This Week in Doonesbury: A Missed Opportunity.

On 14 January, Garry Trudeau addressed the single most important social, cultural, and political issue of our time: the movement by women to raise awareness of, and fight back against, systematic sexual abuse by men in a number of fields, including politics, the entertainment industry, the news media, sports, and the tech world. In recent months, women have revealed that powerful men ranging from Donald Trump to Al Franken to Harvey Weinstein to Matt Lauer have long histories of not respecting values of consent, of using their power as a way to coerce women into sex, and of committing rape. Social media feeds are filled with posts in which a host of women, both celebrities and the people we work or went to college with,  tell us that the misdeeds and crimes of famous men reflect a larger culture in which every date, job interview, subway ride, or meeting with a professor carries the risk of an unwanted sexual comment, an inappropriate proposal, an undesired touch, or worse. Hashtags like #MeToo and #TimesUp speak to the ubiquitous nature of unwanted sexual advances and sexual assault in our communities, that women have had enough, and will, in an organized way, fight back.

In one of my first blog posts, I discussed misogyny and feminism in the early Doonesbury strips. GBT played a major role in bringing feminist ideas and values to the daily newspaper comics page, but his feminist values exist in tension with an ugly misogynist streak that ran through his early strips. Beginning with the introduction in the first year of Doonesbury’s existence of Second-Wave feminist characters like Nichole and Joanie Caucus, women who challenged traditional ideas about women, work, and family, through more recent strips that addressed sexual assault in the military, Trudeau has a long history of using his voice to amplify feminist messages. However, in many of his early strips, Trudeau’s work reflected the anti-woman attitudes that were intrinsic to much of the underground comix aesthetic and culture that he brought to the daily papers. While the limitations of the mainstream funny pages meant that he couldn’t push boundaries in the same way as his alternative press contemporaries, the attitudes about women expressed by characters like Mike and B.D. in the earliest strips were deeply informed by the misogyny prevalent in the many of the underground strips (…and, of course, the mainstream comics). Women existed primarily as potential sexual conquests, those who didn’t put out or meet particular beauty standards were portrayed in a derogatory way, and feminists were likened to insane ideologues.

The 14 January strip was not the first time that GBT addressed the #MeToo moment. On 3 December, he published a strip that lampooned the cluelessness of men who were gradually coming to the realization that the game was up and they would no longer be able to get away with their usual behaviour towards women. While former President Trff Bmzklfrpz of Berzerkistan notes that in his country, “sexual harassment is considered a huge compliment,” Duke laments the fact that he can no longer ogle his female employees. This strip uses satire to make a valuable point: the problem is men and how their beliefs about women and sex allow them to justify abhorrent conduct.

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Duke yearns for an earlier, simpler time. Doonesbury, 3 December 2017.

This week’s strip, however, while addressing the same issues, falls short of the mark. It’s a mailbag strip, in which Mike and Mark respond to an enquiry about sexual harassment in the Doonesbury universe. Letters about sexual misconduct have been “pouring in,” and I was hopeful that Mike’s unease at reading them signaled that Trudeau was going to address an ugly skeleton in the Doonesbury closet, specifically Mike’s (and other characters’) early-days attitudes and conduct towards women.

Instead, GBT took the easy way out. Instead of addressing strips in which women were to be “recycled” after they ceased to entertain men, where early versions of our era’s “pick-up artists” are able to disarm women with a glance in some sort of adolescent fantasy, and where undesirable women were drawn as animals, Trudeau ran with an old joke about Mike being a hopeless nebbish. Trudeau could have turned the lens back on his own work and owned up to the fact that, in the earliest days of the strip, he didn’t live up to the feminist values that define the overwhelming majority of his work. Instead, he played to the idea that Mike Doonesbury is an unremarkable loser, “harmless and inoffensive, doing the best he can.” The letter – from the strip’s female characters – means that Mike is “in the clear.”

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Damn right he doesn’t want to talk about this. Doonesbury, 14 January 2018.

Mike gets to breathe a big sigh of relief, one that, I’d wager, in this moment, many men hope to be able to share. In the wake of the current discourse about men, women, and sex, men should be thinking hard about their past, and, at the very least, pledging to move forward with a renewed commitment to values of respect for women as human beings. Doonesbury, like so much of the culture that surrounds us, is not totally “in the clear” when it comes to how it dealt with relationships between men and women. Trudeau had a great chance to address a relatively small number of missteps in an otherwise remarkable history of writing about women and their struggles. I wish he’d taken it.

