Comics Review: Julia Kaye’s Super Late Bloomer

VANCAF – the Vancouver Comic Arts Festival – is where I often learn about comics and creators that might otherwise fly underneath my radar. My personal highlight of the 2018 edition of VANCAF was discovering the work of the Los Angeles-based cartoonist Julia Kaye. The strips she had on display immediately caught my eye, as they perfectly embodied the ability of comics to put words and images together and express something that neither can on their own. Her work takes maximum advantage of the unique synergy of the medium: the whole is so much more than the sum of the parts. Her drawings are simple, and she uses as few words as possible. But while Kaye gives the reader only as much visual and textual information as they need to grasp her message, her work has an emotional impact that belies the seeming simplicity of her visual aesthetic.

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The comics Kaye had on display were from her recent book Super Late Bloomer: My Early Days in Transition, a collection of diary-style comic strips that chronicle her experience with gender transition. Kaye’s style may be simple, but her work addresses an issue that is laden with complexities. Her genius – and I don’t use the word lightly – enables her to tell a deeply personal story with heart-wrenching immediacy. But beyond her ability to tell a profoundly moving personal story, her work has critical social and political implications.

Kaye is the creator of a comic titled Up and Out, which is available on two platforms: a GoComics page and a Tumblr page. This review, however, only addresses her book, which stands on its own and doesn’t require any other reading for context.

Super Late Bloomer is a series of daily strips covering five months in 2016, each strip focusing on a particular moment, event, or insight as Kaye embraces life as a woman. Kaye typically follows a three-panel format, which doesn’t give her a lot of room in which to explore the issues that arise, and yet each strip has a clear emotional impact. The format makes me reluctant to classify Super Late Bloomer as a memoir in the strictest sense of the word: while the book proceeds in a chronological fashion, the strips are more a series of distinct reflections than they are a unified narrative. Kaye lets us in on the quotidian challenges, setbacks, and victories she experienced during a crucial period in her life. The strips address topics like the emotional blow that comes with episodes of misgendering, the frustration of dealing with the bureaucracy of changing one’s name, the discovery of sometimes unexpected allies at family gatherings or in a cosmetics shop, and moments in which Kaye realizes that the acts that help her embrace her womanhood, such as wearing makeup, have become routine. Each strip has a sense of resolution, but those resolutions are as likely to be uplifting as they are heart-breaking. Sometimes Kaye celebrates a moment in which she overcomes an internal or external obstacle that she has encountered. On the other hand, she sometimes suffers difficult setbacks as she works to accept herself for what she is and struggles against people and a society that fail to see her for what she is.

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Some strips express deep pain and frustration…

Ultimately, this book is about acceptance; Kaye’s journey to self-acceptance, and her struggle to be accepted by world that too often rejects people who challenge our preconceptions about how people are supposed to live their lives. Sometimes, for Kaye, the former brand of acceptance is armour against the absence of the latter. And this is where I see this book as profoundly political.

Radical liberation movements like abolitionism, the civil rights and Black Power movements, multiple waves of feminism, anti-colonial and Indigenous rights movements and the struggles for gay and lesbian equality do more than strive to end the oppression faced by a particular group for at least two reasons. First, they force societies to interrogate and ultimately discard the intellectual and conceptual frameworks that justified the oppression of a targeted group. Second, they force societies to confront, and ultimately acknowledge, the full humanity of people who had been historically been excluded from enjoying that status. The struggle for trans acceptance requires us to shed concepts and constructs that have been with us for so long that they are considered “natural.” The gender binary is fundamental to our concept of what it means to be a human being, and to how our society arranges itself. As I finished the first draft of this review, a friend on social media posted a video taken at a “gender reveal” party for a family member who is pregnant (It’s a girl, apparently). Before we even come into the world, people are put into boxes that are determined by physical markers, whether or not those markers accurately reflect the human being who inhabits that particular body.

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…while others are amazingly uplifting.

The movement for trans acceptance forces us to examine the fundamental “truths” that inform cultural, legal, political, economic, and social structures that shape who we are and how we live. This is not easy to do. Trans identity not only unsettles the status quo, it challenges elements of even the most radical political ideologies. The existence of TERFs – trans-exclusionary radical feminists, a movement that seeks to delegitimize trans women– reveals how deeply the gender binary is baked into how we see ourselves and the world we inhabit.

The act of existing as a trans person is a profoundly revolutionary one, and requires an incredible amount of courage. Kaye’s elegantly-delivered insights help us understand the challenges of being trans and the stakes of the trans struggle, both for the people living that struggle and for a society that will have to radically overhaul itself so that trans people may be fully accepted. The stakes of Kaye’s struggle are huge for her, but they’re also huge for those of us who are committed to building a truly just society.

Comics convey meaning in a direct and intimate way while requiring that readers actively engage with the material in front of them. This makes them an ideal medium to help readers grasp challenging ideas, arguably better than text alone, or passively-received moving images. Kaye combines words and pictures to create a whole that is so much more than the sum of its parts and tells a story that is intensely human and ultimately deeply political. Read this book.

“Just Some Silly Dame”: Boopsie Takes a Stand.

In a previous post, I discussed how the 1971 arrival of Nicole as a semi-regular cast member signaled an important shift in Garry Trudeau’s approach to writing about women. Before Nicole joined the cast, women in Doonesbury were either sexpots who existed solely to fulfill adolescent sexual fantasies or pathetic figures to be ridiculed because they were too unattractive to be desired. Nicole’s presence as an independent, thinking woman who was sharply critical of the cluelessness expressed by Mike and the other male denizens of Walden campus paved the way for Doonesbury to become an explicitly feminist strip.

That said, one of GBT’s most prominent female characters (possibly the woman he has drawn the most, but I haven’t counted) troubles the strip’s long-standing reputation as a feminist bastion on the funny pages. I’m talking of course, about Boopsie. Yet while Boopsie was portrayed for decades as an empty-headed sexpot, she too eventually became the kind of strong, self-reliant, independent woman that typifies Doonesbury’s female cast.

Sometime in the 1990s I stopped keeping up with Doonesbury compilations; I still read the strip every day without fail, but I no longer went through the archives on a regular basis. As a result, I’ve discovered a number of mis-rememberings on my part as I reread strips for the first time in decades. One such “false memory” was my belief that Boopsie’s transformation from being the butt of “dumb blonde” jokes to a strong, independent female character happened rather abruptly after B.D. lost his leg in Iraq in April 2004. I was wrong. Several months prior to that moment, Boopsie revealed that she had already become much more than the naive eye-candy that Trudeau had portrayed her as throughout much of the strip’s history. The event that fully marked this transition was Trudeau’s unflinching look at rape culture in college athletics.

Barbara Ann Boopstien (Originally Boopsy for a few strips until the more familiar spelling settled in) joined the cast on 15 September 1971 as B.D.’s girlfriend. Boopsie was a perfect match for B.D. He was the vain dumb jock, the star of the football team, and the kind of guy who only saw women as potential conquests. Boopsie was a cheerleader, an empty-headed sexpot, a stereotypical “dumb blonde” who was, like many of the woman in Doonesbury’s pre-Nicole/pre-Joanie days, little more than an eager object of male desire. 16SEP71

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Boopsie was in many ways a holdout from GBT’s frat-boy cheap sex humour days. Doonesbury, 16 September 1971 and 1 October 1971.

