February 23, 2006


Dude: The Big Book of Zonker. By G.B. Trudeau. Andrews McMeel. $19.95.

     More than a decade ago, Andrews McMeel brought out a book called Action Figure!  It featured the multi-decade life and times of Uncle Duke, one of the more bizarre and intriguing recurring characters in G.B. Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic-strip-cum-editorial.  The book was packaged with an actual action figure of Uncle Duke in one of his “exploitation of war-torn areas” costumes.

     Change a single letter in “Duke” and do an attitudinal about-face and you get Dude, a larger and even more handsomely produced volume dedicated to another of Trudeau’s deeply weird creations: Duke’s nephew, Zonker Harris.  But don’t look for an action figure this time.  It would be entirely out of character: Zonker is the ultimate inaction figure.

     Like Uncle Duke and the eponymous Mike Doonesbury himself, Zonker has mellowed somewhat over the years – or changed, anyway; he was plenty mellow to begin with.  His days as an unreconstructed drug-addled hippie, wearing a star-covered helmet while playing college football (yes, football), are over, as are his times on the championship tanning circuit – an ideal place for Zonker, except that the always socially conscious Trudeau became worried about sending readers a message that could lead them to behavior that would increase their risk of skin cancer.  Nowadays Zonker is the mostly incompetent nanny for B.D., the gung-ho ex-quarterback he used to freak out at college by kissing him on the lips (B.D. is now married to college sweetheart Boopsie, has a child – hence the need for a nanny – and lost a leg fighting in Iraq).  As good-hearted as ever, and as averse to work as always, Zonker seems to pass through life with minimal interaction with the world.  He is a perennial flower child crossed with a touch of Peter Pan.

     Dude: The Big Book of Zonker wonderfully chronicles the offbeat life and times of this highly unusual character – who is, in fact, one of Trudeau’s best creations.  The days when Zonker spent as much time as possible in “Walden puddle” are here; so is his jail time for marijuana possession – with a cellmate who is in for first-degree murder; his untimely appearance on the cover of Time magazine; his many discussions with plants; his scientifically accurate “exposure charts” from his tanning days; his $23 million lottery win; his purchase of an extremely long British title with the help of a “peerage broker” called “Lords-R-Us”; his various adventures as a nanny; and much more.  Trudeau’s art work noticeably improves throughout the book, and his characters gain complexity as his plots spiral into multiple overlaps and sometimes toward near-unintelligibility (Trudeau has acknowledged readers’ understandable notion that even he must have a hard time keeping track of all his characters).  Zonker interacts with numerous other Doonesbury denizens, of course, but Trudeau makes sure he remains remarkably untouched by the grubby world in which he lives (even when he encounters some of its grubbier elements).  In a Sunday strip near the end of the book, Zonker asks B.D. if he really went to Vietnam, and B.D. reminds Zonker that he himself was there: “You followed me around for the school paper.”  Zonker pauses and, with a straight-toward-the-reader look of perfect bewilderment, says, “I thought I’d made that up.”  There you have this character’s self-summation.  Dude is a wonderfully offbeat tour of some of the more bizarre byways of Trudeau’s Doonesbury world.

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