'Doonesbury' as history


Among the many rareified accomplishments to which the cartoonist Garry Trudeau can lay claim -- a Pulitzer Prize, an Academy Award, a cartoon strip that runs in more than 1,400 newspapers, a 20-year marriage to Jane Pauley -- perhaps the most revealing is this one: Trudeau is surely the only person to have had one of his books prefaced with an essay by the arch-conservative William F. Buckley Jr. (Doonesbury's Greatest Hits: A Mid-Seventies Revue, Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1978, 250 pages, $12.95) and another prefaced with an essay by the uber-liberal-feminist Gloria Steinem (Doonesbury Dossier: The Reagan Years, Henry Holt, 224 pages, $22.95).

From Buckley to Steinem; That encompasses a pretty broad range of American political culture -- a range that symbolizes, in some sense, the achievement of Trudeau's comic strip Doonesbury. Since 1970 Doonesbury has taken as its purview the whole of American society, from left to right and from top to bottom, taking in every significant political and cultural moment and, like a slightly cracked mirror, reflecting them wryly back at us.

In fact, it's fair to say, I believe, that for the last quarter-century Doonesbury has been America's Comic Strip of Record.

What do I mean by "comic strip of record"? Simply this: A hundred years from now, readers could get a pretty good sense -- a better sense, I'd wager, than from many contemporary history books -- of the last three decades of American political history by reading the Trudeau oeuvre.

Generally speaking, there is a clear distinction between comic strips that appear on a newspaper's "funny pages" (which often have regular characters and narrative pacing, and which are usually devoid of overt political content) and the editorial cartoons that run on a newspaper's editorial pages (which aim to provide commentary on, satire of -- and perhaps an ideological point of view toward -- the political events of the day). Doonesbury completely blows up that distinction.

This -- Doonesbury's ability to be read as either a strip comic or an editorial cartoon -- is the hybrid creature's most notable trait, and one that has flummoxed legions of newspaper editors, who have wrestled perennially with the question of where to put the thing. Does Doonesbury belong with Garfield and Dilbert on the funny pages, which is where it resides in the Baltimore Sun? On the editorial page, where it appears in the Knoxville News-Sentinel and many other papers? Or somewhere else entirely -- like in the Style section, which is where it appears in The Washington Post?

Other cartoonists have tried to emulate Trudeau's melding of editorial humor and strip humor; usually, they fail badly. On the right, for instance, Bruce Tinsley's dreadful Mallard Fillmore is neither funny nor politically trenchant. On the left, Aaron Magruder's Boondocks channels racial anger in a way that can be provocative and sometimes mordantly amusing but that too often comes across as nothing more than a series of irritable gestures.

There are, of course, other editorial cartoonists whom future readers might read to glean a similarly cockeyed -- yet basically accurate -- sense of the politics of our era. Jules Feiffer and Tom Toles, to name two, have been good for a long time, and they share Trudeau's ability to nail a political moment with an image or a joke. But Trudeau does more than capture political moments; he captures the whole of the culture and its evolving social mores.

Because Doonesbury has regular characters, and uses narrative story lines, its rendering of politics has more range, and a more modulated pitch, than conventional editorial cartoons. Sometimes Trudeau does resort to more or less straight editorial humor -- think of his trademark drawings of the White House or the Capitol Building with politicians' voices coming out of them.

But often Trudeau both softens and deepens his satirical wit by having what the politicians are saying on television mediated through the reaction of one of his characters. The signature version of this is when the character Mike Doonesbury, say, is watching a news conference on television. What the politician on the television is saying is somehow absurd -- the joke would work even without Mike's presence in the strip. But a slight change in Mike's facial expression, or a subtle turn of his head toward the readers, offers an additional level of commentary and ironic distance.

Other times, Trudeau will dramatize political humor through the lives of his characters more directly. In recent strips -- many of them contained in his newest collection Got War? (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 152 pages, $16.95), which covers parts of 2002 and 2003 -- for instance, the character Duke has tried to exploit the post-invasion chaos in Iraq; Rick Redfern's son has interned with the CIA in Afghanistan (where he accidentally launched a predator drone); Mike's daughter, Alex, has arranged Dean meet-ups and led an anti-SUV campaign; and Zonker has fought David Geffen over public-beach access in Malibu.

In previous decades, to provide just a few earlier examples, B.D. enlisted to fight in Vietnam to get out of writing a college term paper; Joanie Caucus tried to get the children in her day-care program to endorse the Equal Rights Amendment; and Mark Slackmeyer's father left private industry to join the President's Council of Economic Advisers so that he could help preach the supply-side gospel of Reagan's tax cuts for the rich.

Buried in the 1970s strips are such nuggets as these: in 1971, the war hero / war protester John Kerry preening immodestly before adoring radicals and co-eds; in 1976, George Herbert Walker Bush, then head of the CIA, complaining to Donald Rumsfeld, then President Ford's secretary of defense, about the intelligence agency's bad press.

For all his talents as a satirist, Trudeau's most brilliant creations are his characters, who can be viewed as the disparate elements of a single national psyche. B.D. the reactionary jostles with Mark Slackmeyer the radical. Duke the national id balances Zonker the national flower-child stoner. Mike Doonesbury serves as the strip's organizing ego, and his vaguely befuddled, aging-liberal-boomer perspective provides the central lens for the reader.

In the end, Trudeau's most significant -- and least obvious, because you don't notice it reading the strip day by day -- accomplishment has been allowing his characters to grow and age over the years. (The only other strip cartoonists I know of who have dared to attempt this are Lynn Johnston, in For Better or For Worse, and the successive artists who penned Gasoline Alley for the past 86 years.) While Garfield, Charlie Brown, Zippy, Cathy and their peers have all remained trapped in time -- forever the same age, never growing and rarely developing -- Mike Doonesbury and his strip-mates have aged and developed along with their boomer creator.

Mike began as a college freshman; he's now long graduated, a father, on his second marriage and at least his third or fourth career, and wrestling with the insecurities of middle age. His current wife, Kim, whom he met while working at a tech company in the 1990s, debuted in the strip in early 1970s, as an adopted infant from Vietnam. Joanie Caucus first appeared in the early 1970s as a 39-year-old housewife, running from her husband and her oppressive domestic existence.

The characters who have changed the least -- and thank God for that -- are the preternaturally mellow Zonker and his crazy and craven Uncle Duke, who was originally created as a send-up of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson but who has become Trudeau's all-purpose device for satirizing whatever is happening in international affairs.

Doonesbury, of course, cannot be considered truly "realistic," in the literary sense of the term. Duke is a caricature, after all, and B.D., 20 years out of college, has still never taken off his football helmet. But the strip's least-noted accomplishment is perhaps its most remarkable: In tracking his characters over more than 30 years, tracing their development across the decades through the day-by-day accretion of small details, Trudeau has hoisted himself into the company of (don't laugh) the great realist novelists -- the Dreisers and the Dickenses, the Balzacs and the Zolas.

Read in bits, as discrete comic strips in the daily paper, Doonesbury provides pointed editorial snapshots of the moment; read as a complete work, it provides the serialization of an era in American history.

Scott Stossel is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly. He has written for The New Yorker, The New Republic and The Washington Post. His first book, Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver, will be published in May by Smithsonian Books. His sister, Sage Stossel, draws an editorial cartoon, Sage, Ink that appears on the Web site of The Atlantic Monthly.

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