June 18, 2002

JESSE WALKER writes that Doonesbury is turning into Li’l Abner. Yeah, reading Doonesbury (when I bother) makes me respect Berke Breathed, Gary Larson, and Bill Watterson for quitting before they descended into self-caricature, even though I miss them.

Personally, I don’t think that Doonesbury was ever as good after Trudeau took his extended hiatus. He lost his groove, and he never got it back. Walker says it’s because he’s old:

Trudeau’s career arc mirrors the evolution of baby-boom liberalism, from the anti-authoritarian skepticism of the 1970s to the smug paternalism of the Clinton years. In 1972 the strip was engaged with the world; in 2002 it is engaged with itself. . . .

But the biggest change is political. There was a libertarian streak to ’70s liberalism: Disillusioned by Watergate and Vietnam, invigorated by the rebellions of the ’60s, it was socially tolerant, supportive of civil liberties, suspicious of executive power, ready to investigate and dismantle the national security state, and even open to deregulation when it was presented in populist garb. (Few remember that it was Ted Kennedy and Ralph Nader, not Ronald Reagan, who pushed through airline deregulation.) Needless to say, this current quickly disappeared — banished from the Democratic mainstream by the ’80s, its last gasp in that party was Jerry Brown’s presidential campaign of 1992.

Yeah. As Walker also points out, the strip used to be about college-age people. Now when college-age people appear, it’s so Trudeau can riff on how much cooler his generation was when it was that age.

But it’s not just the years: it’s the mileage. There’s only so long anyone can be cutting-edge clever before descending into pomposity and irrelevance. I miss The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes and Bloom County — but I respect their creators for quitting before that happened.

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