 

This Week In Doonesbury: GUILTY, GUILTY, GUILTY!!!

On Sunday, Garry Trudeau published a strip that I’ve seen coming since Donald Trump won the election. But even though I knew this gag was on its way, actually seeing it in print cracked me up, because it’s a great joke, and because, by recycling a strip from 44 years ago, Trudeau demonstrated his ability to do what so few people have been able to do – create a body of satire that is as in tune with its time as it was fifty years ago.

The strip begins with Mark reminding himself – with the #resist hashtag – why he keeps providing commentary about Donald Trump (“that jackass”) on his radio show. After his assistant runs down the day’s material for him, he points out, as several commentators  already have that even if the Robert Mueller investigation exonerates him, “Trump sure acts guilty.” Then comes the moment I’ve been waiting for since November 2016: a flashback to the 29 May 1973 Doonesbury strip, in which Mark excitedly pronounced Richard Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell “GUILTY! GUILTY, GUILTY, GUILTY!!!” of unnamed crimes.1 As is so often the case in good Doonesbury strip, there are two “punchlines”: the climactic moment in the penultimate panel and a denouement that offers a deeper level of commentary or analysis. In this case, it’s a comment on how people of Mark’s and GBT’s generation have been resisting the abuse of presidential power for long time now, complete with a reference to their generation’s fondness for psychedelic drugs and the resulting after-effects.

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Doonesbury, 29 May 1973: The original “GUILTY!” strip

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Doonesbury, 22 October 2017: The Flashback Edition

In response to the 1973 strip, a dozen newspapers dropped Doonesbury. The Washington Post – now, ironically, Doonesbury’s online home – argued that guilt or innocence should be adjudicated by “the due process of justice [and] not a comic strip artist,” and maintained that it could not “have one standard for the news pages and another for the comics.”2 Kerry Soper, in Garry Trudeau: Doonesbury and the Aesthetics of Satire, frames the Post’s “discomfort” with the “GUILTY!” strip as a product of the “problematic” fact that Trudeau blurs the line between “comic strip storyteller, journalistic muckraker, and political watchdog.” This grabbed my attention because it shows us how we might understand Trudeau as a precursor to the generation of late-night comics who came into mass popularity during the George W. Bush era – Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and now Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah and John Oliver – who have become critical voices for a younger generation turning to satire to expose and ridicule political malfeasance and incompetence.

Soper also points out that the “GUILTY!” strip contains multiple layers of meaning: Trudeau is both celebrating the possibility that a politician accused of serious crimes may pay for his misdeeds and “poking fun at … Slackmeyer’s stridently leftist political leanings.”3 The 22 October strip can be read in much the same way, though I suspect that, given the nature of the current political climate, the former reading outweighs the latter. After all, Mark is no longer the ranting and raving campus radio host he was in 1973 –  he’s older and a little more jaded, to the point of having to remind himself of why he has to keep speaking truth to power after so many years. Moreover, 1973 and 2017 represent, I would argue, fundamentally different media universes, and the two strips speak to important changes in what media are and how they work.

Reading the Post’s rationale for yanking the 1973 strip – that cartoonists should be held to the same standards as the journalists with whom they share newspaper – raises a question for scholars of communications and media: Why is pretty much the exact same joke, 44 years later, no longer a violation of journalistic ethics? One may quibble and point out that this time, Trudeau only said that Trump only “acts guilty,” a fairly objective reading of the current situation, and not that he is guilty. It’s also clear that, in the age of Trump, many media outlets are less interested in maintaining an air of respect for, and objectivity about, politicians who cross particular lines; that well may be a lesson of Watergate and part of Nixon’s legacy. Beyond that, the fact that this strip was published apparently without widespread ethical concern speaks to how corporations and new media have successfully blurred the line between journalism and entertainment. If Soper is right that GBT’s work grew out of his overlapping roles of reporter and satirist, and if I’m right to see him as an early example of the current trend of blending reporting and satire a la Stewart, Bee, et al., then this week’s strip may be seen as an example of how reactions to the crimes of two Republican presidents were instrumental in shaping that tendency.

