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Verdict on ‘Doonesbury’

Dated, dull, and reliably predictable.

Jun 9, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 37 • By PETER TONGUETTE
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Yet strips from the early 1970s reveal that Trudeau was perfectly at home with his own brand of hyperbole. How else to explain the strip in which the radical Mark stands with his straight-arrow parents as they proclaim their happiness and love for each other, while Mark thinks to himself, “Dream on, you fascists.” A bit of an overreaction? In several strips from around the same time, Mark takes his father’s instruction that he cut his long, unkempt hair and turns it into an existential battle—one in which we are meant to take Mark’s side, of course. Trudeau notes that he intentionally omitted from 40 strips referring to long-forgotten “historical detritus,” but the remaining strips prove how passé Doonesbury’s outlook can be even when current events are unmentioned. 

While Trudeau approvingly refers to Mike as “the Richie Cunningham of the strip”—its purported “designated grownup”—more often than not Doonesbury is ill at ease with conservatives (such as Mark’s father) and upstanding citizens of any type. When Mike goes Republican (1994) he has to justify his new party affiliation to his liberal wife—“A Rockefeller Republican! You’ll hardly notice any difference!”—in terms that might be funny were it not for the fact that we sense that Trudeau is wagging his finger as well. In a series of strips from 1986, Mike’s younger brother, Sal, is saddled with a “Reagan airhead” of a college roommate named Trip Tripler, who (horrors!) reads George Will and eagerly signs up for Navy ROTC. Although there is clearly more to mock in scraggy Sal, Trudeau could not bring himself to side with the straitlaced midshipman, putting wholly unbelievable words in his mouth. Asked by Sal what he would do if ordered to “bombard a hamlet of innocent civilians,” Trip replies, “Innocent, my foot!”

Few respectable institutions have been safe from Trudeau. In 1976, he decided that lawyer Joanie Caucus and newspaperman Rick Redfern should shack up before getting married, their state of cohabitation leeringly disclosed in a series of panels. Trudeau regards Joanie as a vessel of feminism, and while he acknowledges in 40 that her choices result in “collateral damage,” there is little indication in the strip itself that those choices are meant to garner anything but applause. It is one thing for Trudeau to poke (ever so gingerly) at Joanie for finding the title character in “Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater” to be a “sexist porker” while reading the tale to her son; but what are we to make of the 1973 strip in which Joanie gladly relinquishes sole custody of her daughter following a temper tantrum by the youngster in a courtroom—as though the outburst was the last straw? 

Things get worse when Trudeau addresses politics head-on. Surely, what is most damning about his put-downs of Ronald Reagan, Dan Quayle, and George W. Bush is not that he is wrong about them (although he is), but that he is boring and unfunny in the process—like an album of stand-up comedy performed by Lawrence O’Donnell. Is a series of strips entitled “In Search of Reagan’s Brain” any evidence of wit? When does representing Dan Quayle with a feather get old? By the 40th time? It is difficult to mourn the end of a comic strip that once balked at presidential candidate Bob Dole for referring to his service in World War II. (“Ladies and gentlemen, please give a warm welcome to .  .  . my old war wound!”)

This was one of the most misguided attempts at satire since Saturday Night Live impugned the intelligence of Admiral James Stockdale—Lilliputians seeking to topple a moral giant. With rare exceptions—the fictional Republican congresswoman Lacey Davenport, Doonesbury’s most appealing personage, for example—Garry Trudeau clearly prefers the company of his ruffians, rascals, and free spirits. Happily, he now has them all to himself.

Peter Tonguette is at work on a book about Peter Bogdanovich.  

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