January 10, 2019
(++++) PREACHING CLEVERLY TO THE CHOIR
#SAD! Doonesbury in the Time of Trump. By G.B. Trudeau. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.
Imagine the furor – a furor fueled by and filled with glee – at this Trump tweet: “I should own all land and buildings in NY! Decide what gets built where! Who lives where! Who pays how much! #MakeNYGreatAgain!” How Doonesbury would go to town over that one! So why didn’t Garry Trudeau make a big deal about it? Well, because the statements (modified only slightly, and without the hashtag) actually came not from Donald Trump but from Bill de Blasio, a hyper-liberal mayor so popular in New York City that he won re-election in 2017 with 66.5% of the vote. De Blasio even said (on November 28, 2018) that his strong “socialistic impulse” to have government own and control all property, determining who lives where and at what price, is reinforced every day by his constituents.
There is immense comic fodder in that, and the fact that it never appeared or could appear in the Doonesbury universe is a key both to Trudeau’s popularity and to his limitations. Like great satirists of yore – Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope come to mind, although both wrote far more stylishly than Trudeau does – Trudeau hammers home the same point of view again and again, shining the glaring light of his perceived truth on areas he considers to be filled with darkness and falsehood. Like satirical cartoonists of the past such as Thomas Nast – who was a better artist, albeit in a somewhat different medium – Trudeau digs and digs and picks and picks at sociopolitical scabs, although Nast genuinely wanted change and successfully brought it about, while Trudeau seeks mainly to complain as loudly as possible about discerned wrongs and wrongdoing and be the mouthpiece for his many like-minded followers.
Those followers will very much enjoy #SAD! Doonesbury in the Time of Trump, and will enjoy being able to understand all of it – which will not be so easy for any casual reader. Trudeau’s superb caricatures are mixed here, as they always are, with a Doonesbury trademark: invented cartoon characters reflecting specific aspects of society, such as “Jimmy Crow” for the supposedly revived popularity of long-gone “Jim Crow” laws; even “Mr. Jay,” a talking marijuana joint drawn in underground-comic style, makes a token appearance in this book. Casual readers will have trouble figuring this out. Even more confusing are the ways Trump creates hilarious (to those “in the know”) but puzzling (to those not “in the know”) representations of individuals. For example, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is Austrian-American, is seen in Doonesbury only as a gigantic, well-muscled arm and hand, and is repeatedly referred to as “the Gröpenfuhrer.” That is, for those “in the know,” an amusingly snide reference to his ways with women. It is also deeply offensive, since it is a pun on “Gruppenführer,” a Nazi paramilitary rank. To understand just how offensive this is to someone of Austrian heritage, imagine telling a white person who dislikes spending a lot of money that he or she is a “cheapskate,” while telling a black person that he or she is “niggardly.” The words mean the same thing, but choosing to apply a specific one under specific circumstances would surely cause some people to take offense. But not Doonesbury fans in the case of Schwarzenegger. Those unfamiliar with the multi-decade evolution of Trudeau’s strip will not know what to make of the talking arm at all (it is actually a bit of homage to Al Capp of Li’l Abner fame: he invented a crimefighter named Jack Jawbreaker, portrayed only as a muscular arm).
Of course, the main character in #SAD! Doonesbury in the Time of Trump is Donald Trump, whom Trudeau hates with all the fervor of his fellow coastal residents, who refer to the heartland of the U.S. as “flyover country” and continue to ask how “they” could foist Trump on “us,” the intelligentsia that by rights ought to be in charge. There is plenty, plenty, to dislike about Trump, but there is also plenty to dislike about elitism and self-importance, and those have increasingly become the characteristics of Doonesbury over the years. That is too bad, because Trudeau is enormously talented, not only artistically but also in managing what may be the largest cast of characters ever assembled in a comic strip (although, interestingly, he does not seem to care about his characters: he selects ones for specific strips based solely on the editorial point he wants to make and the characters who can best make it). #SAD! Doonesbury in the Time of Trump is a collection of Sunday strips from a multi-year period, not presented chronologically but grouped loosely by Trump-related topic. Some elements are brilliant, such as a Trump board game that takes off (very loosely) from one that really was a Trump offering at one time. There is also an amusing, if self-referential, explanation of the role of the strip’s title character, in the context of the many news reports of sexual harassment in various fields: the strip’s female characters send Mike Doonesbury a letter saying he is “mostly a harmless goofball, passive and inoffensive, doing the best he can.” This is excellently descriptive as well as a nod to Walt Kelly, whose title character in Pogo was sometimes described as dull: Kelly explained that the good-natured, moderate-thinking possum was the glue holding the strip (also a politically charged one containing a great many characters) together.
Readers need not wonder whether Trudeau is really aware of where Doonesbury stands in terms of past comic strips and past cartoonists, including high awareness of the strip’s own history. There is an absolutely marvelous strip in #SAD! Doonesbury in the Time of Trump in which longtime radio host Mark Slackmeyer, commenting on ways in which Trump “acts guilty” about a variety of topics, suddenly flashes back to a notorious Doonesbury strip from 1973 in which Slackmeyer, obviously much younger and at the time a host on his college radio station, comments that he thinks then-Attorney General John Mitchell is “guilty, guilty, guilty” of Watergate-related crimes. Reproducing a color version of the 1973 panel within the 2017 Trump-focused strip is a touch of comic genius and ingenuity – and may make longtime readers lament the loss of the more-stylized Doonesbury art of earlier decades. In another Slackmeyer strip, in which the radio host interviews a student determined to change the way Washington works, 2018-version Slackmeyer suddenly finds himself face-to-face with college-era Slackmeyer, the comparatively urbane older host being angrily confronted by his intense younger self. This too is marvelous, and has a cleverness far beyond Trudeau’s comparatively mundane and ultimately not-very-interesting ongoing attacks on Trump as a blowhard, disaster, egotist, etc. Trudeau’s political views are the main reason for the existence of Doonesbury, but they are, by and large, unexceptional and passé. His method of expressing them, however, and his ability to mold and model the comic-strip form in ways unlike those of any other cartoonist working in the medium today – those are unique to him and to this strip. And those, more than the political jeremiads, are the reasons to revel in #SAD! Doonesbury in the Time of Trump – even though, as political commentary, it brings very little that is new to the nation’s ongoing discussions, debates, and demonizations.