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David L. Ulin on 'Doonesbury' [updated]

December 2, 2010 |  7:30 am

Doonesbury_40 It’s been years since I thought about -- really thought about -- “Doonesbury,” Garry Trudeau’s Russian novel of a comic strip, in which dozens of characters loop in and out of one another’s orbits, sketching a portrait of their times. I was, for many years, a devoted reader, but somewhere in the 1990s my attention began to drift. Mostly, I suppose, this has to do with the contempt of familiarity; with 40 years of strips (more than 14,000 of them) in circulation, “Doonesbury” seems to have been with us always, a staple of the newspaper comics page, no longer new or surprising, as easy to take for granted as reruns of “Peanuts” or “B.C.”

And yet, Trudeau has always had more on his mind than did Johnny Hart or even Charles M. Schulz, as the massive, and massively entertaining, “40: A Doonesbury Retrospective” (Andrews McMeel: 696 pp., $100 boxed) reminds us. Gathering 1,800 strips (“only 13 percent,” Trudeau notes in a charming introduction), this oversized collection reintroduces not only the whole interwoven saga but also the individuals: B.D., Zonker, Mike, Joanie, Duke. It’s a fascinating way to frame a history, and Trudeau makes the most of it, arranging the book chronologically and thematically, one chapter each for 18 major characters.

Where to begin? That’s the challenge Trudeau faces. The book can be daunting, for both the casual reader and the acolyte: heavy, at times unwieldy and deceptively totemic, with its thick pages and high-end reproductions, like a coffee-table volume of fine art. And yet, spend some time with it and the narrative elements quickly grow seductive, just as the strip, at its best, has always been. This is the trick, the secret of “Doonesbury,” that, in its topicality, its ongoing dailiness, it is really about something more profound. Trudeau highlights that in his introduction: “It’s not about Watergate,” he writes of the collection, “gas lines, cardigans, Reaganomics, a thousand points of light, Monica, New Orleans, or even Dubya.” No, indeed, although such elements do show up here, more important are the people, the dance of generations, their humanity. This is where “Doonesbury” is at its most compelling, and in “40,” it is on full display.

-- David L. Ulin

See a gallery of comic strips from "40: A Doonesbury Retrospective."

[Updated, 12/2/10 2:35pm: A link to a gallery of images was added to this post.]

Photo: “40: A Doonesbury Retrospective.” Credit: Andrews McMeel Publishing

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