William F. Buckley, Jr.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 846

What is there to say about Doonesbury, or even about the comic-strip mode?… There is, for instance, the nagging mechanical—and therefore artistic—problem of reintroducing the reader to the synoptic point at which he was dropped the day before. In a collection this is more aggravating than if twenty-four hours have gone by since arriving at the point where the artist left you, and you need a little nudge. Trudeau handles this very deftly, usually by introducing into the panel a tilt of some sort that takes the reader slightly beyond where he was left yesterday, so that he is relieved of that awful sensation of turning wheels without moving forward.

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The other problem is the presumptive requirement of the climax—the gag—at the end of every strip. This cadence no artist can hope to satisfy, although they must all make the effort. A collection runs the risk of maximizing the disharmonies. Imagine reading a collection of the last paragraphs of Art Buchwald's columns. Or, as Zonker would put it, Imagine! Which digression beings me to note the awful overuse of the intensifier in Mr. Trudeau's captions. Nothing appears so workaday as to be merely remarkable. Everything is arresting! Now this is in sharp stylistic contrast with the very nearly expressionless faces Mr. Trudeau tends to draw. Nobody ever smiles, or hardly ever; and the effect is wonderful, insofar as it reminds the reader that no experience, no absurdity, no observation, is truly new. But nearly everything spoken must be punctuated with exclamation points and served up in boldface type. I am as unconvinced that this is necessary as I am persuaded that Trudeau scores remarkably well in wrenching a climax of sorts out of almost every one of his strips. There are the anticlimaxes; but the reader forgives them indulgently; he is well enough nourished, all the more so since there is all that wonderful assonant humor and derision in mid-panel: indeed, not infrequently the true climaxes come in the penultimate panel, and the rest is lagniappe.

And then—there is a sense of rhetorical leisure in Trudeau. Whatever is the hurry? It is very pleasurable, the more so when one realizes how compressive the form is by nature, like smoking a cigar on a parachute jump. After reading three years' worth of Doonesbury I am certain I have read as many words as are in War and Peace. The artist gives off a great air of authority by this device, rather like those notices in The New Yorker magazine in which even the most conventional abbreviations are spurned ("Closed on Sundays and holidays, except for Thanksgiving").

Consider the treatment of an essentially banal exchange. If it were honed less finely, it would not work. One of the characters is watching a television screen, whence the words sound out:

"At the very root of the Big Apple's problems seems to be the endless exodus of the middle class. 'Good Night, New York' is fortunate to have with us tonight Mr. Jamie Dodd, one such fugitive.

"Jamie, I take it you and your wife have always been anxious to leave New York?…"

"Oh no, not at all, Geraldo—in fact, at first the city seemed a marvelous place for an upwardly mobile couple like us! [Note the exclamation point.] But then one day last fall I was promoted to a $45,000 job. That same day my wife was assaulted in the park. The power went off, and the garbage people went on strike … And suddenly! Right! Suddenly Darien made loads of sense!"

It requires a hypnotic self-assurance to bring off (as Trudeau does) that sequence. As so often, he relies heavily on his meiotic pen to do it.

The longueurs are sometimes almost teasingly didactic. Who else in the funny-paper business would attempt the following?

[Again, the action is coming out of the television set.]

"Mr. Finkles, as one of New York's past comptrollers, how were you able to build up such a whopping deficit?"

"Well Geraldo, we had many great tricks. The most common one was selling city bonds on the strength of inflated estimates of anticipated federal funding. This device was very popular among top city money wizards. But let me show you my personal favorite. See Column B here? This is where we charged the final wage period of one fiscal year to the budget of the next! In so doing, we built up a hidden deficit of two billion dollars!"

"Wow!"

"Now I must caution the folks at home from trying this …"

Note the touch of the anticlimax in the last line, inserted in the way that Oliphant permits the kitten or the mouse to pronounce the moral coda. But the unapologetically literate account of the exact character of the financial hanky-panky gives a rollicking sense of reality to the episode. (pp. ix, xi)

William F. Buckley, Jr., "Overture" (copyright © 1978 by William F. Buckley, Jr.: reprinted by permission of Wallace & Sheil Agency, Inc.), in Doonesbury's Greatest Hits by G. B. Trudeau, Holt. Rinehart and Winston, 1978, pp. vii, ix, xi, xiii.

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