"Well, Great. A Massive Coronary": Death and Dying in Doonesbury

There have been, by my reckoning, five significant Doonesbury characters who have died (not counting Duke, who has “died” twice, once when he was mistakenly declared dead after being taken hostage in Iran in 1979, and once when he spent some time as a zombie in the employ of Haitian strongman Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier). In this post, I’m going to look at how Garry Trudeau has addressed dying, death and mourning, in the hopes that, by reflecting on some of the themes that he addresses, I may take some steps forward in my own mourning process.

Doonesbury isn’t the first newspaper comic to remind us of the ability of comic strips to transcend the restrictions imposed by the medium (limited space, few words, relatively simple art) to create emotional impact while addressing death. In 1929, The Gumps, one of the most popular strips of the era, created a stir when artist Sidney Smith killed off a character named Mary Gold. Fans of the strip were so distraught that the Chicago Tribune had to hire extra staff to deal with the calls and letters that flooded their offices. Several of Trudeau’s contemporaries have also, with varying degrees of success, dealt with death. Lynn Johnston’s poignant recounting of the death of Farley, the Patterson family dog, stands out as a moment that, like the death of Mary Gold, brought readers together to grieve a character who had become part of their lives. In 1987, Bill Watterson wrote about dying with great sensitively when Calvin encountered death for the first time after finding an abandoned raccoon cub who died as his family tried to nurse it back to health. Other attempts at addressing death in the comics pages have been less successful: a community of snark has come together around Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean, inspired in no small part by his ham-fisted writing about the death of the unsympathetic main character’s wife Lisa and the ways in which Les Moore responded to it over the years.

In 1986, Dick Davenport, the ornithologist and husband of Representative Lacey Davenport, died while trying to catch a view of the elusive Bachman’s warbler, a bird now believed to be extinct. Dick’s heart gave out just as he was about to snap a photograph of the rare bird: he made a deal with God and survived long enough to click the shutter and gain his own type of “immortality.” Trudeau told the story in a way that softened the impact of the strip’s first death. Dick’s stoic acceptance of his fate – he lay on the ground thinking “Well, great. A massive coronary” – revealed a man who’d had a good run and understood the inevitability of death. A two-panel wordless strip – one of my favourite examples of GBT’s generally-underrated drawing skills – captured the beauty that can be hidden in death. In the foreground of a forest scene, we see Dick’s trademark straw boater sticking out of the grass. Birds of various species perch on Dick’s camera in tribute to a kindred spirit.

As elegant a man in death as he was in life. Dick’s last moments. Doonesbury, 7 November 1986

If Dick showed us that death is the price of a good life, Doonesbury’s next death reminded us that sometimes people are taken away for no good reason. In 1990, Joanie’s close friend Andy Lippincott died of HIV/AIDS. Andy’s is the only Doonesbury death that could rightly be described as tragic, because he died young, and because those who had the disease that killed him were scorned by American society and the American government for far too long. Readers learned of Andy’s illness in April 1989. A year later, Andy was preparing for his funeral, a process that revealed how humour can be an effective tool for those facing unspeakable tragedy. Andy requested that the cast of Cheers act as his pallbearers; he told corny jokes about AIDS patients. While Joanie didn’t understand how Andy could joke about his fate, his doctor and perpetual straight man pointed out that to live with AIDS was to live with anger at how the disease represented a “stigma on top of a stigma.” Andy’s joking helped him “soften the rage he [felt] and … face the abyss.” Andy died on 24 May 1990. As tragic as Andy’s death was, GBT gave the moment poetic beauty. The Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds – one of Andy’s favourite albums – had just come out on CD and Andy, after marvelling at the sound of the recording, drifted away peacefully, listening to his favourite band, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” playing on his stereo.

Andy leaves us. Doonesbury, 24 May 1990

Unlike her husband, who died suddenly, Lacey, like Andy, had to endure protracted suffering before she died. In June 1997, Trudeau revealed that Lacey was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. A few months later, she stepped down from her seat in the House of Representatives and spent her remaining time being cared for by Jeremy Cavendish, a birding friend of Dick’s who had long carried a torch for her. Lacey took a turn for the worse when she developed cancer in the summer of 1998 (I wrote elsewhere about how Trudeau used her experience as a cancer patient to advance his longstanding argument for the repeal of marijuana prohibition). She died over the course of an arc that ran from 10-16 August 1998, escorted to Heaven by her true love, Dick.

Phil Slackmeyer and his son Mark typified the political, social, and cultural “generation gap” at the heart of our received wisdom about the relationship between the Boomers and their parents. In September 2001, Phil was dying of heart disease, and Mark moved back home to care for him. Mark wanted to use their time together to bridge the gap between his father’s generation and his own and learn about the challenges his father had experienced. While they did discuss Phil’s memories of the Second World War (“another Boomer with hedgerow envy,” laments Phil when Mark presses him to talk about the war), the two men were ultimately unable to reconcile the conflicts that defined their relationship. Mark branded his father’s outlook on life as “thoughtless and toxic.” Phil responded that his only son is a “Fruit Loop” and ultimately found “closure” in telling Mark that he was “a huge disappointment in virtually every respect.