After Trudeau’s 1980s sabbatical, B.D. took an even larger role in Boopsie’s life: he became her professional manager as well as her life partner. In his absence, however, she took her first steps away from her “dumb blonde” persona. When B.D. was reactivated to fight in the 1990-91 Gulf War, Boopsie, in the absence of her husband and manager, began to exercise agency in a way she never had before, over her career and over the sexiness that had long been her defining characteristic. Boopsie’s discovery that B.D. had cheated on her while on R&R cemented her commitment to no longer allow men to treat her as a doormat; she laid down the law with her husband and made it clear that she would no longer allow herself to be disrespected.

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This was a big change. Doonesbury, 17 April 1991.

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No longer B.D.’s doormat. Doonesbury, 17 August 1991.

On 11 November 2002 – Veterans’ Day – B.D. learned that he was again being reactivated, this time for the impending invasion of Iraq. In order to ensure that B.D. not lose his job as head coach of Walden College’s football team in his absence, Boopsie proposed that she take the job on an interim basis. Boopsie’s clever reasoning relied on her reputation as an unintelligent woman: because she was a “just some silly dame,” she figured, the team was bound to keep losing; while an interim coach who led the team to victory would likely be offered the job on a permanent basis, Boopsie’s presumed failure would keep B.D.’s position intact.

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Smart. Doonesbury, 13 November 2002.

Before taking up the coaching mantle, Boopsie already had a history with the team; many of the players had followed her acting career and actively lusted after her.  Boopsie’s first practice as coach the team went just like we might expect – she showed up wearing a sports bra, much to the players’ approval. However, GBT opted not to take the obvious route and run arcs that focused on the team being distracted by Boopsie’s sexiness; rather, we only catch up with the team at the end of their championship season, one complete with a bowl invite.

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Her reputation preceded her. Doonesbury, 29 March 1999.

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Oh, God, indeed. Doonesbury, 1 March 2004.

After the following season, with B.D. fighting in Iraq, the Coach Boopsie storyline took a dark turn as Trudeau addressed an issue that had been hiding in plain sight for years as we had followed B.D.’s attempts to recruit players for Walden: sexual assault in college athletics. On 1 March 2004, an anonymous woman – we see her only in silhouette – placed a letter in Boopsie’s mailbox; the letter, which we never get to read, accused members of the football team of sexual assault. We later learn that the woman who wrote the letter was “not the first woman to come forward,” and that the assaults took place at “recruiting parties.” B.D.’s professed ignorance of what took place at the parties angers Boopsie, but B.D.’s refusal to believe her, and by extension the women who were raped, is not the only resistance that Boopsie faces as she fights for the team’s victims. Against B.D.’s wishes, Boopsie suspends Walden’s football program, a move that causes a campus riot and leads to President King firing her.

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B.D. knew. Doonesbury, 3 March 2004.

Looking back, one wonders if, in the years leading up to the crisis, GBT hadn’t been creating background for the story behind Boopsie’s brave decision. B.D. certainly helped create the conditions that led to Walden football’s rape crisis. He told one recruit that should he be “accuse[d] of date rape,” Walden would “set [him] up with a top legal team” and a “publicist to get out [his] side of the story.” B.D. also fostered a culture of inappropriate sexual behaviour in the locker room: when he announced to his players that Boopsie would be taking over, the squad’s first concern is whether or not team’s regular pornography viewing session would continue under her leadership.

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Walden’s got your back, Son. Doonesbury, 25 March 1998.

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That’s probably a bad idea. Doonesbury 15 November 2002.

Trudeau wrote the arc in response to an unfolding sexual assault crisis at the University of Colorado,  where, among other abuses, “sex parties” were part of the football team’s recruiting strategy. While UC ended up paying a large settlement to some of the university’s victims, the case did little to reduce sexual assault in the world of college sports. In recent years, we’ve learned that college athletic programs are still experiencing, facilitating, perpetuating, and covering up sexual assault in epidemic proportions. The examples are far too numerous to mention. As I write this, Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH) stands accused of turning a blind eye to a years-long pattern of sexual abuse of Ohio State wrestlers . Two Midwestern universities that I have a personal connection with had appalling controversies when I was on campus. While I was doing my Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, the college was under investigation for its handling of the sexual misconduct of a football player. While I attended Michigan, my partner attended Michigan State. We lived in East Lansing and Lansing for four years; I wrote the bulk of my dissertation at a carrel in the MSU library, and I made many close friends in the MSU community. I don’t need to remind you of the horror show that was unfolding on campus the whole time.

On the funny pages, as in real life, little good came out of Walden’s crisis. A press conference held by members of the football team revealed how sexual assault had been normalized on campus, complete with standard blanket denials, the singling out of “a few bad apples,” and a persistent inability on the part of men to understand the meaning of a simple two-letter word: no.  Meanwhile, President King empaneled a task force whose findings were predetermined, and the campus community branded Boopsie a “head case” for thinking that a zero-tolerance policy on sexual misconduct was a reasonable solution. B.D. was never held accountable for his role in the crisis: the man who had, at best, turned a blind eye to endemic rape in his program and refused to stand by his wife when the shit hit the fan remained in charge of the program.

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My dog understands what “NO” means. Just sayin’. Doonesbury, 12 March 2004.

Trudeau’s decision to not address this part of B.D.’s past when he returned to Walden’s sidelines could well be excused as another continuity slip in the strip’s long history – there have been a few, and I’ll write about them at some juncture. In the years following Walden football’s rape crisis, GBT has continued to address the topic of rape culture, with examples ranging from the characterization of noted sex criminal Arnold Schwarzenegger as “Herr Gropenfuhrer,” a giant hand that wallows in inappropriate comments about women to, of course, his chronicling of Melissa Wheeler’s recovery from being raped by her commanding officer in Afghanistan. Recently, Boopsie expressed her concerns about her daughter Sam’s potential interactions with young men who lack “impulse control.”

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The “new” Boopsie is pretty awesome. Doonesbury, 17 May 2004 and 15 July 2018.

When B.D. lost his leg in Iraq and then developed a severe case of PTSD, Boopsie was saddled with responsibilities that no person can ever prepare for, and, as we will see in future installments, she revealed levels of strength and wisdom that would have been inconceivable for earlier iterations of her character. No longer B.D.’s arm candy, she truly became his right hand, an equal partner in a family’s struggle to endure tragedy. That said, before those tragedies struck, her response to the tragedies experienced by the unnamed victims of Walden’s football team showed us that she was already another one of the strong, independent, and insightful women of Doonesbury.

 

Comics Review: Zerocalcare’s Kobane Calling

Kobane is a city of about 40,000 people in northern Syria; it is the administrative capital of Rojava, a multi-ethnic self-declared autonomous region that Kurdish nationalists claim as part of a greater Kurdistan. The city was besieged by ISIS militants in July 2014 and liberated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and their all-woman forces, the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), six months later. The YPG/YPJ are closely associated with the PKK, a Kurdish nationalist movement that has been classified as a terrorist group by Turkey and the United States. In 2014 and 2015 the Italian cartoonist Zerocalcare traveled in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria and visited Kobane (most English-language sources render the town’s name as Kobanî, but I will stick with Zerocalcare’s preferred spelling) to document the struggles of Kurds and the Turks and Arabs who support them to create a new type of society in what they hope will one day be an independent Kurdish republic. The book Zerocalcare wrote about his experience, Kobane Calling: Greetings from Northern Syria,  (Lion Forge Press) is one of the most outstanding works of graphic journalism that I have ever read.

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What drew Zerocalcare to Kobane is not a story about national liberation, but one about a revolution seeking to create a just and egalitarian society. The people fighting for Rojava govern their society according to a social contract built on the empowerment of women, ethnic and religious plurality, socialist economics, and environmental protection. These are not values that we in the West typically associate with Middle Eastern political movements in the age of Islamic fundamentalism. Zerocalcare wants to “defend … a model of peaceful coexistence for the entire Middle East, if not the world” and makes no secret of his belief in the Kurdish cause. He sees the people of Kobane as “a beacon for humanity” whose struggle “should be aided, defended, [and] supported.”

