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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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).

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“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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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…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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.”

“Violence is as American as Cherry Pie”: Doonesbury Goes to War, Pt. I

When the curtain falls on Doonesbury, the ensuing retrospectives are bound to focus on Garry Trudeau’s chronicling of the War on Terror and its effects on the men and women who were asked to put their lives and their well-being at risk for a fundamentally flawed set of foreign policies. GBT has used the experiences of characters like B.D., Toggle, Ray Hightower, and Melissa Wheeler to promote awareness of the physical, psychological, and social challenges facing a generation asked to fight a poorly-conceived war in Afghanistan and a criminal war in Iraq. Beyond chronicling the effects of war on two generations of Americans, GBT has taken on an activist role, supporting veterans and giving them a space where they can make their voices heard on the issues that affect them.
Trudeau has written about virtually every war America has fought since the strip began in 1970 (and even a few that it hasn’t, such as when Duke, as governor of American Samoa, called on the Marines to invade the territory). Before re-reading the strip, my memory told me that the War on Terror led Trudeau to inject a dark tone in his writing about the military that had largely been absent in his previous work. The arc in which B.D. lost a leg in Iraq was arguably the most chilling thing ever to appear on the funny pages. Melissa’s experience with sexual assault in Afghanistan reveals ugly truths about the armed services that many Americans are uncomfortable acknowledging. Compare those horrors to B.D.’s experience in Vietnam: he joined up in order to get out of writing a term paper, and the highlight of his time in-country was a series of comic misadventures with Phred the VC terrorist leading to him earning his first Purple Heart, not for being wounded under enemy fire, but for cutting his hand on a beer can.
However, re-reading Doonesbury’s first years, I’m seeing how, when Trudeau took an unflinching look at the human costs of the War on Terror, he was building on a longer history of writing critically about the effects of war on American society and on the people that were at the receiving end of American power. Trudeau did use B.D.’s Vietnam experience to have a little fun writing about the war in a more lighthearted way. But, more importantly, he focused a satirical gaze on the violence inherent in American culture and demonstrated how American violence had tragic results for both the American and the Vietnamese people. Vietnam was, for Trudeau, as it was for the generation he belonged to and wrote about, an episode that revealed ugly truths about the country he loves. Trudeau spent decades trying to understand and come to terms with Vietnam. Nearly half a century on, Vietnam still resonates in Doonesbury’s America; one of the central characters for the past twenty-five years, Kim Doonesbury, formerly Kim Rosenthal, was the last orphan to be airlifted from Vietnam at the end of the war.
Over the next little while, I’m going to look at how Trudeau wrote about Vietnam. From the strip’s first days, Trudeau used his privileged position as a widely-syndicated newspaper comics artist as a way to bring a strong anti-war message to a key part of American mass culture, the funny pages.
Trudeau’s first mention of the Vietnam war came about six weeks into syndication. Mark Slackmeyer, suspended from Walden College after occupying the university’s president’s office, is planning to enjoy some downtime, but his hopes are dashed by the appearance of a “Greetings” letter from the draft board. The dreaded draft board letter made another appearance six months later; in the intervening time, the “beautiful cats” at the Selective Service had gotten remarkably hipper.

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Mark’s draft notice arrives. Doonesbury, 5 December 1970

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The beautiful cats at the draft board come after a Walden graduate. Doonesbury, 1 June 1971

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Unhappy days, indeed. Doonesbury, 2 June 1971.

While these two strips hint at an important dynamic in how the Vietnam war was experienced by young Americans – the ever-present anxiety among those fortunate enough to attend university and thereby avoid the draft that they might lose that status – Trudeau, surprisingly, largely overlooked the draft. Instead, as he thought about students being shipped off to war, Trudeau focused on a key link between American militarism and higher education, the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC). For Trudeau, ROTC revealed, and fostered, the violence deeply woven into the American character, a theme he would return to when he began writing directly about Southeast Asia.
The summer after his freshman year, B.D. began his ROTC training. ROTC was always in the cards for B.D. Alongside resonating with his pro-military/anti-Red ideological outlook, ROTC was probably the only way he could afford to attend a liberal arts college like Walden. After all, he’s the son of a working-class immigrant family (his parents emigrated from Poland) whose father is chronically unemployed. Trudeau later turned Walden into the butt of numerous jokes about for-profit “diploma mills” that trade meaningless degrees for crippling debt, but in 1971, B.D. was exchanging service to his country for a shot at social mobility his parents didn’t have.

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B.D. was always army-bound. Doonesbury, 26 July 1971.

