Doonesbury at 44: Don’t put a gate around Walden Pond, Garry

How will the sands of time treat Doonesbury?

Cartoonist Garry Trudeau recently took a hiatus from the weekday grind of his comic strip (Sundays will continue fresh) to work on his Amazon network show “Alpha House.” The comic strip is scheduled to return in full in a year or two, but this break in the action concerns me, as someone who has followed the strip almost from its start 44 years ago.

This week, daily newspapers began running the original cartoons from 1970 and Trudeau plans to bring out progressively more recent back issues over the next year or so. Re-running Doonesbury puts it in unique company: As far as I know, the only other prominent cartoon to run in sustained repeat is Peanuts, which is has been on permanent shuffle-repeat since Charles Schulz died in 2000. That’s ironic, since it was Schulz who criticized Trudeau as “unprofessional” back in 1983-84 when Trudeau took his first sabbatical. Of course, the endless loop of Snoopy and company is the Schulz estate’s decision, while Trudeau is in full control of the recycling of his work. Yes, this is Trudeau’s second such hiatus, and while Doonesbury is firmly affixed in the national consciousness, the sight of the 1970 original cartoons running in the newspaper again makes me wonder if Trudeau should admit the strip has perhaps run its course.

Zipper, Roland and Alex Doonesbury lack the depth of Zonker, Joanie and Mark Slackmeyer. And I wonder, when Doonesbury comes back will it effectively pick up where it left off? You can’t play catch-up in an instant download world. I fear events will pass Doonesbury by. Trudeau himself is quoted as saying “It’s not a sure thing it will be welcomed back in a year or two.”

Seeing the earliest strips takes me back to my junior high days, when as a seventh-grader I heard a couple of cool ninth-graders talking about that new Doonesbury comic strip. I think the Seattle Times was running it and I became a regular reader.

In college, I lost track of Doonesbury but later I got back on board with Mike, B.D., the Rev. Sloan and the whole Walden Pond bunch, and Uncle Duke, who was modeled on my then-favorite author, Hunter S. Thompson.

As a young journalist living in the Willamette Valley, I kept reading Doonesbury. In those days it ran not with Marmaduke and Beetle Bailey but on the editorial page, so bewildered were the editors of the strip’s relevance that they had to treat it as a perpetual political comment. It was one way they could continue the column at its most controversial moments, and be less conspicuous when they censored it for dealing with such topics as homosexuality, smoking, abortion, and the vagaries of Reagan’s Brain.

And then comic pages, and newspapers in general, began to scale back. All comic strips shrunk as papers tried to fit the same number of them on narrower pages; back in the 1990s Trudeau took the unprecedented and, unrepeated, step of dictating that his strip would remain the same size as before. So we had the unusual situation of Doonesbury running one size and all the other comic strips considerably smaller. I don’t think I was alone in regarding Trudeau’s writ as an act of elitism that ran counter to the liberal orientation.

I guess Trudeau is paying less attention to such matters these days, because if you look at the strip as it appears these days, Doonesbury-reduced is almost unreadable — literally.

Okay, my eyes aren’t what they were in the seventh grade, but the unreadability of it goes to another level: early Doonesbury had its moments, some of them bad. It carried trite, uninspired humor about college students getting drunk and chasing girls, which in dawning context makes sense — originally Trudeau drew it as “Bull Tales” in the Yale Daily News for his fellow students. But to go back and read them now is to look at a sliver of the talent Trudeau would develop. They are like early sketches, the product of an obviously immature artist.

Hey, go back and read my poor articles c.1981. I know some of them barely made sense. (Some things never change!) Who am I to pick on Garry Trudeau? He has comic and, yes, political, genius, which is precisely the point. Another cultural icon who rose to prominence and went through similar evolutions in the Carter and Reagan years, Garrison Keillor, also known for his hiatus-itis, would never air older shows during absences from “Prairie Home Companion”; only from the recent files.

Yet now we are subjected to the earliest, most jejune Trudeau, rather than the more recent political travails of Joanie Caucus or Mark’s coming out and presenting himself, as a gay man with just as many ideas and idiosyncrasies as anyone else. I guess some of that may be yet to come on Trudeau’s sabbatical; those eras might not work as well out of context, and so Trudeau has started off his retrospective by reaching all the way back to his roots. And like most roots, they’re a little gnarly. The stale quality of the 1970s Doonesbury makes me think of the glory days. I have kept a few Doonesburys over the years, but I think no moment topped the one in the late 1980s when Trudeau kept a sustained focus on the proud homeless guy Elwood, who for all his rasty complexities, calls radio interviewer Mark a fool for suggesting he’d chosen a life on the streets. And what Elwood says next is the gem: “I want to be in the theater! It’s in my blood! But I can’t play the Definitive Lear without a damned mailing address!”

Those early strips are like time capsules; in Thursday’s Mike is shown driving — without a seat belt; times, standards, and Mike Doonesbury changes, and of course the cartoon got better — fast. Trudeau won the Pulitzer for editorial cartooning in 1975.

I think the swift and potent transformation Trudeau made is precisely the point: He had the space and the opportunity.

In the case of the Doonesbury rewind (#hashtag: rehash) the effect of trundling forth the out-of-date antique strips about loser Mike Doonesbury striking out at college parties is this: an idealistic, accomplished cartoon legend is gating Walden Pond while he goes off on a trip. Trudeau should hand the pole to someone else who, just has he had done, can drop a line into our depths and cause a few ripples.

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