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Commander Nasrin of the YPJ

Witnessing the suffering and struggles of the people of Rojava as they confront the Turkish government on the one hand and ISIS on the other, Zerocalcare comes to understand that “even the guy who seems like some boring old accountant … has had a life that makes Die Hard look like a kid’s party. And makes you feel like the village idiot.” We have grown numb to the horrific crimes committed by ISIS, a movement we think of as a horde of “sadistic savage bloodthirsty marauders.” This perception not only reduces a complex regional conflict to a simple tale of good versus evil, it obscures important political dynamics. ISIS commits mass atrocities informed by their particular brand of fascistic, fundamentalist Islamism; they also destabilize strategic regions to the advantage of other powers, notably Turkey, a country that, as Zerocalcare documents, may work selectively with ISIS in order to strike at the Kurds.

Many of the YPG/YPJ fighters that we meet joined the movement to seek refuge from and strike back against violence and oppression. However, it was not ISIS terrorism that had shaped their lives: in fact, much of the horror Zerocalcare reports on was inflicted not by ISIS, but by Turkey, a NATO country and a key partner in the campaign against ISIS. Ezel, Zerocalcare’s principal contact with the YPJ, was imprisoned at age thirteen for protesting laws that banned people from speaking Kurdish in public. Three years later, she witnessed a friend being shot dead by Turkish police. Another young woman fled to join the PKK after being sentenced to ninety-eight years in prison for attending a protest against a plan to develop a green space. Other women fled to the YPJ to flee gender-based violence and the patriarchal structures that traditionally dictate their lives, as in the case of one young woman who joined the movement to escape being forced into an arranged marriage.
The space in the Venn diagram where Turkey’s geopolitical position overlaps with gender informs what Zerocalcare calls the “Great Mesopotamian Hoax,” an intellectual move that allows the West to separate the “good Kurds” – women fighting ISIS in Syria – from the “bad Kurds” – bearded “terrorists” fighting Turkey. Zerocalcare’s main goal in writing this book is to debunk that hoax and reveal how the Kurdish struggle has, as a foundational value, the the liberation of women, and men, from the political, social, and cultural forces that oppress them, whether that oppression comes from the Turkish state, ISIS, or the internal dynamics of Kurdish society.

The PKK’s focus on female emancipation and empowerment not only informs structures of daily life like work and marriage; broadly feminist values also inform their approach to politics, war-making and community relations. Lessons about gender equality and female empowerment are as much a part of the soldiers’ training as learning to clean a mortar. As Commander Nasrin, head of the YPJ says, each trainee has to “learn how to kill the domineering male inside us and others … and challenge age-old relations between men and women.” This is “the foundation of the revolution.” Moreover, the movement prioritizes protecting civilians – women and children – from the effects of the conflict. They have a strict policy of avoiding civilian targets; one YPJ fighter tells Zerocalcare that soldiers won’t pick fruit from civilian-owned trees so as to protect civilians from Turkish retribution for supporting fighters.

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Feminist values are at the core of YPG/YPJ politics

The woman-centric aspects of the Kurdish movement complicate standard Western narratives about women and Islam in the Middle East, narratives which have little room to account for women exercising political and social agency. From women being driven out of the public sphere by the Taliban in Afghanistan to women being taken as sexual slaves by ISIS, protecting women has been a key part of the discourse justifying Western aggression in the Muslim world. Yet in Kurdistan it’s Muslim women who have made many of the sacrifices to remake their world as they see fit. “What,” Zerocalcare wonders as he learns more about the role of women in the Kurdish revolution, “do we have to teach them again?”

I read Kobane Calling after reading Sarah Glidden’s Rolling Blackouts, another work of graphic journalism that covers developments in the Middle East in the years after the formal end of the Iraq war. While the two books have different points of focus – Glidden’s principal concern is Iraqi refugees and the journalists who document their stories – they both shed light on the widespread regional instability that developed in the wake of the illegal and failed American invasion of Iraq. Read together, both speak to the vast possibilities of graphic journalism. Stylistically, the two artists occupy very different spaces. Unlike Glidden, whose drawing and text are are subtle and understated, Zerocalcare takes full advantage of the reality-bending aspects of comics art. By using a bold, cartoon-y style that highlights comic exaggeration, asides to the reader, and pop-culture references, Zerocalcare conveys the fear, excitement, dread, uncertainty and occasional joy that he and his subjects feel in an an immediate and dynamic way and encapsulates complex political, social and historical dynamics in a way that lets him move the narrative forward without having it bog down in background information.

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Zerocalcare’s style blends critical analysis of his journalistic skills with self-deprecating humour

While Zerocalcare’s stylistic approach is very different from Glidden’s, Kobane Calling, like Rolling Blackouts, blurs the line between journalism and memoir by making the creator of the book a central character. Like Glidden, Zerocalcare documents the fear, self-doubt and occasional joy that he experiences travelling through unfamiliar and sometimes dangerous settings and interrogates his motives, skills, and methodology. He also acknowledges the imitations posed by the comics medium, which does not favour text-heavy explanations, and is open about how he had to engage in “exercises in narrative synthesis” that alter [the book’s] fidelity to reality.” Moreover, both writers, in a direct and self-conscious way, document their struggles to overcome the ignorance that shapes our shared understanding of the people, cultures, and history of the Middle East. Neither of these writers position themselves as experts on the people and events they are covering. Rather, with both books, the reader feels as though they and the creator are on a shared learning curve, both figuring things out as they move through the story. Zerocalcare’s humorous style in particular lends itself to this sort of self-examination; throughout the book, he pokes fun at himself for his lack of skills and knowledge as well as for fore endearing qualities such as his addiction to Kurdish chai and his inability to develop a taste for Kurdish food, notably the fact that they eat olives or lentils for breakfast, a true affront to his Italian culinary sensibilities.

Yet as he jokes about lacking some of the skills that more conventional journalists might take for granted, Zerocalcare is sharply aware that by reporting on the YPG/YPJ, he is taking on a weighty responsibility, in that a screw-up on his part could well endanger the lives of his subjects. The Kurdish movement faces formidable opponents, and information about Kurdish fighters and activists falling into the wrong hands could place them in peril. When Zerocalcare and his travel partners enter Turkey, their carelessness leads to a list of contacts within the Kurdish movement being seized by border authorities. He draws on his imaginative style as a way to circumvent unintentionally identifying people who are potential targets of the Turkish state: in one sequence, contacts are rendered as a hunk of goat cheese and some olives, “glorious symbols of Kurdish identity and how the Kurds don’t know how to have breakfast.”
As he blurs the line between journalism and memoir, Zerocalcare also blurs the line between journalism and advocacy. He is asking for two things: one for the Kurds, and one for us.

For the Kurds, Zerocalcare is calling for the international community to follow through on the often empty commitments that Western voices make regarding our expressed desire to see women in the Islamic world live better, freer lives. While nightmarish visions of ISIS, concerns for women’s welfare, and heroic images of Kurdish women fighters all shape Western discourse about the region, we are doing precious little to support the Kurdish women fighting ISIS. At a Rojava graveyard we see Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Muslims, Christians, and Yezidis grieve for loved ones who died fighting ISIS, a movement that we call an existential threat to our values and security. Absent from the scene are those who scream the loudest about religious wars in the Middle East: us.

