December 23, 2010


40: A “Doonesbury” Retrospective. By G.B. Trudeau. Andrews McMeel. $100.

The Best of “FoxTrot.” By Bill Amend. Andrews McMeel. $39.99.

     The many cartoonists who labored so long to produce throwaway strips as impermanent as the newspaper pages on which they were printed could never have imagined anything like this. Or rather like these. Here are two huge, heavy, slipcased collections of two of the most interesting comic strips of recent decades – priced up there with or even beyond coffee-table books and, in the case of the Doonesbury volume, looking and feeling exactly like them. These are not the first ultra-elegant hardcover volumes from Andrews McMeel, which has previously done outstanding collections of Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side in ultra-elegant formats. Nor is this company the only one turning comic strips into something like fine art: other publishers, notably Sunday Press, are reissuing classic strips in gigantic, limited-edition folios that reproduce the carefully restored comic-strip masterpieces of many years ago in the full-newspaper-page size in which they were intended to be seen. All this means that comic strips have finally been acknowledged as a legitimate, collectible art form – oddly, in parallel with their new role as major inspirations for Hollywood blockbuster movies.

     The 695-page, single-volume Doonesbury book and 560-page, two-volume FoxTrot collection both give wonderful overviews of the 40 and 20 years of the strips, respectively. Trudeau’s book, like his strip, is substantially more talky, from his excellent explanatory introduction to his even more excellent central four-page foldout that both narrates and shows the tremendously complex web of relationships among the amazingly broad range of characters in the strip. Doonesbury is primarily known nowadays as a political strip, and topicality does not wear well, so kudos to the cartoonist and publisher for making this superb collection an almost completely nonpolitical one. The book is laid out as a series of 18 focuses (each with its own explanatory introductory pages) on some of the specific characters whose interwoven lives make up the tapestry of Doonesbury and are shown in that centerfold – whose “Legend: A Partial Guide to Relationships” is itself so complex that readers unfamiliar with the strip will need a guide to the guide (and ones with less-than-perfect vision will likely find the multicolored solid and dotted lines connecting and re-connecting the characters surpassingly difficult to navigate). Not since Walt Kelly’s Pogo has there been such a huge collection of characters in a comic strip – and in truth, G.B. Trudeau surpasses Kelly in complexity, if not in exuberance or political acumen. The real-world (or almost-real-world) nature of Doonesbury is accentuated by Trudeau’s skill in creating distinctive individual characters and placing them in orbit (literally so, in the book’s centerfold) around the strip’s major players. Or major ex-players – Trudeau does not hesitate to kill off characters whose stories he feels have come to an end. In fact, one of the best things about this collection is that it shows Trudeau to be a wonderful storyteller when he is not sidetracked by politics – not that he himself considers politics a sidetrack, and not that political elements are entirely absent here. But the main thing this book does is give readers a chance to watch, in fast motion, the 40-year progress of an iconic comic strip, from its origins as what could charitably be called an artistic work-in-progress, focusing on real people at Yale University, through its early syndication period, into the increasingly complex and multifaceted alternative universe in which it exists today. Trudeau is more innovative than he sometimes gets credit for being, not in the political sphere but in the structural elements of the strip, from having characters narrate their own stories (an early and very interesting concept) to bringing utterly fantastic creations into the “real” world (such as Mr. Butts and Mr. Jay, underground-comics-inspired personifications of tobacco and marijuana smoking, respectively). 40: A “Doonesbury” Retrospective is so rich, so fascinating and so packed with great strips and outstanding stories that it will stand for years as a superb summation of the strip’s first four decades -- not counting those years’ highly topical material – while laying down a wonderful, firm foundation for whatever Trudeau chooses to do next. Or maybe it won’t “stand” so much as lie down, given its sheer heft.

     Things are not quite as weighty, either in book size or topics, in the land of FoxTrot. Bill Amend’s The Best of “FoxTrot” comes as two paperback volumes rather than the single hardcover of the Doonesbury collection. And Amend’s strip – only half the age of Trudeau’s, which is still an impressive level of longevity for a comic – is lighter, character-driven family humor of a type that has been around for 100 years. But Amend does it exceptionally well, and this through-the-years collection is a pleasure from start to finish. Amend’s introduction to his collection is more modest than Trudeau’s to his, and Amend sprinkles comments throughout the book rather than including elaborate chapter setups. There are, in fact, no chapters here at all – just sequential strips, one book basically covering the first decade of FoxTrot and the other the second decade, going past the final daily strip of December 30, 2006 (FoxTrot has been a Sunday-only production since then). Those looking for Amend’s deep insights into FoxTrot will not really find them – Amend often likes to do things simply because…well, simply because. For instance, he gave Peter, the oldest Fox child, a girlfriend who was blind. Why? It “seemed like an interesting break from the usual stuff you find in comic strips.” No big societal statement here – just a try (and a successful one) for something unusual. The impression Amend gives is one of having a lot of fun. When middle Fox child Paige tries out for the cheerleading squad, she is so nervous that she says “pus” when she means “bus.” Amend’s comment: “Any time you can work a word like ‘pus’ into your strip counts as a win.” Amend, a physics major in college (but only a “B” student, he admits), puts a lot of math and physics into FoxTrot, almost always through the youngest Fox child, Jason. It may not add a lot to the strip to know that the name “J.D. Parker,” which appears on a computer-programming book that Jason reads in one strip, is the name of Amend’s computer-science professor in college, but it is fun to find that out. FoxTrot is fun in so many ways that this collection’s comments only make it more enjoyable. How cool is it that Amend makes up math problems for Paige to see in a nightmare, then finds out later that “the second one is crazy hard and this strip is actually cited in a math book”? Reading or rereading FoxTrot is a real joy – although this collection will likely make fans, both old and new, wistful for the seven-day-a-week strip, which provided so much of the character continuity that Amend does so well. In any case, though, having all this FoxTrot in such a fine package is a great gift from Amend and Andrews McMeel….and, come to think of it, both The Best of “FoxTrot” and 40: A “Doonesbury” Retrospective would be great and much-appreciated gifts for any super-special comic-strip fan you may know.

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