By Bob Clark
Though it’s been more and more infrequent in the past fifteen years or more, there used to be a fairly common occurrence of half-hour animated specials produced from American comic-strips, usually centering around some kind of holiday-related special occasion, the gold standard being the classic Charlie Brown Christmas. Those and other Peanuts specials from creator Charles Schulz and director Bill Melendez managed to translate the peculiar mannerisms of the cartoonist’s celebrated comic-strip so successfully into animation that for decades they managed to serve as the first introduction many children had to characters like Snoopy, Linus and the like. It helped having actual kids supply the voices for the young characters, of course (with Melendez himself providing grunts and howls rich in personality for Snoopy), and especially the accompaniment of Vince Guaraldi’s now standard jazz compositions. But as permanent as that special, the ones that succeeded it, and even the features and series that followed in their wake all marked themselves into the consciousness of whole generations’ worth of children, the animated form of Peanuts never quite outstepped the influence of the original home Schulz found on the comics page, where his work served as an inspiration to countless cartoonists and artists of every stripe (even Godard called him one of the best writers in America) until his death in early 2000.
The same can’t quite be said for some of the other comic-strips to have succeeded in animated form. Some easily outpaced their comics-page counterparts, only serving to remind just how superficial some of those comics were to begin with– the various Garfield cartoons came to life on television in a way that Jim Davis’ strip never approaches thanks to the addition of Lou Rawl’s music and most especially the charmingly deadpan voice of the late Lorenzo Music, such to the point that not even Bill Murray himself could follow in those horrible live-action movies. Aaron McGrudder’s anime-influenced Boondocks series has long-since outpaced the original strip that sired it, at least in terms of his own involvement. Others managed to remain true to their printed sources, but never really reach people on the same level of impact– Berke Breathed’s Bloom County made an honestly charming special centered around Opus the Penguin in A Wish for Wings That Work, but it’s strictly for die-hard fans of the strip, and Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse translated well enough into an animated version that’s sure to please anybody who still remembers the long-running Canadian strip even exists. Plenty of high profile strips have never been turned into animated forms of any kind (Bill Waterson would turn in his grave before he was even buried should Calvin and Hobbes be licensed in any way), and plenty more have been brought to television with so little fanfare it’s a wonder anybody knows about them at all (remember Tales From the Far Side? Or that Dilbert series with Daniel Stern and Kathy Griffin? I didn’t think so).
This only makes the matter of the animated Doonesbury Special even stranger a case study than it already is– written by Trudeau himself, who co-directed alongside the creator of Mr. Magoo, John Hubley (who passed away during the storyboard stage and whose work was finished on the film by his widow, Faith), the 30 minute short doesn’t follow a story so much as it does juggle a series of vignettes that don’t so much feel as though they’re taken verbatim from the strip itself (though I wouldn’t be surprised if I checked my old dog-eared collections and discovered they were) as they feel as if they might’ve been written for the strip, only to be given the extra breathing room of a medium not quite so geared towards constantly delivering a daily punchline. It’s easy to imagine most of the dialogue being contained within 4 panel sequences, to be sure, but the delivery that the voice-actors supply and the naturalness with which Trudeau and the Hubleys provide in the animation allows the characters to feel a little more subdued than they are on the page. Or at least that’s true from the era which the special represents– made midway in the early lifetime of the strip, between its 1971 debut as a nationally syndicated cartoon and its 1983 hiatus, the Doonesbury being animated here is something very different than the strip it would eventually evolve into over the course of the past 30 years.
Some of the differences are relatively minor– the look of the Hubley animation for the most part mimics the simpler illustration style that Trudeau drew with throughout the early years of the strip, although one can see the artist’s work slowly becoming more dynamic in the years following his collaboration with the Hubleys, as though reconcieving his characters for the multiple angles of animation helped him approach his strip with a more cinematic eye for compositions. Differences in tone and themes are much more pronounced, and do a good job of illustrating how much the strip has changed over the decades. The short has a much lighter feeling than modern Doonesbury readers might expect, and handles itself more on a cultural than political edge. Football star and resident conservative BD’s time in Vietnam is handled more as a running punchline than as any serious meditation on the meaning of the war (him volunteering as a soldier to get out of a term paper, apparently). Contrast this with the same character’s time spent in the modern Iraq war, where Trudeau made headlines for a sequence in which the long-running character loses a leg during combat, and even more significantly in the history of the strip, is stripped of his helmet. It’s a treatment of the armed services that would’ve been rather unthinkable in the lazier radicalism of the strip’s early days, where BD was mostly just a square for the various kooks and liberals rounding out the cast to laugh at (with resident stoner Zonker clown there to balance things out), and it illustrates just how much the cartoon and cartoonist alike have grown up since.
