Friday, December 3, 2010

Day 3: A Doonesbury Retrospective

On October 26, 1970, college jock B.D. met his inept and geeky roommate, Mike. Fourteen thousand strips later, the world of Doonesbury has grown into an intricately woven web of relationships -- more than 40 major characters spanning three generations. And now, Garry Trudeau -- who started the comic strip (then called Bull Tales) while an undergraduate student at Yale -- looks back at 40 years of Doonesbury in a new collection, 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective. In his opening essay, Trudeau tells us what the book is not: It is not about the defining events of the last four decades. Rather, it is about "how it felt to live through those years -- a loosely organized chronicle of modern times, as crowdsourced by what was once called 'the Doonesbury gang.'"

This is not your standard voluminous compilation of every strip ever published. The volume's 1800 carefully selected and beautifully displayed strips represent a mere 13% of the total originally published and are organized around eighteen major characters -- a mere sliver of the total cast -- starting with Michael Doonesbury and ending with Elias, a Vietnam vet and amputee. Trudeau begins each chapter with an essay introducing the character and how he or she fits into the cast. The book's literal centerpiece is a four-page foldout that maps in annotated detail the mind-boggling matrix of relationships of the unusually large (for a comic strip) cast. As Trudeau himself says in his introductory essay, " Most humor strips do just fine with a half-dozen or so players. Calvin and Hobbes had only two essential characters, and one of them was imaginary."

New characters arrive, but the original characters remain essential. "A reader recently noted that Alex has become the new center of gravity in the strip, that Doonesbury's auspices have passed from Mike to his daughter. What a concept. Alex was only born in 1988, but now, from her shaky perch as an insecure undergraduate, she rules. The strip's original animating idea -- that it's inherently interesting to watch a generation come of age -- repeats itself."

Talking about people and issues through a comic strip enables a different kind of storytelling than one can do in novels or even in essays. As Trudeau said in an interview with Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner, "What's wonderful about a comic strip is the stories unfurl in such a tiny, incremental way that you can keep a story alive for weeks," he says. "If I were writing a piece for a newspaper or magazine, it would be a one-off — people might read it that day and then move on. So I can insinuate some of these issues under the skin of the body politic in a way that is not possible for people working in other media."

Many comic strips engage in political commentary, but most of them are one-offs. Trudeau is able to make points over long story arcs, and to return to topics again and again, pointing out absurdities from multiple perspectives and revisiting them through the generations. We have lived with his cast of characters -- three generations of them -- through four decades of wars, political scandals, elections, AIDS, economic challenges -- Oregon even had its own moment in the Doonesbury sun when the state was lampooned in the comic strip for shutting schools down early because of a lack of funding.

This isn't the least expensive holiday gift suggestion we'll talk about in the 24 Days of Books -- in fact, at $100, it's probably the most expensive -- but it is beautifully produced (with a mixture of black & white and color strips) and thoughtfully organized and comes packaged inside a beautiful slip cover. This would make a most delicious gift for someone special in your life.

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