Comic Review: Stark Plug

Here’s my second attempt at writing a comics review; you can read the first, on Tailsteak’s Forward, here. If you’re a creator of web- or print-based comics and you’d like me to write about your work, drop a line on Twitter (@readdoonesbury) or through my contact page.

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A while back, I received a copy of Stark Plug Book, a comix collection by Steve Chappell, aka Chap, a Madison, Wisconsin comics creator. I could say that Stark Plug is a somewhat absurdist humour comic following the adventures of a corporate drone, which it is, but it’s so much more than that. Stark Plug is a prime example of a contemporary creator working within the aesthetic developed by the comix creators of the 1960s and 70s and revealing the extent to which that approach to graphic narrative remains fruitful, while marking out his particular vision of the genre’s possibilities.

Chappell claims that Stark Plug isn’t a political comic, calling it “pure entertainment,” a way to “get people away from the perils of their life.” I read the book a little differently. There’s an escapist feel, but Chappell’s depiction of what Stark is trying to escape from – the mindless drudgery of work in the capitalist system – is deeply political. We never learn what Stark does for a living, nor what “the plant” where he works produces. That’s what makes Chappell’s critique so effective: it’s not really about any one job or sector of the economy, it’s really about all of us. People cling to jobs they hate and in which they are “doing very little to better humankind” for the sake of the benefits package and “maximum vacation time.” Instead of doing work that brings people a degree of pride and satisfaction, people follow a daily rhythm of work that is boiled down to a manic boss yelling at his workers to “Increase production! Work faster! Quicken the pace!” with the underlying threat that if they don’t, “No raise for you.” Even Bernie the Banjo Bum, the homeless street musician who longs for a simpler time before cell phones and digital media pushed into a “rush-cession” of accelerating work and consumption, takes checks and credit cards; the logic of capitalism prevails even on frozen-over Midwestern sidewalks.

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Superimposed styles break the reader’s sense of narrative flow and continuity. Also, there’s a great contrast of dynamism and immobility here.

The use of absurd humour as a way to engage in social commentary while providing readers with a fun read is a staple in the comix tradition; another comix touchstone that Chappell explores is the use of self-referential humour and commentary as a way to disrupt the relationship between author, characters, and reader. From the very first page, where Stark reminds his boss that as an “inanimate cartoon character,” he is unable to work harder, the book is full of instances of characters breaking the fourth wall and making observations about themselves, the pages within which their story unfolds, and the creator drawing them. This self-referential tendency is a key dynamic in the book’s central story, in which Stark quits his job at the plant to fulfill his dream of starring in a daily newspaper comic strip. Stark’s ensuing experience as a lead character in Memphis and Harry reads as an extended ode to the comics/comix replete with references to classic tropes and characters. I’m especially a fan of Memphis, a cartoon kitty whose love of fun, revolting excretory habits, and hippie wisdom are clearly a tribute to everyone’s favourite graphic feline, Fat Freddy’s Cat.

Chappell is a block print artist (some of his prints are reproduced in one sequence of the book), and while some of his comics work reflects the heavier lines and more static feel that one (…or at least I) associate with that style, his style is dynamic and marked by sometimes-dramatic and sometimes-subtle aesthetic shifts to suit the moods he wants to convey. Chappell may favour a relatively simple drawing approach, but his drawings do complex things as he uses different visual narrative techniques, notably superimposing contrasting styles on a single page or in a single panel, to occasionally disrupt the narrative flow and the reader’s sense of being grounded in a definable reality. This is especially true in the sequence “Stark Walks,” which strongly evokes the “messing with your head” approach that was a key part of the underground comix, and in the “play within a play” sequence about Stark’s time as a character in Memphis and Harry, both of which, in different ways, bring the reader to a place where the rules of the straight world don’t apply anymore.

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Breaking the fourth wall backstage at a strip within a strip. Memphis’s wisdom and fun-loving spirit clearly evokes Fat Freddy’s Cat.

It in was reading the Memphis and Harry sequence that I came to understand what this book is really about. Stark Plug is a comic book about comic books; from the depictions of office politics to jokes about how disgusting cats are to the ads for novelty products on the inside back cover, the book is full of references and in-jokes that any comics lover will appreciate, written in loving tribute to the medium. Chappell sets out to remind us of the amazing and unique possibilities that exist in the space between drawings and words and does so in way that draws deeply on the comix tradition while expressing his own artistic vision. Do yourself a favour and order up a copy.

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 behaviour, 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.

 

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