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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

doonesbury back

Doonesbury back in the Guardian

(I know - whaddya mean *back*? And who's the "Guardian", when he's at home?)

In fact, it was the Grauniad's out-of-touch decision to drop the Trudeau column that saved me much head-scratching between choosing England or Corfu to wash up on as unemployable flotsam.

I'm not sure to what extent mere reinstatement lets the paper off the hook but it has produced a nifty bit of writing from Linda Grant that's interesting to me for insight into what foreigners (like me) like it for.

When I shared it with some wool-dyed American Dooners, they too found it interesting as an insight into what foreigners think are insights into the column.

So I present it here in case it proves equally amusing to anyone else, complete with extracts to show what caught my eye or seemed to make particular sense:

"When Doonesbury was dropped from G2, hundreds of enraged fans were quick to point out our mistake. To celebrate its return, lifelong fan Linda Grant explains what the fuss is about ...

"Why does Doonesbury matter? OK, here's why. It's all one big 35-year story, starting with the cartoon's inception in 1970, with the lives of the eponymous Mike Doonesbury, Mark Slackmeyer and Zonker Harris, from their layabout days on Walden Pond, the student commune in New England, to the baby-boomer middle age we are all stunned to have found ourselves reaching.

But the strip's ambitions ranged beyond the living room at Walden Pond. Joanie went to law school at Berkeley. She got a job working for a woman senator and married Rick Redfern, the investigative reporter. Joanie took us to Washington and the strip took us to Vietnam itself, to meet Phred the Vietcong fighter, later bringing him back to America to testify at a Senate sub-committee on the fate of Cambodian refugees ....

Marriages failed. Joanie's boss got Alzheimer's. Mark was the second character to come out as gay and confounded us with sex's reckless, ruthless political incorrectness, falling in love with a Republican. Meanwhile, Mike went to work in advertising and had to represent the tobacco industry: enter a new character, Buttsy, a talking cigarette. Mike moved out to Seattle at the time of the dotcom boom to launch the software for a search engine and got eaten alive by Microsoft. His wife JJ, Joanie's daughter, ran off to find herself as a performance artist. When the strip returned to Vietnam, Phred was running a resort hotel and acting as a consultant for Nike.

Trudeau seems to understand contemporary America from top to bottom, from President King, the administrative head of Walden College who is engaged in a losing fight against grade inflation, down to Elmont, a mover and shaker in the Washington, DC homeless community who blew a fortune in day trading.

And if the strip is always making us laugh and making us angry, it also has the power to move us on many levels. The sun coming out over the White House as the Vietnam war ends. Andy Lippincott dying of Aids, passing over into death listening to the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. And this year, the shock of perennial football player and resident Republican BD going to Iraq with his National Guard unit and losing his leg. A comic strip that deals with denial, depression, post-operative therapy? But that's Doonesbury - it just keeps on taking risks with the format.

There were times, of course, when for a British audience it became incomprehensible as it tackled domestic questions.

I would ring an American friend to get a briefing on the US constitution, or just stop reading for a week or so, checking in each day to see if he had moved on to something I could once again understand. But the strip, which had started out of my fascination with America, has remained the place where you can still understand what America is up to, an invaluable adjunct to its over-reverent journalism. As an American friend and long-term reader of the strip told me, and perhaps he was only half-joking: "The only coverage I read of the Iraq war was in Doonesbury
."

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