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Doonesbury dossier: the Reagan years.

A few months ago, Tuesday's Sciences section of The New York Times ran an article about the naked mole rat, a species of rodent which creates a beehivelike society, complete with a queen, sexless drones--the works--and is the only mammal known to do so. Until that mole rats. Imagine my surprise, then, when a day or so later I put on the television to discover a feature about naked mole rats. I suddenly realized I was witnessing the beginning of a naked-mole-rat media blitz. As one of only a handful of American cartoonists who never cashed in on the cat craze I was determined not to miss the mole-rat boat. Never mind that naked mole rats were not cuddly and lovable, I devised some naked-mole-rat cartoons and went looking for a publisher. But I was unable to find one who shared my conviction that the country was soon to be inundated with mole-rat material and that we had all better get in on it. "Two blats don't make a blitz," is the way one man put it, and I guess he was right.

The Doonsebury phenomenon, however, is another matter. G.B. Trudeau's Doonesbury Dossier: The Reagan Years is the twenty-ninth Doonsebury book. The comic strip is reappearing in some 800 newspapers after a recess during which Trudeau wrote a couple of screenplays and a Broadway muscial. The strip's return is heralded on the cover of Life, with eight pages of color inside. Along the way, Trudeau has managed to pick up a Pulitzer Prize or two. His is a success story tailor-made for vengeful ex-wives of more indolent cartoonists.

Of course the worst part is that Trudeau is so good. The Reagan Years may be the most entertaining and lucid chronicle of the present era we have. And though it has been put together out of 580-odd daily and Sunday comic strips it reads as smoothly as a novel, and its characters exhibit far greater realism than we have come to expect from the funnies. The book has everything: the Reagan story, to be sure, but also Jane Fonda, the Gang of Four, John DeLorean, the Falklands business, what to eat at a corporate takeover, birdwatching, how foreign correspondents get their laundry done and the only amniocentesis jokes to be encountered anywhere. Trudeau is funny: visitors to a recuperating Henry Kissinger ask, "Did your whole life flash before your eyes?" "No," says Kissinger, "only 1968 to 1975. The historic years." Reagan at a press conference: "I have here a special envelope containing documentation proving that 9 of my last 14 misstatements had a grain of truth to them." Trudeau is consistently able to wring chuckles out of the horrors of our time: "Not a bad piece of programming, Bern," says Mark to Bernie the Genius as the Walden War Games climax on the video screen. "Thanks," says Bernie, "I was up all night getting the little houses to blow down."

Considered for his drawing alone, Trudeau is astonishing. His not-quite-minimalist technique, in which a single drawing is repeated several times with only minor changes, approximates the method and effect of film animation. The eye moves effortlessly from panel to panel--the predominance of the text is never in doubt--and yet the characters one sees are quite lively, rendered in a clean, simple, but agreeably quirky style. The characters one doesn't see--ah, how does the man do it?--al the name characters, the Reagans, Kissingers et al., are heard in the strip only off-camera, as it were. Yet they are overwhelmingly there. Who needs another ugly caricature of Reagan, Trudeau seems to be saying, and I would be tempted to agree were not my own livelihood dependent on the endless elaboration of the convolutions of Presidential chin flab.

Incidentally, Trudeau's trademark--the little blob of black shadow under every eye--seems to have been adopted by Walter Mondale. In the cartoon it makes everybody look happily Doonesburyesque, but it only makes Walter look tired. He should leave it to Trudeau.
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Author:Grossman, Robert
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 27, 1984
Words:667
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