Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Doonesbury’s Generational Shift

I have been a fan of Gary Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” comic since coming across it in 1990. For many a year it was the main reason I bought The Australian. Now of course, due to the internet, I need not bother, as it can be read online (and the link for which you can see on the left).

The strip, which has been going since October 1970 (though it started first in the Yale Daily News in 1968), has chronicled and satirised American politics as good as any writer has over that period. Aside from the satire of Presidents, the cartoon is also a veritable Dickensian novel of plots and characters. 

On Monday, the strip covered the continuing story of the romance between M.I.T. college student Alex Doonesbury (the daughter of the eponymous Mike Doonesbury) with the young, wounded Iraq War vet, Toggle (so named due to his incessant use of ipods and other electronic gadgetry). Toggle had served in a unit under Army reservist B.D. who back in 1970 was Mike Doonesbury’s college room mate (see what I mean about Dickens). Toggle and Alex met on Facebook (Doonesbury has always kept pretty topical on social trends – one character, journalist Roland Hedley, has a twitter account), and she visited him over the college holidays.

The strip on Monday was a big one because while Toggle has suffered aphasia since being wounded, there has not been any mention of any other trauma from the war. In the first three panels we see for the first time the mental effects of the war, as Toggle has a nightmare about the moment before he got hit. And then for Doonesbury fans there is a big surprise in the final panel.

There in the bed next to Toggle is Alex – Alex who we have known since she was born on camera in 1988 (her mother J.J. is a performance artist), grow up, learn how to hack computers, become a web-cam celebrity in the early 2000s, get accepted to M.I.T. on the basis of an online poll (which M.I.T.students  hacked) – Alex now has a boyfriend and they ain’t just holdin’ hands and kissing.

In true Doonesbury (and Dickens) style, the strip is also a nod to older readers of how in 1977 we found out that Alex’s grandmother, Joanie Caucus, (who had been living in a college boarding house with among others, Mike and BD – of course!) was getting all snugly with Washington Post reporter (and future husband) Rick Redfern. In 1995, Trudeau put out a book  celebrating the 25th Anniversary, and it contained the strip that showed that the Joanie-Rick relationship had moved to the next level:


The big difference though in the 32 years is the reaction. Back then, over 30 newspapers in America dropped the strip because neither Rick nor Joanie were married, and possibly because editors thought the scene was a bit too indiscrete – one newspaper only blocked out the final panel. Given that Joanie was a bit of a feminist icon it also got a reaction from university students – apparently a group of M.I.T. students picketed The Boston Globe newspaper building with signs reading “Joanie We Forgive You” (they took their comics more seriously back then).

Today there would be no newspapers dropping the comic showing Toggle and Alex in bed – although many readers will be thinking “Alex, you can do better!!!” – but it is a wonderful capsule of why I keep reading the comic – it deals with topical issues, has great character development, humour, and also rewards long time readers with subtle references to long past events.

It has long since past its cutting edge point, but it’s still pretty much the first thing I read every morning, and since that has been the case for nearly 20 years, Trudeau must be doing something right. It’s a pity no Australian cartoonist has developed anything similar – all Australia “political” cartoonists seem to favour the editorial style. A pity. Had I any artistic ability I would have been trying my darnedest to do an Australian version when I was a young uni student – oh well chalk that down to another of the many “I shoulda’s” in my life.

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