Section: Features

Oasis in the desert: a conversation with Zits cartoonist Jim Borgman ’76

Oasis in the desert: a conversation with Zits cartoonist Jim Borgman ’76

Jim Borgman ’76 drew himself as his Zits character, Jeremy. This is the first cartoon Borgman has drawn for the Collegian since his graduation. | JIM BORGMAN

The comics section of a newspaper has been a favorite part of readers’ morning routines for generations. The comic strip Zits is one of the most successful to enter the arena. Attracting 200 million daily readers, Zits has been published in 1,600 newspapers in 45 countries and translated into 15 languages. Kenyon alumnus and former Collegian cartoonist Jim Borgman ’76 P’ 12 H ‘88 has been there since the beginning.

Alongside fellow writer and cartoonist Jerry Scott, Borgman has drawn Zits since 1997. For the last 23 years, Borgman has drawn 16-year- old Jermey Duncan as he navigates high school along with his screen-obsessed friends, his on-again off-again girlfriend Sara and his parents, who struggle to weed through his dirty laundry jungle of a room.

Borgman was raised in the west side neighborhood of Price Hill in Cincinnati, Ohio. Growing up, he recounts watching his father paint signs on the outside of moving vans and beer trucks, “osmosing the beauty and qualities of lettering.” His mother stayed home to care for him, his brother and his two sisters. As Borgman approached the end of his time at Elder High School, he noticed a book with a purple spine in his college counselors office: the Kenyon College catalogue. This early 1970s Kenyon catalogue intrigued Borgman and, after a tour that included auditing a class on Shakespeare in Philomathesian Hall, Kenyon ended up being his only college tour. In the fall of 1972, he ascended the “magic mountain” of Gambier.

Anticipating an English degree but ultimately becoming an art major, Borgman spent much of his time at Kenyon trekking back and forth between Old Kenyon and Bexley Hall, where the Art Department once resided. Kenyon’s ivy-covered walls, weekend films and occasional tennis- court parties contributed to his warm memories of campus life. He met his first wife Lynn Goodwin ’76 on campus and the two married several years later.

Borgman’s cartooning career began in the middle of his junior year, when Collegian writer Richard West ’76 asked him to illustrate a several- part series on famous Kenyon alumni. After that, Borgman asked Collegian editor Matthew Winkler ’77 P’13 H ’00 if he could begin drawing weekly cartoons, and Winkler agreed. One of Borgman’s first cartoons was in response to an incident during the summer of 1975, when a Campus Safety officer shot and killed a student’s cat. In the cartoon, Borgman depicted four felines as 1920s mobsters, complete with fedoras, tommy guns and zoot suits. By using Kenyon-specific events as inspiration, Borgman did more than political cartooning: He depicted student experiences through caricature.

Since resources on newspaper cartooning were scarce, Borgman’s cartooning ability is largely self-taught. In the beginning, he used scratchy pens and India ink, which he typically found in his art classes. When he made a mistake, white-out was an easy fix. Once a drawing was complete, Borgman would drop the cartoon off at the Collegian offices, where a large camera copied the drawings that were placed into an issue. Borgman said he still follows the same process today: Starting with a pencil drawing, he inks the outline of objects and characters with a brush before using Micron pens to add detail. The only considerable change in his process after nearly 50 years of drawing is that he now uses Photoshop for coloring before sending out the final work.

Borgman’s style of drawing was influenced by 19th-century cartoons shown to him by West, but more largely by the works of contemporary editorial cartoonists Jeff MacNally and Pat Oliphant, who would eventually inspire Borgman to “take the camera into average people’s homes” to reflect on how larger policy issues affected everyday citizens. Borgman’s drawing style was additionally influenced by the liberal arts education he received at Kenyon. Taking theater classes helped him learn to “set the scene” of a cartoon. Borgman also talked about how Kenyon made him think critically.

“I really do believe that Kenyon gave [me] a curiosity about the world, a sort of devil’s advocate voice, challenging assumptions,” he said. “I don’t know how they did it, but I really do think my teachers did that for me. It served me not only as a human being, but it’s served me in my profession really well.”