Zerocalcare is also urging us to open our minds to the possibilities being articulated and made real by the YPG and the YPJ. Faced with war and massive bloodshed, the Kurds nonetheless actively expand spaces in which community and democracy may take root and thrive. Meanwhile, we in the West have, since the attacks of 2001 made Islamist terrorism a global concern, only become more atomized and have lessened our own commitments to freedom and democracy in the face of challenging times.

What do we have to teach them again?

If you’re at all interested in better understanding the Syrian crisis, are a fan of comics journalism, or a lover of comics art and good storytelling, take the time to read this book.

Selling Reagan to Black Voters: Doonesbury in the 1980s

Last year, I decided to re-read the complete run of Doonesbury and write about the strip in order to better understand both Trudeau’s work and its times and to start learning about the language and aesthetics of comics more generally. A year later, I’m about halfway through the strips (I just finished 1997), but I’m still writing about strips that ran in 1971. There’s still a lot to say about those early strips, but if I stay locked into a chronological framework, it will be a long time until I can write about some of Trudeau’s most vital and important work. I don’t want to wait years to write about Duke in China and the wreck of the Rusty Nail, B.D.’s service in two Iraq wars, Joanie’s experience at Berkeley, or Mark’s coming out to himself and the world. So from here on in, I’m going to forgo following Doonesbury’s development as it unfolded and just write about different parts of the strip’s history as the mood strikes me.

With that in mind, I want to sketch out a few thoughts about Doonesbury in the 1980s. In the 1970s, GBT introduced many of the tropes that were central to Doonesbury’s mythology: Zonker as professional tanner; Duke’s bad craziness; four identical panels of the White House with dialogue superimposed; B.D.’s huddles. Ask the average comics page fan of a certain age about Trudeau’s work, and there’s a good chance that these classic images and themes will figure largely in their answers. That said, the 1980s marked a critical era in Trudeau’s development as a writer, and artist, and a social commentator. Over the course of the decade, his work became even more closely tied to its times, far more visually dynamic, and, critically, Trudeau did far more to explore the human side of the issues and people he wrote about, both in how he addressed the effects of a new brand of heartlessness in American society on the country’s most vulnerable people and how he explored the experiencescharacters moving through life in a world that had far less room for the values they had embraced in their youth.

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The exact moment when Mike loses his ideals. Doonesbury, 11 October 1984

In 1983, Trudeau took a two-year sabbatical. When he returned on 30 September 1984, Doonesbury was in many ways a different strip. The most obvious change was the fact that after 13 years of being perpetual college students, Mike, Zonker, Mark and the rest of the cast confronted the world of gainful employment, marriage and family, and, ultimately, aging in real time. After the sabbatical, Doonesbury did more than capture the extended moment of the revolutionary times of the late 1960s and early 1970s and the long post-Watergate hangover; it gave readers sharp insights into the changes, crises, and challenges experienced by a generation of Americans as they moved from early adulthood through middle age, and eventually into their senior years. Trudeau’s decision to follow the example of Gasoline Alley and For Better or For Worse and age his characters was the single most important move in the strip’s development, allowing him to more fully chronicle and speak for voice of the Boomer generation (…and, by the 1990s, its children).

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J.J.’s emergence as a Downtown scenester. Doonesbury, 29 August 1985

Trudeau’s work in the 1980s focused in large part on how the vision of the future that had driven the revolutionary impulses of the late sixties and early seventies had given way to an ethos of individuality, consumption, and greed. I began writing this post soon after learning of Tom Wolf’s death. Much of Trudeau’s work in the 1980s reflected elements of Wolf’s landmark portrayal of the culture and morality of New York City in that decade, Bonfire of the Vanities, which was serialized in Rolling Stone in 1984-85 before being published as a novel in 1987. When Mike and J.J. married and moved to Manhattan, they became players in two elements of 1980s New York: a corporate world that played a critical role in shaping an increasingly materialistic American culture and an art scene that challenged conventional aesthetic boundaries while often being disengaged from values of collective action. Mike became a junior corporate drone at an advertising agency, trading his bleeding-heart liberalism to sell tobacco to teens and Ronald Reagan to Black voters. J.J., meanwhile, joined a Downtown art world that eschewed committed social engagement and embraced hip, ironic detachment. Meanwhile, executives like Phil Slackmeyer abandoned any pretense of social responsibility and gave up investing in building things to become corporate raiders whose only goal was to fatten the bottom line, no matter what laws got broken in the process.

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Phil Slackmeyer as representative of the “greed is good” ethos of Wall Street. Doonesbury. 4 December 1986

A key figure in the the 1980s culture of greed and conspicuous consumption was New York real-estate-magnate, now pussy-grabber-in-chief, Donald Trump. If Trudeau is to be credited with any prescience during his long career as a social commentator, it is for how, as early as 1986, he recognized that Trump was more than a figure of ridicule. The attention that Trudeau dedicated to Trump in the 1980s reflected something larger than a desire to make fun of one man’s gross appetites. Rather, it allowed Trudeau to draw attention to Trump’s embodiment of a culture that celebrated gross displays of personal wealth at a time when the economic dynamicthat had defined post-war American society – a growing middle class and a shrinking of the gap between rich and poor – was petering out, possibly forever. The cultural shift towards a revived Gilded Age celebration of the Robber Baron as the ultimate American success story against a background of the rollback of the New Deal consensus and the growing economic equality of the post-war decades was bound to manifest itself as a political phenomenon.

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What an asshole. Then as now. Doonesbury, 16 September 1987

An important step in the degradation of the American presidency into an office where style and sleaze trump substance and service was the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. As was the case with the Nixon era, the Reagan years were especially kind to Garry Trudeau, as both the President and the First Lady engaged in corrupt practices ranging from the petty (Mrs. Reagan’s practice of “borrowing” designer clothes as a way to circumvent tax regulations) to criminal acts that endangered American national security (the Iran-Contra scandal). Scandals such as these, and numerous other misdeeds, provided GBT with ample opportunity to skewer an administration that began the process of consolidating political and economic power into the hands of a select crony class.

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The right man for the wrong times. Ronnie Headrest. Doonesbury, 5 July 1987

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Dan Quayle’s feather, one of the strip’s first political icons. Doonesbury, 12 November 1988

Trudeau’s development as a caricaturist took important strides in the 1980s, notably in terms of his depictions of the holders of high office. His trademark approach of writing dialogue against a largely static backdrop of White House exterior shots was complemented by depicting the President as something other than an off-panel voice. The first instance of this shift was the introduction of Ronnie Headrest, a surreal simulated version of Ronald Reagan that filtered the president’s Id through new trends in computer technology. By the end of the Reagan era, Trudeau introduced an iconographic element that would appear and reappear over the course of the next several administrations: the presidential (and vice-presidential) icon, starting with the portrayal of George H.W. Bush as an invisible man and his Vice-President, Dan Quayle, as a floating feather, denoting his status as a political lightweight. Alongside iconic representations of political figures, the introduction of Mr. Butts allowed Trudeau to skewer the tobacco corporations that lied about the risks of their product, actively worked to create a new generation of addicts, and bought off politicians with some of the huge profits they made of off marketing illness and death.

19APR89

Introducing Mr. Butts. Doonesbury, 19 April 1989

The increasing use of iconography and more “cartoony” characters were part of a larger shift in the aesthetics of Doonesbury in the post-hiatus era. I’m going to leave open, for now, the question of the roles of Trudeau as penciler and his longtime inker Don Carlton in transforming Doonesbury from a strip that was visually static to one that was far more dynamic and innovative in how it used elements like perspective and lighting to create mood and drive the narrative forward. But as Doonesbury’s visuals became more interesting, the strip also became far more human, both in terms of how Trudeau made his corner of the comics page a platform for drawing attention to pressing social issues and how he wrote about his characters.

