A couple of weeks ago, I posted about Doonesburyand how it had faded itself into insignificance by going Sunday only. My point has just been reinforced.
I started reading the Guardian in the first place, as far back as 1981, because it had recently picked up running Doonesbury, six days a week. Obviously, I stayed with the paper for more reasons than this, though these reasons wear thinner year on year. But Doonesbury has been indelibly associated with this paper in the UK for over thirty five years.
This has been evidenced by what happened on the two occasions the paper tried to drop the strip. The first was when the Berliner format was adopted. Doonesbury was absent on that first Monday, and back o Wednesday (with the two missing strips reprinted) thanks to a massive and vocal wave of reader protest. I am not alone, people.
The same thing happened when the paper underwent another redesign earlier this decade. The re-designer decided it was old hat, a thing of the past. Monday came, and no Trudeau. And it (and the missing two strips) were back by Wednesday. Same again: massive vocal protest demonstrating the Guardian was wrong.
At some point, Monday of last week, or maybe even the week before, the Guardian dropped Doonesbury again. Or rather, it dropped the Doonesbury Flashbacks that have been running for over four years now. It’s been replaced by adverts. I didn’t even notice until some time round the middle of last week. Today, I specifically checked, and the more recent printing of the Sunday strip has also vanished.
And there has been no protest, no reaction, no complaints. Nobody wants to fight for it, or if they do the numbers have been so low that not only has the Guardian been able to ignore them with impunity, but there isn’t even any evidence of a protest: no Letters to the Editor, at least, none in print.
So the link has been broken after 36 years, and one once fundamental cartoon strip, in its forty-eighth year, is demonstrated to be, as I said, insignificant.
Once upon a time, my children, there was a daily American newspaper strip called Doonesbury, written and drawn by Garry (‘G.B.) Trudeau. It grew out of a Yale college strip called Bull Tales and was first offered to American newspapers as a college strip in 1970. It quickly married its hip, wordy humour with a primarily liberal socio-political bent, and became increasingly popular, not just for its humour but for its willingness to go into some very serious issues. In 1981, the Guardian started printing it in the UK, and I started reading the Guardian. Despite two attempts to drop the strip, both leading to instant and overwhelming protest, it runs there to this day.
My own involvement with Doonesbury doesn’t predate the strip’s arrival in the Guardian by much. My increasing interest in American commercial and political issues in the very late Seventies kept leading to mention of Doonesbury: for instance, “There are only three major vehicles to keep us informed as to what is going on in Washington: the electronic media, the print media, and Doonesbury, not necessarily in that order.” That was said by President Gerald Ford on the occasion of the strip becoming the first ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning.
So I got curious. Then, out of the blue, the strip’s second retrospective collection, Doonesbury’s Greatest Hits, appeared out of nowhere in Wilshaws, Manchester’s supposedly second best bookshop, but to me much more preferable to Sherratt & Hughes. 516 dailies and 80 colour Sundays for £2.95 was well worth a pop and I laughed myself silly.
Thus began a long and satisfying relationship. The strip was still based at Walden College in those days, around the central quartet of Mike Doonesbury (the title character, a mid-Western liberal loser), Mark Slackmeyer (New York Jewish radical), B.D. (football jock and staunch Republican) and Zonker Harris (Californian pothead). But it had expanded dramatically with characters in other spheres who could take a week’s worth of strips anywhere: Joannie Caucus (ex-housewife, feminist and lawyer), Rick Redfern (Washington Post reporter, Joannie’s partner), Honey Huan (former translator for Mao Tse-Tung, now ever-willing and perpetually naive sidekick) and Trudea’s most infamous creation, Uncle Duke, originally based on Hunter Thompson but one of the world’s greatest mavericks.
Picking up new collections at various comics marts, and the odd old one here and there (I would not get a complete set until the eBay era) was great fun, reading Doonesbury daily was great fun. Trudeau was sharp, accurate and inventive, and even when he’d skewer Democrats and other liberals, he still always felt like he was coming from the same place I did, even if that was from the other side of the Atlantic.
