Look! Rice Paddies!: Doonesbury Goes to War, Part II. Vietnam, 1972

In my last “Long Strange Trip” post, way back in October, I wrote about B.D.’s time in ROTC. Those strips made me reevaluate how I thought about how Garry Trudeau wrote about war. I had remembered GBT’s Vietnam-era strips as being lighthearted and goofy in comparison to the grittier and darker approach that he took to writing about the “War on Terror.” In fact, the arc about B.D.’s summer at ROTC was full of dark, disturbing satire that underscored the links between American patriotism and American violence. B.D., the personification of jingoistic American patriotism, thrives in ROTC, an environment where brutality and destruction are encouraged. It was only when B.D. arrived in Vietnam that Trudeau took a softer approach to satirizing American militarism, one that focused less on the brutality of military violence and more on how the first-hand experience affected B.D., setting the stage for him to later become GBT’s mouthpiece for addressing the complexities of American military policy.

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Moore and Kubert, Tales of the Green Beret, undated strip.

An explicitly anti-war comic strip was, and remains, a rarity in the funny pages. While Beetle Bailey’s depictions of military life are a mainstay of American comics, the strip never addresses the question of violence apart from Sgt. Snorkel’s routine pummeling of Beetle. During the Vietnam era, there was at least one comic strip that could be classified as pro-war. In the mid-1960s, Tales of the Green Beret, written by Robin Moore and drawn by Joe Kubert, brought the Vietnam war to America’s funny pages with adventure stories that celebrated American military values.* I’ve only read a few scattered examples of Tales of the Green Beret, but Mark James Estern, in A History of Underground Comics, points to the strip as a rare example of a strip with an explicitly political orientation that was published only because its views were in line with those of the media establishment. Doonesbury, of course, along with Pogo, was a critical exception to that rule, and in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a few years after Tales of the Green Beret’s run ended, growing discontent about Vietnam opened up space on the funny pages for comics artists to directly address the war in Vietnam through an explicitly anti-war lens.

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Doonesbury, 31 January 1972

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Doonesbury 1 February 1972

On January 31, 1972, B.D. announced that he was leaving Walden College to fight in Vietnam. B.D. is a fervent patriot, a strong anti-communist, and a committed ROTC trainee, but, notwithstanding the rationale he originally presented to his roommate he wants Mike to “grow up strong and happy in a great land free of communism and tyranny”— his reason for going to war was more practical than political: he needed to get out of writing a term paper. This bit of silliness signaled a shift in GBT’s approach to writing about war, allowing him to move away from the brutal approach he had taken in the ROTC arc and also opening the door to a more complex portrayal of the character at the centre of the story. B.D.’s experience in Vietnam were the first steps in his transformation from a John-Wayne-worshipping, Goldwater Republican jock to Trudeau’s principal voice for exposing the effects of American militarism on the bodies and minds of the men and women tasked with fighting America’s wars.

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Doonesbury, 7 February 1972

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Doonesbury 8 February 1972

The more light-hearted approach that Trudeau established with the term paper gag carried over into his treatment of B.D.’s combat experience. As B.D. gets closer to the war, the recruit who disemboweled a training dummy while screaming “KILL” at the top of his lungs takes on a childlike, gleeful anticipation. When he sees rice paddies from the plane, he points and yells like a little kid flying over Disneyland or Manhattan; on his first day of combat, he proudly writes to his parents to tell them that he has his “own bunker and machine gun,” sounding more like a kid showing off a new bike than a soldier. Once he arrives in the field, the violence that B.D. encounters – and dishes out –is cartoonish as compared to the bloodthirstiness that characterized the ROTC arc. After dinging him in the helmet with a round, an enemy sniper responds to B.D.’s ensuing curses by shooting him again – with a suction-cup arrow. A few days later, B.D. coolly shoots a Vietcong fighter who proceeds to lament his fate with a quote from Hamlet before he sneaks back into the bush, giggling. This sharp change in mood softens Trudeau’s message, but it’s arguably a necessary softening, as the logical extension of the ROTC “KILL” strip would have been for Trudeau to have B.D. reenact something akin to the My Lai massacre, something that surely would have led to the end of his career as a syndicated cartoonist.

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Doonesbury, 11 February 1972

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Doonesbury 14 February 1972

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Doonesbury 15 February 1972

The following strip does engage in a pointed critique of the American military, showing an officer blatantly falsifying an enemy body count. This strip might speak to an emerging gap in B.D.’s understanding of the war, a conflict between his ideological belief in the justice of the cause and the reality on Vietnamese soil. I think B.D.’s disgruntled look in the final panel can be read as a sign of his growing awareness that the war is far more more complicated than what his Manichean political outlook allowed for. And even if that’s not the case and I’m reading too much into a gag about routine military bullshit, what happened to B.D. over the next little while did force him to re-evaluate his core beliefs. On 16 February, a week after landing in Vietnam, B.D., separated from his unit and lost in the jungle, had a serendipitous encounter with a Viet Cong fighter who would, over time, play a key role in what is Trudeau’s best work as a writer: the transformation of B.D. from a dumb jock and a one-dimensional parody of American militaristic patriotism into the most complex character in Trudeau’s stable. It’s not a process that happened overnight; like in real life, B.D.’s understanding of the politics of American militarism shifted gradually and unevenly with new experiences, contexts, and insights. Next time, we’ll look at how that process began.
*I’ve seen the title of the strip rendered both as “Beret” and “Berets.”