That now famous sequence with BD, and the strip’s treatment of wounded veterans since then, have only been one of several creative developments that illustrate the sharp difference in quality from the Doonesbury of old and its more contemporary incarnation. Over the four decades that Trudeau has been working, he’s managed to develop a balanced and economical language of visual weight and precision wordplay that has made the strip not only one of the funniest on the funny pages, but one of the most heartfelt and moving ones, and at times one of the most artistically impressive ones, as well. Following his return to the strip in 1984, Trudeau hit his stride creatively and began taking the strip more seriously in terms of its dramatic and artistic content. Where characters had previously remained eternal collegiates all rooming together in the Walden commune for over a decade, he began to allow them to age realistically, in the same manner as Johnston’s multi-generational For Better or for Worse, forcing himself to tackle the public issues facing them with more gravity. All manner of timely issues found themselves handled with subtlety, sensitivity and aplomb– an early 90′s sequence following a recurring character struggling with AIDS, finally succumbing while listening to the brand-new CD release of Pet Sounds standing out as a high point in the creator’s dexterity with the medium, finding equal time for timely references, emotional closure and frequent, tasteful laughs.
The depth of Trudeau’s creative ambitions throughout the years following the special and his hiatus also puts its early years into sharp focus, especially where some of the more outlandish characters and concepts are concerned. I started reading Doonesbury as a kid during the 90′s, where it was probably at its most open to any youngster only just beginning to manage any understanding of political humor. You didn’t need to know who Newt Gingrich was to laugh at the sight of a floating, talking bomb always on the verge of detonating in heated arguments, and you didn’t need to understand the term “waffling” to find the sight of Bill Clinton personified as a breakfast pastry halfway amusing. So many of the occasional visual gags and detours he took over the decades took on whole lives of their own throughout the strip– the Joe Camel inspired merchandizing spoof of Mr. Butts (who even got his own ironic cartoon anti-smoking ad), the Fantastic Voyage-inspired quest by a rogue journalist to track down Ronald Reagan’s brain, the modern-day fan-fiction exploits of a wannabe anti-terrorist CIA analyst as “The Red Rascal”, and especially the long-running adventures of Uncle Duke, at first nothing more than a superficial Hunter S. Thompson homage who slowly but surely became something of an international soldier of fortune and mercenary criminal mastermind with out-of-this-world exploits as unhinged as his hallucinations. The more pointed and meaningful Trudeau became in his political discourse, the more surreal and visionary his strip became as well, his art blossoming from the near-stick figure simplicity of its early days into beautiful portraits of miniature illustration in his 4-panel sequences, each frame as lushly rendered a piece of pop-art as a Roy Lichtenstein painting, only far more sincere.
This is all what the strip would become, however, and not where it truly was at the time that A Doonesbury Special was made. You can see some of the transitions taking hold– again, it’s interesting to wonder what kind of effect the Hubleys’ animation disciplines had on Trudeau’s evolving career as a cartoonist– but for the most part what we have is a kind of time capsule preserving the character of the strip in its earliest stages, but at the very least the most fully formed expression of that initial phase. What remains most indelible, past all the gimmicky folk-pop sessions with Jimmy Thudpucker or a strained hipster Reverend’s attempt to rock-up a Christmas pageant (complete with arguments as to whether thr Three Wise Men are playing the rhythm or bass sections), is the feeling of generational fatigue and ennui from the boomer set, even this long before they begin to encroach upon middle age. As much as anything, Trudeau had a knowing finger on the pulse of the seeming radical qualities of the 60′s and 70′s, and how quickly those disappointments began to fuel the commercial and political compromises of the 80′s and 90′s, with one-time hippie dreamers settling into lives of yuppie, Republican comfort. Here, long before characters like Mike turn ad-firm sell-outs or West coast dot-com bubble-surfers, you see the beginning seeds of these neurotic frustrations. The nascent creative developments of the strip itself at this early stage feel like a canny match for the characters themselves, human beings as works in progress.
As much as anything else, Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury in its eventual, completed form may stand the test of time as a piece of serialized narrative that can compete with anything polished off by Dickens or Dumas in previous centuries, and his own distinctly cultural and national themes help raise both itself and the medium of comics into a level of importance and eloquence on par with any other creative form. This short managed to win an award at Cannes for best short, and earned an Oscar nomination in animation after its broadcast on NBC, and Trudeau’s own reputation was made on the success of a Pulitzer Prize winning strip illustrating a literal stonewall growing around the Nixon White House. When it’s all finished, the work that Trudeau did here on page and screen may yet deserve the recognition of one of the definitive literary experiments of its time– the great American novel about the last gasp of the American dream.