I’m not sure what it says about a person whose politics is shaped by a comic strip. The first political influence in my life was during my Junior High years, when I first started reading Doonesbury. Doonesbury, and later Bloom County, made me laugh at the politics of the time, and it gave me my first exposure to alternative views of the world other than those of the front pages of the newspaper.
I’m not sure why I started reading Doonesbury. My family subscribed to the San Jose Mercury, and Doonesbury and Peanuts were separated from the rest of the comics pages, near Ann Landers and Art Buchwald. It was different from anything else that was running at that time, and I think I secretly liked the sophisticated nature of the strip. I was one of those intellectual wannabees, someone who thought he was smarter than he actually was, and reading Doonesbury was the perfect comic to read. I started reading the latest news so I could understand what was going on and I started feeling sophisticated because I actually understood some of the comic’s humor. At the time I started reading Doonesbury, the main character Mike Doonesbury was campaigning for John Anderson for the Presidency, and I remember representing John Anderson in a mock debate in our 8th grade Social Studies class. I remember Zonker, who at the time was the reigning sun tanning champion of the world. B.D., who was gloating to his friends about Reagan winning the elections. An odd character named Duke was the 51st Iranian hostage, and he seemed to be some unscrupulous publicity hound who sort of was like Forest Gump in that he always seemed to be in the center of some important event. My favorite strips were Mike’s first fumbling dates with J.J., where he typed out a schedule of what to do in their first outings together.
And there were Doonesbury’s forays into politics. My favorite foray was a report by Doonesbury newscaster Roland Hedley on Reagan’s brain. During the time I was reading Doonesbury, Gary Trudeau was skewering Conservative politics, the exploitation of the Iranian Hostage crisis, U.S. military adventures in Afganistan and El Salvadore, and James Watt’s environmental record. It skewered these subjects with a gentle sort of humor. People were foolish, but also lovable, and even the worst characters, like Duke, were appealing in a roguish sort of way.
In the early 1980s, Gary Trudeau took a sabattical from doing his comic strip, and I started reading Berke Breathed’s Bloom County. At first Bloom County seemed like a second rate version of Doonesbury. As the strip progressed, though, it took on a life of its own. In many ways, it started resembling Doonesbury less and it started reading more like Mad Magazine or the Marx Brothers. I loved all the characters, especially Opus, Steve Dallas, and Bill the Cat. With Doonesbury I smiled, with Bloom County I just laughed out loud. My favorite episode was when Opus announced he was engaged (newspaper headlines read: “Millions of single women distraught- threaten violent, gory suicide- Diane Sawyer shaves head”). I loved the strips where Steve Dallas gets punched out trying to take a photo of Sean Penn. If things ever got boring, Bill the Cat was always around to cough up fur balls.
Bloom County was more laugh out loud funny than Doonesbury, but Doonesbury was more insightful of politics. When Berke Breathed tackled a political subject, he never really went too deep into the subject, preferring the easy laugh instead. What he did better that Trudeau was make fun of American pop culture. What made Bloom County so popular was its dead on send ups of Hollywood and celebrity excess, our trends and lifestyles. While I think Bloom County deserved its Pulitzer Prize in the late 1980s, it deserved it as a social satire and not so much as a political satire.
When Gary Trudeau returned from his sabattical, I didn’t return to regularly reading Doonesbury. It was a different strip when he returned. It was drawn in a different style than before. And the humor seemed more strained to me. By the time Doonesbury returned to the newspaper in the mid 1980s, I had started following Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, and The Far Side. After Berke Breathed retired Bloom County, I didn’t follow Breathed’s later comic strips with Opus. I still remember those two strips with fondness. A month ago, I bought from Leigh’s Bookstore, a wonderful used bookstore in Sunnyvale, Doonesbury Dossier: The Reagan Years. I smiled when I read those old strips and felt nostalgic for a time when Doonesbury really had an affect on the how I saw politics. Perhaps it is shallow to have one’s political views shaped by a comic strip. I’m glad though to have been able to laugh at the inanities of a scary political time and to make a little sense of the world thanks to a comic.