CARPE LIBRUM: How ‘Doonesbury’ has personalized life as we know

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

Doonesbury Strip by Garry Trudeau

Soap operas have such a low-brow connotation in artistic society: absurd story lines that hinge on sex, murder and betrayal. Likewise, newspaper comics are rarely appreciated for more than a shallow laugh.  However, both forms have developed devoted followings for generations.

1Personally, my soap opera is the comic strip “Doonesbury,” by Garry Trudeau. I started reading “Doonesbury” in elementary school—when it was still relegated to the classifieds page in the Star News. Editors chose to run it on the editorial page in other papers in the country, citing the often political nature of the material and occasional adult themes. To many people, “Doonesbury” is a political cartoon. But that has always baffled me. To me “Doonesbury” is a soap opera, not unlike the classic serialized comics (“Mary Worth,” “The Phantom,” “For Better or Worse”), it merely reflects Trudeau’s life experiences and sensibility. He came of age during Vietnam and during the draft, so for him the issues of the ‘60s were pressing concerns in his life, hence his art.

Trudeau began drawing the precursor to “Doonesbury,” a comic known as “Bull Tales” while he was a student at Yale. Much of early “Doonesbury” details the trials and tribulations of undergrads (and recent undergrads) in and around the fictional Walden College. Here readers meet Mike Doonesbury, a geeky, awkward young undergraduate and computer-selected college roommate, BD, star of the college football team.

The early strips are rather crudely drawn and one thing readers see in the intervening 45-plus years is the evolution of the visual component of the work. By the mid 1980s the strip became almost cinematic in quality. But it all began with the struggles of two college roommates with nothing in common.

From there life branches out: additional characters are introduced and life changes. BD enlists for Vietnam (to get out of a term paper) and is taken prisoner by Phred.  Meanwhile, back in America, Mike and Mark Slackmeyer (campus revolutionary extraordinaires) set off to find America, and instead import Joanie Caucus, a housewife-turned-feminist who runs off with them to get her university degree and eventually become a lawyer and congressional aide.  Mike meets, marries and divorces Joanie’s daughter, J.J.

Meanwhile Zonker Harris, part-time football player, full-time slacker (sort of a Maynard from “Dobbie Gillis” and named for one of the Merry Pranksters in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”), joined the milieu and just … stayed. With him arrived Zonker’s Uncle Duke, an homage to Dr. Gonzo himself, Hunter Thompson. There are many more characters—both fictional and based upon real-life representatives of the zeitgeist.   

I am a reader who instantly notices when Trudeau has messed up or forgotten a plot point from 25 years ago. If permitted, 90 percent of my communication would be “Doonesbury” references. After years of reading it obsessively, I finally have figured out that in spite of the mistaken idea it is too political, what the strip actually does is make discourse come alive. As issues unfold in real time, “Doonesbury” characters argue about them with humor, fervor, and an odd blend of cynicism and passion.

Seen through this lens, the 20th century ceases to be a series of dates and facts with causes and effects, and becomes the complex world that directly impacts people’s daily lives. As the child of two people who came of age in the Vietnam era, “Doonesbury” provided a road map to daily events that made “history.” Historical personalities did not make a brief appearance for one important event that would put them in history books; they are actually the rotating cast of life. 

For example, “Doonesbury” has been discussing Donald Trump since the 1980s, and John Kerry first appeared in the strip in 1971. By approaching the issues of the day in the form of a soap opera, it’s easy to find an understanding with people who hold opposing views—and through humor, an entre to empathy. I’ve long thought Shakespeare’s comedies were some of his most tragic writing because through laughter he was able to tackle loss, rejection, hate and abuse obliquely rather than head on. “Doonesbury” is much like that. The characters say and do funny, cynical and frequently reprehensible things. By coming at issues and demonstrating a less desirable human response, Trudeau actually makes a larger point, as seen when struggling to explain the Monica Lewinsky scandal to a school-aged daughter, or showing the realization that Vietcong also has mommies at home praying for a safe return. In one strip, Joanie gets turned down for a date in grad school. Why is that important?  Because she is infatuated with Andy, who gently, kindly, but firmly explains to her that he is gay.

“Are you sure?” she asks.

“I am,” he responds.

Andy was the first openly gay character in a comic strip. He would go on to fight AIDS – with his father insisting to the family he contracted the disease from a mosquito bite and Andy countering, insisting upon living and dying with dignity and truth.

In more recent years the strip addresses PTSD for soldiers returning from the Middle East and the struggles with reintegrating into school and work life.

Trudeau received the Pulitzer for Editorial Cartoon, and though he has taken sabbaticals (and is currently only producing new strips on Sundays) to work on other creative projects, nothing has been as successful as “Doonesbury” (not the musical, or his TV work, “Tanner ’88,” “Tanner on Tanner,” “Alpha House”). Trudeau’s ability to work with the four frames of the comic strip is truly an example of genius. It might seem odd to praise a comic strip, but few other works have had the longevity to make the national and global events of our times personal.

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One Response to CARPE LIBRUM: How ‘Doonesbury’ has personalized life as we know

  1. Aaron Duke says:

    Excellent article! As a millennial with only moderate tolerance for history tomes, Doonesbury gave me context to American politics and culture I missed out on by decades. Trudeau is a genius.
    ps – When Andy tells Joanie he’s gay, she asks, ‘are they sure?’

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