40: A Doonesbury Retrospective

Saturday, 22 January 2011

I can't think of a better argument for the iPad as a reading platform than this hefty volume which at around 4.3kg moves the wrist-breaker descriptor into a whole extra dimension, and the colour portion of the contents would probably come up rather well on the iPad screen.. 

I've been following Doonesbury from the early seventies, not always with the consistency I'd like as the strip appeared and disappeared through various newspaper incarnations, and over the years I've picked up a fair collection of paperback collections from various stretches of the saga of this bunch of college students and their associates as they've meandered through forty years of American life. 

As is invariably the case with these things, there are gaps in the collection that need to be filled given the Doonesbury strip’s probable links to my Interesting Times project, which goes part of the way to explaining the decision to purchase this particular tome.

On the other hand, ever since those first roughly-drawn depictions of early seventies college life with their wry take on the quirks and foibles of late adolescents as they move inexorably towards adulthood, I’ve been a firm fan of Trudeau’s work, and the prospect of consolidating the cartoon collection into one volume was not to be missed.

Forty years of cartoon strips, with six daily four-panel black and white strips each week and a page-sized panel for the Sunday colour supplement means that we were always looking at a hefty compendium, and if you're looking for everything this ain't quite the place to go, folks.

Or maybe it is, since you don't expect 100% genius and perspicacity over forty years, and as I browse trough the close to seven hundred pages it seems like most of the major themes are there and crucial episodes and plot lines get reasonably detailed coverage.

For the uninitiated, Mike Doonesbury, your common or garden nerd, starts off at Walden College sharing a room with footballer B.D., an arrangement that morphs into an off-campus commune beside Walden Puddle, drawing in the other long-term key figures, arch-slacker Zonker Harris, student radical Mark Slackmeyer, B.D.'s girlfriend Boopsie, runaway housewife Joanie Caucus and the rest of an extended family who've all headed off on their own tangents tat allow cartoonist Garry Trudeau to focus on a wealth of issues over the past forty years.

Along the way Mike moves from college student through a career in advertising into software and e-commerce while B.D.'s involvement with the R.O.T.C. military program gets him to Vietnam and subsequent involvement in both Gulf Wars in between a career as college football coach and manager of Hollywood starlet and third girl in shower Boopsie (a.k.a. Barbara Ann Boopstein).

Various factors bring media personalities into the mix as well. Mark Slackmeyer moves from college radio DJ into current affairs talk-back and gay activism, while Roland Hedley Jr turns up to collect details of the student mood early on and meanders through various plot lines as he moves from foreign correspondent to would-be celebrity journalist tweeter and Rick Redfern, heavyweight political journo starts off covering a political campaign, marries Joanie and produces a son who ends up working for the C.I.A. in Afghanistan and tweets his own personal mythology as Sorkh Razil (Red Rascal), bane of the Taliban.

That's the briefest skim over the surface of a cartoon strip that has delivered some of the most biting and insightful coverage of American socio-political and cultural issues, neglecting, among others, the zigzagging career of Zonker's Uncle Duke, archetypal wheeler dealer who appears in various guises from Governor of American Samoa, Ambassador to China, to proprietor of orphanages and bars and skipper of Donald Trump's personal yacht.

40: A Doonesbury Retrospective hasn't quite rendered that pile of paperbacks redundant, but will be occupying a prime piece of shelf space beside Hughesy's reading chair for some time to come....

© Ian Hughes 2012