When I was a kid, I never understood why my father would have me read Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” comic strip with him every Sunday morning over brunch. Unlike playing catch or watching “Jeopardy!” together, this was a bonding ritual I simply didn’t get. (Truth be told, I much preferred the brightly animated cartoons on television to Trudeau’s goofy caricatures in the newspaper; the latter, I thought, involved too much reading.)
Boy, was I missing the point.
That, at least, is the conclusion I’ve come to after visiting “Doonesbury in a Time of War,” an exhibition currently on display at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The showcase — held in celebration of the 40th anniversary of Trudeau’s syndicated comic strip — focuses on the adventures of the quixotic B.D., a character in “Doonesbury” known for his ever-present helmet, as he matures from a robust football captain at Walden College (read: Yale University) to an injured Reservist in the Second Gulf War.
Trudeau, who began his career as a cartoonist for the Yale Daily News, presents a deeply human portrait of B.D.’s evolution by positioning his humorous idiosyncrasies alongside the harsh realities of war. The effect — as the exhibit shows through an impressive collection of 42 original strips, sketches, notes and dialogue — is uncanny in its quotidian, comedic insight and profoundly illuminating in its sardonic, intellectual weight.
We begin with an amusing portrait of B.D. as “a sort of folk hero” experiencing the many oddities of the college dormitory. True to life, Trudeau depicts B.D. in one strip as being unable to find his ice cream sandwiches in the common room fridge. B.D. enters the room of his suitemate, Mike Doonesbury, to ask for their whereabouts, and innocently walks in on Doonesbury “really kissing and hugging with a girl.” Doonesbury, the eponymous protagonist of the comic, gleefully declares that he was hoping B.D. would walk in on him, to prove that he’s not the loser everybody thinks he is.
“Fooled me,” says the unseen girl from behind the futon.
Yet, the exhibit gives Trudeau’s oeuvre a sense of balance by also displaying scenes which illustrate how war permeates public consciousness. Of particular note were the strips that alluded directly to the Vietnam War, a conflict that B.D. first trains for and later participates in. During one scene that carries modern resonance even in debates here at Yale, B.D.’s ROTC commander enthusiastically informs his trainees that “they’ll learn how to kill; to be methodical machines of destruction and ruin.”
“Actually,” he says after a pause, “that’s not our official policy.”
During another, B.D’s father laments losing his job in the airplane industry after the end of the war. Through a brilliant reversal of the typical father-son dynamic, B.D. calmly reassures his dad that “there’ll be other wars, other F-100s to build.”
The exhibit does a wonderful job of representing Trudeau’s playful blending of what is “real” about war with more starkly satirical elements, in which all political parties are open for ribbing and rebuke. The analysis offered by accompanying placards nicely reveals the subversive undertones to Trudeau’s strip — something easily overlooked because of B.D.’s antics — which I completely forgot when I found myself laughing out loud in that sacred space we call the Beinecke.
The mise-en-scène of the display also captures B.D.’s personal transformation into a more realistic (if not despondent) character, who constantly approaches a grave understanding of human combat. “Every day, this mission seems a little more pointless,” B.D. bemoans, referring to the Gulf War.
“The hero thing; it gets old fast,” he says flatly in another strip.
What Trudeau ultimately has to say about the horrors of war, even during his depiction of America’s recent campaign in Iraq, is best symbolized by B.D.’s traumatic injury due to a roadside bomb near Fallujah. Not only does our former “folk hero” tragically lose his leg, but also his emblematic helmet, a piece of gear that had not been removed from his head for over thirty years. His reaction (“SON OF A BITCH!”) and consequent post-traumatic stress disorder, anger and alcoholism poignantly made my previous laughter feel inappropriate.
If there’s anything fundamental we can learn about the human condition from “Doonesbury,” it is this: we live in a world of tragedy and tears, but also one of laughter and farce. Trudeau, the characters he created and, indeed, the exhibit itself can help us to appreciate that delicate fact every day.
Now I get it, Dad.
“Doonesbury in a Time of War” is on view now through December 17th at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.