September 17, 2006

Cartoon Review: Doonesbury strips, first week of September 2006

(click on the strip if it's too small to read)

The series of Doonesbury strips from Monday, September 4th thru Saturday, September 9th offer a nice commentary on Twenty-First Century battle. Ray, a soldier stationed in Iraq, is stressed that he is late to spend the night on the computer with his wife at home, May. She gives him matronly hell, as if he was just home late from the bar (“You think I like throwing up?”), but of course with added gravitas because his absence could have meant so much worse. As the strips progress, he is caught up in domestic dramas, which are distractions from or as demanding as warfare (“No, clockwise, idiot! You'll break the damn lint filter!”)

It's an unusual approach to discussing Iraq, in our country torn by opinions & false dichotomies. Trudeau can wrap up so many ideas in a format which has to be four frames long, some sort of punchline in the fourth, & dispensed in the slowest serialization any national epic has ever seen. (I was obsessed in college about the issue of America's “National Epic”... In a country with so much great literature, what was our Imperial Equivalent to Homer? How do Salinger or Twain, bards with an American voice, fit into a democratic materialistic American epic mold? A national epic has to be written sometime around the origin of the empire, contain integrated discussions of all the artistic & political issues the empire will face, be written in a poetry to equal no other, & yet be above itself with an aware irony. After college, of course, I read Moby Dick, & that settled the matter. But then what of Doonesbury? Can the American epic really be in novel form, when we would sing to the muses mostly in multimedia? Doonesbury chronicles America during the crucial era, commenting in depth & subtlety on American culture & politics in short daily installments from the sixties thru today, with dozens & dozens of main characters who have grown & continue to evolve. It could also be argued that the past forty years have shaped our empire more than the mid-1800s did... I could conclude that if Melville is our Virgil, than Trudeau is our Ovid.)

Doonesbury, with its “liberal bias”, manages to entertain & touch most Americans with the employment of several central techniques. First, its famous “love of the soldier / hate the war” attitude. Second, is it's remorseless critique of any politician, not just the Bushes. How followers in all demographics of America interpreted the first week of September's comics reveals the complexity of his vision. Larry Beasley from Milwaukee wrote to Trudeau:

Ray's email strips point something out (at least to me). It seems we as a nation are not taking this war seriously. I'm not old enough to remember the WW II rationing system or the mandatory recycling, and the draft ended during my last year in high school. Shame on me for not getting more involved. Considering the hardships soldiering brings with it (some of our troops have to pay for their own armor -- shouldn't it be standard issue for all combat/hazardous duty personnel?), shame on us all. Whatever victory may still be achieved, it will require more than cheerleading and empty expressions of support. God save the Republic.

He interpreted May's attitude as a stark contrast to how we idealize World War Two's civilian dedication & sacrifice. A woman from Temecula, CA, Stacy Swenck, meditated on the historical implications of e-mail versus letters:

Last week's series of strips has caught my attention like no other. I lost my dad, Robert Swenck, to Vietnam in 1971. I was only twelve when my dad died, and a few years ago I finally read the letters (about 100) he sent to my mom before he was killed. I only got to know my dad through those letters since my mom rarely mentioned him after he was killed. I worry that the families of today's soldiers are communicating through ephemeral means, and that there will not be letters left over for the kids to read when they grow up.

And a mother from Tuscan, AZ, Heather Deaver, compared it to her own paranoid experience, which of course can be viewed in contrast to pre-internet wars:

I just wanted to thank you for the recent strip on soldiers emailing from Iraq. My son is a 23-year-old Lance Corporal in the Marine Reserves. He began his first tour last week, when your strip was running. I had to laugh because I was also freaking out if I didn't get an email every day. My son very patiently explained that there are only so many computers, they have to sign up to use them, and they only get 20 minutes and he has a lot of email! Thanks for making me feel not so silly.

Alternately, it contains various thoughts on marital relations, which span peacetime, wartime, & whatever sort of high-tech conflict we're in now. Comic strip authors of the stupid variety often gear their strips to hit a simple chord, like “ha ha, my husband always has the same shit luck when he golfs, too – I'll cut this out & put it on my fridge.” There's really no comparison to what Gary Trudeau is doing.

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