Daily Doonesburys have been reruns since February 2014, when Garry Trudeau went to work on his Amazon streaming comedy “Alpha House” (never seen it; is it good?). At the time, Trudeau told Washington Post writer Michael Cavna that his hiatus was long-term and open-ended. “I’ve done the strip for 43 years,” Trudeau said, “and I’m ready for an extended break.” However, he continues to produce new strips for Sundays.
No criticism of Trudeau’s work ethic. Four and a half decades is a remarkable run. The strips rerun during his hiatus have been an interesting cross-section of Doonesbury history. One of the hazards of topical humor is that it doesn’t age well. “Laugh-In” was hilarious in 1968 (no, really!) and is mostly mystifying now; “Murphy Brown” was a top ten show from 1990 to 1994 but never caught on in syndicated reruns because Bella Abzug and Dan Quayle lost their cultural currency.
By and large, Trudeau and his editors have avoided that snare by focusing on the characters and their relationships. Although the inspiration for this week’s arc from 1986 is Ivan Boesky and his crooked stock-trading practices, Trudeau filters it through DJ Mark Slackmeyer’s tycoon father Phil, whom we’ve known since the strip’s earliest days. You don’t need to know Boesky to enjoy Phil’s guilty panic, nor remember the financial crises of the 1980s when you’re still recovering from those of the 2010s. Phil could just as easily be managing a hedge fund today. Alas.
It’s a smart approach that helps the feature feel fresh, even if it isn’t.
Today’s strip is neat because Trudeau makes us feel a bit of sympathy, or at least empathy, for a robber baron who’d usually be a villain. Most of us know what it’s like to show up at work and be immediately hit by the last problem you’d want to face. Phil’s pathetic attempt to weasel out of it in the last panel isn’t fooling anyone. Phil doesn’t even act like his heart’s in it. He knows he’s nailed.
The story line completed last week revisited one of the highlights of the strip’s history: the death of Dick, Lacey Davenport’s hapless but beloved birdwatching husband. Readers and critics understandably focus on Trudeau’s political material, but I think that shortchanges his subtle and moving character work. He can break your heart while making you smile, which is a feat.
This is the sort of storytelling that episodic comics excel at. Readers connect with comics characters for just a few seconds a day, but thousands of seconds over hundreds of days builds surprising depth and intimacy that can pay off in great moments. Most television programs and movies, and even many novels, wouldn’t take the time to get to know a minor character like Dick, but Trudeau can weave him into his cast, a little bit at a time over decades, until his loss hits us harder than we’d expect.
Of course, a newspaper rerunning Doonesbury strips from 30 years ago has one less spot available for new material. Ditto Peanuts, For Better or For Worse, and others. A lot of cartoonists who covet those spots aren’t happy about it, and some comic strip fans consider it bad for the medium. They’d rather see fresh ideas nurtured and flourishing, even if they’re not as popular as Zonker or Snoopy. Give new voices a chance!
I get that.
However, I’m more of a free-market purist myself. I absolutely champion comics as a mature and legitimate form of art and literature (in fact, that’s kinda my deal), but don’t forget that they were created in the first place to sell newspapers. If readers want to read Doonesbury, and editors believe Doonesbury will help sell more papers than a different strip made in this century, then why deny customers what they want?
Besides, webcomics are where the action is these days. No money, but action.
I realize that reasonable people—especially reasonable people trying to make a living in comic strip syndication—may feel otherwise.
He Knew It All Along
New in bookstores is Yuge!, a collection of Doonesbury strips on Donald Trump over the years. Trudeau has had his eye on Trump since the mid-80s, and it’s startling to see how early and well Trudeau had him and his ambitions pegged. Trump’s bullying, bluster, and boasting were there all along, including a 1987 interview with the New York Times in which he said, “If I did run for president, I’d win.”
It was all a joke, until it wasn’t. Trudeau has dedicated many recent Sunday strips to calling out the would-be emperor’s lack of clothes. Unfortunately, the people Trudeau is trying to persuade are the same ones who believe Doonesbury is part of a problem that only Trump can fix.
The Other Shoe Plops
Yesterday I neglected to follow up on a Pickles strip Mike posted on Monday, July 11. Opal had found a spot on Earl's arm that she thought a doctor ought to check out. Mike's mind being preoccupied as it was, he took that as an ominous sign of a cancer plotline to come. Well, on Tuesday everything turned out well enough for Earl. Mike isn't getting off that easily, but with luck and time his end result will be as happy. It will probably also involve a licking dog.