Mimsy Review: Doonesbury
“I sure miss home, Mike. I mean, it’s nice here at Walden, but California is special to me... and my wife. We have a nice life, really. We live in a little cedar A-Frame in Laurel Canyon. We both jog regularly, practice TM, drink bottled water, and are very serious about nuts and berries.”
“Really? Aren’t you a little old for that kind of stuff?”
“Mike, you’re never too old for nuts and berries.”
Ever since I first read “The Doonesbury Chronicles”, I’ve rated comic strips by how well they compare to Doonesbury.
As the years have passed, Trudeau’s drawing skill has improved by leaps and bounds, and his vision is as piercing as ever. He remains clouded by partison leanings: while he’s willing to skewer any individual no matter their affiliation, he generally sticks with the pet causes of the random left, and vilifies the pet causes of the random right. Over time, his research level has dropped off as well. Where once he appeared to delve relatively deeply (for the comics page) into his subjects, he now appears to get his news from single sources with no checking. As I write this, the latest example is his “coverage” of the USGS firing of Ian Thomas, in which his strips were laughable--in completely the wrong way--to anyone who read beyond the headlines. It’s too bad--and almost painful for long-term readers--to see how far Trudeau has fallen while other, younger artists show the potential that this art form has for news reporting. (See, for example, Jessica Abel’s “girl reporter” strips.)
But as far as he’s fallen, he can still be funny as hell--and if you start with the early books, you can start with him at the top of his form. I recommend all of the books up to “Virtual Doonesbury”, but the early books are more recommended than the later books if you don’t generally like left-wing causes. The early books are also left-wing, but because he knows more about what he’s writing about, they’re funnier--and better satire as well.
The series starts out in “The Doonesbury Chronicles,” and if you want to really read and get the jokes in “Doonesbury”, you’ll need to find this one somewhere. This is where almost all of the main characters are introduced. The drawing is abysmal--but after a few strips you don’t care, because the writing is hysterical. Trudeau was the master of the fourth-panel sting, that made reading his strips a lot like reading “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” or listening to a really good shaggy dog story. The strip starts out with Michael Doonesbury and B.D. the football player coming back to college and ending up as roommates.
Mike: “B.D., since we’re college roommates this year, I think it’s time we got to know each other better.”
BD: “Oh, boy.”
Mike: “I thought for openers, I’d show you photos from my wallet. Let’s see. This is my mother, my sister, and can you guess who this is? Can you? Well, since you can’t, I’ll tell you! It’s my girl Elaine, the most beautiful woman in the entire world!”
BD (thinks): I’m glad I didn’t guess. I thought it was his dog.
Interestingly enough, I don’t think Mike’s sister ever shows up again. But his brother, Sal, shows up and despite a rocky start becomes a major entrepreneur, in “Doonesbury Deluxe”:
Reverend Scott: “Sal, the church doesn’t claim to be a perfect institution.”
Sal: “Good thing, man. History is one long horror show of wars, persecution, and human suffering inflicted by those acting in the name of God!”
Reverend Scott: “Which is evidence of the fallibility of man, Sal, not God.”
Sal: “Yeah, well, one of them sure has been stinking up the world. Who cares which one?
Reverend Scott: “Sal, the Lord works in--”
Sal: “Uh-huh. Have him get in touch when he’s ready to party.”
The first strips in the “Chronicles” are completely apolitical. It’s only when “Megaphone” Mark Slackmeyer comes in with his bullhorn that Doonesbury the strip starts to really find its niche. Mark brings his megaphone to the university president’s office and yells “Stop the war! No more R.O.T.C.! All power to the pupil!” And the president comes out: “Why, hello, Mark! Would you like to come in and rap?”
And a couple of pages later, a professor brings in “an actual Black Panther” for a show-and-tell session with his class.
Where the series really takes off, though, is when ultra-right wing B.D. volunteers for Vietnam service and meets Phred, the singing, beer-drinking Viet Cong terrorist.
In “Doonesbury’s Greatest Hits,” Zonker’s “Uncle Duke,” based loosely on Hunter S. Thompson’s writings, takes center stage as the U.S. ambassador to China. Virginia Slade runs for congress, with Joanie Caucus as her campaign manager, Lacey Davenport as Republican opponent, and Rick Redfern as unofficial press liaison. One of my favorite scenes in all the years of the strip is the end of the elections with the sun rising over an unnamed suburb after a long and tortuous election campaign. Three strips end-to-end with no word balloons, only an unanswered phone ringing.
In “The People’s Doonesbury,” Ambassador Duke is now the manager for the Washington Redskins; Jimmy Carter is president (and who thought he was anything other than a Trudeau character?); and Ms. Ching “Honey” Huan joins J.J., Joanie Caucus’ daughter at college. This is also where Trudeau begins to drop the ball on his research. “As you well know,” one of his characters says to Duke, “almost 70% of all murders are committed among family members or friends”. This could only have come from an unresearched headline or gun control press release: no actual study has ever said this. (In fact, as even a modicum of research would have told him, most murders are committed by career criminals.) Satire can only be as funny as it reflects real life. Satires of straw men are more pathetic than funny. Without a basis in reality, satire falls down, and worse, reflects poorly on the rest of the strip as well as undermines the message the satire is trying to send.
Okay, down off the soapbox.
“The Reagan Years” starts off with John Anderson’s campaign. Remember him? No, nobody else does either. Mark Slackmeyer and his dad square off over the Reagan Revolution:
Mark: “Look, dad, if you asked me to come home just so you could gloat, I think I’ll be on my--”
Phil: “Can’t take it, huh? The kid who gloated over Watergate for five years?”