Comic Review: Stark Plug

Here’s my second attempt at writing a comics review; you can read the first, on Tailsteak’s Forward, here. If you’re a creator of web- or print-based comics and you’d like me to write about your work, drop a line on Twitter (@readdoonesbury) or through my contact page.

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A while back, I received a copy of Stark Plug Book, a comix collection by Steve Chappell, aka Chap, a Madison, Wisconsin comics creator. I could say that Stark Plug is a somewhat absurdist humour comic following the adventures of a corporate drone, which it is, but it’s so much more than that. Stark Plug is a prime example of a contemporary creator working within the aesthetic developed by the comix creators of the 1960s and 70s and revealing the extent to which that approach to graphic narrative remains fruitful, while marking out his particular vision of the genre’s possibilities.

Chappell claims that Stark Plug isn’t a political comic, calling it “pure entertainment,” a way to “get people away from the perils of their life.” I read the book a little differently. There’s an escapist feel, but Chappell’s depiction of what Stark is trying to escape from – the mindless drudgery of work in the capitalist system – is deeply political. We never learn what Stark does for a living, nor what “the plant” where he works produces. That’s what makes Chappell’s critique so effective: it’s not really about any one job or sector of the economy, it’s really about all of us. People cling to jobs they hate and in which they are “doing very little to better humankind” for the sake of the benefits package and “maximum vacation time.” Instead of doing work that brings people a degree of pride and satisfaction, people follow a daily rhythm of work that is boiled down to a manic boss yelling at his workers to “Increase production! Work faster! Quicken the pace!” with the underlying threat that if they don’t, “No raise for you.” Even Bernie the Banjo Bum, the homeless street musician who longs for a simpler time before cell phones and digital media pushed into a “rush-cession” of accelerating work and consumption, takes checks and credit cards; the logic of capitalism prevails even on frozen-over Midwestern sidewalks.

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Superimposed styles break the reader’s sense of narrative flow and continuity. Also, there’s a great contrast of dynamism and immobility here.

The use of absurd humour as a way to engage in social commentary while providing readers with a fun read is a staple in the comix tradition; another comix touchstone that Chappell explores is the use of self-referential humour and commentary as a way to disrupt the relationship between author, characters, and reader. From the very first page, where Stark reminds his boss that as an “inanimate cartoon character,” he is unable to work harder, the book is full of instances of characters breaking the fourth wall and making observations about themselves, the pages within which their story unfolds, and the creator drawing them. This self-referential tendency is a key dynamic in the book’s central story, in which Stark quits his job at the plant to fulfill his dream of starring in a daily newspaper comic strip. Stark’s ensuing experience as a lead character in Memphis and Harry reads as an extended ode to the comics/comix replete with references to classic tropes and characters. I’m especially a fan of Memphis, a cartoon kitty whose love of fun, revolting excretory habits, and hippie wisdom are clearly a tribute to everyone’s favourite graphic feline, Fat Freddy’s Cat.

Chappell is a block print artist (some of his prints are reproduced in one sequence of the book), and while some of his comics work reflects the heavier lines and more static feel that one (…or at least I) associate with that style, his style is dynamic and marked by sometimes-dramatic and sometimes-subtle aesthetic shifts to suit the moods he wants to convey. Chappell may favour a relatively simple drawing approach, but his drawings do complex things as he uses different visual narrative techniques, notably superimposing contrasting styles on a single page or in a single panel, to occasionally disrupt the narrative flow and the reader’s sense of being grounded in a definable reality. This is especially true in the sequence “Stark Walks,” which strongly evokes the “messing with your head” approach that was a key part of the underground comix, and in the “play within a play” sequence about Stark’s time as a character in Memphis and Harry, both of which, in different ways, bring the reader to a place where the rules of the straight world don’t apply anymore.

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Breaking the fourth wall backstage at a strip within a strip. Memphis’s wisdom and fun-loving spirit clearly evokes Fat Freddy’s Cat.

It in was reading the Memphis and Harry sequence that I came to understand what this book is really about. Stark Plug is a comic book about comic books; from the depictions of office politics to jokes about how disgusting cats are to the ads for novelty products on the inside back cover, the book is full of references and in-jokes that any comics lover will appreciate, written in loving tribute to the medium. Chappell sets out to remind us of the amazing and unique possibilities that exist in the space between drawings and words and does so in way that draws deeply on the comix tradition while expressing his own artistic vision. Do yourself a favour and order up a copy.