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 one 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).

A Screaming Herd of Females: Women and Misogyny in the Early Doonesbury Strips.

Until I got to graduate school, I had learned more about modern feminism from reading Doonesbury than from anywhere else.

This may be an exaggeration, but there’s a truth behind it: the social and political dimensions of post-World War Two feminism are a central thematic element in GBT’s work, and he has long made it a point to bring feminist messages to the funny pages by featuring strong, independent female characters and using their voices to advocate for policies that support women. Doonesbury’s cast is male-centred, built around what I think of as a “Core Four” of Mike, B.D., Mark Slackmeyer and Zonker. Notwithstanding that, characters like Joanie Caucus, Ginny Slade, Lacey Davenport, Ellie, Honey Huan, Kim Rosenthal-Doonesbury, and Alex Doonesbury reveal Trudeau’s dedication to making smart, independent, competent and complex women a key part of his work. Even Boopsie, written for decades as a stereotypical “bimbo,” was shown to be smarter, more resourceful and wiser than she had previously been portrayed when faced with the challenge of B.D. losing his leg in Iraq. Beyond populating his strip with a diverse cast of impressive women, Trudeau has consistently pointed out how the deck is stacked against women and put their struggles against sexism in the foreground. Doonesbury has been a vehicle for exploring issues facing women including sexism in the classroom (from kindergarten through Berkeley law school), access to abortion, pay inequality, sexualization, and widowhood.

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Nichole, Doonesbury’s first feminist character.

But before I get too far into Doonesbury’s feminist dimensions, I have to deal with an uncomfortable truth: in the first year of Doonesbury’s run, Trudeau did not embrace the feminist outlook that defines much of the strip, but instead reproduced the misogyny that was common in many of the underground comix, and youth culture of the 1960s and 1970s more generally.

In my last post, I wrote that Doonesbury brought some of the style and energy of underground comix, themselves an expression of the youth cultural/political rebellion of the 1960s and 70s, to the mainstream American newspaper comics page. One element of that movement was a tendency to portray women not as fully-developed human beings, but as potential targets of sexual conquest. As Margaret Galvan writes, a “whole set of misogynist underground comics [featured] sexually attractive women drawn for the purposes of objectification in sexual situations.” Beyond that, comix artists often portrayed women as targets of violence. As comics creator and herstorian Trina Robbins notes, it was “almost de rigeur for male underground cartoonists to include violence against women in their comix, and to portray this violence as humour.” [1.]

Reading the first year of Doonesbury, we can see how Trudeau drew on this dimension of the underground comix to bring a harder edge to a tendency in newspaper comics, seen in characters such as Beetle Bailey’s Miss Buxley or B.C.’s Cute Chick and Fat Broad, to portray women as objects of desire and/or ridicule. Throughout Doonesbury’s first year, we encounter strips that are impossible to reconcile with the idea of Trudeau as a feminist voice in the funny pages; overwhelmingly, the women we meet are presented as potential sexual conquests or as objects of derision because they are too ugly or stupid to count as such.

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Bull Tales, date unknown.

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Doonesbury, 16 January 1971. Some things don’t change, some things do.

A few examples: In a pair of strips from January 1971, a female college applicant embodies a middle-aged man’s sexual fantasy about liberated co-eds. (In the original Bull Tales version of the strip, things are even more risque; she walks into the office wearing nothing but the beret). These strips are part of a consistent thread in the early Doonesbury, as Trudeau repeatedly portrays relationships between men and women as a competition in which the goal is for the man to “score.” This is a situation that, for Mike, required professional help in the person of Sam Smooth, a precursor to the “pick-up artists” of our times. B.D., of course, as quarterback of the football team, needed no such help, having his own “screaming herd of females.

The women Mike and B.D. pursued were quite often nameless and always devoid of any defining characteristic besides their sexuality. The only thing we know about one of Mike’s girlfriend’s is that she is a “nice-looking chick.Once successful, GBT’s male characters show little interest in forming any lasting attachment to these women, preferring to “recycle” them when things get stale.