H. Rap Brown of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee famously pointed out that “violence is as American as cherry pie.” B.D. may have seen ROTC, at least in part, as a chance at a life that would otherwise be unattainable for him, but Trudeau used B.D.’s ROTC training to comment on how violence, especially in its militaristic form, was central to American identity. B.D. represents that subset of American youth who did not buy into the counterculture or New Left politics. He’s a straight-arrow, all-American quarterback, a Republican, and a patriot’s patriot, who has no sympathy for the anti-war left B.D. rejects Mark’s New Left radicalism, but he lives his politics as much as his ideological opposite. With B.D., the huddle becomes a forum for the politics of Nixon’s “Silent Majority.” He will interrupt a huddle to allow his team to acknowledge an Air Force plane flying overhead, and once called for a beating to be delivered to a dissenting protestor. B.D.’s love of military violence is America’s love for military violence.

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B.D. on the anti-war movement. Doonesbury, 1 March 1971

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B.D. doesn’t care for dissent on campus or on the field. Doonesbury, 29 December 1970.

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A patriotic huddle. Doonesbury, 17 December 1970.

B.D. began his ROTC training on and Trudeau spared no time in engaging in some of the darkest satire imaginable in a mainstream newspaper comic strip. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and M*A*S*H* satirized the insanity of military life and the basic incompetence of Army bureaucracy; Doonesbury focused on portraying the military, and thereby American culture, as sadistically violent. We learn that ROTC is not really about imbuing young men with values of “leadership”and “discipline,” but teaching them “to be methodical machines of destruction and ruin.” This is exactly what B.D. was looking for; he proudly writes his parents to tell them that he has already learned how to “shoot, lacerate, knife, blow up, detonate, and liquidate” as required.

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The truth. Doonesbury, 12 June 1971.

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Skills training. Doonesbury, 14 June 1971.

B.D. takes to military life, and the accompanying opportunities for acts of heroic violence, much as he takes to the opportunities for controlled mayhem presented on Saturday afternoons on the college gridiron. In fact, one officer is concerned that B.D. might be a little too eager to put his training to practical use.

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It looks like fun. Doonesbury, 16 June 1971.

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B.D. develops a reputation. Doonesbury, 19 June 1971.

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Too much of a good thing. Doonesbury, 18 June 1971

By the end of the summer, however, the commanders put aside their fears that B.D. might be just a little bit too enthusiastic, and, in a nod to the spectacular aspects of America’s favourite pastime, give him the equivalent of an Oscar for the “Best Performance as a Gung-Ho G.I,” an award our hero turns down because – in an early appearance of the normalization of violent militarism as an occupation like any other – he’s “just trying to do his job.”

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“Just trying to do his job.” Doonesbury, 2 August 1971.

Over the next little while, I’ll talk more about how Trudeau showed his readers just how nasty a job that could be.

“Even Revolutionaries Love Chocolate Chip Cookies”: Mark Slackmeyer and Radical Campus Politics.

When Garry Trudeau introduced readers to Nichole in September 1971, he seems to have largely shed the frat-boy misogyny that had dominated his writing about women and relationships between women and men in his early strips. [1] The introduction of a character who actively criticized and protested sexism and patriarchy not only marked a key shift in the strip’s portrayal of women, it marked the end of part of Trudeau’s “world-building” process. With the introduction of feminism as a regular thread, Trudeau finished assembling a set of themes that he would continue to explore over the next decades. Some of these themes would receive more or less attention over the years, and others would be introduced as real-world events warranted, but within the first year of Doonesbury’s existence, much of the thematic terrain Trudeau would go on to explore was sketched out. Alongside feminism, these themes include:

  • Radical politics
  • Education
  • War
  • Relationships between generations
  • Race
  • Electoral politics
  • Sports
  • Media
  • Drugs and countercultures

For the next little while, I’m going to be looking at how GBT introduced each of these ideas during the first year or so of Doonesbury’s run and set himself and his characters up to explore them. I’ll do my best to frame each theme around a particular character or set of characters. This week, radical campus politics through the eyes of Mark Slackmeyer.

But first, a quick diversion about the general political culture of Doonesbury’s first few years. Trudeau’s “Core Four” of B.D., Mike, Mark and Zonker each represent a distinct faction in Boomer political culture. From right to left: B.D. is a young Goldwater Republican; Mike (leaving aside the strong misogynistic tendencies he displayed in the early years) is a bleeding-heart liberal; and Mark represents the radical left. Fluttering about in no particular lane is Zonker, a head who has believes in neither the bullet nor the ballot. In later posts, then, I’ll come back to B.D.’s hyper-patriotic conservatism, Mike’s wishy-washy liberalism, and Zonker’s flying-of-the-freak-flag.

We first meet “Megaphone” Mark Slackmeyer on 19 November 1970, as he calls out Mike’s political spinelessness. Mark represents the New Left phase of the American revolutionary tradition – movements like the Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground. Mark actively opposed the war in Vietnam, read Marx and hoped to see the end of capitalism, and was an active ally in struggles against racism and sexism.

