I've been reading Doonesbury for almost 20 years now. But I've effectively been following the strip for the 34 years since its very beginning, as I discovered it by finding reprints of early strips at the library.
The virtues of Doonesbury are well known. The writing is witty, the commentary on politics barbed, the cast of characters rich and layered after so much time. But in the last several years, though I still read it every day, my enthusiasm for the strip has waned.
Last year, an article by Jesse Walker in Reason put its finger on why: it just has not been as good as it used to be.
Consider one issue where Trudeau's opinion hasn't changed but his tone has: gun control. First examine this 1981 exchange between the strip's resident outlaw and a flunky from the National Rifle Association, set in a Washington bar:Springfield: Duke ... it's me, Springfield! From the N.R.A., remember?
Duke: Oh ... Springfield, what's the idea of sneaking up on me like that? I coulda blown you away!
Springfield: I'm sorry. That would have been your right.
Now jump to 1993, as a giant cigarette and a giant bullet prepare to lobby Congress.Mr. Butts: Still on a tear, Mr. Dum-Dum?
Mr. Dum-Dum: Hey! The N.R.A. never rests! The gun-control nuts keep trying to slip the Brady Bill past us! But it ain't gonna happen! No way! We've been shooting our way out of tight squeezes since 1871! And look at the results! Over 70 million happy gun owners ready and able to defend our way of life!
Mr. Butts: Wow ... are we safe yet?
Mr. Dum-Dum: Not yet. Tragically, many children are still unarmed!
I disagree with Trudeau about gun control, but I still think the first strip is funny. The second one just hectors us. It isn't controversial so much as it's annoying.
He's right: the strip isn't as consistently witty as it used to be. Part of Walker's criticism is that Doonesbury has become self-referential:
In 1972 the strip was engaged with the world; in 2002 it is engaged with itself.
I mean that literally. In 1972 Doonesbury rewarded intelligence; in 2002 it rewards familiarity with its own mythology and conventions. In 1972 it trusted readers to know the politics and pop culture of the day; in 2002 it trusts us to understand that a floating waffle represents Bill Clinton, a floating bomb represents Newt Gingrich, and a floating asterisk represents George W. Bush. The strip has grown so self-referential that it makes jokes about its own self-referentiality, with Sunday strips devoted to charting the relationships among the characters.
He has a point. But lately, Trudeau seems to have gotten his mojo back in the recent sequence about B.D., and as we'll see, the self-referentiality makes possible what I think is the most powerful, poignant moment in the history of the strip — one of the greatest moments, indeed, ever managed in the painfully limited four-panel medium.
For those of you unfamiliar with Doonesbury, B.D. is a major cast member who has been with the strip from the very beginning.
He was originally a lunkheaded college football player ...
who provided a conservative foil for strip's lefty politics.
He dropped out to serve in Vietnam ... bringing his football helmet with him so we could recognize him.
As time went on, B.D. took other jobs.
As a cop:
A soldier again, in the first Gulf war:
As a football coach:
Back to Iraq again this year:
Things got interesting a few months ago: B.D. was shot in the line of duty. It was sad, and scary.
When I saw those strips, the suspense was powerful. Was B.D. going to be okay? Was he going to die? The next day, we learn what happened to him, with Trudeau cleverly using the language of the strip to underline the point. It's a brilliant move: in that last panel, his injury isn't the first thing you see, giving it more impact. The same device makes it clear that things will never be the same.
If you start reading the strip now, you're not alone — this story thread is still alive a couple of months later, and it's the most interesting stuff to happen to Doonesbury in years. Perhaps ever. The story made the cover of Rolling Stone. And it has inspired the ire of folks like Bill O'Reilly, which I have to take as a good sign.
Shorter Bill O'Reilly
Dissent Stinks if it Exploits the Pain of G.I.s
Turning actual human beings into mincemeat while waging an unprovoked war is one thing, but maiming a beloved cartoon character to make a political point is way over the line.
Commentators on the right are responding to Doonesbury again! Keep it up, Mr. Trudeau.