This Week in Doonesbury: “The Safest Space on the Comics Page”

July 2nd’s Doonesbury strip ran as Image Comics pulled a cover image drawn by Howard Chaykin that was widely perceived as being violent and racist (a perception I share).  The image and the ultimate call to pull it fuelled debate about hate speech, the limits of free speech, and the responsibility of artists to consider the messages behind, and the potential effects of, the images they create and market. On one side of these debates were progressively-minded comics artist, scholars and fans (my Twitter feed counted a high proportion of women, PoC and Queer- and Trans-identifying people in this camp; your Twitter mileage may vary). On the other side of the debate were people (largely men, largely white, it seemed: again, statistical analysis limited to my recollection of my Twitter feed) who believe in a narrow conception of free speech that seems to disregard accounting for a power imbalance between privilege and marginality or the potentially painful histories through which people perceive art. Some in this camp claim the right to shock simply for the sake of shocking. While some on this side had thoughtful things to say about the relationship between freedom and responsibility, more than a few seemed to rely on slippery-slope arguments about book-burnings and imploring their opponents to go back to their “safe spaces.”

“Safe spaces” were also at play in the weekend’s Doonesbury offering. It’s Reader Mailbag time, a recurring set up since sometime in the 80s (I think). A young man writes, asking if he can read Doonesbury without fear of being offended: Mike and Mark reassure him that characters undergo regular “sensitivity training,” making them “the most woke in all of comics”; Doonesbury has thus been named “the safest space on the comics page for twelve years running.” The punch line is Mark’s outrage at the fact that they lost the title one year because a “snowflake” reported them for a “microaggressive joke.”

Reading the strip in the context of what was going on in Comics Twitter (…a space I am still very new to…) in the wake of the Chaykin situation hung me up a bit. What exactly was GBT getting at? Given Mark’s deployment of words often used by the right to mock elements of today’s radical youth culture, it’s reasonable to read the strip as a shot taken by an ageing Boomer against a generation that he is completely out-of-touch with: “Look at those damn Millenials, they can’t even handle reading a comic strip out of fear they might get offended.” From there, the joke easily becomes: “Even libtards like Garry Trudeau hate the Millenials!!””

And that may well be what GBT was trying to say. But even if he did mean it that way, the strip points to a larger truth that’s at stake.

First off, I don’t buy the idea that Trudeau is simply playing the “hey you kids get off my lawn” card. One: he’s not that lazy. Two: it doesn’t fit with his long history of holding nuanced views on any generation. GBT both praised and ridiculed his generation’s various sub-sets, and he does the same with the Millenials who followed. Yes, Jeff and Zipper are idiots. But Alex and Toggle are smart and resourceful grown-ups confronting a world that holds much less promise than did the world offered to their parents.

Reading the 2 July strip in terms of Doonesbury’s longer history makes things a little more interesting. Mark Slackmeyer is a former campus radical who came out as gay sometime in his late thirties or early forties. His character is the personification of the most radical elements of the campus anti-war left of the 1960s and 1970s. He represents those who fought on the front lines during a revolutionary moment that experienced violence on a level that has often been left out of popular memory of the 1960s. Mark has been beaten, tear-gassed and jailed as he and his comrades confronted the violent racism and imperialism of post-war America. Mark is a stand-in for the Students for a Democratic Society, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the defendants at the Chicago Eight Trial, and the four college kids who were shot down by the National Guard at Kent State in 1970, and his sexuality puts the Stonewall uprising in his radical genealogy (though his marriage to a neo-con risks putting his radical cred in jeopardy). Mark isn’t speaking for his generation writ large: he’s speaking as a representative of a particular moment in the longer history of the radical American tradition.

As the most radical early regular cast member, Mark played another crucial role throughout much of Doonesbury’s history, that of the younger half of a deep divide between the Boomers and the (self-described) “Greatest Generation.” Mark’s relationship with his father was the relationship between a substantial cohort of the Boomers and their parents in microcosm. Mark’s father Phil was a conservative in every sense of the word, and every choice the younger Slackmeyer made challenged Phil’s values. Love of country, long-held ideas about relationships between black and white or men and women, the capitalist system: Mark rejected his old man’s values with every fibre of his being. Trudeau’s strips about the eternal father-son conflict between Phil and Mark Slackmeyer allowed him to explore at length the effects of social and political change on family relationships and the mutual distrust and misunderstandings often experienced across divides. But if the distrust and the misunderstandings are mutual, the punchline usually makes it clear who the good guys are: the younger generation.

With all that in mind, I read this week’s comic not simply as a shot at the “Snowflakes,” but as a commentary on how critiques of today’s radical culture coming from older liberals and lefties happen because clashes between generations are inevitable – even when (elements of) those generations have many shared ideals, outlooks, and ultimate goals. Of course elements of today’s radical culture might well seem ridiculous to a radical activist from decades earlier: otherwise, those things wouldn’t be radical. It’s easy to see how a figure in Mark’s position might have to struggle to make the mental leaps necessary to embrace ideas that arose from a few decades of radical politics following his own activist years. Mark doesn’t get it; he’s not supposed to get it. That’s part of how generations keep moving forward to a better world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s