First, a confession. When I was a 9-year-old reader of comic strips, having recently set aside the (to my thinking) infantile pleasures of Blondie and Dennis the Menace, my eyes wandered to their considerably cooler cousin, Doonesbury. I wonder now what appeal it held for me at that age. It could not have been the famously rinky-dink artwork, the final word on which was rendered by Al Capp: “Anybody who can draw bad pictures of the White House four times in a row and succeed knows something I don’t.” No, what drew me to Doonesbury was its air of mature sophistication. Here, to accompany my mornings before school, were grownup characters dealing with grownup problems—broken marriages, lost jobs, and (since these were the days of the Persian Gulf war) overseas conflicts—as well as dialogue attributed to presidents, members of Congress, and celebrities.
Of course, in depicting all of this, Doonesbury did not affect neutrality. Particular political positions were being advanced, but their substance did not preoccupy this pre-adolescent. It was enough that the strip was sending communiqués from Washington or Baghdad; whether I might actually one day agree with them or not seemed irrelevant. So spellbound was I by Doonesbury that I even resolved to follow in the footsteps of its creator, Garry Trudeau. I was not very talented, but I did enjoy an intermittent correspondence with Trudeau, whose famous reclusiveness did not stop him from gamely looking at my clumsy handiwork and writing several kind letters (which I framed).
This past winter, Trudeau interrupted his seclusion for a much better reason than humoring a young fan. He announced that he was ending daily Doonesburys for an undetermined length of time in order to give himself over to writing and producing his original Internet series, Alpha House. (He will persist, he said, with Sunday strips.) While I stopped following the strip closely a few years ago, and now had some political opinions of my own that wouldn’t jibe with Trudeau’s, this was big news, and attention had to be paid. So, in order to make up my mind about Doonesbury, I decided to revisit the strip of my youth. The atlas-sized 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective (2010), which brings together four decades of the strip’s cacophony of characters—among countless others, Mike Doonesbury, football hero and war veteran B. D., and NPR personality Mark Slackmeyer—fit the bill. But the answers it provided were not what I expected.
Simply put, Doonesbury does not age well. Certain strips contain outdated references, such as Mike’s enthusiasm for the independent presidential candidate John Anderson (1980) or B. D.’s wife, Boopsie, plopping on a helmet in order to do some “virtual reality shopping” (1993). Yet even strips not tethered to passing fancies, or soon-to-be-obsolete technology, reflect an outlook that is cutting-edge for 1968, or thereabouts. No matter the era, or the current occupant of the Oval Office, Doonesbury beat the same drum: pro-youth, antiestablishment.
In commentaries included in 40, Garry Trudeau is upfront about much of this. He credits Bob Dylan with spreading the gospel of “forever young” among baby boomers: “In fact, the worst thing we can say about anything is that it is ‘old,’ ” he writes. “Old paradigms, old thinking, but particularly old age.” Hence, the delight Trudeau took in Zonker Harris, the eternally blond, perpetually off-the-grid dropout who is subject only to the gentlest of ribbing from his creator. Take the 1992 strip in which Zonker draws up a list of his lifetime of marijuana experimentation (“Sept. 14, 1971,” “Sept 15-16, 1971,” “Sept. 30, 1971,” etc.). When the pothead confesses to having forgotten some dates, he is met with an amused, not-at-all-disapproving response from the supposedly “square” Mike. The case of Uncle Duke is even stranger: Despite being inspired by the late Hunter S. Thompson—an archenemy of Trudeau—the character’s uncouth, often unglued, behavior is documented with relish and verve.
Writing elsewhere in 40, Trudeau sensibly tries to wall himself off from what he calls the “clownish” leaders of Vietnam war protests, with their mantras of “Power to the people!” and “Up against the wall!”
The rhetoric seemed ridiculous, and I couldn’t understand why otherwise thoughtful people were so happy to repeat everything that was shouted at them through a bullhorn.