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: #MeToo Runs for Office.

On Sunday, March 4, Garry Trudeau began a storyline that brings together three themes that have been central to Doonesbury for many years: feminism and the political empowerment of women; the challenges facing American soldiers and veterans; and electoral politics.

Melissa Wheeler, a former army helicopter mechanic, asks Joanie Caucus for help with her political campaign. Melissa is running for office (exactly what she’s running for is left unsaid, but I’m assuming she’s gunning for a seat in the House of Representatives). Her platform is veterans’ issues: she wants to “make sure our our country does right by them.” One issue that is of particular interest to both Melissa and GBT is sexual assault in the armed services.

Melissa was introduced to readers in March 2007 as a fellow client at the veteran’s centre where B.D. sees his counsellor. Melissa allowed Trudeau to explore the ramifications of a phenomenon that goes largely unrecognized in the public sphere, let alone the comics page: she is a survivor of command rape – sexual assault at the hands of a superior officer. Trudeau’s sensitive and powerful recounting of Melissa’s story gave readers a glimpse of the systemic nature of rape culture in the military, and the ways in which the structures of military life facilitate sexual assault. Melissa’s experience shows us how the chain of command and the structures of military justice work to give men the opportunity to sexually abuse the soldiers under their command and to protect them from facing any consequences for their actions. Her commander gave her a choice between having sex with him or losing her position as a mechanic in favour of sentry duty; he then wrote her up for an infraction in order to make it look like any report she might make was an act of retaliation on her part; when she eventually decided to go to a superior, that officer talked her out of making a report by making her feel guilty about the implications for other soldiers if her assailant was removed from duty. Every step of the way, military structures worked to facilitate her being assaulted and to protect her assaulter.

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Doonesbury, 20 July 2007

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Doonesbury, 19 July 2007. She never had a chance.

In recent years, according to some reports, survivors of sexual assault in the military have been better able to report offences. Nonetheless, sexual assault in the military remains a serious issue: a quarter of all women in the service are sexually assaulted. That said, despite – or perhaps because of – the central role that the military plays in America’s self-image, sexual assault in the military has not been an area of principle focus in our #MeToo/#TimesUp moment, or at least, not to the extent that the entertainment, sports, media, and political spheres have.

The prevalence of sexual assault by powerful men has come to light in no small part because of the election of a self-declared serial sexual predator to the presidency. In response to Trump’s egregious crimes in specific and the abuses of powerful men more generally, the movement against rape culture is taking an increasingly political form. This political movement announced itself with mass protests by women following Trump’s inauguration (…and again on its one-year anniversary); it is now taking the form of a sharp increase in the number of women seeking political office at all levels, starting with the upcoming 2018 midterm elections.

And so, in keeping with the times, GBT has thrown Melissa’s hat into the ring. This isn’t the first time that he’s written about a woman’s political campaign. In 1976, Joanie cut her political teeth managing Ginny Slade’s campaign for a seat in Congress, a race that Ginny lost to Lacey Davenport. In 1980, Joanie went to work for Lacey’s reelection campaign. Ginny’s 1976 bid was feminist at its core: in her campaign launch speech, she pointed to “an insensitivity at the highest levels of government to the needs and rights of half of the citizens of this country – women” as a key reason for running. Forty-two years later, a political campaign focused on issues of critical importance to women is set to become part of GBT’s history of bringing feminist politics to the funny pages. Given the different contexts in which each character is rooted – the fact that Melissa was an army helicopter mechanic is due in no small part to the struggles of Joanie’s generation of feminist activists – the campaign could be interesting ground for Trudeau to explore the points of agreement, differing assumptions, and tensions within and between successive generations of feminist activists.

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Ginny announces her run. Doonesbury, 24 March 1976

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Joanie’s second campaign. Doonesbury, 1 September 1982

My only disappointment with this development is the fact that, if Trudeau has permanently abandoned daily strips, this arc won’t get nearly the attention it deserves. Women stepping up to challenge a fundamentally anti-woman system and a fundamentally anti-woman president represents a critical development in American politics; I would be thrilled to see GBT chronicle that in a more extended manner.

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Rick knows what buttons to push. Doonesbury, 4 March 2018

A quick note about one the presence of one of my favourite Doonesbury characters in the strip. We begin with Joanie putting her partner Rick in his place by telling him that B.D.’s friend who will be dropping by is an “army helicopter mechanic,” and not the “campus snowflake” that Rick had assumed was coming by. Rick redeems himself by the end of the strip. He observes Joanie’s conversation with Melissa with a look that says that he’s impressed by the younger woman. When Joanie attempts to beg off helping on the campaign because she believes she’s too old to undertake the commitment, Rick’s strategically-delivered smart-ass comment gets Joanie to overcome her reticence and do the right thing.

This November, if there’s one on your ballot, please vote for a woman who’s committed to using political power to challenge systems that foster and protect sexual abusers.