December 10, 2009


Tee Time in Berzerkistan: A “Doonesbury” Book. By G.B. Trudeau. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

     The funny thing about Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury is that it isn’t funny. Witty, sometimes. Wry, frequently. But although it is called a “comic” strip, there is little that is comic about it, except perhaps in the same sense as Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” which is comedic only from a deity’s point of view. Trudeau, of course, is the god of his own little world, which often closely resembles the one in which the rest of us live – but diverges from it whenever Trudeau wants to make a point, which is frequently.

     It is worth noting that Doonesbury is an idea strip, not a character strip, despite the huge number of characters in it. In this way, Trudeau – the preeminent political comic-strip creator of our time – differs significantly from Walt Kelly, whose Pogo was the greatest political strip of its time. Pogo is still delightfully readable today, because so much of it is character-driven and extremely funny, even though its political points have long since faded into obscurity. Doonesbury does not wear as well, because Trudeau selects the characters he will use in a given series of strips based on the point he wants to make in that series – the people are secondary to the argument. This makes Trudeau’s strips highly effective in the short term – and viscerally annoying to those whose ideas differ from his – but it guarantees that collections, such as Tee Time in Berzerkistan, will appeal primarily to Trudeau’s personal legion of dittoheads (and he would hate to be thought of as having followers in the manner that Rush Limbaugh has them, even though he does). The best characters in this collection are the most extreme, notably including Trff Bmzklfrpz, president-for-life of Greater Berzerkistan, a genocidal dictator looking for money from the United States and therefore a perfect choice to be represented by ever-present and ever-cynical Duke and his son, Earl, now set up as lobbyists. Duke lands the dictator for $50,000 a week after refusing to be naked and bleeding when meeting Bmzklfrpz (pronounced “Ptklm,” one of his lackeys explains), and after reacting with indifference to Bmzklfrpz’s announcement that he has taken Duke’s family hostage. Scenes like this work precisely because they are understandable within the world of realpolitik but also go far (or maybe not quite so far) beyond it – in much the same way that some of Scott Adams’ most effective Dilbert strips are ones in which he takes office politics just a bit beyond the pale (using an actual goat as the scapegoat for failed projects, for example).

     But the farther Trudeau gets from big-picture commentary, the less well his strips wear. Multiple strips focused on lobbyists working for John McCain’s presidential campaign are thoroughly boring and quite irrelevant – and make Trudeau’s pro-Democrat political bias abundantly obvious (not that he ever tries to conceal it). A Sunday strip based on an old commercial for a product called “Head On” is equally dated. So are strips in which perpetual student Zonker Harris objects to being asked questions relevant to course content because “Joe Kegger” and other “average people” would not be interested. But on the other hand, Trudeau’s strips relating to the war in Iraq retain staying power and considerable clout, because the characters he portrays could be any people in any war, just trying to get by and suffering wounds both physical and psychological. It’s too bad that Trudeau never brings that same sense of universality to everyday politics.

     Trudeau’s style has become so refined that it now differs little from day to day or collection to collection. There is one noteworthy development in Tee Time in Berzerkistan, though: Trudeau makes more references than usual to the fact that this is, after all, a comic strip. So in one “mailbag” strip, Mike Doonesbury – the titular title character, although he in fact plays very little role in the strip these days – digs down through piles of letters to find one from 1981 advising him not to marry J.J., from whom he was eventually divorced with a great deal of angst. And Mike’s daughter, Alex, improbably meets and falls for Toggle, a soldier from B.D.’s old unit who sustained a traumatic brain injury, leading B.D. to wonder, “What are the odds?” – and the omniscient occasional narrator of the strip to intone, above the next panel, “Pretty good, actually. It’s a comic strip.” Trudeau is starting to become not only self-aware but also self-referential. It will be interesting to see whether the result is any sense of new directions for Doonesbury, or if the self-references are just another device to help Trudeau continue making his points.

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