Our first extended encounter with Mark follows him as he stages a one-man occupation of Walden College’s president’s house, one he narrates as a historical epic starring himself. Trudeau often had characters act as their own interior sportscaster, calling the play-by-play on whatever they were up to, much as a sandlot baseball player might “call” his or her on-field performance as they strive to emulate one of the game’s greats. Garry Wills, in his introduction to the first hardcover Doonesbury complication writes that this device allowed Trudeau to comment on how people understood their actions in terms of a larger ongoing narrative: Doonesbury’s characters are “watching each other watch themselves” as they play their ascribed roles. [2] As Mark watches himself play the role of the radical campus activist leader, Trudeau uses his experiences to satirize elements of the radical campus politics of the Vietnam era. Mark’s play-by-play on his solo occupation of Walden College’s president’s house, for instance, points at the egotism that seems all too common among political leaders, while hinting at some the darker elements of the political climate of the times.

Slackmeyer practices for his big moment, and reminds us that people were beaten and killed for contesting the system. 2 December 1970

Another element of radical politics that Trudeau explores through Mark is the gap between student activists – who often come from a comfortable backgrounds which give them the opportunity to immerse themselves in political theory – and the people on whose behalf they claim to be struggling. Mark may be out on the streets fighting capitalism, but he’s the son of a wealthy stockbroker, and his family has servants. This distance between students and workers is the theme of a long July 1971 arc in which Mark takes up a summer job on a construction site. He wants to connect with the working class and introduce them to revolutionary theory; instead, his self-superior attitude leads him to alienate his fellow workers. Instead of forging a student-worker alliance, he spends much of his time getting beaten up. Unable to get through to the workers, Mark talks down to them – and reveals something about how he actually feels about his ostensible allies in the working class. Of course, those working-class revolutionary allies often know their revolutionary theory better than the academic “experts,” as we see in what is one of my all-time favourite Doonesbury strips. The bricklayer represents what the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Grasmsci called an organic intellectual, a thinker who emerges from within the working class, and is thus better-positioned than a stockbroker’s son to help workers understand their circumstances and envision a road forward. 

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“The greatest mystery is not that we have been flung at random between this profusion of matter and the stars, but that within this prison we can draw from ourselves images powerful enough to deny our nothingness.” — André Malraux. 17 July 1971.

As student activists are alienated from important elements of the society they hope to change, they are also often alienated from each other – and inept as a result. A long December 1971 arc featured Mark’s experience as the moderator at a radical campus activist congress reveals how sometimes, it seems as if activist movements can be their own worst enemies

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Anybody who has been involved in activist politics can relate to this. 8 December 1971

One strip from that sequence brings into focus an American tragedy that Trudeau commented on through Mark’s experience, that of the violence inflicted by the state on those who fought for a better world. The young women and men who struggled in the 1960s and 1970s for equal rights, equal opportunity and equal justice for African-Americans, migrants, women, and LGBT people, and who fought to end a brutal and unjust neo-colonial war in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, fought a system that was built on violence and never shrank from using violence to maintain the social order. As we see above, Mark’s first campus occupation ends with the arrival of “baby-blue helmets,” striking visible fear into our previously-confident hero’s heart. A few weeks later, a Trudeau gives us a bit of dark humour on the use of surveillance and chemical weapons against protesters.

There were any number of atrocities committed by the American state against the revolutionary movements of the 1960s and 70s; the Murder of Fred Hampton; Attica; Chicago ‘68. But one horror seems to have had special significance to a young Garry Trudeau. On 4 December 1971, a young man proposes the congress issue a statement calling for “an end to government-sanctioned violence.” When B.D. challenges the man on his right to talk about violence, we get one of the darkest punchlines Trudeau ever penned: he’s the delegate from Kent State. The May 4, 1970 murder of four students at Ohio’s Kent State University was the subject of at least three strips in the first fifteen months of Doonesbury’s run. On 28 November, things take a dark turn as Mike announces that he has moved on from being outraged over Kent State: if he were to stay angry about Kent State, he reasons, his “indignation over Attica would be compromised.” A few months later, we find Zonker reflectively issuing a bitter commentary on the anniversary of the massacre at Kent State; using the voice of a character who rarely follows current events to comment on the massacre two years on conveys the scope of the tragedy for Trudeau and his contemporaries. 

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This is the one of the most poignant strips in the early Doonesbury. 4 May 1972

Mark will remain a crucial voice for radical political ideas as the strip moves forward, even as he loses some of his edge with age. He allows us to see the political idealism of his era in terms of its triumphs and its defeats, whether those defeats were self-inflicted or the outcome of state violence. Mark shows us, above all, the human foibles that shape any political undertaking; after all, like all of us, revolutionaries are just regular people who want a better world, and love chocolate chip cookies.

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22 December 1970

[1] I say “seems to” because I’m still reading through the strip and can’t vouch for what I haven’t read yet. Also, there may very well be sexism/misogyny that I don’t see in the post-Nichole strips that I have read.

[2] Garry Wills, “Introduction,” in Garry B. Trudeau, Doonesbury Chronicles (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1975).