Doonesbury Under Fire

Controversy stalks the funny pages. Gary Trudeau's long-running Doonesbury strip has again come under fire from American conservatives, this time for its treatment of the situation in Iraq. Paul O'Brien gets embedded.


Most online discussion of comics is oriented around either the direct market or, of late, manga. But that still leaves a major area of comics almost ignored - newspaper strips. Thanks to the miracle of syndication, they've got enormous distribution compared to the rest of the medium. They're also probably the only exposure to comics that most adults have.

To be honest, I can easily understand why they get ignored so often - the general standard is not exactly stellar, and quite a few are genuinely painful. (If anyone knows why UK newspaper Metro continues to carry the mindbogglingly awful 'This Life', do let me know.) But I'm not going to try and look at the whole world of newspaper strips this time round. I'm interested in one strip in particular.

Gary Trudeau's 'Doonesbury' has been going for over thirty years now, starting with a campus setting and diverging into a more all-purpose kind of satire. It's not really the most accessible strip in the world, since it's possible to read it for months (literally) without ever getting the faintest understanding of how the various plots relate to one another, how any of these characters know one another, or even why it's called 'Doonesbury'. The official cast bios are a pretty hefty read. And then there's the odd convention that George Bush is represented by an asterisk wearing a helmet.

Click on the panel for a better view

For present purposes, though, suffice to say that some of the characters have ended up serving in Iraq. Trudeau is fairly obviously a liberal and it doesn't take a genius to see that he's not exactly pro-war. And here we get into the interesting stuff.

Click on the panel for a better view

On any view, the strip for 19 April 2004 is very unusual for a daily comic strip. It's four panels (two of them black) from the point of view of long-standing character BD, who's lost a leg in combat and is being taken to a hospital. There are no jokes. The strip continues in a similar vein for a couple more days. There's a mild joke on Thursday, and there's a pay-off in the Friday strip.

Click on the panel for a better view

It's all PG stuff, of course - after all, it's going on the comics page. Nonetheless, these strips are a very interesting use of the medium, particularly the odd pacing enforced by the four-panel format. The first strip really does come out of nowhere (the previous week had featured two completely unrelated characters talking about porn), and it's difficult to imagine even a casual reader seeing it without thinking, "What the hell was that?" Simply by being such a drastic departure from the usual daily punchline format, it really does convey the sense that something horribly wrong is happening.

As you can probably imagine, this proved rather controversial. In fact, in one of those 'Only in America' moments, it proved controversial for two separate reasons. Numerous papers refused to carry the Friday strip, or edited it. A week of dramatic misery with a bandaged stump on panel was fine, it seemed, but for BD to wake up and exclaim "Son of a bitch!" was unacceptable on grounds of bad language. Nothing like having your priorities straight, is there?

Of course, the perceived political aspects of the strip weren't exactly popular in some circles either. So you can imagine how it went down when Trudeau decided to devote one of the full-page Sunday strips to listing the American soldiers who had died in Iraq.

Click on the panel for a better view

The strip appeared on 30 May 2004 - Memorial Day, so not a gratuitous exercise. It's a strange one. It consists of a couple of panels of somebody placing a helmet on a rifle, a caption reading "In Memoriam: The War in Iraq", and... well, six solid panels of names in small type. Arguably, it's not really a comic at all. Then again, from a critic's perspective, one of the interesting things about this strip is that Trudeau laid out the names in his usual eight-panel grid rather than just simply handing in a block of text for publication. The effect is rather odd - it's as if the names had flooded the strip and washed everything else aside, rather than simply replacing it for a week.

Naturally, this one was pretty controversial as well.

Many people in America have got it into their heads that merely listing the war dead at all, or acknowledging the dead and injured of the war in any remotely emotive fashion, is in some way a political act. To be honest, in the current political context, they have a point. Because the US government has gone to such lengths not to show coffins or to acknowledge the dead, and to reduce everything to the level of statistics, for anyone else to do so inherently takes on the tint of an anti-Bush action as well. I would have thought, however, that it was a point worth opposing the government on.

There is no actual politics in any of the Iraq strips I've mentioned above, although there's plenty in Trudeau's other work. The message of the BD strips is almost trite. People in Iraq are getting killed and badly injured, and that sucks. It is difficult to imagine that anybody in the USA seriously disagrees with that view. The Memorial Day strip is an equally apolitical affair, merely listing the sort of people that Memorial Day was created to memorialise.

The feedback section on Trudeau's website suggests that many of his critics are working under a rather fundamental error. The assumption seems to be that, because Trudeau was opposed to the war, his commemoration of the dead must be insincere and politically motivated. Take this comment from Grace Brooks of Plattsburg, MO, which is fairly typical of Trudeau's detractors:

"I am trying to think of anything more shameful than the politicizing of those who've given the last full measure of devotion, whose lives were lost in the pursuit of freedom for another people... but of course I'm coming up blank. The Sunday strip was a disgrace - you mocked the commitment of those soldiers in the name of another useless piece of propaganda. You couldn't even manage an iota of genuine feeling for their sacrifice on Memorial Day. The great relief is that the more narrow-minded you show yourself to be, the more you become manifestly irrelevant to informed and thinking people, and the more (thankfully) your predictable and bile-filled messages get the utter lack of attention they so richly deserve."

The astute readers among you will note that Grace Brooks of Plattsburg, MO is a moron, incapable of wrapping her head around the concept that people who oppose the war still think it's a bad idea when soldiers' heads are blown off, and seeing propaganda messages where none exist. She is, as I say, fairly typical of Trudeau's detractors on the Iraq strips. Feedback to Trudeau from actual soldiers or their relatives appears to be overwhelmingly positive.

The point of these comics is simply that war is hell. Their interest ought to lie primarily in the way Trudeau makes unusual use of a long-established format to convey that message. Any politically controversial dimension stems from context rather than the actual content of the strips - a context that has attempted to establish such a sanitised version of war as the norm that even to acknowledge the blindingly obvious is seen as somehow politicised.

It has come to something when simply to memorialise the dead on Memorial Day is a political act.

Note: Paul O'Brien is the author of the weekly X-AXIS comics review.

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