Welcome to the Nerd Farm! A “Doonesbury” Book. By G.B. Trudeau. Andrews McMeel. $18.95.
Doonesbury.com’s The Sandbox: Dispatches from Troops in
Garry Trudeau may have found his calling at last – or found another one – as the outlet for the voices of American military personnel deployed in distant lands. This may surprise people who think of Trudeau only as the reliably liberal voice of the Doonesbury comic strip, which has been around for almost four decades. But Trudeau is full of surprises when you look at him and his work as a totality. He is not unquestioningly liberal: he portrayed President Bill Clinton as a waffle dripping with butter and syrup (what icon would he create for a President Hillary Clinton, one wonders?). And he is by no means anti-military – he is anti-war, which is not the same thing. Plenty of members of the military are anti-war, too, including many who are fighting.
Life is complex, and Doonesbury is complex to the extent that it reflects life. Trudeau does not love his characters – he has said that he looks to the right characters to make whatever point he wants to make, even if that means a character dies or becomes gravely ill. The characters are a means to an end – even Michael Doonesbury, titular “star” of the strip, who (like Walt Kelly’s Pogo in the strip of the same name, which heavily influenced Trudeau) is less interesting than many of those around him. Kelly once explained that by saying of Pogo, “He’s the glue.” And so is Mike.
The bits of life that Mike glues together in Welcome to the Nerd Farm! include the adventures of his daughter, Alex, at MIT; the emergence of perpetual bad-boy Duke from a comatose state into a new career as a Washington lobbyist; the slow recovery of B.D. from the emotional stress of war, which has cost him a leg; the breakup of the gay relationship of Mark and Chase, who were “married” by a TWA flight attendant; the move of Mike’s mother from Oklahoma, which she loves, to Mike’s home in Seattle, which she loathes; and more. Trudeau follows each piece of his many stories for a while – a week or two in newspaper time – and then shifts his focus elsewhere. He may not be attached to his characters, but it is the character-oriented tales that work best in this collection, whether they involve adjusting to college or to a move far from one’s home in one’s later years. The strictly political stuff – and there is plenty of it – just doesn’t wear well; in many cases, it is tied so closely to events of the day that it is now hard to figure out what Trudeau was talking about. Unless political cartoonists are exceptional artists – Thomas Nast in the 19th century and Pat Oliphant today come to mind – there is little interest in their work once its points are made. Trudeau is simply not at the Nast/Oliphant level (and even their works are not really effective in collections, from the point of view of content).
One cartoon in Welcome to the Nerd Farm! has taken on a special life of its own: a Sunday page from October 2006 that announced the creation of “The Sandbox,” an online location at which troops in