18AUG86

Alice. Doonesbury, 18 August 1986

Trudeau gave his attention to several social crises in the 1980s. Two that stand out in terms of the amount of space he gave them and for the impact of his message are homelessness and HIV/AIDS. during the 1980s As homelessness became a national concern during the mean years of the Reagan administration, Alice and Elmont brought the experience of homeless people to the daily comics page, focusing as much on the struggles and strategies of marginalized people as on the indifference shown by America’s political leadership. Arguably, the callousness of Reagan-era American political leadership peaked with its heartless response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic that decimated the gay community in the 1980s. As he did with the homeless, Trudeau put a human face on a suffering that for too long went unacknowledged by people who had the power to do something about it. Alongside his work in bringing veterans’ issues to public attention, nothing in Doonesbury’s history is as socially impactful as Trudeau’s unblinking look at Andy Lipincott’s last years fighting HIV/AIDS.

4APR89

GBT pulled no punches when he wrote about HIV/AIDS. Doonesbury, 4 April 1989

8NOV86

Dick Davenport — the first Doonesbury character to die. Doonesbury, 6 November 1986

3DEC88

Confronting real change. Doonesbury, 3 December 1988

At the same time, Trudeau also became much more invested in exploring the personal growth and development of his characters. Moments like Joanie’s coming to terms with Andy’s illness and the death of Dick Davenport were parts of a larger pattern in which characters confronted the changes and challenges of growing up and growing older. By taking the decision to allow his characters to age in real time, Trudeau was able to move beyond commenting on current affairs and cultural trends to more fully explore how a generation experienced those dynamics as they moved into adulthood. Of particular note is how Trudeau wrote about domestic life. Rick and Joanie were the first Doonesbury couple to have a baby, and Mike and J.J. married and briefly split up while J.J. was pregnant, reconciling after J.J. gave birth live on cable television in a bizarre moment of performance art. The arrival of the Doonesbury children (Rick and Joanie’s son Jeff and Alex Doonesbury, among others) allowed GBT to explore the joys, challenges, pains and fears of parenthood in a way that would never have been possible in the typical comic-strip format where the children are eternal toddlers or teens.

So from here on in, the posts are going to bounce around the timeline a bit. If you’ve got a particular arc or character from anywhere in the strip’s history you want to hear about, get in touch.

“Welcome, You Dumb Honky.” Race in the Early Doonesbury Strips, Part II: Rufus

In my last “Long Strange Trip” post, I looked at how Garry Trudeau wrote about Black radicalism in the early 1970s, focusing on the character of Calvin and Trudeau’s depiction of the 1971 New Haven trial of nine members of the Black Panther Party for the murder of a suspected FBI informant. When Trudeau wrote about Calvin and the Panthers, he did not bring the their ideas to the comics page as much as he drew attention to the often awkward and self-serving ways in which whites engaged with, and attached themselves to, the Black liberation struggle. In effect, Calvin’s most important role was as a mirror, reflecting back white people’s racism and their inability and unwillingness to engage with Black radical ideas on terms set by African-Americans.

5APR71.png

Introducing Rufus: Doonesbury, 5 April 1971.

Trudeau introduced two Black characters to the Doonesbury cast in 1971.  Calvin essentially disappeared from the strip after the Panther trial drew to a close. The second named Black character to appear in Doonesbury,  Rufus “Thor” Jackson,  is a young (his age is given in different strips as either five or eight years old) African-American boy from a ghetto (this is Rufus’s preferred term for his neighbourhood, and the one I will use here) near Walden College whom Mike tutors. Rufus was a regular presence for almost three years. While arcs featuring Calvin tended to be more strictly political, the relationship that develops between Rufus and Mike allows Trudeau to blend political satire with developing the personality of a central character. While Calvin’s appearances focused on the tensions and miscommunications between Black radical activists and well-intentioned but often clueless white progressives, Mike’s interactions with Rufus speak to a much more complex relationship. The dynamics that define Calvin’s interactions with the rest of the Doonesbury cast are still there, notably the white liberal guilt that underpins much of these interactions in the first place. On the other hand, at an individual level, Mike and Rufus develop a relationship that both characters cherish and which helps each of them grow. This is especially true for Mike, who, as he teaches and learns from Rufus, becomes much more than the loser and scapegoat he is often portrayed as.

26JAN72

Rufus speaking truth to Power. Doonesbury, 26 January 1972.

In my last post, we saw how Mike’s engagement with the Black revolution is shaped by ignorance, insensitivity, and a desire for self-preservation. An arc from 1973 reminds us that Mike is the archetype of white liberal who tries to bridge the gap between himself and African-Americans, but ends up instead revealing his inability to engage with them without condescension. Mike appoints himself as an envoy to the Black students’ preferred cafeteria table. What begins as a naive, but arguably well-intentioned moment of outreach quickly turns awkward, leaving Mike floundering in his cluelessness and ultimately insulting the table by correcting one of the Black student’s grammar. Mike might want to do good, but he is unwilling and unable to put aside his preconceptions and listen, instead of imposing himself on a situation.

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A rush to fill an awkward silence. Doonesbury, 13 September 1973.

The spirit that drives Mike to reach out to the Black patrons of the cafeteria also lead him to take a job tutoring Rufus. A key theme in their interactions is the question of material stakes of the Black freedom struggle and the extent to which the insecurity and poverty experienced by Rufus’s family are the products of white supremacist social structures. Rufus is an early-1970s Jacob Riis, exposing readers to – or reminding them of – the conditions that exist a Zip Code or two away from them. He understands the links between racism and poverty, and tries to use that knowledge to his advantage. When the power company calls about an unpaid bill, Rufus gets that the situation reflects larger social dynamics that are in no small part determined by race. This is as true for the relationship between the Jacksons and the utility company as it is for the economy of childhood happiness. While Santa Claus may disappoint him every year, Rufus weaponizes his disappointment to inject a dose of guilt into Mike’s holiday. Beyond economic dynamics, Trudeau also uses Rufus’s experiences to reveal the broader social effects of systematic racism. A summertime postcard to Mike speaks to how urban poverty can alienate people from the natural environment; Rufus recounts seeing his “first tree” and describes it as “remarkably lifelike.” The strip’s punchline reminds readers of another social dynamic that accompanies racialized poverty, violence. While it’s unclear if the shots outside Rufus’s home are being fired by the police or other actors, Rufus’s poised attitude tells us that this isn’t the first time he’s witnessed this kind of thing (we also know that his brother has been stabbed).

18JUL71

“Things seem to be picking up.” Doonesbury, 18 July 1971.

