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Outstripping the News

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G. B. Trudeau
The software giant Bernie discussing the casualties of the Iraq war with his college friend Mike Doonesbury, from a strip that ran on July 10, 2005

Trudeau saw his characters through the AIDS crisis, with the Lacey campaigner Andy Lippincott dying of it in 1989. This is an example of something that seems impossible to bring off in a comic strip, the treatment of sadness with pathos. When Dick, Lacey’s husband the bird-watcher, finally sights a Bachman’s Warbler, he has a massive coronary just before taking its picture. But at the last minute he clicks the shutter, and with his expiring breath sighs “Immortality.” The next strip just shows birds of all kinds flying above his body in a gentle salute. When it comes time for Lacey’s death (after Millicent Fenwick had died), Dick appears to guide her through the passage from life. As the forms dim and then disappear, Dick assures her they are in heaven. Lacey, independent as ever, says, “What hideous drapes.” Dick responds: “Shh! Mrs. God picked them out.”

Most comic strips run out of creative energy after their initial inspiration. Trudeau has just kept improving, year after year, in part because he stays so close to changing events. He still has his ear for the way young people talk through all the varying slang fashions (perhaps helped by his children). At any rate, he has never been better than in the last six years. B.D., who always wore his football helmet when he was not wearing an army helmet in Vietnam, goes to Iraq as an aging National Guard adjunct and his tank is hit by an IED. The strip blacks out, and when he emerges from the darkness, he is seen for the first time without a helmet of some kind—and we find his hair is white at the temples. But that is the least shock—he has also lost a leg. The beloved original character of the strip is tragically maimed.

Trudeau was now facing the supreme test for a comic strip artist. How do you laugh and cry at the same time? B.D. descends into depression and alcoholism, but he is steadied by a funny vet rehab specialist (himself an amputee). Trudeau has now spent years visiting veterans’ hospitals and rehabilitation centers. In 2006, Washington Post reporter Gene Weingarten followed him on these rounds, inside and outside Washington. As always Trudeau has caught the special lingo these men use with each other. Weingarten was uncomfortable at the suffering he saw, but Trudeau was at ease and knew how to put the men at ease.

It was not simply that he knew how to empathize with the veterans. When Weingarten visited Trudeau’s wife, Jane Pauley, she confided that he had her ordeal to help him understand theirs. She had gone through a horrendous period of mental anguish near the same time B.D. was doing so. She described this in her book Skywriting. Only after being diagnosed as bipolar did she get the lithium treatment she needed. She told Weingarten that Trudeau would deny the connection, but “He’s writing about mental illness…. He’ll want to say no, but it’s hard to argue with. Isn’t it?”

While keeping up with his characters on other fronts, Trudeau has stayed with the recovering B.D. and his counselor Elias. B.D.’s wife, the bubble-brained actress Barbara Ann Boopstein (Boopsie), has been forced to grow up as she too lives through B.D.’s ordeal, gaining strength herself as she strengthens him. And as usual, B.D. heals as he helps others heal—including Melissa, a woman soldier raped by her own troops, and then Leo DeLuca (Toggle), a metal rock musician who lost an eye and part of his speech function, with whom the MIT student, Alex, has fallen in love.

Trudeau has always been able to take a situation and develop its possibilities over a long arc. Sometimes this has led to slapstick, as in the antics of Uncle Duke, whose drug seizures make the top of his head flip open to let bats fly out or release Mini-D, who is his Id. Sometimes it has led to gentle mocking of do-gooders, as in some of Lacey Davenport’s polite crusades. But he has never developed a situation more movingly or powerfully than in recent years with his treatment of wounded veterans. A great modern American history course could be taught using this volume of collected strips, stretching from Watergate to Afghanistan.

Letters

Trudeau & Trauma March 10, 2011

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