Gary Trudeau's Doonesbury

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In 1975, for the first time, a comic strip won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. That strip was Doonesbury, just about the best introduction you can get to American politics. From radio station WBBY's Watergate Awards (complete with Mike Doonesbury's analysis of the absence of female conspirators: "We recognize the prevailing belief that women are 'unable to keep a secret', but in our judgement this does not justify withholding from women their equal right to obstruct justice!"), to the media circus of the O.J. Simpson trial, Gary Trudeau has his own angle on what is going on in America. This doesn't mean that he draws the sort of comics in which politicians appear in caricature to score points against their opponents. Trudeau clearly doesn't think politicians are worth that sort of effort, and often shows only their voices rising above the White House, or represents them by some sort of symbol: a bomb with a lighted fuse for Newt Gingrich, a feather for Dan Quayle, an empty space for George Bush. Nonetheless, he is a political journalist. The nightmare figure of Mr. Butts, produced by Mike's guilty conscience as he deliberates whether or not to agree to work on advertising tobacco, reappears over the years as Trudeau exposes how America's tobacco industry fights any attempt to limit its lethal profitability. Trudeau's treatment of a more limited topical issue is well illustrated by his strips on the appointment of Judge Clarence Thomas. Thomas was accused of sexual harrassment, and Trudeau, feeling that the senate had not given sufficient weight to the testimony against him, printed verbatim sections of the supporting evidence of Angela Wright, which had been slipped into the record instead of being publicly aired.

Great stuff, no doubt, but a million miles from comics as we know them, surely? Two people who seem not to think so are John Byrne and Chris Claremont.A guest appearance in X-Men #133
At the heart of the X-Men saga, (back when X-Men was a great comic), in the middle of the intensely emotional drama of Days of Future Past, they included this graceful little hommage. Rick can only be Rick Redfern, reporter - even if Gary Trudeau's version of him was never that dashing - and Joanie has to be senate aide Joanie Caucus - who must have been older than that in 1981, since she was nearly 40 when she first met Mike, before she even began to study law. But then, no-one ever looked as good anywhere else as they did when John Byrne drew them!

X-Men seems a particularly apt place for a Doonesbury tribute, because the success of the mutant team owes much to the use of soap opera techniques in the construction of the story, and Gary Trudeau's strip is surely the longest running soap in the comics world. In October 1970 Mike Doonesbury moved into the college room he was to share with sports-freak B.D., and his life has formed a central thread of the strip, through college and work, marriage, fatherhood and divorce, ever since. More than a quarter-century of daily strips (and in colour on Sundays): even allowing for time off, that's eight or nine thousand strips. Dave Sim boasted to The Comics Journal "I've done 250-page stories. Melmoth was 250 pages. High Society was 500 pages. The one is a novel, the other one is a large short story or a really short novel. They're two completely different things to me." Very well; and Doonesbury, however many strips you cram onto a page, has to be substantially over 1000 pages. To quote Dave Sim again "That's a hell of a lot of fucking drawing. This is a genuine commitment. This is the real stuff."

Doonesbury has another soap opera characteristic: it's addictive. We hard-core fans have to have our daily fix, and though we may claim that this need is rooted in our keen interest in current affairs, this is not entirely true: we need to know what has happened to our favourite characters. Will Mike and Kim overcome the obstacles that separate them (the age-gap, the fact that Kim has moved to Paris, Mike's general idiocy)? The treatment of this couple is also an excellent example of the way Gary Trudeau handles continuity. On the one hand, Mike Doonesbury is the eponymous hero (or anti-hero) of the strip, founder member of Walden Commune, married to Joanie's daughter J.J. and father of her daughter Alex. Feeling that business school is leading him into a world which threatens his moral principles, Mike gives it up to go into advertising, where he finds himself promoting an escort agency, condoms and then Ronald Reagan - to black voters. Mike's initial response is "This is a test, right? To see if I have any shame?" but of course he has no shame, (Doonesbury may be character based, but it is also a humour strip), and his career continues to its low point, the creation of costumed supervillain Mr. Butts. After this come dark days: Mike loses his job, and J.J. leaves him for old flame Zeke, but his fortunes improve when Trudeau decides to use him as a route into the shiny new world of software development, giving him a new job and a new life in the brave new city of Seattle, where the magnificent scenery taps at the window, begging to be let into the room, and where he meets Kim.Mike and Kim's secret engagement Kim, too, has a long history in the strip, although prior to her romance with Mike her appearances were almost exclusively issue-based: as the last orphan to be flown out of Vietnam for adoption, as the precocious toddler who learned to speak from tv advertising jingles and Jimmy Carter's campaign speeches, as the teenaged student whose schoolfellows dismiss her academic success as "a racial characteristic... an Asian thing" rather than as the result of study. This is heavy duty continuity: 26 years worth of incidental characters who can be reviewed and reshaped to make any theme you care to handle feel like an integral part of the strip.

Another case study in the integration of character and issue comes in the shape of Ms. Joanie Caucus. Her presence in the strip dates back to 1972, when Mike and Mark set off on the road to discover America, and meet Joanie who is already on the run from husband and home. She accompanies them back to Walden Commune and moves in, working with children at a local day care centre until she makes up her mind to study law. Her presence allows Trudeau to make the case for the feminist ideas of the period; at the same time, she casts the eye of a sympathetic but sometimes bewildered outsider over his cast of college students. Joanie's first meeting with Zonker Her first encounter with Zonker Harris, champion tanner, terminally irresponsible and in many ways the soul of the Doonesbury strip, is a joy to behold. Joanie's subsequent career takes her through law school (where she encounters some magnificently sexist professors) and finds her managing the electoral campaign of her room-mate Ginny (in the course of which she meets her future partner Rick Redfern and her future employer, Ginny's opponent Lacey Davenport) Trudeau uses her friendship with Andy Lippincott to express his disgust at government inactivity on Aids, and her home life to examine what it means for a woman to combine a high-flying political career with motherhood of a small child.

The juxtaposition of two strips published more than 20 years apart also underlines how far Trudeau's artistic style has developed since the early days. The long history of Doonesbury creates within one strip a situation parallel to that in contemporary superhero comics, where both readers and writers have grown up with earlier versions of characters whose comparative lack of sophistication they view with condescension, but also great affection. A current comic which makes great play with this is Alan Moore's Supreme); another was Grant Morrison's Animal Man , which never concealed its awareness of reviving an endearing but essentially second-rate character, and whose dénouement led through the limbo inhabited by such undead characters as the Inferior Five. Such post-modernist play with the conventions characterises the approach of the best comics writers to their medium - and Gary Trudeau does it too.Doonesbury, then and now Doonesbury He indulges in a number of gags where the characters look out of their four-frame to address the reader directly, answer mail, complain of their under-use in the forthcoming programme; Trudeau's awareness of the precise nature of the aging process undergone by his characters fits into the context of this type of humour.

I've concentrated on the compatibility of Doonesbury with the superhero/ mainstream comics universe because I think many comics fans are missing out on a terrific narrative. Another nice thing about it is that it is well represented on the Web; take a look atThe Electronic Town Hall, a seriously good website in its own right, or, for some of Doonesbury's more political moments, The Controversial Doonesbury.

Doonesbury is widely syndicated, and is certainly appearing in a newspaper near you. Personally, I read it daily in the Guardian. There are a large number of books collecting the strips together, and an exhaustive collection is also available on a Mindscape CD-Rom with the beguiling title What a long, strange strip it's been!.

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