On Tuesday, the Washington Post’s Michael Cavna reported that Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau will take a long hiatus from his comic strip to work on the second season ofAlpha House, the political sitcom he’s producing for Amazon. “They’re both full-time jobs,” Trudeau told Cavna. “So I had to choose, and no, it wasn’t that difficult. I’ve done the strip for 43 years — 45 if you include the college edition [at Yale] — and I’m ready for an extended break.”
It’s hardly as if this is the first time Doonesbury‘s gone on a break. But given how long Trudeau has been doing it, and that this hiatus doesn’t have a fixed end day, the announcement has me thinking about what it will be like once Doonesbury is gone. It’s true that both prestige television and resurgent soap opera formats have given us similarly sprawling casts to the Doonesbury crew, and that long-running web comics like Questionable Content take those casts deep into certain aspects of American life. But it’s hard to think of another cultural artifact, in any medium, that’s taken as big a cast into as wide an array of American institutions and as far around the globe as Doonesbury does.
As a child, Doonesbury was one of the most important pieces of culture aimed at grown-ups that I was aware of. When I was very young, we didn’t have a television, and once we acquired one, we didn’t watch much on it, so Doonesbury was the first serialized narrative that I learned to follow (the constantly resetting love triangle between Archie Andrews, Betty Cooper, and Veronica Lodge didn’t exactly count). And while the strip explained current events, it also expected readers to have a certain amount of media and political literacy. I recall solemnly recording in my childhood journal the first time that I got a joke in Doonesbury without needing it explained to me (the memory of the joke itself hasn’t lasted as long, alas, as the sense of accomplishment).
And as a critic, I think of Doonesbury as the strip that taught me that a broad set of principles and a sense of the absurd could be profitably applied to any number of situations. Stoner Zonker’s fight to preserve the Malibu beaches from the incursions of entertainment industry mogul David Geffen may not have been as high-stakes as aviation mechanic Melissa Wheeler’s struggles to recover from the rape she experienced within her chain of command, and to win some dignity and safety for herself when she reenlisted in the military and returned to Afghanistan. But both storylines had in common the idea that people in power can get away with disguising their most selfish impulses and worst abuses of their fellow citizens and colleagues as entirely rational. And people who are marginalized as ridiculous or irrational can actually be important agents of change.
Trudeau is a liberal, but one of the reasons Doonesbury has lasted so long and reached so widely is that he was curious and open-hearted about so many of the institutions and movements that his characters ventured through. Even when Mike Doonesbury was hitting a low point and creating Mr. Butts, a cartoon character meant to convince teenagers to start and to continue smoking, his advertising-industry Frankenstein was the product of a moral crisis. Jeff Redfern’s success in the Central Intelligence Agency, and later as an author of potboiler novels about a Taliban fighter named the Red Rascal, didn’t necessarily mean that the intelligence community or the publishing industries were irrevocably broken. It was just that Jeff happened to meet their mutual hunger for stories that painted the CIA as capable of playing a meaningful part in an unconventional war. Even when Doonesbury casts a gimlet eye on the way that institutions were responding to big chances in politics and culture, Trudeau rarely feigned outrage about the impulses that drove that institutional behavior in the first place. Why scold, when you can laugh and sympathize?
Alpha House has never been as compelling to me as Doonesbury because it seems to violate many of these rules. It’s a meaner show than Doonesbury is a strip, treating the Senate as a hopelessly broken institution, in which a few dedicated women toil against a tide of lazy and ineffectual men. Trudeau’s characters here are less specific and more stock: the former basketball coach who’s disconcerted at having to run his first actual, competitive race, the corrupt black Senator from Pennsylvania, the arrogant but accomplishment-free presidential hopeful from Florida, and perhaps most distastefully, the awkward and deeply closeted fussbudget.
I don’t begrudge Trudeau a break, or even a new creative endeavor. But it does bother me that Alpha House is the show that’s taking him away from his best work. Television, whether it’s distributed by Amazon or AMC, is where most of our most ambitious serial story-telling happens today. And as TV audiences have shrunk, networks have tried to find more specific concepts that will attract deeply loyal followings of fans drawn to a very particular vision. Doonesbury, over the course of its exceptionally long run, has been able to do something that few other serial stories are able to pull off: carrying a very specific view of the world into almost every corner of American life, rather than simply lingering in Brooklyn or rural Louisiana. I’m not as worried as Trudeau told Cavna he was that Doonesbury readers won’t be waiting when Trudeau is ready to return from Alpha House. But I am worried about the hole in our comics pages and in our culture Trudeau will leave behind when he finally puts down his pen for good.