As his graduation drew closer, Borgman prepared to enter the world of professional editorial cartooning. Halfway through his senior year, he compiled three packages of his Collegian cartoons. First, he gave one copy to West, who knew a cartoonist in Philadelphia. He then mailed two copies to the Cincinnati Enquirer— one to editor Tom Gebhart and the other to retiring cartoonist L.D. Warren. On a visit home to Cincinnati during winter break, Borgman was able to secure lunch with an Enquirer editor, and brought the same cartoons he had mailed to Gebhart and Warren. After lunch, the editor brought Borgman’s work to Gebhart, who, oddly enough, had just received the same packet Borgman sent in the mail. Later, Warren too received his mailed set of cartoons. Warren brought the package into Gebhart’s office where he found that, by absolute coincidence, West’s cartoonist friend in Philadelphia had also sent Gebhart a copy of Borgman’s cartoons. In the end, Gebhart received the four identical packets of Borgman’s work from four different sources. Borgman got an interview and landed the job, beginning one week after he graduated in 1976.

When he was hired, Borgman had drawn about 20 cartoons in his life, all for the Collegian. He quickly surpassed that amount within his first few weeks at the Enquirer, drawing six cartoons per week. Soon after he started, political differences with his fellow staff made him feel out of place. Being a progressive cartoonist at the conservative Enquirer, Borgman avoided political debates, both at work and in his cartoons.

“I wasn’t a bomb-thrower, my mind was just wandering in a different direction,” he said.

But after two years it became clear that his views and those at the Enquirer “weren’t jiving.” After receiving another job offer, Borgman went to Gebhart and said he would understand if the Enquirer wished to part ways with him. However, Gebhart and other editors had a different idea.

They believed Borgman had brought readers back to the newspaper who had been turned off by the editorial page’s conservative content. Realizing that Borgman would produce his best work if unrestricted by ideology, they encouraged him to express his own views. For this, Borgman is grateful.

“I give them so much credit. Many, many newspapers did not ever treat their cartoonists that way,” Borgman said.

Borgman’s work not only influenced his daily readers, but it also influenced a young freshman who came to Kenyon the year after he graduated. Borgman met Bill Watterson ’80 when he visited Kenyon from Cincinnati. By this time, Winkler had taken Watterson under his wing as the new Collegian cartoonist. His memories with Watterson primarily consisted of “pizza and laughing.” After graduating, Watterson continued to follow in Borgman’s footsteps when he became an editorial cartoonist at the Cincinnati Post, Borgman’s cross-town rival. However, Watterson found himself more suited to drawing cartoons in strip format than for editorials and left after only a few months. Watterson went on to create the renowned Calvin and Hobbes and remained in close contact with Borgman for many years after.

Borgman’s work at the Enquirer earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1991, and he continued to draw cartoons there for another 30 years until retiring in 2008.

After almost 20 years at the Enquirer, a flat tire significantly changed his cartooning career. In 1995, en route to a National Cartoonist Society conference in Florida, both Borgman (who was traveling from Cincinnati) and fellow cartoonist Jerry Scott (traveling from Phoenix) had a layover in Atlanta and boarded the same flight. Even though they knew of each other at the time, they barely knew each other personally. The plane promptly blew a tire on the runway, and by the end of the five hours that the passengers spent sitting on the tarmac, the two cartoonists had become good friends.

One year later, Borgman traveled to Arizona to deliver a talk and wanted to spend a few extra days away from harsh February weather in Cincinnati, so he called Scott for local travel suggestions. Scott first recommended a charming inn near Sedona before inviting himself along. Traveling to Sedona, Scott said to Borgman “the only thing is there’s a ground rule here: We’re not gonna talk about work.” After three days of hiking, Scott walked over to Borgman’s cabin, sketchbook in hand, saying, “‘I know we’re not supposed to talk about work, but I’m trying to do this comic strip about a teenager.’” Scott thought the drawings weren’t coming out the way he wanted them to. Having worked on comic strips in which the primary characters were small children with large heads and small bodies, Scott drew his teenage characters in the same fashion. Borgman, whose son was 15 at the time, quickly replied, “That’s not the way teenagers look. They’re long, lanky, [and] drape themselves over furniture,” and began drawing. Immediately, Scott knew Borgman had the right idea, but said he couldn’t draw the same way. After returning home the two began the comic now known as Zits, faxing suggestions about characters back and forth.

