Everything I need to know about America I learned from ‘Doonesbury’

I’ve written before about how I miss when newspaper comics were a bit more central in pop culture. And few have been more topical and controversial than Garry Trudeau’s venerable daily Doonesbury, still going strong, if less frequently, after 50-plus years. 

For nerdy kids like me who grew up reading the comics pages and scouring thrift shops for old paperbacks, Doonesbury was our political education. The first Doonesbury book I remember picking up was 1981’s “In Search of Reagan’s Brain,”  a pointed if often mystifying to me satire of the then-new US President’s penchant for vagueness and nostalgia. I barely knew who Reagan was at my tender age, but something about the complicated, arcane world of Doonesbury made me want to get the joke. 

Later, I bought classic treasury collections like “The Doonesbury Chronicles,” which awakened me to strange early ‘70s concepts like communes and Walden Pond, or to Nixon and Ford and the Watergate figures. There were the just plain funny strips, but then there were the ones that made me want to learn more to get the references. 

Pre-internet, the past was a rather mysterious country, and to be honest, my history classes that I recall of primary and high school education always seemed to focus on the really distant past, on Founding Fathers and constitutional principles and occasionally something as fresh as World War II.

Little was taught about injustice, or racism, or the many wrongs and missteps in America’s long, tangled history. Doonesbury had Black, Asian and gay characters long before it was common. Through Doonesbury, I learned that America was always many things at the same time, and the obscure political and cultural figures of 1975 and 1984 it stuck in my head made me want to learn more about it all in my own time. 

But Doonesbury would never have lasted if it was just a blithe satire of the news of the day, and it was the characters who kept me coming back for more – everyman Mike Doonesbury’s journey from idealistic student to ‘80s ad man to ‘00s digital hipster to today’s almost senior citizen, football player turned wounded veteran B.D., eternal hippie Zonker, Hunter Thompson stand-in Duke (who became rather tiresome through overuse), or fiery campus protester Mark’s long journey to coming out.

Doonesbury always felt kind of like the story of a family as it journeyed through five decades of America, and that human touch is what made me want to learn more about the years it spanned. 

Doonesbury is still going 51 years on – longer than Schulz did Peanuts now – although it’s been new strips on Sundays only since 2014 or so which makes it feel like it’s entered a slow final victory lap around the cultural arena. Trudeau’s been viciously funny with the Tr**p years but it’s a lot harder to pay attention in the Age of Outrage. Mike and the gang are still around, and they’ve got children, and their children even have children as Doonesbury turns sweetly generational. 

I guess I know more about how the US and the world works now in my own encroaching middle age, and there’s certainly no shortage of places one can pick up history and knowledge now, but I’ll always kind of long for the days when Trudeau’s characters were my newsprint guides to the follies and foibles of the wider world. 

Charles Schulz and Peanuts: He walked the line

Like pretty much every cartoonist who ever picked up a pen, I worship at the feet of Charles M. Schulz, the master of the simple line.

I’ve written before about my love for the rapidly vanishing newspaper comic. After a steady diet of them as a kid, classic Peanuts strips are embedded in my brain. Even if I last read them 20, 30 years ago, they seem like familiar friends. I read them now less with an eye for the gags (although Schulz could be side-splittingly funny, especially when it came to depicting rage), and more with an eye on the craft.

They say that writing is often the art of chipping away, scraping off the excess to find the truth underneath all those fluttering words. In my work as a journalist, you’re trained to get to the point.  Every single panel by Schulz feels like the point – comic art stripped to the barest essentials.

When I first started drawing my own little silly comics years ago, I took my inspiration from superhero superstars Neal Adams, John Byrne and particularly the insanely detailed crosshatch-filled black-and-white work of Dave Sim and Gerhard on Cerebus. I did a fairly awful job of imitating these far better artists, because I didn’t have the base of skill underneath.

Even though I loved Peanuts, if you’d asked scribbling young Nik if Schulz was a great artist, he might’ve said no, but he was a good cartoonist. But now I see clearly the detail in his design, how he could dash off a few lines to clearly delineate a house, a brick wall, a kite-eating tree, a doghouse, and it worked. 

Have you ever tried to actually draw Charlie Brown, or Snoopy, like Schulz did? Most budding cartoonists give it a try, and it’s harder than it looks. I’ve done a few Peanuts pastiche/homage comic strips over the years, and every time it’s like learning to draw with a new limb:

An online strip from 2014.

You look at his earlier strips, and there was a more ornate feeling to the art, with some tricky perspective shots and more detailed backgrounds that were gradually abandoned as the strip shrunk in scope, but widened in its emotional palette. By the time Schulz hit his stride by the mid-1960s, he’d refined Peanuts to the point of abstraction. Things got weird – a kite-eating tree? A bird who spoke in scratch marks? Snoopy becomes a helicopter? – but because of Schulz’s humble everyman style, the surrealism of Peanuts always seemed downright cozy. 

There’s other cartoonists who went equally spare, like Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby (Barnaby surely a distant relative of Charlie Brown?). More recently, Jeff Smith’s Bone always dazzled me with its simple, clear lines. Yet many other remaining gag cartoons like Wizard Of Id or Family Circus or Dennis The Menace were simply drawn, but never quite managed the deep control and deceptive depth Schulz could with his art.

Schulz’s smooth line got sadly shaky in his final years of Peanuts, due to health problems. The easy effortless lines of the strip’s peak gave way to an old man’s more hesitant form. Yet the DNA of a master craftsman was still there in every panel, despite his struggles.

But boy, when he was at his best – which to be honest, was for most of Peanuts’ staggering 50-year-run – Charles Schulz laid down a line that many would imitate, and few would ever better.