Not all that long after I started getting my fix daily, Trudeau did something no newspaper strip cartoonist had done before him: he took a sabbatical. This was heavily criticised, Charles Schultz called it ‘unprofessional’. Trudeau took almost eighteen months off, partly to work on a stage-show, Doonesbury: the Musical, based upon the college characters’ graduation from Walden College, but also to prepare his ground for the strip’s resumption in the run-up to Reagan’s re-election, as adult characters, functioning in the ‘real’ world.
Mike went from hapless college loser to decidedly unconvincing advertising copywriter, married now to performance artist J.J. (aka Joan Caucus Jr), Mark to National Public Radio, B.D. to third-string quarterback in LA and his girlfriend, cheerleader Boopsie to minor starlet (third girl in shower in Porky’s 2).
And over the decades it ran and ran. New characters appeared, courses ran smooth or jagged (I am not even going to try to think of summarising Duke’s career, but for several weeks in 1982 he daily made me sick with laughter when he chartered his drugs-running boat out for a sightseeing cruise to the Falklands Islands War). Characters aged, married, divorced, had children who, over twenty years, grew to become characters themselves (Joannie and Rick’s son Jeff has become a figure of loathing to me, with Zonker’s nephew Zipper his crony, but Alex Doonesbury has been a delight from start to finish, and Sam, B.D. and Boopsie’s daughter was showing every sign of growing up to be a perfectly drawn young woman when…)
It’s been a long strange strip, to quote the tag-line for the twenty-fifth anniversary collection, which of course gave way to the mammoth slip-cased fortieth anniversary collection some years ago. One of the beauties of the strip has been that, since leaving college, the characters have aged realistically – I won’t say grown up, not in certain cases – as well as having remained pertinent and on the money almost all the time.
But I said ‘When…’, didn’t I? Having established the concept of sabbaticals, Trudeau and others who found the idea of periodic breaks from the daily treadmill to refresh the creative mind to be attractive, managed after several years to establish the idea of contractual breaks, regularised at four weeks per year, to be taken at the cartoonist’s discretion. Some would take a month off, Trudeau would just take one week off per quarter. Frustrating, yes, to pick up Monday’s paper, recognise the strip and see it headed ‘Doonesbury Flashback’, and be deprived of a week of fresh lines, situations, gags and energy, but a small price to pay for such high levels of humour.
But this lasted to 2013. Abruptly, Trudeau’s syndicate announced another hiatus to allow him to work on the Amazon streaming TV series Alpha House, a political comedy created by him. Originally intended to run from June to early September, the break was extended into November. Trudeau resumed duties but only until early March 2014 when, to accommodate Alpha House‘s second season, he announced he would only be doing Sundays for the foreseeable future. Despite the show’s cancellation in 2014, the return to dailies remains unforeseeable.
That’s three and a half years now, and counting. Trudeau once commented that ‘political cartooning is a young man’s game’ (he is now 69) and I am cynically resigned to the assumption that at that age he doesn’t want to leap back into the daily grind. But if that’s so, and even bearing in mind that the strip is only three years away from reaching that great landmark of fifty years, I would still rather he cancelled Doonesbury rather than allow it to continue as the increasingly meaningless thing it is.
One strip a week, among an official character list of 24 people, is pretty well redundant. As time went on in Doonesbury, the strip slowly evolved into a mixture of its satire and the kind of character-driven comedy that all the best, long-lasting ensembles eventually must mimic. Caricatures they may have been, in their inception, and to greater and lesser extents, but you cannot record the multiple progressions of a range of people without their turning into some form of living person.
There was no better example of this than the sequence which began in 2004 and featuring B.D. Of the central characters, B.D. had always been the closest to a cartoon throughout. Given no other name in the strip (he was originally based on Yale Quarterback, Brian Dowling), B.D. was the conservative, the jock, the unrealistic blowhard who was never seen without his football helmet. After graduation, the helmet kept changing, especially as B.D. kept going back into service as an Army Reservist (he’d volunteered for Vietnam in the early Seventies, to get out of finishing a term paper). The unreconstructed male, the blue-collar rightwinger, the joke.
