Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

October 26, 2005

All Hail Doonesbury, 35 Years Old


Doonesbury may not astonish like it did during its first decade, nor does it have exactly the same passionate fanbase that allowed it the client list to say things other strips couldn't. It still has the ability to piss people off, and the broadest, best-realized cast in comic strip history. Here's the Doonesbury web site, an interview, the article from his syndicate about the anniversary, a profile, an Editor and Publisher piece, and the full text of a recent talk to newspaper editors.

Garry Trudeau jokes in one of the above stories that his legacy is that strips can be poorly drawn now. That is partly true, I think, but it's really selling Doonesbury's influence short. You find Doonesbury scattered about the comics page in a lot of odd places. Formally, that silent pause before a double-punchline is such a fantastic way of telling jokes -- it's the freaking Green Bay Sweep/Triangle offense of comic strip joke-telling -- that it seems impossible for lesser talents to abuse it out of the business. Doonesbury is the first major strip to come out of the college ranks, the first strip to grow in popularity based a model where people object to its being dropped, and among the top five when it comes to book/strip synergy. Its rise contributed greatly to the success of the AM-Universal syndicate, which means it helped make possible the shape of the modern syndication and strip-book industries. Doonesbury hasn't gained as much as Dilbert has from the exploitation of various computer and on-line technologies, but it's been pretty forward in using them -- a complete CD-ROM, an aggressive showcase web site perhaps best known for its partnership with the high-profile Slate magazine. I think the strip was a general artistic influence, allowing more satire on the comics page. It gave newspaper editors a context in which to understand and give a shot to The Boondocks, For Better or For Worse, and Bloom County. Bloom County owed a ton of its artistic personality to Doonesbury, to be cordial about it, and Breathed's strip received a direct syndication boost as a plugged-in substitute when Trudeau took time off -- taking a break being another thing Trudeau did if not first than to greatest effect.

I could go on and on. When I worked in Seattle at The Comics Journal, Doonesbury made it really easy for me to explain to non-comics readers what I was doing for a living. "You know how Doonesbury is different from the rest of the newspaper strips in that it's sort of obviously aimed at adults and takes a certain amount of attention to understand it? There are a lot of comic strips and comic books like that, just not as well known." That always worked. Always.

I also just enjoy the strip. I always have, despite a childhood so Republicanized I was 24 years old before I realized much of what Archie Bunker said was intended as satire. I've been collecting the older, white books recently, and it's a lot of fun re-reading the 1970s run. My favorite storyline, I think, is the one where Joanie Caucus -- maybe the greatest female comic strip character ever -- ran a congressional campaign and in the fallout ended up in the sack with Rick Redfern in a great silent sequence, the kind of thing no one could do today without coming across as self-congratultory and smarmy. There was something really sustained and smart and wholly character-based about that entire run that I still find endearing. I also have a soft spot for the old football huddle strips from the comic's early days. I'm not as big a fan of the more aggressively fantastic political satire and dangling feathers and whatnot of the strip's more recent years, but I don't get a vote, and god help those idiotic comics fans who cling to a rigid view of someone else's lifework and treat any digression as a personal affront and poison that keeps them from seeing the wider achievement. Trudeau can still hit hard when he wants to, as he did in 2004 with the BD losing his leg storyline, and the extent of his accomplishment is becoming more and more clear. Hooray for Doonesbury, and happy birthday.
posted 9:33 am PST | Permalink

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