December 29, 2011


Red Rascal’s War: A “Doonesbury” Book. By G.B. Trudeau. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

     The superlatives for Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury keep on coming, mounting into a crescendo of absurdity as writers for highly respected publications compare the cartoonist to Tolstoy, Dickens and Trollope – all of which comparisons are included, hopefully tongue-in-cheek, in the latest Doonesbury collection. There is no doubt that Trudeau has elevated the comic-strip medium in some ways, extended it in others, and refined it in still others. But there is also no doubt, as Red Rascal’s War shows clearly, that Trudeau is not an especially deep or original thinker and does not create, or intend to create, characters indicative of the human condition and to whom readers are supposed to respond strongly and with deep emotion. Some readers do respond that way nevertheless, when Trudeau tugs the heartstrings a certain way or sets up situations that parallel those of a given group of real-world readers; but the reality is that Trudeau is a “cause” cartoonist who happens to have so many causes that he needs an exceptionally wide canvas on which to portray all of them – especially within the limitations of a daily strip that, by its nature, can explore only one snippet of one part of one element of the world on any given day.

     Doonesbury reads better in book form than as a daily strip, where things are generally in medias res and the uninitiated can easily be confused about who is doing what to whom, when and why. Red Rascal’s War is a particularly attractive presentation of the strip: every entry is in color, and the hardcover book is hefty, handsome and very well produced. The content, though, for better or worse, is the same that Trudeau has produced reliably for four decades: lots of commentary on the politics of the day (in ways that quickly become dated), interspersed with thoughts about war in general, human relationships in general, and the interconnection of the characters in the strip’s many threads in general. Red Rascal, for example, is the make-believe, super-heroic alter ego and wish fulfillment of Jeff Redfern, 27-year-old perpetual screwup who has ended up with the CIA in Afghanistan (along with Havoc, a recurring character from way back); Jeff’s dad, Rick Redfern, longtime Washington Post reporter, is now out of work and blogging. Jeff crosses paths with Melissa, who has re-upped after working through the severe psychological fallout of being raped while in service; Melissa has gone through treatment at the same place where BD, onetime football hero and an original Doonesbury cast member, is still trying to cope with the return to civilian life, where his loss of a leg in combat is the least of his issues. BD, football coach at Walden College, discusses the school with Toggle, who has a traumatic brain injury from his service and is also the highly improbable boyfriend of Alex Doonesbury, daughter of the strip’s nominal title character, Mike Doonesbury – while Mike’s mom worries about where the grandchildren are (or rather, why there aren’t any) and whether she would be better off dying as the nonexistent “death panels” would prefer.

     And so on, and on, and on. History often moves too fast for the topicality of Doonesbury – the whole “death panels” sequence, for one, seems quite outdated, and in general the overtly political strips (such as a number of them that assume former Alaska governor Sarah Palin is front-and-center in public consciousness) do not wear well at all. A few direct political barbs still seem to have currency, such as suggestions that President Obama is an unintentional master of cognitive dissonance (Trudeau is often accused of attacking only the political right wing, and while that is certainly his primary target, it is not his only one). But it is the interpersonal strips that stand up best, such as ones in which Alex runs into conflicts with Toggle’s mother and also with her own neuroses and sense of how high-maintenance she is. Trudeau’s art has become one of the best things about the strip, and it looks exceptionally good in Red Rascal’s War, with the individuation of characters handled with tremendous skill. But with Trudeau, it is never really the characters that matter, and this is why all the comparisons between him and great novelists of the past are so misguided. Trudeau designs, selects and modifies characters in order to make specific points, usually about issues of the day. Anything he reveals about the intricacies of the human spirit and human relationships is a sidelight, not the primary reason for his strip’s existence. Doonesbury is an extraordinary production in many ways, and the sheer overwhelming complexity of its world sets it well apart from any other comic strip ever produced. But it is scarcely a profound strip – and it does not have to be one. Trudeau is limning elements of the real world through creation of an alternative one that touches on reality so closely and so often that it is almost possible to confuse the two. Almost. But as Trudeau manipulates his characters on the vast chessboard he has designed, it is clear that he keeps the real world and the Doonesbury world just separate enough so he can use one to comment on the other. At his best, he does so pointedly and with considerable skill; and as Red Rascal’s War shows, he is at his best quite often these days.

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