When women aren’t desirable, their role is to show us how that lack of desirability marks men as failures and losers. The third strip introduces a running gag: Mike is a laughing-stock because he dates unattractive women. One strip from December 1970 shows Mike being set up with a woman who is portrayed as more animal than human, maybe not the kind of violence that Robbins was referring to, but a dehumanizing and thus rhetorically violent move on Trudeau’s part.

Feminism came to Doonesbury in March 1971, not as the core value, but as an emasculating threat that needed to be ridiculed. Mike is on a date with a woman whose dialog is limited to shouting caricatures of feminist slogans. Note that she is drawn differently from the other women who had thus far appeared in the strip: she has the eyes that in Doonesbury’s visual language signify an alert and reasoning adult (Rounded eyes signify, depending on the context, being high, shock, childhood innocence, or cluelessness and stupidity; GBT usually drew women with these.). But her sharp eyes are not a sign that she has something to say that is worth listening to; rather, they warn us that she is a threat to masculinityalbeit one that is relatively easily disarmed with a little bullshit Mike probably picked up from Sam Smooth.

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Doonesbury meets feminism for the first time, 4 March 1971.

If that episode set readers up to expect the stereotype of the man-hating militant feminist to be a recurring theme, a strip from a week later featuring Mike and campus radical Mark Slackmeyer watching a televised interview with Gloria Steinem foreshadowed a shift in how Trudeau would deal with feminism. Steinem calls for an end to “sexual oppression” (a term I’m willing to bet had never appeared in the comics pages before then), and Mark notes that Steinem is “[telling] it like it ought to be.” Mike replies, with a shit-eating grin, that she has “nice legs.” To me, this feels different from other cracks Trudeau’s characters had made about women. Steinem’s words read as more reasoned and reasonable than the gross simplifications of the week before; I see the joke here not as lying in Mike’s objectification of a woman, but in Mark’s amazement at and disgust in this display of cluelessness on his friend’s part.

Mark’s disapproving glare hints at the emergence of a completely different handling of female characters that took root with the appearance of Nichole on 29 September 1971. Nichole’s position as a feminist icon in Doonesbury eventually became overshadowed by the centrality of Joanie Caucus’s story in the overall narrative arc, but she was the first character that confronted the sexist attitudes shared by many of the male cast members. If Mike’s date from the week before was crude caricature of feminism, Nichole is the real deal; she is smart (and knows it!), self-assured, and more than willing to call out male characters for not thinking of or treating women as their equals – or betters. From this point, GBT puts the joke on characters like Mike who are too slow to understand that their frat-boy attitudes are no longer relevant to Doonesbury’s emerging feminist ethos.

Most of the strips I’ve written about here were carryovers from Bull Tales, the Yale student newspaper strip that was an incubator for Doonesbury. As much as they reveal the energy and desire to break boundaries that defined alternative comics/comix of the day, they also reflect the hatred that was, and remains, a part of comics/comix culture (see the criticism being levelled at Howard Chaykin’s The Divided States of Hysteria for just a taste of the issue.) Moreover, seeing as most of the strips mentioned here originally ran in Trudeau’s Yale newspaper strip, we have to see these early strips as reflecting the deep-seated misogyny that remains a part of campus culture.

As we move through Doonesbury’s history, we’ll see that in the weeks, months and years following Nichole’s debut, Trudeau did important work in bringing feminist characters and ideas to newspaper comics; as I learn more about that history, I will also be learning and writing about female comics creators and how they worked to challenge the boy’s club mentality of the funny pages. That said, the first year of Trudeau’s run reminds us that the rebellious era that GBT documented was both progressive AND deeply rooted in, and reproduced, profound anti-woman sentiment. That’s something that historians of the era still need to fully come to terms with.

 

Character Tracker:

First appearances mentioned in this post: Nichole, 29 September 1971.

[1.] Margaret Galvan, “Feminism Underground: The Comics Rhetoric of Lee Marrs and Roberta Gregory,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 43, no. 3/4 (2015): 203–22.

October-December 1970: “Dispatches from the Front”

I’ve been a huge Doonesbury fan since sometime in the early 1980s. A few weeks ago I had the idea to re-read the entirety of the strip’s run 47 year run and to use the exercise as a way to learn more about comics. The plan is to read Doonesbury alongside comics scholarship and criticism so I can indulge myself in a strip that I have loved since I was about twelve years old while learning about the history of comics and the theory behind how they “work” – topics I’ve always been curious about, but never really pursued.