Borgman found immense value in working with Scott. “I had never been successful in writing a comic strip. I thought about doing it and would like to do it, but I didn’t know how to create characters or write in that short format that a comic strip requires,” Borgman said. “[Scott] knew all that, and he liked my way of expressing it.”

After several months of exchanging ideas, Scott and Borgman showed the idea to King Features Syndicate editor Jay Kennedy, who gave it final approval for publishing it in newspapers. When the first Zits comic appeared in the paper on July 7, 1997, it became an instant hit. Borgman attributes Zits’ early success to an “unaddressed niche” for teenage humor comics. Previous strips such as Archie were still around, but were set in the 1950s and lacked Zits’ tone. As their children grew into adulthood and the cartoonists began to lack first-hand inspiration, Borgman and Scott feared they would become out of touch with modern teenagers. Thankfully, he is reassured that the Zits cast of characters are accepted as “their idea of teenagers” by their audience, even if modern teens stop saying “dude.”

The characters’ personalities are not the only thing that has changed over time; on Aug. 23, 2009, Jeremy finally got his driver’s license, signifying his 16th birthday after being 15 for over a decade.

“We had him turn 16 because we wanted him to drive,” Borgman explained, as giving Jeremy a license expanded their palette of ideas. He describes Jeremy’s age as “glacial,” but now thinks of him more as a 17 year old.

When asked if Jeremy would ever attend Kenyon, Borgman laughed and said they’ll consider sending him to college if they choose to wrap up the strip. For now, the strip will continue to focus on high school life. This hasn’t stopped Borgman from referencing Kenyon in Zits, though. On mugs, T-shirts and when characters visit college fairs, he likes to slip Kenyon in as an homage.

“Kenyon is my idea of the college I’d like for everyone, so if we ever chose to take Jeremy to college, it’s safe to say it’d look a lot like Kenyon does,” Borgman assured.

Borgman returned to Kenyon in 1988 and 1991 to give Commencement addresses. In his 1991 speech “Where Do You Get Your Ideas? Some Thoughts on Creativity,” he brought illustrations which were handed out to the entire audience during his speech. His daughter Chelsea graduated in 2012.

Just as the COVID-19 crisis has changed the content of news stories, the content of their accompanying cartoons has changed as well. At the beginning of the crisis, Borgman and Scott realized they would need to alter their approach, and began pulling strips from publications that could appear insensitive to those sheltering-in-place. Strips with large parties or other activities that could appear out of touch during times of social distancing were pulled and replaced with substitutes. However, Borgman says the new strips will not necessarily be a reflection of the response to the pandemic; he wants Zits to maintain a sense of normalcy for its readers.

“We’re not overtly dealing with the virus,” Borgman explained. “We think people [will] have had enough of [COVID-19] by the time they get to the comics page, and would rather have that be an oasis.”

During the current crisis, Borgman has continued to draw cartoons from his in-home studio near the mountains of Boulder, Colo., where he and his wife, Suzanne, moved 10 years ago. The light-filled studio contains several pieces of memorabilia, including a collection of Cincinnati Reds baseballs, a pair of Zits boxer shorts hung on the wall and a paper-mache rhino mask with a horn made of wine corks. He has kept the same drawing board since his first day at the Enquirer 44 years ago.

Borgman and Scott continue to collaborate on Zits, and someday, readers may finally see Jeremy Duncan at freshman move-in day. If he continues to age at his current rate, we should expect him at Kenyon in August, 2033 and see him graduate in May, 2070.

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