Rufus decides to capitalize on the exposition of urban poverty by offering up his services as a guide for white folks eager to experience a taste of ghetto life. In May 1972, Rufus played Virgil to Mike, Bernie, Scott and Boopsie’s Dante as they as they toured the ghetto he calls home. By now, Mike has seen enough of Rufus’s schemes to fall too hard for his schtick, but his companions are both amazed and appalled by the reality that Rufus shows them. They ooh and aah over authentic “ghetto artifacts” like an eviction notice, a nickel bag, and a canceled welfare cheque. Later, Bernie freaks out when he learns that a local “victim of the habit” will soon commit a robbery in order to feed his addiction. While Bernie is concerned for the victim of a potential impending crime, the entire group panics when their exercise in poverty tourism risks bringing them too close to the the social ills that concern them. As when he wrote about white flirtation with Black radicalism, Trudeau focuses on how white support for the anti-racist cause exists in tension with white fear of Black violence.10MAY72

Notwithstanding their fear of Black violence, Mike and his friends do believe that they are in a position to help undo racism and its effects. While GBT usually allowed white characters to embarrass themselves in their interactions with Calvin, Rufus frequently calls out white liberals for the shortcomings of their attempts to help African-Americans. While Calvin’s usual reaction to the clueless and awkward musings of his white liberal supporters is a silent grimace – after all, he cannot afford to alienate political allies – Rufus speaks truth to power in a way that only children can. Rufus’s first words to Mike – “Welcome, you dumb honky” – establish that he will not fawn over Mike’s liberal do-goodism, a sentiment he repeats after a few months of working with Mike. Beyond keeping Mike in line, Rufus offers cynical commentary on all varieties of white anti-racist activism. His limited enthusiasm for busing resonates with the attitudes of many African-American activists who saw the policy as, at best, a stop-gap measure that could not undo a long history of discriminatory educational policies. Rufus also calls out Scott Sloane for the “slightly patronizing flavour” of the food offered in the Reverend’s “free breakfast program for ghetto kids” and, when Sloane recalls hearing Martin Luther King speak at the March on Washington, expresses his doubts about the radical priest’s commitment – and that of white liberals more generally – to Black empowerment. And “empowerment” is a term that is close to Rufus’s heart.

1OCT72

Calvin’s politics are largely implied through his association with the Black Panthers; Rufus, on the other hand, is given more opportunity to explicitly outline his vision of Black radical politics. His focus is on the seizure of power; Rufus wants his people to have “a lasting piece of the action,” and dreams of being a nuclear physicist so that he can help his people “harness the atom” to put themselves in “a better position to bargain with the whites.” Four years before the release of Parliament-Funkadelic’s 1975 hit “Chocolate City,” in which George Clinton proposes an America led by Muhammad Ali as President, James Brown as VP and Richard Pryor as Secretary of Education, Rufus laid out his own vision of American leadership: Huey Newton as Prime Minister and Miles Davis as Attorney General (…given the times in which we live, we’re just going to skate past the Bill Cosby reference in this strip).

7APR71

14NOV71
Rufus’s radical vision. Doonesbury, 7 April 1971; 14 November 1971.

While Rufus is quick to criticize white engagement with the Black struggle, he is not unflagging in his support of Black leadership. One of the few critiques of Black political activism offered by Doonesbury in the 1970s came in the form of Rufus expressing his disappointment that he could not attend an Angela Davis event because tickets were fifty dollars, “which ain’t bad bread for an avowed communist.” That said, Rufus refuses to acknowledge critiques coming from outside the Black community. Scott’s musings about how Black leaders no longer “[dream] of mobilizing their communities and shaping their own destinies,” draw nothing more than a dismissive shrug from the young Black radical.

6AUG72

Rufus calls it as he sees it. Doonesbury 6 August 1972.

And yet: while Rufus demonstrates a fair amount of disdain for the white people who attach themselves to the Black struggle, he also develops a strong connection to, and a profound gratitude for, Mike and his efforts to help him learn. Soon after they meet, Rufus awakens Mike for some late-night help with his science homework; Mike’s annoyance is quickly replaced by a genuine sense of self-worth that runs against his usual “loser” persona. A few months later, Rufus realizes that, instead of being happy for a summer break from Mike’s lessons, he actually misses the “crazy honky.” It turns out that, “for a liberal,” Mike is “pretty lovable.” In February 1973, Rufus invited Mike into his family, asking him to be the godfather for his adopted baby brother (who later turns out to be a sister named Norma Jean). When he meets Norma Jean, Mike reveals a sense of compassion that Trudeau rarely ascribes to him. He is overwhelmed by the responsibility he has taken on, and he wants to shelter Norma Jean for as long as possible from the ugly truths that will shape her life in a white supremacist society.

9APR71

6APR72

Mike’s alright, once you get to know him. Doonesbury, 9 April 1971; 6 April 1972.

In the strip’s early years, Mike is most often the scapegoat; his peers are as quick to ridicule him as he is to embarrass himself, and his conduct towards women, especially, reveals him to be selfish and insensitive. And yet, even read through the lens of GBT’s critique of white liberalism, Mike’s relationship with Rufus is an early example of the Mike’s evolution into a character who is is more aware and caring than originally presented. Writing and drawing Rufus allowed Trudeau to deliver cutting satire about the relationships between Black and white Americans at a time when those relationships were being increasingly interrogated and challenged by young people. It also allowed him to start writing his titular character as more than a loser.

3MAR73.png
Mike at his best. Doonesbury, 3 March 1973.

He’s Black, He’s Beautiful, and by Gosh, He’s Angry: Race in the Early Doonesbury Strips, Part I.

My last three “Long Strange Trip” posts have looked at how Doonesbury treated the Vietnam War during the first few years of its run, starting with B.D’s experience in ROTC through his decision to enlist and his encounter with Phred the Vietcong terrorist. Though B.D. was sent home as part of Richard Nixon’s policy of “Vietnamization,” his repatriation did not mark the end of GBT’s engagement with Vietnam. The war figured prominently in the strip up until the fall of Saigon in 1975, and in the years and decades that followed, the experiences of characters including B.D., Phred, and Kim Rosenthal allowed GBT to chronicle the lasting effects of an event that plated a formative role for his generation. But I’m going to put Vietnam aside for a little while and go back to look at some other themes that figured prominently in Doonesbury’s first years. This, then, is the first of two posts about race in the early Doonesbury strips.

I’ve said before that the character of Joanie Caucus introduced me to feminism in my early teenage years; in a similar vein, Doonesbury was my gateway to the concept of Black radicalism. As a kid growing up in the suburbs of Montreal in the 1980s, my education in terms of racism and the struggle against it was limited to a few clips from newsreels about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Garry Trudeau was the first writer to tell me about the Black Panthers and the idea that anti-racism did not begin and end with King. Inspired by some of the strips I’m looking at today, I wrote a Grade Eight term paper about the Panthers; I really wish I’d held on to it. I’m sure it would be massively embarrassing to read it now.

When I began reading the early Doonesbury strips, I also had no idea that the presence of Black people as anything other than the butt of racist humour in comic strips that largely featured white characters was, at the time those strips were written, a relatively new thing. In the wake of King’s murder, a retired schoolteacher named Harriet Glickman wrote to several popular cartoonists to suggest that they incorporate African-American characters into their strips. Given the popularity of newspaper comics with children, Glickman reasoned, those readers should be more exposed to images of Black and white children learning and playing together. Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts and arguably the most popular and influential cartoonist of the time, replied that while he and several of his colleagues would have liked to integrate their strips, they were afraid to appear as if they were “patronizing our Negro friends.

Glickman shared Schulz’s reply with two African-American friends, Ken Kelly and Monica Gunning, who both wrote to Schulz to reassure him that a Black Peanuts character would be a positive step forward. A few months later, Franklin joined the Peanuts gang. Franklin would remain a secondary character in the strip, but including a Black character in a funny pages staple like Peanuts was, in 1968, a move that required moral courage: Schulz was asked by editors from Southern newspapers to stop producing material that featured integrated classrooms at a time when “forced integration” was taking place.

Peanuts31JUL68

Franklin’s first appearance. Peanuts, 31 July 1968.

