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: 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 when it debuted almost 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.”  With that word 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 pages – 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!”

CODA: Thanks to sharp-eyed reader Tad, who pointed out another appearance of the “GUILTY” gag. In 1987, with the Iran-Contra scandal underlining the extent of the corruption of the Reagan administration, Mark dusted off the line after comparing Reagan-era officials like John Poindexter and Oliver North to Watergate figures like H.R. Haldeman and G. Gordon Liddy.

 

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 :

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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.