January 24, 2008


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 Iraq and Afghanistan. Edited by David Stanford. Andrews McMeel. $16.95.

      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 Iraq and Afghanistan – and their families back home – could post their feelings about what they were going through. The idea was to take military blogging outside the military itself, bringing a broader, civilian audience into the day-to-day world of the people fighting for the United States in wars far from home. This is a wonderful, tremendously sensitive idea that entitles Trudeau and Doonesbury to at least a footnote in the history of U.S. warfare. It is not, however, an idea that works especially well in book form, which is why Doonesbury.com’s The Sandbox gets a (+++) rating. The difficulty is not the humaneness of the book but its mundaneness. Reading just a few entries, or parts of entries, is enough to show that U.S. soldiers and their families are just like other Americans and their families: doing their jobs, worrying about everyday details, concerned about today and tomorrow. Obviously, there is greater urgency and drama in war than in commuting to a desk job, and the horrors of war are certainly apparent in some of the Sandbox postings. But what comes through most clearly – again and again, for more than 300 pages – is that these fighters are simply people, and young ones at that. “Some of us believe in the political machines that nudge entire nations into war, and some of us just believe in ourselves and each other and doing the duty we raised our hand and swore to do.” “If anyone back home reads this: If you’re too far right to make any sense, leave me alone, and if you’re too far left to make any sense, leave me alone.” “Something dark and twisted comes into view, lying in the middle of the street, which is dirtier and more cluttered than usual.” “We walk and share our experiences and the wonderment of being in an alien place for a strange celebration, and we discuss the way that buildings and pavement and glass only make a setting.” This is incredibly powerful material – in small doses. The awful ordinariness of day-to-day war emerges, again and again, with striking clarity. But the repetitive nature of the experiences soon dulls the reader, as it must dull so many of the fighters. Doonesbury.com’s The Sandbox is simply too much, even when sampled in small doses – and few readers who do sample it here and there are likely to want to go back to it later. As well-intentioned and important as the book is, it is ultimately less effective than reading the ongoing saga of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as posted at Doonesbury.com itself.

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