Then, I decided I should write about it. I’ve never written about comics before, and I’ll be learning as we go along. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

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Doonesbury, 26 October, 1970. Things Garry Trudeau apparently couldn’t draw in 1970: mouths, feet, hands.

Garry B. Trudeau’s Doonesbury made its debut on 26 October, 1970. Most of the strip’s first few months consisted of jokes about campus life as experienced by two college roommates who were selected by a computer system for ideal compatibility but who have nothing in common: B.D., the quarterback of the football team (named after Yale QB Brian Dowling) and Michael J. Doonesbury, a clueless nerd who sees himself – all evidence to the contrary – as an irresistible chick magnet. Most of the early strips focused on the everyday humour of college student and athlete life. There are some great football jokes, bits about Mike’s dating failures, and “Odd Couple” gags about Mike and B.D.’s slowly-developing friendship .

Yet even when exploring these fairly standard themes, Doonesbury was different from anything else appearing on mainstream American comics pages in 1970. For this first post, I want to focus less on themes that Trudeau was beginning to explore and more on how his style announced a generational challenge to the orthodoxy of the comics page, a medium that was a key part of mass culture in twentieth-century America. While maintaining the basic structure of the comic strip medium – images and text arranged in sequential panels building up to a punch line – what Trudeau rendered within those panels eschewed accepted aesthetic values in favour of a roughly-drawn scrawl that might have appeared like a middle-finger salute to the form’s middle-class, middle-American ethos.

Trudeau says his early work “… didn’t fit anyone’s idea of what a mainstream comic strip should look like. It was written on the fly, crudely executed, and ignored pretty much every convention of the craft.” Sharp-eyed readers in 1970 may have noticed a hint of the work of cartoonist/illustrator Jules Pfeiffer in Trudeau’s drawing, but readers tuned into changes in the comics medium would have no doubt seen the first Doonesbury strips as following in the footsteps of underground comix artists like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton or the strips in their own campus newspapers. Doonesbury was, in effect, one of those campus newspaper comics: Trudeau got the Doonesbury gig on the strength of Bull Tales, a comic strip he had been drawing for the Yale Daily News beginning in 1968, and many of the first Doonesbury strips were redrawn versions of Bull Tales strips.

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Jules Pfeiffer, The Phantom Tollbooth. Though he draws with a much finer line, the influence on GBT is easy to spot.

I’m currently about halfway through Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics: A History of Graphic Novels and What They Mean, a history and critical evaluation of what Wolk sees as our contemporary “Golden Age” of comic arts. His brief analysis of the underground comix of the sixties and seventies helped me understand Trudeau’s initial rough drawing style in a broader context in three different ways. First, Wolk argues, comix artists strove to be “as transgressive as possible.” Beyond that, Wolk argues that by embracing a style that was “deliberately ugly” comix artists, instead of giving the audience to a chance to participate in a shared sense of joy rooted in perceiving something beautiful, instead prompted in readers a sense of alienation by having them enjoy something that was repulsive, or that at least failed to meet commonly-shared aesthetic standards, thus forcing the individual reader to see herself as an outsider. As Wolk puts it, “the meta-pleasure of enjoying experiences that would repel most people is, effectively, the experience of being a bohemian or counterculturalist.” Finally, Wolk points out, comix artists, reflecting a culture grounded in an ethos of “do your thing,” put much more emphasis on “the quirks of their drawing style” than their predecessors had, seeing the comics they drew as “as artifacts of their artistic personae and creations of their hand, rather than as specific pieces they happened to have made.” 

