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Image credit: All strips from 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective, copyright 2010, G.B. Trudeau (Andrews McMeel Publishing)
Doonesbury began life as a simple sports strip. It featured a single character—B.D., a knuckleheaded college quarterback who presided over a team of talented but infantile subordinates. The narrow focus worked fine as a campus one-off in the Yale Daily News, but a few weeks in, there arrived an offer of national syndication. To court the attention of that larger audience, I was encouraged to broaden the strip and assemble a diverse cast of peer characters.
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It was an opportune time to do so. In 1970, many banners were afield, many movements afire. The young had upended society. And since so much of the action was playing out on college campuses, I decided to stick with the undergraduate scene I knew. At first, the core characters in Doonesbury stayed put, happily hunkered down at Walden, the cozy commune that housed them. After more than a decade, I finally hit the reset button, dislodging the cast from its bucolic surroundings and sending the characters off into a world more responsive to the passage of time. The tribe fanned out across the country, and their lives were repopulated with mates, friends, associates, and (whoa!) children. Thereafter, I tracked their quotidian lives as they played out against a shimmering scrim of cultural and political context. Despite the strip’s reputation for perishable topicality, the 14,000 strips that compose Doonesbury thus far aren’t really about the defining moments of the modern age; they are, rather, a loosely organized, crowd-sourced chronicle about how it felt to live through them.
Mike Doonesbury: At my high school, a “doone” was a clueless sort, a doofus whose innocence conveyed a kind of grace. If you leave out the grace part, that was Mike. In the early strips, his emotional development wasn’t just arrested; it sometimes appeared to reverse course. With such an inept start, who could have foreseen that he would eventually evolve into the Richie Cunningham of the strip, the group’s designated grown-up? Anarchy without resistance becomes tedious, so Mike’s sensible, cautionary admonitions to the other characters have become indispensable—even as they usually go unheeded.
September 12, 1973
June 7, 1991
Zonker Harris: With a little help from Bob Dylan, my generation pretty much invented the whole idea of “forever young.” If prior to the Baby Boom, youth was regarded as unserious—and it was—no one seems to remember. We are now three generations deep into rock, jeans, and dope; there’s no turning back. Which is just fine with Zonker, an avatar of high hippie slackness whom I dropped into B.D.’s huddle as pushback to the deeply straight quarterback. When the tide turned, and hippies gave way to yuppies, it was Zonker who slowly became disenfranchised—and though he’s still in the grip of forever young, the dream of its leading to nirvana has proved elusive.
September 23, 1971
February 24, 1992
March 30, 2010
B.D.: From the start, B.D. was a hard case, a football diva smoldering with contempt for his undisciplined supporting players. Post-gridiron, things didn’t improve. When a warrior retires from the field, he usually hangs up his helmet; B.D. kept his in place. As a pro football player, a cop, and then a soldier, he clung to a protective shell that shielded him from doubt or insight—one that, over the years, kept him firmly resistant to an evolving world of personal growth and male hugs. When a rocket attack in Fallujah removed B.D.’s leg, it was the loss of his helmet—which revealed not just his graying hair, but a battered soul—that moved readers the most.
February 7, 1971
April 30, 1991
April 26, 2004
Mark Slackmeyer: As a born provocateur, the snarky student radical Mark Slackmeyer knew that it’s not about the stunts you pull—it’s about the buttons you push. When he took to the airwaves to declare Watergate conspirator John Mitchell “Guilty! Guilty, guilty, guilty!!,” the manic grin he wore told the tale: he was looking for blowback. Mark may have shed some of his merry-prankster perversity over the years, but he still lives to mix it up. That he would be allowed to do so at staid NPR pushes credulity, but without its moderating culture, he might well have evolved into just another shock jock.
May 29, 1973
March 11, 1981
Joanie Caucus: When writers are lucky, they’ll occasionally create a character in whom readers become unusually vested. The downside is a tremendous pressure to treat that character gently, to not place her in jeopardy from which she cannot escape. But in the case of Joanie—the accidental feminist who reinvented herself as a lawyer—I was happy to oblige, to let her survive the downdrafts and soar into a new future, becoming the kind of role model that the times seemed to demand. The unfolding revolution of feminism was so inherently dramatic, I never considered giving her another path.
October 12, 1972
August 4, 1986
Duke: Gonzo Journalist
January 31, 1981
November 1, 2000
March 9, 2005
Lacey Davenport: Republican Grande Dame
May 11, 1977
September 6, 1982
August 15, 1998
Roland Hedley : Fox News Reporter
August 1, 1980
January 25, 1994
Jimmy Thudpucker: Folk-Rocker and Political Activist
March 5, 1985
March 15, 1985
September 7, 1999
Zipper and Jeff: Millennials
May 10, 2004
August 3, 2004
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