And one Monday morning, the strip began with a black panel and a shout of ‘Hey!’. Then two panels of B.D.’s buddy Ray, sweating, desperate, telling someone to stay with him, then shouting for a medic, then another black panel, calling B.D.’s name, shouting ‘Hey!’ again, but louder. The next day’s opening panel made it even more plain: ‘You’re not dying here, man! Not today!’ But with typical Trudeaus expertise, the third day revealed things subtly. B.D.’s hurt, he’s in a medevac chopper, they’re removing his helmet! There he is, in the final panel, grimacing, his hair on show for the first time ever. And, with no fanfare or attention drawn to it, in the bottom corner of the panel, his left leg. Gone.
It was one hell of a risk, taking a cartoon like B.D., and crippling him, putting him through a devastating war injury like that. It could have been a disaster. Instead, slowly, surehandedly, Trudeau unravelled B.D.’s story over literally years. The physical recovery. The mental deterioration. The gradual acclimatisation to therapy. The horrors revealed. Trudeau, without foresaking humour but without ever once demeaning for a second the reality of what he’d done, turned B.D. into both a real human being, and a kind of Every-Soldier.
It was a sequence that was eventually extracted into three special books, all published for charity. And Trudeau used this initial story to look at two other military figures whose own stories unfolded slowly, over years: Megan, the Specialist traumatised by sexual exploitation from a superior officer, and Toggle, the young driver and heavy-metal freak, left with aphasia after his own bombing.
These were extraordinary stories, told with an incredible attention to balance between the humour (not always black) that could be found and the reality of lives thus affected. They were so affecting because they could unfold so slowly, every day another little snippet, another step or moment.
This is an extreme example, both in terms of how personal a story Doonesbury could tell, and how pointed it could be about the life we live today, but it was utterly dependent upon the strip being daily, giving us another piece, another sliver, day in, day out. It was an intrinsic part of what made Doonesbury matter, even if only as an entertainment – which over forty plus years is not to be sniffed at.
What’s Megan doing now? I dunno. She’s not been seen since the dailies stopped. Or Toggle? He met Alex Doonesbury, they fell in love, married, had twins. Been in two, maybe three strips since, each time about the twins. Mike? Still married to Kim, still living on Puget Sound, presumably still has his own business? Mark? Still on the radio. Zonker? Still growing artisanal marijuana with Zipper. Jeff? Still don’t care.
The point is that all we ever get is snippets, frequently tuned to what’s going on in the world, like today’s strip, which features Rick at a press conference, asking questions about things I don’t understand and I can’t even see where the punchline is supposed to be.
It’s like Discworld, except that Trudeau’s not dead yet. Everybody’s still there, and every now and then they jump through a hoop. But I don’t know them any more, and I am sick and tired of impersonal snippets every six to eight months, of people who we’re supposed to be watching move through their lives the way we do.
Doonesbury used to be essential. Now it’s meaningless. And it did it all to itself. And I’m tired of it.
When I log on to eBay, as I tend to do every few days or so, I am greeted with a panoply of prospects, mouth-wateringly assembled links to newly-listed items that would come up under the (fairly limited) lind of searches I tend to make.
I’m amused to find a familiar item turning up for the second time, having clearly failed to attract anyone’s custom a week or so back.
I’ve linked to the item here, but what this item is is a copy of the once popular British comics fanzine Fantasy Advertiser (informally, and later formally known as FA), issue 87, edited published by the late and much-missed Martin Skidmore in October 1984.
It crops up as a possible item of interest because one of the points of interest by which it is hoped to attract a buyer is the ‘zine’s article on Gary Trudeau’s immensely successful social and political newspaper strip, Doonesbury. And as I have been a devotee of Doonesbury since 1981, and have been known to search for old and rare collections (until I got the last of them), it’s been flagged up for my attention.
An article about Doonesbury: very interesting. It’s even flagged up on the cover, to attract the readers of October 1984, together with the name of its writer. Look closely at the cover below, squint at it if you have to, to try and make out which sage wrote this no doubt definitive piece. Is it, no, wait…
It looks very familiar, doesn’t it? And eBay wants to sell this to me?
(Actually, the article isn’t very good at all, but if you do want to read it, you can always bid for the ‘zine on eBay. Or, if you ask nicely enough, I’ll post it on here…)