Monday, June 12, 2006

The Influence of Doonesbury

In the 70’s and 80’s, Doonesbury was in every liberal habitat. Women’s Studies professors and social workers always seemed to have a few strips taped to their office doors, and the characters became part of everyday conversation. Trudeau inherited the mantle of righteousness from the folksingers, and became the chief exponent of the idea that conservatives were essentially stupid and had evil motives. He demanded, and got, a larger block in the comic section and marketed a long succession of reprints of earlier strips in paperback. Doonesbury expressed what people were thinking and to a lesser extent, shaped it. Liberals may complain that they are unfairly characterized and oversimplified, but the ongoing popularity of this comic betrays them. They bought the books, they put the cartoons on their doors, they made Mike part of their culture.

Well, it was a cartoon, after all, and Trudeau’s main defense against criticism has always been “Hey. It’s a political cartoon. It’s not supposed to be fair. The characters are two-dimensional because they are, in fact, rendered in 2D. That’s the point.” In theory, a fair argument. Why expect nuance from a stereotypical stoner named “Zonker?”

The problem with the theory is that over time, the strip was nuanced, and some characters were three-dimensional. Trudeau was not a mere hatchet man, but had a gift for irony and self-mockery as well. Political correctness was gently skewered even as it first arrived on the scene. “It’s a baby woman!” squeals Joanie Caucus’s kindergarten class at the birth of a girl. Minority representation was sent up in a college football huddle: “I’m the only Pole.” “I’m the only freak!” The earlier characters in particular had inconsistencies of exactly the same sort that everyday people do.

Trudeau was also willing to smack Democratic politicians around a bit. Carter was lampooned for running a presidency of symbolism over substance, and Clinton was portrayed as a waffle. But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. Conservatives had none of the endearing inconsistencies. Phred the Viet Cong, was more sympathetic than the American soldier BD. Roland Headley reported an entire series “In search of Reagan’s brain,” and Trudeau’s hatred for the Bush family was embarrassing to read, even when I was a liberal. * Bomb-throwing Newt Gingrich to Dan Quayle as feather, conservatives are always stupid, malevolent, or both. The people of the left might have their foibles, but the people of the right were unrelenting evil.

Except, of course, when presented with the more sophisticated world of Trudeau, which would cause them to become perplexed and dimly apprehend the possibility of liberal ideas. Just like on TV. When the artist was really ticked, he would footnote the comic, e.g. to show how Limbaugh was too inaccurate. Conveniently, cartoonists don’t have to answer criticism.

An early secondary theme, that the young were wiser than the middle-aged, became increasingly difficult for Gary Trudeau to maintain as he aged. His elevated version of the TV-sitcom smartass kid played very well to Boomers, who have always longed to imbue their personal conflicts with larger cultural meaning.

So the “it’s because it’s a cartoon” excuse is a little weak – partly because of Trudeau’s own cleverness and early talent. It was never his intention for this to be “just” a political cartoon. He wanted to persuade and to influence. Over the years, the strip has become increasingly bitter and didactic. As I seldom read a newspaper anymore, I don’t see it much, but my eye still goes automatically to Doonesbury. It is occasionally amusing, but mostly just ignorant these days, drawing inspiration from the same lost world of its glory days. Uncle Duke was as brilliant a character as has ever appeared in the funny papers. Amazing how much Trudeau got wrong in retrospect.

Conservatives wonder how the liberal interpretation of history is maintained in the face of the facts. The massacres by the VC and the Khmer Rouge; the fall of communism and the translation of the Venona Cables; the growth in the economy in close parallel to conservative predicitions; the behavior of nations seeming closer to the older interpretations of men and evil than to the newer, more hopeful foreign policies.

The myths are sustained by condescending humor, and Ivy-League liberals do it best.





*Gary Trudeau’s unreasoning viciousness toward the Bushes may be an attempt to distance himself from some portion of his own Yalie/preppy background. In a delicious irony in the midst of his attacks of Bush 41’s manhood, Trudeau appeared in a clothing catalogue modeling a manly flight jacket. Yo, Gary. George actually was a fighter pilot.