Mike was the next cast member to lose a parent when his mother Daisy died in 2011. Curiously, Trudeau wrote the strip’s titular character’s mother’s death in a matter-of-fact way, ignoring her passing and dropping the reader into the middle of her funeral. The arc is less about her dying than it is about the stresses that arise within a family when death comes. As he mourned his mother, Mike had to navigate a brother who’d been largely absent, a bitter ex-wife and her drunk boyfriend, and awkward old friends of the family. While Alex saved the day with some kind words about her Notorious Granny D, recalling the loving relationship she and Daisy enjoyed, GBT, it would seem, is no fan of funerals. Trudeau typically writes funerals as dismal affairs: nobody wanted to come to Phil Slackmeyer’s service, and those who bothered to mourn him found nothing noteworthy to say about the man. The grace and elegance that defined Dick and Lacey’s life together stood in contrast to a memorial service rendered awkward by Dick’s socially-inept birding friends, robbing Lacey of the chance to mourn her lost husband in a suitably dignified manner. Only Andy’s funeral came across as fulfilling the role memorials are meant to, providing a space where people can begin to come to terms with the fact that they’ll never see someone they love again, and maybe marvel at how one person’s passing can help create connections between those left behind.

A few weeks after Andy died, he appeared in Joanie’s sleep to announce that he would be ”coming back as a returning dream figure” in order to take care of the “unfinished business” that he, like many of the dead, had “left behind.” In fact, instead of dealing with having “never made up” with his brother or addressing his “unpaid Visa bill,” Andy and other dead characters returned to help the living face their challenges. When Mark was struggling with his sexual identity, Andy dropped by the radio studio to help him come to terms with being gay. In 1990, Lacey resigned her Congressional seat over her role in allowing the deregulation that led to the savings and loan crisis. Dick visited her to assure her that she was doing the right thing. In 1997, he gave Lacey a sympathetic ear as she addressed the indignities of living with Alzheimer’s.

Sometimes, however, the strip’s ghosts play at frustrating earthly affairs. Jeremy, Lacey’s eternally-frustrated suitor, learned that Doonesbury’s greatest love story endured beyond the grave when his visit with Lacey’s ghost was cut short by Dick’s spirit interrupting their conversation and, once more, sweeping Lacey off of her feet, a poignant reminder that love extends beyond the temporality through which we experience the world.

***

My father – Claude – died a couple of months ago; he was 82. He didn’t get to go out like Dick, dropping suddenly while pursuing his true vocation (for Dick, it was birding; for Dad, the woodshop). He’d been in and out of hospitals and rehab centres since May, first because of the COPD that ultimately killed him, later because of the broken hip that probably hastened the process. I live on the other side of the continent from him, but I was very fortunate to visit him for a week in September when he was between hospital stays and in generally good shape and spirits, though it was pretty clear to me that he wouldn’t be around much longer: I knew, and I think he did too, that when we said goodbye, it was for the last time, though we spoke about my “next visit” as something we were looking forward to.

My Dad and I. Dorval, QC. September 2019.

I’m having a hard time mourning the Old Man. I haven’t come close to feeling the stuff I have to feel, to working through any of the difficult, nasty emotions that I have bottled away somewhere in my psyche. I thought maybe that returning to stories and characters that have been part of my life for nearly as long as he was (give or take a dozen years), I might find an idea, a moment, an insight that would resonate with something inside of me, that might trigger a feeling or give me a nudge in the right direction.

At first, I wasn’t quite sure how productive that was. It’s not like the comics were something that Dad and I shared. In many ways, my we didn’t have a lot of common ground. He loved building things, fixing things: he had no real interest in music, or books, or cricket, or comics, or radical political theory or any of the other interests I pursue. He was most in his element in the garage or the woodshop at the community centre, surrounded by wood and tools. I’ll never not be amazed at what my Dad could do with his hands, especially because anything more complex than hanging a picture frame is sheer witchcraft to me. On one visit home, the Old Man and I were having a beer in his garage while he was building the standing desk upon which I am writing. He was talking about his father (who died of the DTs while trying to kick the bottle a few months before I was born. I’m named after him) and I asked if his father was, like him, a craftsman. “Oh, shit no,” he said. And then looked at me. “It must skip generations.” We laughed at the acknowledgement at the fundamental difference between us.

Maybe, though, it’s that I’m looking somewhere that the Old Man would never have begun to consider as particularly interesting to find meaning during a difficult time that speaks most strongly of why I am thankful for his being in my life. Dad always gave me the freedom to explore the world on my own terms, to develop my own talents and intellect (as meagre as they are), to make my own mistakes and become the person I wanted to become. He didn’t try to make me into another version of himself, and he was, I think, proud of me for deciding to live life on my own terms. He knew, somehow, how to raise an oddball kid, and I’m grateful for that.

Garry Trudeau understands that the dead are not really gone. The people who shaped us, be they parents, lovers, or friends, are always a part of who we are. The appearances from beyond the grave of characters like Andy and Dick are, I think, meant less to be read as literal ghostly revisitations as they are a handy bit of visual and textual language to put something strange and scary and mysterious into terms we can grasp. People die, and they’re gone; at the same time, they live among us in the things we believe and do and say and value and love. They taught us how to do that, and every day we live the insights and ideas and values they passed on to us keeps them around a little bit longer. I am who I am in large part because this man raised me, cared for me, taught me, and loved me. I may not yet be ready to fully grieve his passing, but I am glad I got to be his son.

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