Mark: “Yeah, well, who cackled with glee when Nixon beat McGovern?”
Phil: “Who became insufferable over Vietnamization?”
Mark: “That wasn’t as bad as your gloating over the Cambodian bloodbath!”
Phil: “Me? That was you!”
Mark: “It was?... You sure?”
Phil: Um... I think so. Whose fault did that turn out to be?”
In “Doonesbury Deluxe” they’ve finally graduated--even Zonker--and are out in the real world compromising their ideals and having children.
“Recycled Doonesbury” says goodbye to the eighties. Zonker is a member of the English aristocracy. Duke works for Donald Trump--and so does J.J. Doonesbury. Andy Lippincott--remember him from “Chronicles”?--has AIDS. George Bush is our invisible president, and Danny Quayle is his invisible sidekick.
“The Portable Doonesbury” sends B.D. to the Gulf for the Gulf War, Mike is out of a job.
In “Virtual Doonesbury,” even Duke has a kid. Mike meets Bernie (and finally gets a job, but only after losing J.J.), and meets a much younger software programmer named Kim Rosenthal, who we last saw in grade school, and before that as a pre-vocal Cambodian refugee scared of the shrapnel in her oatmeal. This was so cool, so incredibly human. It’s stuff like that that keeps me reading Doonesbury. It’s stuff like this that makes me care more about the characters than about the issues-oriented strips with bad research--even if I’d like him to return to good research and combine the two sides like he used to be able to do. I still feel like I know these people when I read Alex saying “Dad, can I wear my hair in my face,” in the last panel of “Virtual Doonesbury.”
Zonker becomes a tanning celebrity on a comeback tour in “Planet Doonesbury”, getting $50 a signature. Kim quits her job and moves to France, but promises Mike a “virtual relationship”. And B.D. heads back to Vietnam. He and Boopsie appear to have the most stable relationship in all of World Doonesbury. (Jimmy Ray Thudpucker is also in Vietnam as an aging seventies rocker.) Phred has short hair, a suit, and rocker sunglasses. He’s married to a VC babe that he accidentally bombed with B.D.’s 21-gun salute. And Mark Slackmeyer starts dating a man--a Republican named Chase. Mark’s dad would like to be outraged but he’s become too jaded by Mark’s antics, and besides, Chase agrees with him on most issues.
Chase: The way I see it, Phil, being Gay is a private matter, not a political rationale for offensive public behavior. In my view, the flaunting of homosexuality is all part of a larger breakdown of an orderly society of common decency, of civic virtue!
Phil: Is he just sucking up to me here?
Mark: No, no--he really is a fellow Nazi!
Phil: You know, Chase, what you say makes so much sense, I can’t imagine what you have in common with my son! I mean, what’s the attraction?
Mark: Well, it’s physical, of course.
Chase: Frankly, Phil, I’m a little surprised by the question, but...
Phil: I withdraw it! I withdraw it!
And Joanie Caucus receives a surprising wedding invitation from her son-in-law.
Finally, “Buck Wild Doonesbury” takes Duke and Honey out to Minnesota to work for governor Jesse Ventura. Lacy Davenport, now with cancer, asks Alice the Homeless Woman to score some pot to alleviate her nausea from the chemo. Scariest of all, Roland Hedley is teaching future broadcast journalists how to handle their microphones. Zonker’s nephew and fellow slacker Zip is off to a slow start, but his college career at Walden has some potential. He even has a girlfriend, because it’s the nineties, and in our enlightened world women can also be slackers.
These collections do not collect all of the strips; they only collect selected strips meant to be representative and important enough to the storyline. Since Trudeau often pulls obscure characters out of the past and elevates them to major characters, that doesn’t always work. (I’ve spent the last half an hour trying to find J.J. and Mike’s first date, and can’t. It doesn’t appear to be anywhere. They just show up married in “Doonesbury Deluxe”. But I know I remember him coming down to her college sometime.) But that’s a minor quibble (actually not being able to find J.J. and Mike’s courtship isn’t minor, but most of the time it’s minor). This is the only real long-term comic strip still available. I know of no other strip that has the sense of history that Doonesbury has, and I strongly recommend reading them, starting from the beginning.
It is unfortunate that as he gets older, his political acumen decreases; it is even more unfortunate that he continues to write things that ought to embarrass him. Most recently, he pulled some strips after the September 11 attack, strips that attacked President Bush based on a Scranton-based think-tank, the Lovenstein Institute, report that Bush was the least intelligent of the last twelve presidents. He pulled the strips because he believed that “there is a time and place for satirizing one’s country's leaders... In light of Tuesday’s tragedy, this is neither.” But it would have been better for him to pull the strips because they were based on Internet headlines that were a hoax--the Scranton-based think tank doesn’t exist.
So where is the politically-informed liberal Trudeau of old? Investing his money in the stock market, apparently. In this book, Alice the homeless woman comes into some money--and gives Joanie sound advice on what to do with it, and why. He still knows how to do research. He just cares about different things today than he did in the seventies. We all do, I'm sure, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it's too bad he still feels the need to embarass himself in public about things he doesn't care enough about to get even the simplest of facts right.
If you enjoyed Doonesbury…
If you enjoy satirical, you might also be interested in Being There, Better Than Sex, Dark Star, Fahrenheit 451, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972, Generation of Swine, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, Mike Royko: A Life in Print, Mike Royko’s Opinions, Songs of the Doomed, South Park Volume 1 through 6, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, Team America, Fuck Yeah!, Thank You For Smoking, The Complete Lewis Carroll, The Desert Peach, The Futurological Congress, The Great Shark Hunt, The Siege of Harlem, and Wag the Dog