Schulz’s inclusion of Franklin was a radical political act, but Peanuts is not a political strip. Two and a half years after Franklin’s first appearance, Garry Trudeau began to address the politics of race in America in a manner that was informed less by a particularly narrow reading of King’s message – that fixing America’s race problems entailed incorporating African-Americans into the mainstream of American life – and more by both the harsh economic and social realities faced by Black people and by the work of radical Black intellectuals and activists who interrogated and ultimately sought to undo a system predicated on white supremacy. But while GBT brought something of the conditions endured by African-Americans and something of the Panthers’ ideas to the comics, he did not try to position himself as the voice of Black radicalism on the funny pages. Rather, Trudeau turned his satirical lens on his own cohort of white liberals and leftists, focusing on how white people who saw themselves as allies in the struggle for racial equality were often unable to deal with the Black struggle on its own terms.

My next couple of posts will look at two African-American characters who appeared regularly in the first few years of Doonesbury: Calvin, a Panther who attends Walden College, and Rufus, a kid from the inner city whom Mike tutors. Calvin and Rufus play similar roles, drawing our attention to the insidious legal, social, and economic effects of white supremacy and pointing out the clumsiness, miscommunication and ignorance that often shapes the efforts of well-intentioned white people who join the struggle against racism. This post looks at Calvin’s appearances in the strip; we’ll look at Rufus next time.

19JAN71

B.D. sticks his foot in his mouth. Doonesbury, 19 January 1971.

Calvin’s first appearance was on 19 January 1971. In Calvin’s first appearance, GBT establishes Doonesbury’s first named Black character as someone whose presence reveals white people’s racism. B.D. tells Calvin that he comes from “the heartlands of America” and has “fond memories of … waking up at dawn to see blue skies, and Negroes toiling under the sun.” Calvin’s silent rage speaks loud enough to make B.D. realize how wrong his comment was and forces him to amend it, if only to avoid confrontation. Other encounters, however, reveal how white people are completely ignorant of the racism they express. When informed that Calvin will be joining the Slackmeyer family for dinner, Mark’s father tells his wife (and their Black maid) to “throw on some fried chicken.” When informed that his country club “doesn’t allow Negro guests,” the elder Slackmeyer is disappointed, as Blacks “make such splendid caddies.

13JUL71

16JUL71

Mark’s Dad makes no apologies for his racism. Doonesbury, 13 July 1971; 16 July 1971.

Aside from allowing GBT to satirize the social racism expressed by B.D. and Mark’s father, Calvin’s presence also allowed him to write about how the American legal system used its power to silence radical Black political activism. Calvin’s appearances in Doonesbury coincided with the trial of the “New Haven Nine,” a group of Panthers who were accused of the murder of a suspected FBI mole. Activists at Yale held a large rally in support of the defendants; Yale President Kingman Brewster issued a statement in support of the protest. [1] Somewhat frustratingly, Trudeau didn’t provide much of a back story for Calvin, but it’s clear that Calvin has engaged in the struggle in ways that put his freedom at risk, and that he has close contacts with people who have paid high prices for their activism. When Calvin unexpectedly faces an old comrade in an amateur boxing match, we learn that he’s tight with a Panther who, like Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, had to flee to Algeria to escape legal persecution; as the two friends catch up, Calvin asks how Cleaver is doing.

Mike’s offer to help Calvin during his trial not only reveals the racism permeating the legal system – the judge is depicted as a hooded Klansman – it also speaks to Trudeau’s larger critique of white allies to the Black cause. Mike is a college freshman, not an attorney, so it’s unclear what he might actually do to help Calvin beat the charges. But beyond naive overconfidence, the interactions that Mike and his friends share with Calvin reveal the multi-layered and sometimes contradictory ways in which white progressives engage with the Black liberation struggle. To Mike and his friends, Black radicalism is both glamourised and feared; while whites may enthusiastically respond to Black liberation rhetoric, they are less inclined to fully commit to a struggle that ultimately seeks to undo a system from which they benefit. Finally, their position in the racial hierarchy makes them unable to grasp the true meaning and stakes of Calvin’s struggle on its own terms. In Trudeau’s telling, whites from across the political spectrum ultimately use Black radicalism and Black radicals as means by which to ease their personal guilt about white supremacy.

11MAR70

…well, he’s angry now. Doonesbury, 11 March 1971.

The romanticization of the Black struggle among white progressives exists in tension with a limited commitment to the success of that struggle. Calvin’s association with the Panthers draws him rock-star levels of adulation. Students gush and cheer as their professor introduces Calvin as “a victim” who is Black, beautiful, and angry “… AN ACTUAL BLACK PANTHER.” Yet this white fascination with, and enthusiasm for, a man who is putting his freedom and possibly his life on the line for racial justice does not extend to accepting actual sacrifice in support of that cause. The white students at the rally in support of the accused Panthers might want to annihilate the status quo, but they don’t want to torch the frat houses. And while some whites enthusiastically embrace vision of Black liberation that won’t involve any real threat to their privilege, others, like Walden College’s President King (in imitation of his real-life counterpart Brewster), cynically sign on as a way to advance their own agenda.

20MAR71

17MAR71

While President King/Kingman Brewster latches on to the cause to advance his own agenda, Walden/Yale students don’t want to take this revolution thing too far. Doonesbury20 March 1971; 17 March 1971.

The possibility that the frats might get burned down speaks to another theme that Trudeau explores: white fear of Black violence. Even before we meet Calvin, Mike reveals himself as someone who sees radical ideas as leading to potentially bad outcomes for his personal well-being. While he doesn’t want to buy a newspaper from two campus radicals he bumps into – one African-American, the other white – because he “doesn’t believe in revolution,” he also doesn’t want draw the radicals’ ire for not supporting their “free breakfast program for little children,” GBT’s direct nod to the Black Panthers. And so “another white liberal bites the dust”: Mike purchases a paper, “buying in” to save his hide should the revolution actually materialize. The threat that Mike perceives is clearly evident in Trudeau’s rendering of the radicals’ glares and menacing smiles. The notion that Black radicalism ultimately represented a violent threat to white people drives a strip from a year later, when Calvin marks up Mike and B.D.’s door with an X, presumably as a target in an impending uprising, after they don’t come through with a donation for the Panther Defence Fund.In both strips, the characters’ fears of potentially becoming the victims of revolutionary violence is evident, and one can only wonder to what degree Mike’s wariness resonated with Trudeau’s readers.

18NOV70

19NOV70

Mike buys in. Doonesbury, 18 November 1971; 19 November 1971.

Finally, Doonesbury’s white characters reveal a profound degree of ignorance about the Black struggle that they try to support in their own clumsy ways, and it seems as if they rarely miss the opportunity to say the wrong thing. When the buzz over the rally in support of Calvin subsides, Mike assures him that “even though the Panthers are out of vogue,” he won’t be “switching ethnic groups.” (Mike’s comments reflect how, after the New Haven trial, the Panthers became much less of a role in a broader campus activist political culture). Mark suggests that the young Black revolutionary rebrand himself as a “civil rights negro.” Mike seems to Black radicalism as a fashion accessory, while Mark grossly underestimates the depth of his fellow revolutionary’s commitment to a radical vision. While Calvin typically responds to the ignorance displayed by his white supporters with a look of dejected resignation, he at least once calls Mike out for his bullshit: when Mike asks him if he’d “rather be Black or white,” his answer is pretty clear: “….it’s a pretty stupid question.”

22MAR71

19MAR71

Cluelessness abounds. Doonesbury, 22 March 1971; 19 March 1971.