11 comments:

GM Roper said...

AVI, this is absolutely the BEST critique of Doonesbury I have ever read. Perhaps, it took a former liberal to do it properly. Well done Sir, well done!

Wyman said...

I read all those little paperback Doonesburys when I was younger, and became fond enough of them that I took them with me to Houston. And I think I was the only person who read every single one of the Doonesburys on the "25 Years of Doonesbury" CD-ROM that you got. In fact, Doonesbury was my primary introduction to virtually every political issue that happened in the 70's and 80's - I never got to see the movement, just the lampoonment.

It got sadder and sadder to see the comic as it went... first you saw it as it lost its touch, getting less on target and less funny. And then the bitterness kept getting more transparent, and the comic became a lot less funny, but Trudeau didn't seem to care anymore, that wasn't his main concern. He wanted people to understand. He wanted people to get angry.

Doonesbury presents a fascinating medium because you can actually go back and watch, day by day, everything Trudeau built fall apart. With an author or a filmmaker or a musician, we see it in jumps - the newest novel suddenly presents a new worldview, the latest album is bitterer and darker. Doonesbury's slow decline into darkness could be tracked daily over your morning coffee.

Woody said...

I quit reading that strip over fifteen years ago. It belonged on the editorial page rather than the comic strips. Anyone married to Jane Pauley has to be eaten up with leftist thinking.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Ben, the 25 Years of Doonesbury is yours, given to you by my brother for Christmas a few years ago. I think he was secretly worried you'd go through your life only hearing the conservative point of view and wanted to correct that.

Which would annoy me from anyone else but him.

Carl said...

AVI:

Good analysis. I, too, was a Doonesbury addict, at least until I finished law school in the early '80s. And some 1970-83 or so strips still makes me chuckle--Zonker's bust "Wow--one, two, three seeds!"/"You know what that means!"/"A dealer!"' Woodrow saying "by God, I love the law;" Joanie's first night at Rick's, "I'm pretty good at breakfast too! (as the girl goes for broke);" and Phred discovering that the UN General Assembly is seated by GDP (one of Trudeau’s few genuinely conservative thoughts, even if satire; of course his other was Lacy Davenport; I was a campaign volunteer for the real-life Davenport, a NJ congresswoman named Millicent Fenwick).

He also remains the master of the five-panel-in-four comic, where the last line of the last panel normally is only tangentially related to the other panels and way outside the box. Only Zippy the Pinhead came close.

But he never had a handle on Reagan, and certainly not on Bush 43. And it was also sometime in the latter 1970s that conservatives started turning smart, cool and funny, failing to dislodge the left only for folk songs. So not only did Trudeau age and run short of new ideas, but he couldn't (or didn't want to) adapt to an environment where liberals might be slightly pathetic and conservatives were very much aware of the fact.

Still, I have all the old large-size paperbacks on a living room shelf. I read them occassionally. And they retain the aroma from their practical use, even without Zonker's seeds.

Anonymous said...

Is he the one based on HSThompson?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Zonker's Uncle Duke was based on Hunter Thompson

Eneils Bailey said...

I guess I am one of those poor, uninformed, less fortunate individuals who never read Doonesbury, never watched a single episode of "Seinfeld," "American Idol," "Survivor,"...etc...etc...
I saw those Doonesbury strips on office doors and bulletin boards and heard my co-workers talk about Seinfeld episodes and reality shows.
Since I just retired at 60, do you think my life will be enriched if I go back and read and watch all this crap?
If you recommend a complete review, where do you think I went wrong? Don't want to do something like this again.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Eneils - nah, read Roger Kimball and Mark Steyn. You'll get enough overview of popular elite culture - plus insight - without having to wade through it yourself.

Sam L. said...

George H.W. flew the TBMAvenger, a torpedo bomber, not a fighter.

Texan99 said...

A humorist can get away with bitterness, maybe a little didacticism, but not both.

The Trudeau riffs that still are catchwords with my husband and me a largely apolitical, like Honey's review of the party supplies she's ordered, followed by a guest list, and Uncle Duke's outraged: "Guests? You invited guests?"