Friday, August 17, 2007

Reprint This! 8. Doonesbury

Reprint This! is a periodic feature where I talk about some out-of-print comic book gems that are not available in collected form for readers to enjoy. This is hoping to let rights owners know that, yes, readers are out here, and we'd like to buy the things we can't get at this time!

Despite such an enormous variety of books available these days, and genuine efforts to present the material in reasonably-priced, archival volumes, there are still countless fabulous series from the US, Britain and Japan which are overdue for new editions. I've selected two dozen titles which should be on bookshelves, but at this time are not.

One gem which isn't actually missing but is very poorly served in bookshelf format is DOONESBURY by Garry Trudeau. Almost all of the strips have been reprinted at one time or another, and are available on CD-ROMs and in the archives of the website, but much of the material is no longer available in print editions. That which can be tracked down is in a variety of formats and sizes, begging for a consistent design and approach.

Doonesbury began its run as a syndicated strip in October, 1970. Within four years, it had won a Pulitzer Prize and introduced a gigantic cast of fascinating and funny characters. Well, mostly; Doonesbury may be second only to Peanuts as my all-time favorite comic strip, but my eyes certainly glaze over whenever Zeke and Mike's damnable ex-wife show up.

I think that Doonesbury is one of those strips that you either love absolutely or you just don't get it. At the time of this writing, Uncle Duke is the central character in a story about "Berzerkistan," and it's the first thing I look at when I get to my desk at work. I've been totally taken in by the characters and their world since I discovered The Doonesbury Chronicles collection when I was in middle school. It was through Trudeau's eyes that I first started paying attention to news and politics. Frankly, I don't know how anybody can make any sense of our government in the 1970s without Doonesbury to help them out. (And more on making sense of the 70s in a forthcoming feature...)

The problem, apart from simply getting the material back in print in a good, consistent format, is that so much of Doonesbury's current events focus is hardwired to its time that future readers could use some annotations and commentary along with the old strips. Heck, even current readers looking back at the books of the 1980s may not remember what the fuss was with USA Today's graphics-heavy content, or why some of the principals stand around a desolate tree for a week waiting for Mario Cuomo to show up. Twenty years from now, will Dick Cheney's bizarre notion of government having more than three branches be as lost to time?

I don't believe that Doonesbury is nearly as impenetrable as some of its critics make out, and the incredibly reader-friendly website is full of helpful FAQs and example strips to refresh readers' memories about the continuity of the strip itself. All that's needed is a fresh approach to the bookshelf format, consistent design and annotations. Previous Doonesbury editions have been handled by Holt, Rinehart & Wilson, but these mass-market efforts have been done with such a slipshod approach that maybe somebody different should take over. Fantagraphics has done such an amazing job repackaging Peanuts, Dennis the Menace and Love & Rockets recently that everybody is confident their forthcoming collection of Pogo will be unmissable, sight unseen. If anybody should be in charge of restoring Doonesbury to bookshelves, it's Fantagraphics. Or possibly Drawn & Quarterly. Either way, thirty-five years of brilliant strip cartooning needs to be given much better treatment than it has, and there are far better options out there than the one that's been in place. So how about it, Trudeau?

(Originally posted August 17, 2007, 05:55 at hipsterdad's livejournal.)

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