Sunday is not the first time that Trudeau has referenced the classic “GUILTY!” strip. On 5 May 1994, soon after Richard Nixon died, the “GUILTY!” strip kicked off a week in which GBT re-visited some of his best work of the Watergate era, but with each strip “updated to promote reconciliation” (or some variant thereof) in light of the way the nation seemed to have forgotten how the man had violated fundamental principles of democracy not two decades earlier. In contrast to this week’s revisit of the “GUILTY!” strip, rendered in the original, roughly-hewn Doonesbury style., Trudeau chose to redraw the 1994 arc to fit his style at the time, using the cleaner lines, more interesting composition strategies, and greatly increased dynamism that separated his 1990s output from his pre-1982 hiatus work.

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Doonesbury, 5 May 1994.

The 1994 “rehabilitation of Nixon” arc allowed GBT to critique how America can be reluctant to engage with its past – it’s way easier, after all, to re-frame a demonstrated enemy of democracy and a man who engaged in massive violations of the laws of international conflict as a statesman who ruled in difficult time than to admit that the system produced such a horrible leader. We see the same dynamic in play now in the current tendency for anti-Trump activists to forget that George W. Bush is a war criminal when he says bad things about the current president.

I don’t know how much longer Trudeau is going to be writing Doonesbury: given that he’s hitting seventy next year, I’m sure retirement has its appeal, though I imagine that October 2020, the fiftieth anniversary of the strip, may seem like a logical point to wrap things up. But if he’s still producing the strip when the Mueller report drops/when the pressure gets too big and Trump resigns/when Congress gets itself together to impeach/who knows what will happen, I know one thing: I will be dancing around the house, shouting, at the top of my lungs: “GUILTY!” GUILTY, GUILTY, GUILTY!”

1 In 1975 Mitchell was indeed found guilty of conspiracy, obstructing justice and perjury. He served nineteen months in a minimum-security prison.

2 Kerry D. Soper, Garry Trudeau: Doonesbury and the Aesthetics of Satire (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008), 39

3 Ibid.

This Week in Doonesbury: Mental Health, Health Care, Homelessness and Trump.

(Note  to readers: Hi Mom! … I intended to post at least once a week as a way to keep my writing chops up, but the past couple of weeks haven’t been great. I’ve been working on something about how GBT wrote about Vietnam during the  first few years of Doonesbury, but it’s really not coming together. In the meanwhile, here are my thoughts on a recent new strip.)

A couple of weeks back, I looked at how Garry Trudeau used B.D.’s weekly check-in with his therapist Elias to talk about the Trump presidency and mental health. Donald Trump’s election may not have made us crazy, but, as B.D. and Elias show,  for many people it underlined a feeling that nothing in the world feels right anymore, and brought into sharp focus a sharp sense of insecurity among those — women, immigrants, people of colour, LGBT people — who stand to lose the most in a nation ruled by Trump’s Republican Party.

While B.D.’s role in recent years has been in large part to allow GBT to talk about the challenges veterans face, notably mental health issues, he’s not the first Doonesbury character to deal with mental illness. Leaving aside Duke’s “bad craziness,” Trudeau’s first engagements with mental health issues focused on two characters who represent some of the most marginalized people in our communities — the elderly homeless. On 6 August, Trudeau returned to the question of Trump and mental health when Alice and Elmont, homeless people who are probably in their eighties, dropped in on Mark’s radio show to talk health care.

Full confession: a lot of what follows is from memory because I’m only up to 1977 in my reading of the strip, and much of what I’m talking about here took place in the 1980s and later. That said, Alice first appeared in 1973 as a regular in a pub where Zonker was tending bar. She was depicted as a sad woman, but a genuinely good and loving person who had built a community of people she loved, and who loved her.

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Doonesbury, 25 August 1973. An early appearance by Alice.

At some point, she loses all of that. Alice reappears sometime in the 1980s as a homeless woman living in Washington DC. I’ll write more about Alice’s adventures on the streets and how she brought the realities of grinding abject poverty to the comics page later. What’s important here is that her situation reflected one of the most egregious failures in post-war American social policy. In the 1980’s, Ronald Reagan eviscerated government programs that promoted housing security and cut tax breaks that fostered the development of low-income homes: homelessness increased sharply as a result.  Bad enough that Reaganomics caused a sharp climb in homelessness; in Reagan’s America, the homeless became a scapegoat. An emerging neoliberal consensus ruled that anyone could succeed if only they worked hard, and those who “fell between the cracks” were somehow deserving of their miserable situation.