While acknowledging that there are important differences between underground comix and mainstream comic strips, I find Wolk’s analysis useful for understanding the early Doonesbury and its place in the history of the comics page. Doonesbury might not seem terribly transgressive when compared to, say, Zap Comics, but if we focus on Wolk’s use of the words “as possible,” and limit ourselves to the what was possible while working in the context of daily newspaper funny papers, there’s no doubt that Trudeau’s style and subject matter pushed boundaries that Charles Schultz or Mort Walker never came close to approaching. Furthermore, young readers, by choosing to read Doonesbury first when opening up the comics page instead of like Blondie or Hi and Lois were in a small, but every-day manner, underlining the generational divide being experienced in many American households and reminding themselves how out-of-touch with the new culture their parents were. And, no doubt that Trudeau’s refusal to adapt his style to the conventions of the medium, and his continued success while doing so not only reflected his individuality, it allowed him to develop his artistic persona in a distinct way over the following years and decades.FabulousFurryFreakBrothers

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Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, and Robert Crumb’s Mr. Natural: two of the most enduring bits of the underground comix movement. Trudeau found a way to bring some of this craziness to the mainstream funny pages.

What set Doonesbury apart from virtually every other mass-market comic strip in 1970 was that it roots were firmly planted in the youth and campus culture of the time. Like Walt Kelly’s Pogo before it, Doonesbury brought pointed political and cultural satire to the funny pages. What was different about Doonesbury, however, was that its style, as much as its content, reflected contemporary values of youth rebellion. Trudeau jokingly referred to the “urgent scrawl” that defined his early strips as evidence that he was producing “cartoon vérité.” [1] Trudeau sees his early work as not merely a commentary on its times, but a product of them: “If Doonesbury looked like it had been created in a stoned frenzy,” he maintains, “then that was evidence of its authenticity. The strips were dispatches from the front.” Trudeau, after all, was part of the generation he was writing about, a generation, he notes, that had “effectively hijacked the culture” by the time of Doonesbury’s debut. Doonesbury brought this cultural hijacking to the comics page. Until then the butt of jokes about long-haired, dirty layabouts in the strips of their parents’ generation, the hippies and the peace freaks seized a patch of turf on the funny pages and made it their own. On that piece of turf, Trudeau became a spokesperson for the Boomers and a critical chronicler of his generation and the generations that succeeded them.

In the next few posts I will focus on how a comic that came into the world as a gag-a-day strip about college kids who play football, goof around and try to get laid became one of the most consistently insightful bodies of satire in any genre in American history by looking at how Trudeau began to introduce some of the themes – politics, war, racism, feminism, inter-generational and intra-generational conflict, and others – that he would focus on for the next five decades.

Character Tracker:

In each of these posts, I’ll be tracking new characters’ first appearances as we meet them.

Mike Doonesbury; B.D.: October 26, 1970

1: All quotes are taken from Brian Walker’s essential study of Trudeau and his work, Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau

Reading Doonesbury

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Doonesbury, 26 October, 1970: Mike and B.D. meet for the first time.

I’ve been reading G.B. Trudeau’s Doonesbury since I was in eighth grade; I’m turning fifty this year. Doonesbury is, aside from my family, the thing that has been a consistent part of my life longer than anything else. I’ve grown up, and grown older, learning about American politics, society and culture through the eyes of Mike Doonesbury, Joanie Caucus, Zonker Harris, Mark Slackmeyer, and B.D.

I recently decided to re-read Doonesbury from its first published strip. A few days into reading, I realised that I had ideas about the strip and what it had to say about the world that I wanted to explore; hence, this blog.

My plan is to offer a running commentary on Doonesbury as it unfolded and write about the strip’s development and what it had to say (and continues to say) about its times.  Alongside individual strips and arcs, I’ll be zooming out to see how Trudeau’s take on particular themes evolved over the years. What sets Trudeau’s work apart from every other English-language mass-market comic strip is how he has remained insightful and relevant for nearly half a century. Most comic strip creators have a fairly limited repertoire and end up repeating themselves over the years; Charles Schultz was still writing Citizen Cane/Rosebud gags in the 1980s. Trudeau’s work has always been very well tuned to its times, and while he may be sometimes be guilty of the kind of anti-Millennial bashing that is increasingly common in our times and among his own Boomer generation, he’s largely managed to stay in tune with changing social and cultural dynamics and able to address new ideas and practices on their own terms.

I also hope to offer critical commentary on any Doonesbury scholarship I run into as I set out to learn more about the strip, and to also write about comics theory more generally. While I’ve been reading comics my whole life, I’ve never really studied their history and how they work; I’m hoping this project will force me to learn more about something that has been an important touchstone for so long.

Thanks for stopping by.