Because he has lived a life of privilege, Mike cannot understand the meaning and the stakes of Calvin’s political struggle. He means well, but there are intellectual and experiential barriers that prevent him from being able to support Calvin on Calvin’s terms. Next time, we’ll see how, even with his baggage of ignorance, awkwardness, and self-interest. Mike was able to foster a meaningful mentoring relationship with Rufus. There’s kind of a redemption story there: as we’ll see, Mike’s moments with his young student allowed GBT to give us a far more complex, and ultimately sympathetic view of his titular character.

26OCT71

Mike will, eventually learn a bit. Really. Doonesbury, 26 October 1971.

 

1. For the trial, see Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martini, Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, University of California Press, 2013, pp. 254-262. In fact, read the whole book, it’s an essential history of the movement.

Doonesbury Goes to War, Part III: Phred.

In previous posts, I’ve written about how Garry Trudeau framed the Vietnam war and American militarism more generally in the early years of Doonesbury, culminating in B.D.’s decision to enlist and fight in Vietnam. In those posts, I noted a shift in how GBT wrote about war and the military in the strip’s early years, moving from dark satire to an approach that focused more on surreal and silly humour. While B.D. was in ROTC training, he expressed a passion for violence that was shocking in its intensity; when he got to Vietnam, the enemy taunted him by shooting at him with suction-cup arrows. As Doonesbury’s narrative got closer to real violence, it seems, Trudeau was less willing to shock comics page readers’ sensibilities. Sometimes the hardest questions call for a softer approach, and by 1972, few questions were as hard as the question of what to do about a long, brutal and increasingly unpopular war.
In this post, I’m going to conclude my look at B.D.’s service in Vietnam by examining another shift that Trudeau made in terms of how he addressed the war, allowing a key character and readers alike to better understand the humanity of an enemy. On February 16, 1972, B.D., lost in the jungle, had a chance encounter that would profoundly affect him, helping him gain a better understanding of the perspectives and lived realities of those who suffered most during the American war in Vietnam: the Vietnamese people.

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Introducing Phred, Doonesbury, 16 February 1972

Separated from his unit in unfriendly territory, B.D. doubles down on his belief that the Vietnam war is a just cause. He faces his impending doom squarely, with no regrets about the cause for which he may die: he may be “destined to die in this cursed jungle,” but the war he’s fighting is “right, honorable, and a credit to America.” B.D.’s soliloquy is interrupted when someone hidden in the grass points a rifle at his head and asks him how he feels about the “POW issue,” a reference to the question of captured American soldiers – while the US wanted prisoners released as a precondition for peace talks, North Vietnam was only willing to release them as part of a general peace settlement. Our hidden speaker is Phred, a Vietcong terrorist. (While the word “terrorist” is laden with particular associations, when he first meets B.D., Phred refers to himself as a “terrorist,” and continues to let B.D. refer to him as such, so that’s the term I will use here.)
Phred was a revolutionary addition to Doonesbury’s cast, and he went on to become one of the most important secondary characters in the Doonesbury pantheon. Notwithstanding GBT’s unfortunate decision to deal in stereotypes of Asian speech patterns in his first appearance (“vely nice”), Phred was a rare example of a sympathetic portrayal of an enemy soldier appearing in wartime American popular culture. If Vietnam went largely ignored by mainstream comic strips, the viewpoints of Vietnamese people – no matter what side of the conflict they took – were, before Phred showed up, something that no mainstream comics artists wrote about. Phred gave a voice to the Vietnamese people as they withstood the effects of American war-making, and after the war ended, he continued to speak for the people of the Third World as Vietnam’s ambassador to the United Nations.

22Feb72

It’s not just B.D. that feels this way. It’s America. Doonesbury, 22 February 1972

A few days after they meet, Phred is sleeping in the grass and B.D. ponders his situation: he may be “hungry, tired, disgraced, and humiliated,” but at least, he muses, his new friend is “in the right country.” It’s tempting to read B.D.’s reading of his predicament as a commentary on the American presence in Vietnam in microcosm. Like B.D., America has been disgraced and humiliated in a country where it has no real business. B.D. decides that, given his situation, it might be “worthwhile and inspirational” to get to know a “commie.” Yet before B.D. gets to know Phred, there’s something he has to say, something that reveals an ugly part of his character. B.D.’s unease about Phred is not only ideological, it’s racial. Phred encourages B.D. to say the word he’s been dying to say since they first met. B.D. screams at his new companion, calling him a “lousy commie gook!” in a moment of catharsis. With that unpleasantness out of the way, the two adversaries begin what becomes a lifelong friendship.

25Feb72

Not a proud moment for B.D. Doonesbury, 25 February 1972

As part of their bonding experience, Phred fills B.D. in on basic facts about the war and its effects on Vietnam from a Vietnamese perspective, focusing on just how long the Vietnamese people had been fighting to liberate themselves from foreign occupation. The American “running dogs been occupying [Vietnam] for fifteen years, and Phred learned the terrorist trade from his father, who “used to do quite a job on the local French outposts.” There is a political lesson to be learned from this history, one the Americans should have learned years earlier: the Vietnamese people were fiercely committed to attaining and protecting their national sovereignty. Phred and his comrades are prepared to fight this latest occupation as long as it takes: after all, Phred has a ten-year contract.

21Feb72

Americans never really understood the longer historical context of the Vietnam war. Doonesbury, 21 February 1972

But it’s not lessons on history and politics that turn these two enemies into friends; it’s bonding over simple shared human pleasures like playing cards and getting drunk (an activity that would eventually earn B.D. a Purple Heart) and sharing a love of music. These experiences have a profound effect on B.D., forcing him to question some of the core the beliefs that inspired him to sign up in the first place. Phred is “unlike other commies”: he’s “a good guy.” But it’s not just about one good guy – it turns out, much to B.D.’s surprise, that commies have mothers too.

23Feb 2

Commies have mothers too. Doonesbury, 23 February 1972

B.D.’s experience meeting a flesh-and-blood communist was revelatory, but it was not immediately transformative. Trudeau respects his readers too much to give them a fairytale ending in which B.D.’s militarism and casual racism disappear after meeting an actual Vietnamese person. B.D.’s encounter with Phred doesn’t make him doubt the rightness of the American cause in south-east Asia; it leads him to a more complicated place, where he is able to recognize the humanity of his ideological enemy while still believing that inflicting massive violence upon the Vietnamese people is the correct thing to do. B.D. lives with the contradictions and finds ways to rationalize them. Even as he keeps in touch with Phred after being rescued, B.D. remains committed to the war. When a military plane flies over on a “protective reaction raid,” he expresses his admiration for the aircraft, oblivious to what the bombs it drops will do to people just like Phred and his mother. With the right rationalization, bombing villages becomes a “protective reaction strike,” and, B.D. argues, that means “not having to say you’re sorry.” When he learns he’s being shipped out, he gets upset at having to quit fighting a war that “had such promise.” And as he says goodbye to Phred, B.D. he makes it clear that the idea of fighting a racialized, dehumanized ideological opponent – in this case the “Krauts” on the other side of the Berlin Wall – still has enormous appeal.

5MAY72
B.D. is still basically B.D. Doonesbury, 5 May 1972

If we zoom out and look at Doonesbury’s long history, it’s clear that B.D.’s encounter with Phred played a role in his evolution from a reactionary, misogynist, racist stereotype of a Goldwater youth wing member to the insightful, sensitive and wise man he has become, but it was not a sufficient condition. In future posts, I will have way more to say about that development. B.D.’s emotional growth is arguably the single most narrative arc in the strip. B.D. was the first character to appear in Doonesbury, he endured a type of trauma rarely seen in the medium of the daily comic strip, losing a leg in Iraq, and he has come to represent a social cause that Trudeau has lent an enormous amount of support to, namely that of the struggles of America’s soldiers and veterans.