When I was a girl, I once write a very serious entry in my journal explaining how I was finally starting to feel like a grown-up. The cause of my sense that I’d passed a milestone? I finally understood the jokes in a Doonesbury strip. Garry Trudeau’s sweeping chronicle of American life, perhaps more than any other cultural artifact, ties the generation of my family together. A print of Mike Doonesbury walking across Yale’s snow-covered Old Campus was one of the first big presents I could afford to give my father. The clipping Ellie’s little sister’s birth, announced as “It’s a baby woman!” is tucked into family photo albums along our own momentos. And now, Alex Doonesbury is grown up, married to Toggle, an Iraq war veteran, and as of this weekend, officially Doonesbury‘s new main character.
Daily cartoon strips may not get as much credit as they ought to for shaping the cultural zeitgeist, but throughout her life, and mine, Alex Doonesbury’s been one of the best female characters, of any age, in any medium. She’s a child of divorced parents with a complicated relationship with her mother that made her mature and self-protective rather than the victim of cliche trauma, and loving, collaborative tie to her stepmother, a Vietnamese refugee adopted by American Jews. In addition to both of these women, Alex has a father who spars with her on politics, works with her on business projects, and treats her like a mature person with worthy ideas. She’s been a full member of the cast almost from her birth because she was that important in Mike’s life, and she became so in ours. Alex is a computer genius without falling into sexy hacker tropes, and her skills brought her closer to her parents and all the way to MIT, a point of pride so fierce that MIT students rigged the voting to win her as a fictional fellow student. And her love story with Toggle, a disabled veteran with less education and a decidedly different family background from Alex’s own, has been part of Doonesbury’s transition into a more expansive portrait of American life.
In walking her down the aisle to Toggle at her June wedding, Mike ceded pride of place in her heart to a new man, and informally deeded the strip to a new generation of characters. The joyful rehearsal dinner at Walden College the night before the ceremony brought the strip’s core characters together again in the place where we first met them. “Is Alex’s tribe what you expected?” liberal radio host Mark asked Toggle, seeing it all for the first time, as might be the case for newer Doonesbury readers. But part of what was striking was both the characters who had left, which characters were at the margins—J.J. and Zeke snuck in as bartenders, while Kim is the radiant mother of the bride—and the new people sitting at the table. Ray Hightower, B.D.’s Gulf and Iraq War buddy, not one of the original characters, is at the main table now, representing a critically important tie from one generation to the next, linking B.D. to Toggle, and to the rest of the core cast. Reverend Sloan is regretting that he and Joanie never got together. Mike stands on the left side of the single large panel, preparing to give a toast in the single-frame panel, and the other characters’ conversations cut him off. On the right is his daughter, telling the guests “Everyone shut up! Go ahead, Daddy.” The composition emphasizes the extent to which this transition, if not Doonesbury as a whole, is about a father and a daughter. And in an emotionally wise piece of writing, Doonesbury skips over Mike’s toast, leaving that moment free for all the fathers and daughters reading to fill in with their own words, and Mike’s tribute to Alex a loving mystery.
The next day, as Mike prepares to lead his daughter down the aisle, he flashed back for a moment, seeing her not radiant in the wedding dress that brought him up short, but as a little girl with a fistful of wildflowers. “You okay?” Alex asked him. “You seem a little out of it.” “I’m fine,” her father told her. “You go play.”
Those days are gone, and so is Doonesbury‘s old order. It’s true that this has been an ongoing transition, and that Doonesbury has, unlike other strips that keep its characters preserved in amber, always allowed its characters to age and die, and achieved some of its finest artistic, emotional, and political moments in those departures. But there’s still something moving about seeing Mike formally announce that it’s Alex’s time, that she’s ready—and then to take it back as she, breaking the fourth wall, demands a cuter nose and that the aging hippies give pride of place to the kids they raised, who grew up to be programmers, and novelists, and world-class slackers. It’s bittersweet, and the transition won’t be a clean, complete break. But in between its talking cigarettes and dying AIDS patients, Red Rascals and journalists-turned-bloggers, Doonesbury has always been as weird, and biting, and tender—and now, as generous and far-sighted—as the best of life itself.