“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. 

17July71

“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

8December71

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. 

4May72

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.

22December70

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).

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.