Can someone tell me just how old the main characters in Doonesbury are supposed to be?
I know that when they started out they were the same age as Garry Trudeau. But I didn't think they'd aged at all during the 70s and early 80s. When Trudeau came back from his extended vacation---he was gone for, what? Two years? About that.---he re-started the strip with the gang having graduated, Mike married to JJ, BD warming the bench for the Rams, Boopsie in Hollywood (Third Girl in Shower in Porky's 5), Mark on the road to coming out, and Zonker...still Zonker. Since we know that they spent more time in college than the usual 4 years (although there were hints, I think, that Mike did some graduate work), I figured they were in now in their middle 20s or so. From that point on, Trudeau seemed to be letting them age at something close to real time.
That would put them in their mid-forties. Boopsie and JJ might be a bit younger. BD must be a little older because his tour in Nam is still on his resume---and, sadly, there are 50 something reservists fighting and dying over in Iraq, probably much to their surprise, although it's no sadder than the fact that there are 19 year old recruits fighting and dying over there and they're probably just as surprised by it too.
Some of the characters have traveled through time at different rates. Joanie Caucus should be about 70 now, but Trudeau seems to be keeping her in her late 50s, although he did one strip last year in which she was suddenly ready for Social Security.
Every now and then Trudeau plays with my head like that.
He did it in today's strip.
(Right click to see the strip enlarged.)
Unless Zonk and Mike are talking about their junior high school days, revealing things they know about each other from conversations they had after they met in college, the cultural references---lava lamps, granny dresses, daisy stickers on the VW---put them at Walden in the early 70s, don't they? Which would mean they are in their early to mid-50s.
This is unimportant except that because I identify so closely with the characters it was a bit of a shock to suddenly find myself a whole lot older in one bound. Trudeau ended his hiatus at about the time I was finishing up graduate school and that meant that Mike, Zonk, BD and the rest were being launched out into the real world at the same time I and all my friends were. For about the next ten years Doonesbury was the vicarious chronicle of my life and times.
For the record, though, the character I identify most strongly with is Rick Redfern. That's because, even though he's older than I am, we look alike. Or we did until I shaved my beard. I'm hoping his problems relating to his son Jeff aren't a preview of my own soon to arrive time as the father of a teenage boy.
Some time in the 90s the strip lost its focus. It became more reactive to events. Instead of living in the times and having current events and fads pop up naturally as part of the characters' normal comings and goings, Trudeau was writing about the events and fads and using his characters as props and background. I'm not one of those former fans who think the strip went totally south. I continued to enjoy and admire it after that change. But something went out of it, the quality that compelled me to buy all the collections as they came out and then pore over them again and again, re-reading them the way I do Dickens and (a wink here to the Siren) John Mortimer's Rumpole stories.
And that quality is I think a novelistic one.
Of course Trudeau owes a lot to Walt Kelly and Al Capp and Charles Schultz---there's a running tribute to Peanuts in the character of Duke's loyal traveling companion, Honey. Honey is Marcie grown up. Same hair style, same round glasses with blank lenses, same devotion to a character less intelligent and less good-hearted---although obviously I'm not suggesting Peppermint Patty is as morally degenerate as Duke, she is rather ethically challenged for a 9 year old and doesn't hold herself to the highest standards of behavior and it's often up to Marcie to rebuke her and bring her back into line, which makes her the same voice of conscience as Honey is to Duke---the same habit of calling the object of devotion "Sir."
But I really believe that when looking for parallels to what Trudeau was up to in Doonesbury up until the mid to late 90s you should look up from the funny papers and over at your bookshelf and think Anthony, as in Trollope and Powell.
Trudeau was writing a series of satirical novels. Or a series of satirical graphic novels, if you prefer.
I'm not sure exactly when that quality dropped away. But it did drop away and for a long time Trudeau seemed to be drifting, not uninspired but not on fire, and I began to suspect that he was going to take another prolonged vacation or even retire.
Things perked up, though, when Alex Doonesbury entered puberty. She ceased being a foil to Mike and turned into a full-fledged character and whenever Trudeau picked up the doings at the Doonesbury house a real sense of story returned to the strip. (But what's up with Mike and Kim? Why is she invisible? He has far more of a relationship with JJ.) I began to look forward to the day when he sent Alex off to college where he could surround her with a new cast of supporting characters and turn the strip over to her and them, the Doonesbury of Doonesbury being Alex from then on, not Mike.
But that's still in the future. Something else has happened in the last year that brought the strip back to life in the way it was alive in the 70s and 80s.
BD went to Iraq.
Some time ago BD and Boopsie became the hero and heroine of Doonesbury.
I think the process began at around the time Hunk Ra made his first appearance.
BD's tour of duty in the Gulf War pushed things along.
When Zonker became their nanny the ground was cleared.
But I think that the switch was completed when he was hired as Walden College's football coach. BD became the only one of the strip's original characters to become a full-fledged adult.
Then he went to Iraq.
Now he's home.
Most of him.
BD used to be the house Republican and Gary Trudeau used to use him to take easy shots at conservatives. Once he started letting real life political figures into the strip and expanded his cast of characters way beyond the original denizens of Walden Commune to include...well, the whole world, BD wasn't needed as a target and his political views ceased to matter to his storylines, except as subtext. Trudeau never elaborated but when Boopsie got to Hollywood BD's conservativism must have undergone some weird transmutations in order for him to remain a good Republican and still give Boopsie his unwavering support. BD accepted Hunk Ra into their family with the same uneasy tolerance with which he's always accepted Zonker.
But we know he's never drifted very far to the left. He probably hated Clinton and voted for W. in 2000. This year was problematical, but I'm guessing he was too busy with his physical therapy to pay any attention to the election. I suspect that the strip is headed towards a showdown between BD and his own conservativism over the way the administration's been cruely neglectful of the soldiers it sent to cakewalk through Iraq. Whatever happens, though, he will never become a liberal.
He will never share Garry Trudeau's own politics. And yet he is clearly Trudeau's hero.
Take that, Mallard Fillmore.