come through from Jerry, I feel like I’ve got one. I press the Print key and out comes a fully formed idea ready to draw. It’s a beautiful thing and, no, it’s not for sale.

Jim: At that point my role in the production becomes similar to a cinematographer’s role in filming a movie. Using Jerry’s blocking of the action as a guide, I try to push each scene to be as visually interesting as it can be. Often there’s little to change from his sketch and I simply re-pencil the scenes on the good Bristol board. Sometimes I see an opportunity to amp up the action or “film” from a more dynamic perspective, and on rare occasion I’ll suggest a tweak in the dialogue.

Jerry: In the early days of the strip Jim would fax his pencil sketches back to me and we’d go over each panel carefully before he’d ink them. Now we seem to share a brain and we’ve eliminated that step.

Jim: I letter the dialogue first, because there’s no cheating the space it requires. Fonts, even ones that mimic an individual lettering style, seem static to me, so I hand-letter everything. My dad was a sign painter and I think that’s where I got my lettering chops.

Jim: Inking over the pencil lines is my favorite part of the process. I put on music to get loose and make a pot of coffee. I draw with a fine-tipped Winsor & Newton series 7 Number 3 red sable brush on a smooth 3-ply Bristol board, trying to get as much electricity into the lines as I can… even though the strip will be reduced to a postage stamp and contorted to fit the tiny space on a comics page in a newspaper. But the strips will also be faithfully reproduced in book collections and shine gorgeously on computer screens. Besides, it’s a drawing. It has to feel exciting while I’m working on it.

Jim: Erasing the original pencil rough with a soft kneaded eraser, and touching up the bits and bobs with whiteout paint, the finished drawing

goes onto my scanner where I can move things around in Photoshop. Eventually my wife will pummel me about the head and shoulders to make me stop fussing with it and send it on to our colorist, Ben Peters.

Jim: I send my thoughts about the coloring to Ben, with whom I also now share a brain. Occasionally I color a strip myself, but typically Ben knows what I want and can pull it off more adroitly than I could. Ben has added flair to the coloring of Zits over the years and often comes up with color schemes and nice touches I wouldn’t have thought of. He’s a great asset and, no, he’s not for sale either.

Jerry: Finally, the finished art gets sent to King Features where a squadron of highly-trained linguists will pore over every pixel of the strip looking for the word “sucks” so they can reject it. It’s what they live for, so we accommodate them whenever possible.