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.
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.