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.

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.