Thursday, March 10, 2011

Things that Don't Suck: Doonesbury

The funny thing about newspaper comic strips—I mean “funny” not as in “ha ha, good joke” but as in “strange, unsettling, troubling”—is how bad they are. Unacceptably bad, really terrible, just shockingly awful, especially when you consider the thousands of people who are drawing pictures and writing jokes and thinking of stories at this very second—why do so many comic strips seem to be created by those who can do none of these things? Why do so many strips hit the trifecta of being poorly drawn, unfunny, and consisting of characters who are just cardboard cutouts delivering stale jokes that weren’t funny the first time you heard them? Why, oh why Lord, in a universe where only so much time is allotted to us to enjoy earthly pleasures, does Momma exist?

Here’s where I could start researching the history of the syndication system, where I could discuss the demographics of most newspaper comics readers (my guess is they are very old and prone to writing letters when their favorite strips are cancelled) and the general tendency of mass media to produce bland entertainment that enfolds our daily existence like a soggy beige envelope—but lets skip all that. Let’s talk about Doonesbury instead, which for me is the last of the great comic strips, something akin to a the last majestic dinosaur struggling through the ashen landscape surrounded by malnourished rodents picking at the bones of his contemporaries.

What non-comics fans don’t think about very often is there were really great comic strips in the past, a roster I’d say includes Peanuts, Krazy Kat, Pogo, a bunch of classic adventure strips like Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie, Nemo’s Adventures in Slumberland (still trippy to look at after all these years), Gasoline Alley in its way—it was the first strip in which the characters aged, a rare feature that Doonesbury adopted—and more recently Calvin and Hobbes, Bloom County, and maybe The Far Side, but really the art for that last strip is pretty sub-par compared to the rest of the list. A few of those strips still survive today, but they are horrifying zombie carcasses of their former selves who should be shotgunned out of the pages of the papers they appear in (take a look at old Gasoline Alley strips—Fantagraphics has been putting out anthologies—and you’ll see how the strip has changed, mostly for the worse). There’s a lot of variety in all those strips I just mentioned, but all of their creators put blood and sweat, if not tears, into the work every day. Today so, so many strips are two or three panels with lazy linework, one bubble of dialogue per panel, and a flat punchline. They simply don’t try.

Doonesbury tries. It tries so hard that it has a whole set of problems that other comics don’t have. For instance, the strip’s cast of characters, originally a group of college students sharing a house way back in the early 70s, has expanded to the point where there are probably at least a hundred unique, named people that had recurring roles. It’s sort of intimidating to dive into a strip like that and try to figure out who everyone is—and what other strip can be intimidating to dive into? In addition, Doonesbury keeps up with current events in a way few other strips do, so if you only read the comics and sports pages, you likely won’t get some of the jokes, or care enough to follow the strip for long.

But wow, if you get into Doonesbury, there’s a lot to enjoy. There are elements of the serial-adventure strip in it (as I write these words, Jeff Redfern, son of strip regular Rick Redfern, is attempting to save a dictator from a bloodthirsty revolutionary mob in order to pay off a debt to a defense contractor), but every strip has a joke at the end, and pre-punchline dialogue that is pretty sharp. Sometimes, especially on Sundays, it turns into more of an editorial cartoon, which is why some papers have put Doonesbury permanently on the op-ed page. Most significantly in recent years, the strip has focused on veterans and active-duty military personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq, and by what I’ve heard doing a pretty good job representing and discussing pretty serious issues.

Then there’s the art, which has evolved from Gary Trudeau’s fairly dreadful chicken scratches in 1970 to a competent, workmanlike style in the 80s that repeated the same image across panels--the exterior of the White House, a character sitting in front of a television--far too often, to today’s strips, which are exceptionally clean, and stand out from other strips because it looks like someone took the time to storyboard them and to display the scene from different angles to create a sense of action—a simple thing, arguably, but something that no other comic on the page does.

The big flaw in Doonesbury is the political slant; it’s undeniably the work of a liberal who cares about politics, and sometimes, like in this February 13th Sunday strip, it really does become something like an editorial cartoon, or an extremely short op-ed column. I imagine that the more conservative you are, the less Doonesbury feels like art and the more it feels like windbaggy propaganda. (I’ve heard the same thing said about The Wire.) And like every strip ever made, there are off days, there are relatively boring storylines, there are places where it lags.

But seen as a continuous document, a narrative—like a soap opera or an exceptionally long novel—Doonesbury is an incredible achievement. It’s not just the story of a large and varied cast of characters, it’s the story of American politics over the last 40 years, seen through the perspective of journalists, activists, hippies, farmers, lobbyists, and soldiers. Doonesbury is the War and Peace of comic strips. It’s what journalism aspires to be, a rough draft of history. No other comic strip in newspaper history has linked itself so closely with current events. I’ve literally learned about the 80s by reading old Doonesbury collections, and you could do worse things for a clever child with an interest in politics than giving him some Doonesbury books. The strip really does merit preserving for future generations to look at, and I can’t think of any current comic about which the same could be said.


  1. I recall hearing at some point that George W Bush's favorite comic is Marmaduke. I think it was a joke but it is just close enough to possible that I cling to the hope that it is true.

  2. Marmaduke is like Family Circus in that they only exist for blogs to deconstruct them and replace the captions and reinterpret them. The correct way to read Marmaduke is to assume:

    1. Marmaduke's male owner is Hitler, or a Hitler clone, hiding from the authorities.
    2. Marmaduke is a hideous demonic dog-monster who kills people, eats children, and holds his family hostage.
    3. Marmaduke's female owner is secretly sexually drawn to Marmaduke.