To Praise DOONES, Not to BURY Him

Long before I established my toenail-hold in this business I was a comics fan, and to this day I still spend a portion of my hard-earned dough-re-mi money on comics and collections from other publishers. I thought I’d take a moment to offer an enthusiastic thumbs-up for a mammoth volume I recently finished reading.Doones40_1

Long before I established my toenail-hold in this business I was a comics fan, and to this day I still spend a portion of my hard-earned dough-re-mi money on comics and collections from other publishers. I thought I’d take a moment to offer an enthusiastic thumbs-up for a mammoth volume I recently finished reading.Doones40_2

While it’s not like 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective is devoid of political commentary, the folks behind this collection have (very wisely, I think) made a conscious decision to focus on thecharacters, and as a result readers get to appreciate Doonesbury as our generation’s Gasoline Alley. It was great nostalgic fun for me to go back to those early strips and watch the Walden commune take shape around Mike Doonesbury, the perpetually stoned Zonker, right-wing simpleton/jock B.D., and leather-lunged activity Mark Slackmeyer—the arrival of runaway-housewife-turned-feminist kicked the strip in one direction—the fictionalized Hunter Thompson-refry, Duke, yanked the narrative onto an entirely different (and significantly more combustible!) path.Doones40_3

What amazed me while reading 40 was how much I enjoyed the exploits of all the new characters Trudeau had introduced in the more than fifteen years I had been away from his work. He’s reared an entire second generation of characters: Mike’s daughter, Alex; Joanie and Rick Redfern’s son, Jeff; Zipper Harris, that next-generation Zonker; B.D. and Boopsie’s daughter, Sam; even Duke ended up with a junior version of himself, Earl (yes, that makes him “Earl Duke”). These characters either carry on the aspects of their elders while still clearly being separate and distinct personalities (a considerable bit of characterizational legerdemain, that) or they serve as a sort of walking alternate universe, allowing us to explore what it might have been like if one of the core characters had made different choices and grown along different paths.

A further hearty bravo is extended to 40 for capturing so many touching, emotionally honest milestones from the strip’s long history. The deaths of first Dick Davenport, then his wife, former Congresswoman Lacey D.—Joanie’s graduation from law school—J.J. leaving Mike, and then later, single-parent Mike finding happiness with younger, still-edgy-but-more-settled Kim—Rick’s dismissal from the Washington Post, leaving him cut adrift in the rapidly-changing 21st Century, scrabbling establish himself as a political blogger. Call me a softie, but it all hit me where I lived, as did Trudeau’s multi-year examination of the situation for wounded veterans of Iraq/Afghanistan. It’s courageous storytelling starting in April, 2004, when original cast member B.D. faces a startling loss. Watching the life changes that stem from that one searing moment made for compelling, affecting reading. B.D.’s unfolding story was allowed to intertwine with a pair of new characters, two other returning vets—Melissa, who was sexually assaulted by her own fellow soldiers, and Toggle, the techno-wiz who keeps the tunes flowing until one day …

I see Trudeau putting a human face (if a fictional one) on the cost of these “wars on terror” and it’s to the mass media’s shame that he seems to be the only one who was doing it. The “major” outlets were seemingly concerned with “embedding” journalists and getting sexy night-vision camera shots than with relating the real story to the folks at home.

By the end of this massive compilation, all three of those veterans have reached a good place again, and yes, I admit it, I brushed away a tear at the conversation between Toggle and Mike on the last page, reprinting the June 6, 2010 Sunday page.

Go ahead—call me a softie.Doones40_4

40: A Doonesbury Retrospective isn’t a Library of American Comics book, but we haven’t shied away from recommending projects from other publishers that are worthy of your attention and I’m here to tell you, regardless of your political leanings (or lack of same), this is a book that repays the reading.

Unless, of course, you’re one of those who don’t like their books to weigh too much…

 

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