Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Doonesbury at 40

Doonesbury © G.B. Trudeau and Universal Press Syndicate
Can you believe that Doonesbury is celebrating its 40th anniversary today? 40 years! I started reading Doonesbury when I was in middle school after picking a paperback collection of Watergate-era strips from a pile of mildewed books at a yard sale. Most of the jokes were too esoteric for me to understand, but I loved the detail and precision of those drawings. As I read other Doonesbury books, checking them out from the school library, I started to understand the characters and their relationships to the world outside the comic frame. I was hooked.

Turns out, Doonsbury creator G.B. Trudeau didn't set out for a life in comics (or, in some papers, the editorial pages); he wanted to be an illustrator. At first he didn't show much promise for even that line of work. Trudeau's early strips were wiry, confusing, almost unintelligible. And the world they inhabited, fictional Walden College and a nearby commune, could hardly spark the imaginations of children; Walden was too small, too localized, too adult. You'd hardly imagine that Trudeau had a future in the fickle world of the funny pages.

But Trudeau expanded his reach, and Doonesbury's world grew. The comic started tackling tough and timely topics that other comics wouldn't touch [I have no idea why I'm drawn to alliteration today. Sorry]. Some of Trudeau's characters retained some degree of childlike innocence - you could tell by the wide shape of their eyes - but most were firmly caught in the adult world. For many Americans, especially those reactionary buffoons so deserving of cartoon comeuppance, Trudeau created a hard world to love.

Still, Doonesbury ultimately revealed the humanity of even the most complicated or controversial characters. As a result many Americans found that they could relate to Vietcong insurgents when they met Phred the Terrorist, identity with "women's libbers" when they cheered Joanie Caucus, commiserate with AIDS sufferers when they wept at the passing of Andy Lippincott, and confront the realities of war when they saw B.D. lose a leg in Iraq. Unlike its timeless cousins, change was practically a character in this comic. Especially after Doonesbury's 1983-84 reboot, characters tried new careers, got married, had kids, and grew old. Some died sadly, some sweetly. Trudeau's world converged with ours.

I hate to admit it but I don't read Doonsbury as regularly as I once did; comics aren't part of my regular routine these days. But I still keep up with my favorite characters by flipping through new books and occasionally dipping into their daily adventures. Occasionally in class I'll flash back to my all-time favorite strip, the January 27, 1985 Teaching is Dead cri du coeur that speaks eloquence to the sadness that can sometimes overcome any educator these days. Stung awake, I can't help but smile.

Reflecting on the impact that G.B. Trudeau's creation(s) had on my imagination, I conclude with the best compliment I ever saw paid to a comic strip. I don't recall the exact line, but someone once said that the dependably honest satire of Doonsbury - never shrinking from its essential struggles against stupidity and pomposity - is like leaving a nice bike unlocked on a busy sidewalk. It's a big risk; it's sure to get lost or stolen. Yet day after day, year after year, Doonsbury is still there. It's an amazing feat.

Timeline: Slate has pulled together a collection of the strip's funniest, strangest, and most memorable moments. Check it out: http://www.slate.com/id/2272080/pagenum/all/#p2

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

man,a canuck,sorta funny during NIXON, now it hurts,yep truth at times, but not as funny