July 22, 2010


Signature Wound: Rocking TBI – A “Doonesbury” Book. By G.B. Trudeau. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Dear Dumb Diary, Totally Not Boring School Planner. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $9.99.

     Contrasts in the use of cartoons don’t come any starker than between these two books. Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury, long a reliable source of left-wing perspectives on political affairs, has in recent years grown and matured – some of the time, anyway – into an extremely sensitive comic strip about the military experience. It is an ongoing novel that just happens to be told in words and pictures, using long-familiar characters and some new ones. Twice before, in The Long Road Home and The War Within, Trudeau has produced collections of combat-focused strips that are not about battles but about the impact of war on the men and women on the front lines. That impact is not pretty, in real life or in Trudeau’s characters’ almost-real life, and it is certainly not pretty in Signature Wound, which focuses on a character nicknamed Toggle who comes home with traumatic brain injury (TBI) after his insistence on listening to heavy-metal music at insanely loud levels prevents him from hearing a command to “pull up” and results in his vehicle’s being blown up in Iraq. The book is, like Trudeau’s previous “war” books, not about the fighting and the injuries but about attempting to recover and reintegrate into society. This is not something you would expect a comic strip to tackle, but Trudeau does so, and often brilliantly. At this point, 40 years after Doonesbury was first syndicated, Trudeau seems to think naturally in four-panel pacing, so he is able to advance a difficult and complex story while still giving each strip a punch line, or at least a wry twist, at the end. Furthermore, Trudeau – who has made it clear that he picks characters for sequences based on how he wants the narrative to go, not through any sense of the characters’ “real” personalities or consistency of their development – is not above twisting the medium any way he wishes. Thus, to connect Toggle with the rest of the Doonesbury world, he gives the one-eyed, aphasic soldier a girlfriend who finds him really hot. And that girlfriend is Alex, daughter of the strip’s title character, Mike Doonesbury. Trudeau is well aware that this is pushing things. B.D., the vet who lost a leg in Iraq and whose struggle has already been chronicled, sees Alex on Toggle’s computer and says, “She’s my college roommate’s kid! That’s crazy! What are the odds?” And in the next panel, the narrative voice that Trudeau occasionally uses chimes in, “Pretty good, actually. It’s a comic strip.” Well, it looks like a comic strip, and is paced like a comic strip (more or less), but Doonesbury rises above itself in this book, as in the previous Trudeau “war” collections. The truly amazing thing about Signature Wound is that it takes such a serious subject, handles it in a manner that really seems plausible (Toggle works his way toward working in the recording industry), and finds considerable leavening (if not laugh-out-loud humor) along the way. This book, like its predecessors, takes cartooning about as far in a particular direction as it can go.

     And then there’s the opposite direction. That’s Jim Benton’s territory, peopled mostly by middle-school girls, extremely smelly dogs, and relatives to whom diary keeper Jamie Kelly would just as soon not be related. The ongoing Dear Dumb Diary series chronicles Jamie’s heartaches, heartbreaks and heartstopping adventures and is filled with hearty laughs. But Dear Dumb Diary, Totally Not Boring School Planner goes beyond the books. A trifold package with a magnetic closure, it contains two spiral-bound books and one pad for “glamorously important notes,” allowing readers to pen their own thoughts under (for example) this headline: “Rightness and wrongness seem about the same when performed by people you can’t stand. Wrongness performed against me today” – with, at the bottom of the page, a picture of a foot labeled “the whole world” squashing flat a blob with eyes that is labeled “me.” The elaborate nature of these non-sequential cartoons, and the way they come together to create a portrait of Jamie that readers can enjoy and to which they can relate (but that is also just too extreme for believability), add up to comic drawings that push their envelope pretty far (and probably get it stuck to their metaphorical noses). It’s not just a matter of enjoying a notepad page that says, “Ugly is so beautiful when it happens to someone who deserves it.” It’s also a matter of those two spiral-bound books, one called “All About Me” and the other entitled “Addresses of People I Don’t Hate (Mostly).” These certainly take “personal notes” and address books to a level that is…well, different. A pink plastic pen is included for writing in or on everything. “All About Me” comes with a couple of pages of stickers and some “handy reference charts and graphs” that answer questions such as “How Dumb Are You?” These supplement the usual fill-in-the-blanks sections, and even those are not predictable (“best color of glitter,” “worst grade I’ve ever gotten on a test,” “worst dull and non-sparkly accessory,” and so on. The address book has places for, well, addresses and phone numbers and IM names and all that – plus such enhancements as “My Arsenal of Dirty Looks” and a page called “Adultness: Could it happen to somebody close to YOU?” Well designed, fun to read, easy to use and offbeat enough to attract even people who are not avid followers of the Dear Dumb Diary books (but of special interest to those who are), this school planner is about as far away in its use of cartooning from Garry Trudeau’s “war” books as it is possible to get. And that’s just the way both Benton and Trudeau undoubtedly want it.

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