Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Gift Books 2010
Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau
by Brian Walker

This is a beautifully assembled book, and easily the gift book of the year for folks who've been sentient over the past 40 years. It's a particular delight for me just to page through it, since I was one of Doonesbury's first fans in the early 70s when I lived in Cambridge, and the Boston Globe ran it. It seemed to be about people I knew, by a very talented one-of-us. (In fact, a character was reputedly based on one of my colleagues at the Boston Phoenix, and if Rick Redfern wasn't based on Tom Redburn--a colleague at Washington Newsworks who went on to the New York Times--then he should have been.)

This book covers the entire Doonesbury career, from the early strips for the Yale student paper to a few panels set in the Obama White House. There's reportage as well, a factual, historical essay spread throughout the book, covering in words and images the development of the basic cartoon strip as well as Trudeau's related activities, from the Doonesbury musical to various causes. I was particularly curious about the background to the storyline of recent years concerning B.D.'s recovery from an amputation and traumatic stress resulting from combat in Iraq. Trudeau got information volunteered by soldiers and the Defense Department, not something you would have predicted in the Vietnam era. But he'd previously taken a military helicopter tour of areas where the Gulf War was fought, and the irony of support from the military wasn't lost on him. Still, while Trudeau's stardom and the success of Doonesbury put him in a different league, this development I think mirrored a larger one. A lot of us who remain opposed to needless wars did start looking in a deeper and more nuanced way at the realities of war and warriors.

Doonesbury was such an important part of my generation's daily life for a long time--I remember how bereft we all were when Trudeau took a break for almost two years in the early 80s. In the 90s, his creation of Mr. Butts was a morale boost when I was making my own critiques of the tobacco industry and its campaigns to hook the young, which eventually cost me my newspaper column in Pittsburgh. But through all the counterculture and politics, Trudeau created a family of characters that took on lives of their own, and begat another generation or two.

This ongoing multigenerational storytelling is generously presented in this large, coffee-table size volume, including many color illustrations and some big, breathtaking panels. The evolution of Trudeau's artwork is made delightfully clear. I don't know how I feel about some of the commercialization of the characters, but I suppose I shouldn't have believed I could get through this review without using the word "iconic."

The text ends with some worries about the future of Doonesbury, tied so closely to the fading fate of daily newspapers. But some final words from Trudeau are especially welcome today, the official date of the book's publication, which is also an election day expected to be not much short of apocalyptic. "I'm the opposite of a cynic," Trudeau says with a smile. "I have a child-like faith in our better angels, and that sense of optimism informs the strip in every way. I really do believe we can get it right."

Still, stick around at least until 2012, G.B. I think we're going to need you.

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