January 21, 2021


Dbury@50: The Complete Digital Doonesbury. By G.B. Trudeau. Andrews McMeel. $125.

     What a difference a decade makes – and what a difference it doesn’t make. For the 40th anniversary of its syndication in 2010, Doonesbury appeared in a gigantic 695-page slipcased book at the then-exceptional price of $100, laid out as a series of 18 focuses (each with its own explanatory introductory pages) and containing an excellent central four-page foldout that both narrated and showed the tremendously complex web of relationships among the amazingly broad range of characters in the strip. And all this was done while downplaying the political focus for which Doonesbury had so long been known – since, after all, everyday politics plays mighty poorly for insight, much less humor, many years after the events and the participants in them are more-or-less forgotten.

     Fast-forward to the 50th anniversary of the start of Doonesbury in syndication on October 26, 1970, and you get an entirely different form of presentation that is very much in tune with modern ways of offering comics (that is, electronically) and modern ways of referring to just about everything (the name “Doonesbury” takes up so many letters). This is Dbury@50, and the only thing that hasn’t changed very much is the price: $100 in 2010 equals $119.17 in 2020, which remains excessive but does not really seem all that out-of-the-ordinary anymore – a typical cell phone price in 2010 was $199, equal to $236.81 in 2020, and that is decidedly low-end now, when the average price of a phone is about $580. So by some measures, Dbury@50 is quite a bargain.

     That depends, of course, on what is being measured. Doonesbury is a polarizing strip that has sometimes been placed by newspapers on the editorial page when its political stances have become a bit too hot for comics-page editors to handle. It is scarcely the first strip to have been treated this way: Walt Kelly’s superb Pogo, for example, ran afoul of editorial sensibilities as far back as the 1950s, and it too was sometimes exiled (if you can call it that) to the editorial pages. But Garry Trudeau (trivia: his first name is actually Garretson) tends to use a sledgehammer politically, while Kelly was more inclined to employ a stiletto – for instance, when Kelly was told not to let Communist-pursuing Senator Joe McCarthy show his face again in Pogo, Kelly drew a caricature with the face entirely covered by a speech balloon whose verbal style perfectly captured McCarthy’s way of speaking. Trudeau has never done anything that subtle or pointed – nor has he wanted to.

     In reality, the political material in Doonesbury is the least inventive and most predictable portion of the strip: the sentiments are reliably liberal and thoroughly lacking in the subtlety of thought that Trudeau brings to non-political societal matters. Above all, the political strips become dated very quickly, which is why politics was largely absent from the 40th-anniversary collection. But societal progress, in technology if not necessarily in other areas, has made it possible to understand and even appreciate the political side of Doonesbury – even for those who have no idea what Trudeau was talking about all those years ago and may not have been born yet. This is because Dbury@50 is not a book at all, although it contains a book. It is, instead, a multimedia presentation, offering all 15,000-some-odd Doonesbury strips from October 1970 through the middle of 2020 on a flash drive (protected by a neat screw-on cap and attached to a handsome woven lanyard for effect). But that’s not all! There is also a 16-inch-by-20-inch poster showing 63 of the strip’s main characters and the year in which each was introduced (the jacket copy for the package says there are 64 characters portrayed, so one is apparently invisible, or someone could not multiply seven rows of characters, containing nine characters per row, and come up with 63). But that’s not all! There is a book here – a spiral-bound User Manual that takes readers…well, ok, users…through the strip year by year, explaining what happened from 1970 onwards and providing a list by week of the primary topic of all the daily and Sunday strips.

     It’s nice to have a little fun with the elaborate and actually rather elegant packaging of Dbury@50, because the whole production seems to take itself so seriously – although the narrative material does not, and can be as much fun as the strip itself. However, one thing missing in Dbury@50 is introspection: Trudeau’s drawing style noticeably, dramatically, vastly improves with time, but nothing in this package indicates that his view of life (or politics) has changed very much in half a century. That makes Dbury@50 a highly attractive retrospective offering but not a particularly insightful one. Still, longtime readers and newly honed ones alike will discover some seminal and some crucial-in-context elements here if they only pay attention. There is, for example, the strip from May 1973 in which a campus radio host, talking about then-attorney general John Mitchell during the Nixon/Watergate years, addresses Mitchell’s legal problems by suggesting he is “guilty, guilty, guilty” – a very modest comment by 21st-century standards, but one that caused a huge uproar in its day. And there is the April 2004 strip in which the very first central Doonesbury character, who is not Michael Doonesbury but football player B.D. (named, or rather initialed, for a Yale quarterback), loses a leg while fighting in Iraq – and, equally astonishing to longtime readers, is seen without his helmet for the first time ever. There are many, many moments like these among an even larger number of less-trenchant strips and some that come across as propagandistic and rather simple-minded. Which are which? That is left as an exercise for the reader – or rather the reader-and-flash-drive-user.

     Like the very differently packaged 40th-anniversary Doonesbury collection, the new Dbury@50 reflects the times in which it appears even as it reflects back on the times through which Trudeau has marched (and occasionally lurched) the strip. Trudeau has long been a wonderful storyteller when he is not sidetracked by political exigencies, and there are ways in which he 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). Whether Doonesbury survives the apparently inevitable death of (or at least dearth of) newspapers and makes it through another decade or not, Trudeau has produced an astounding and often fascinating volume of work that fully deserves the splendor of the presentation it receives in Dbury@50. But speaking of the dependence of Doonesbury on the fast-fading newspaper industry, it is accurate, if a bit churlish, to point out that if you stand up the handsomely designed, distinguished-looking box in which Dbury@50 is packaged and look at it from the front, focusing on the bright white lettering that elegantly adorns it, the whole thing looks remarkably like a tombstone.

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