November 22, 2006


Jam-Packed FoxTrot. By Bill Amend. Andrews McMeel. $16.95.

Heckuva Job, Bushie! A “Doonesbury” Book. By G.B. Trudeau. Andrews McMeel. $19.95.

The War Within: One More Step at a Time. A “Doonesbury” Book. By G.B. Trudeau. Andrews McMeel. $9.95.

     The oversize collections of comics that Andrews McMeel calls “Treasuries” serve up heaping helpings of a cartoonist’s work – and can turn episodic daily newspaper strips into something akin to graphic novels.  It is not easy for cartoonists to produce a daily three-or-four-panel strip that works as a self-contained entity, with some sort of punch line, and also as part of a longer narrative.  But today’s top cartoonists do just that seven days a week – frequently, as in the case of Bill Amend, by creating comedies of character.  Day after day, the characters in Amend’s FoxTrot remain true to type.  Anyone who understands the dynamics of the strip – with which a new reader can familiarize himself or herself quickly – will realize that the interplay of Fox family members is the consistent background against which individual strips or strip sequences take place.  Jam-Packed FoxTrot, like most “Treasury” volumes, is a reprint: Sunday strips are in color, but otherwise the book is identical to three smaller-format ones called Orlando Bloom Has Ruined Everything, My Hot Dog Went Out—Can I Have Another? and How Come I’m Always Luigi?  The comedy flows naturally from the family members’ personalities: golf-obsessed, generally ineffective father Roger; health-food-and-soap-opera-addicted mother Andy; bottomless-stomach, thin-as-a-rail, sports-wannabe son Peter; fashion-and-boy-obsessed daughter Paige; and super-nerd Jason, around whom the rest of the family’s antics usually revolve.  For example, Jason tries to stave off spring by dumping ice cubes on a melting snowman; writes an apology on the blackboard once, then writes code in chalk that would replicate the apology 500 times; creates study aids with wrong answers to sell to lesser students, so he will have more repeat business; makes a “ninjabread man” that attacks the other cookies; and much more.  Occasional offbeat stories – such as an “ink shortage” sequence featuring mostly white panels – offer a pleasant change of pace.

     “Pleasant” is scarcely the adjective for Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury, which has spent more than three decades skewering societal trends and, in particular, self-important and hypocritical politicians.  Trudeau is all too easily dismissed as an old-fashioned leftist, but in fact his contempt for the people that we Americans elect to represent us crosses party lines: this is the cartoonist whose icon for former President Clinton was a floating waffle, often dripping with butter and syrup.  In recent years, with Republicans controlling the three branches of the federal government, Trudeau’s satire has of course been directed at the G.O.P. most of the time.  That’s certainly evident in the new “Treasury” volume, Heckuva Job, Bushie! – which not only gets in jabs at the president and his supporters, but also takes an intense look at the soldiers serving in Iraq and the recruiters trying to bring more people into the military (Mike Doonesbury’s daughter, Alex, seriously considers enlisting).  A lot of Doonesbury does not wear especially well, because it’s just too topical: detailed considerations of the nomination of John Bolton as U.N. ambassador and the day-to-day foibles of former congressman Tom DeLay no longer have much impact.  But Trudeau’s technique of hopscotching among his characters – changing focus and story lines every few weeks – means there is plenty here to enjoy, and to think through.

     The War Within is a smaller-size book that picks up a single, highly emotional story line from the “Treasury” – the attempt of B.D., after his loss of a leg in Iraq, to return to civilian life and be rehabilitated both physically and psychologically.  A successor to The Long Road Home: One Step at a Time, the new book packs every bit as big an emotional wallop as the first one did.  And again, Trudeau is donating his proceeds from this book to Fisher House, where families can stay while their service members are being rehabilitated nearby.  Trudeau obviously respects the people who are fighting overseas as much as he hates the policies that put them in Iraq and Afghanistan (he was no big fan of the Vietnam war, either).  The War Within is a work of rare sensitivity and genuine caring – it shows just how powerful a comic strip can be.

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