Saturday, August 31, 2019

Highest Page Views - #50

Now that I have hit the top 50, there will be some I wish to repost in entirety rather than simply link to.  This was one of my earliest posts, June 2006, and I am glad it got some attention over the years. It has an off-my-chest quality that is unsurprising in my first year of blogging. I was tempted to touch it up and smooth it out, but I'll keep it as is. 

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.


Sam L. said...

I grew up. Trudeau was in a rut, and kept digging it deeper.

Christopher B said...

Same here, Sam. I remember the panel size controversy. I think Trudeau wanted to get moved off the comic pages. I think I was getting the Cedar Rapids Gazette at the time, and that's what they did. I tried to read it but so many of the stories were lost in the weeds of character backstory that I couldn't follow most of them.

Anybody else remember Mallard Fillmore, the supposed conservative answer to Doonesbury?

I liked Berke Breathed's Bloom County for quite a while. Though unabashedly liberal, it was like early Doonesbury in the way it skewered some sacred cows on the Left. Journalists and aged hippies were two fairly frequent topics of fun. It also jumped the shark (before the phrase was cool) but Breathed decided to get out rather than spiral down.

RichardJohnson said...

Good points about nuance working only one way in the strip, and the absurdity of preppie Trudeau mocking the Bushes for being preppies. I read the strip for years. I mailed a number of Doonesbury books to to a Claremont NH native living in South America, for her own use or for her English students. (She married while in the Peace Corps.)

I don't know when I stopped reading Doonesbury.My guess is about 20 years ago,though it could have well have been well before that. I definitely stopped looking at Doonesbury years before I stopped reading the comics pages of the local paper. It became tedious. IIRC,I do recall Clinton being portrayed as a waffle.

Of the comic strips that began in the '70s or so, For Better or Worse kept my attention much longer than Doonesbury. I purchased books of FBOW comic strips (from used book stores) decades after I stopped purchasing Doonesbury books. Because it focused on the humor inherent in family situations instead of being a platform for expressing the politics of the creator, it never became tedious.

Both FBOW and Doonesbury hit the wall of declining newspaper subscriptions.

DirtyJobsGuy said...

I was in junior high school in the Chicago suburbs during the peak of the Vietnam war. There were lots of draft-avoiding (dodging to use the term of the day) male teachers who had no motivation or interest in teaching. They fit the Doonsbury irony mode to a tee.

Tom Grey said...

The "anti-war" folk were also, objectively "pro-Killing Fields" folk. But they refuse to accept that, despite it being true.

We need more humor against the increasingly establishment PC-gulag supporters. Wish I could tell better jokes.

AesopFan said...

Sam nailed it first off. I think Trudeau's humor developed a negative correlation to his political activism, and I have noted the same in other once-funny writers and comedians.
For Better or Worse, and Calvin and Hobbes, are my continuing favorites.
For anti-PC-humor now, Tom, I think Babylon Bee is first-rate.