Looking back, it’s hard not to see Alice as someone who, in her earlier incarnation in the strip, struggled with severe depression. It’s easy to imagine that mental health struggles made it harder for Alice to keep up in Reagan’s America; with the HUD programs cut to the bone, there was nowhere left for her to go.

GBT brought the relationship between mental health and homelessness into sharper focus when Alice met up with Elmont, a homeless man who suffers from severe mental illness, including delusions and paranoia. Ever since, Trudeau has used Alice and Elmont’s struggles and occasional small victories to chronicle the ways in which society continues to turn its back on those who, for whatever reason, can’t keep up.  

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Doonesbury, 6 August 2017. Obamacare pays for EVERYTHING, Jack.

Trudeau’s 6 August strip looks at the most pressing issue in American policymaking this year, healthcare. While millions of people who could not otherwise afford health insurance dodged a bullet in the time between GBT writing the strip and its publication, for many Americans, access to medical care is set to be a critical question for the foreseeable future. Mark’s conversation with Alice and Elmont reveals how, like in Reagan’s America, in Trump’s America the truly marginalized — people like the homeless and the mentally ill — will be forced to give up a little more of their security and well-being for the benefit of the wealthy and powerful. As is often the case, there is a nugget of critical truth in Elmont’s disjointed dialogue: a pre-existing addiction (…in this case to access to what literally every other person living in a modern industrial democracy knows he or she can rely on, basic health care) is a really hard thing to kick.

This Week in Doonesbury: Mental Health in the Age of Trump

I’m not going to write about myself very much in these pages, but I will note here that I read this week’s Doonesbury strip through the lens of my own mental health issues, namely a case of generalized anxiety disorder that I’ve been carrying around for quite a while. Things got really bad earlier this year on this front and I’m working on putting them back together.

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You’ve been there too.

As I’ve been reading, listening, talking and learning about mental health, I’m beginning to understand how mental health is not simply about what’s happening in a particular individual’s brain. Our mental health struggles and the discourses that shape them play a key role in determining how we can live and enjoy our lives; they can also be read as symptoms of the larger issues that affect a society, or parts of it. Like with physical health, mental health outcomes reflect broader political, cultural, environmental, and economic dynamics. Race, class, gender, sexuality: categories like these play big roles in determining the state of a person’s mental health and in how their mental health issues will be diagnosed and treated (or not diagnosed/left untreated).

Today as I began drafting this post, the comics artist Lauren Weinstein posted this sketch on Twitter :

LaurenWeinstein

This comic and GBT’s 16 July offering both deal with a key dynamic shaping mental health outcomes for people today: a widely-shared sense among diverse elements of society that we are fast approaching a crisis point that may well be existential in nature. I recently asked a grad student in psychology if she knew of any studies linking Trump’s election to an increase in people seeking mental health care. She didn’t, but she thought it would be a great topic to research. In reality, while there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to go around suggesting that we are having a collective mental breakdown caused by the Trump presidency, the fears and anxieties I’m talking about did not originate with the campaign and eventual election of Donald Trump; the optimism for the long-term well-being of humanity that bloomed with the end of the Cold War long ago died a death by a thousand cuts dealt by terrorist attacks, illegal wars, bloody occupations, and torture regimes, all unfolding on a planet getting too hot to sustain human beings.  That said, the dawn of Trump’s America has played a huge role in amplifying those feelings and intensifying their contagion. And it must be noted that the fears and anxieties that have become seemingly more widespread and intense over the past year or so are felt especially acutely by people who occupy more fragile positions in our society: women, people of colour, LGBT people, migrants. Some of us are already closer to that crisis point than others. At the end of the day, however, we are all the child in Weinstein’s dark vision, staring blankly at the Thing That Will Kill Us All But We Can’t Do Anything About. We are all, as Trudeau says this week, B.D., looking to a trusted authority to tell us what the hell is going on.

On a less abstract level, B.D.’s regular check-in with his therapist Elias cracked me up for two reasons. First, the two-panel “throwaway” gag that starts the strip. This is me and a lot of people I know, afraid that we’ll miss out on the Next Big Revelation while we’re away from our phones. Trump news is like heroin to us, and, like any dope fiend, we need to make sure we have our next fix lined up.

Second: The rest of the strip. I have had pretty much this exact conversation with my psychiatrist.

Thanks to Lauren R. Weinstein for permission to reproduce her work; check out her comic Normel Person on the Village Voice website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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