Doonesbury at 40

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I just wanted to take the time slight belatedly to acknowledge the 40th anniversary of Garry Trudeau’s now classic newspaper strip. I don’t see any need to list Trudeau’s accomplishments (Gary Willis provides a fine overview at the NYRB), nor to add much to the accolades that it has received, but merely wanted to emphasise how unique a realisation of the potential of comics Doonesbury really is.

Trudeau’s fairly early choice to have his characters age in real time, à la Frank King’s surprisingly congenial Gasoline Alley, has turned it into a generational narrative of mounting historic proportions — read as a whole, it offers a portrait of an American generation, as well as, increasingly, their children (Trudeau seems to understand his generation’s children better than most baby boomers who have tried something similar). It offers a greater realism of character than just about anything that has ever appeared on the comics page, while remaining acutely, and hilariously, satirical and never letting go of comics’ historically honed faculty for archetypical iconography and flights of fancy. Plus — as Trudeau notes in this smart interview — it has used the daily accrual to build the presence of its characters and satirical intentionality in ways that are nigh-impossible in just about any other form.

Yes, the drawing has remained staid, the visual characterisation repetitive, but the intelligence of the writing brings it alive to an extent where the cartooning appears sufficiently neutral in character to work as a kind of journalistic vernacular that lends it a natural authority and blends it with its immediate environment.

And it is still going strong. This past decade has seen some of the most powerful sequences and compellingly nuanced character moments yet. Maybe not as funny as it used to be — and where the hell is our Obama icon? — but thoughtful and resonant. More than anyone could ask for such a venerable strip. A great American comic.

Above: the Doonesbury strip for 21 April 2004. Read Doonesbury here.

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