book Planet Doonesbury

reviewed by Rachel Barenblat

Published in Issue No. 24 ~ May, 1999

I’ll admit it: I’m a Doonesbury addict.

It started simple, the way most addictions do. I wasn’t remotely interested in traditional-style comics, the kind drawn in strips, the kind newspapers carry. I was a proud inductee in the world of the graphic novel: the mythological, surreal brilliance of Neil Gaiman’s

, the deliciously complex alternate world of Dave Sims’
, the brooding darkness of masterpieces like Alan Moore’s


I was too cool for comic strips, and I knew it. Which is why I wasn’t concerned when my husband came home a while back with two thin Doonesbury books from a library sale. Doonesbury, I dimly remembered from childhood newspaper-glancing, involved characters with sharp noses, lots of words, and people with names like Zonker and Boopsie. I would never really read anything with a character named Boopsie.

What hubris! What foolishness to think that I could resist the power of Garry Trudeau’s ascerbic pen! These days I eat those words, gladly; and then I eat Doonesbury, as fast and often as I can. Which is why I’m so delighted about Planet Doonesbury, Trudeau’s most recent Doonesbury book.

Plot developments in Planet Doonesbury are many and varied. B.D. goes back to Vietnam (for those who don’t recall, B.D. is perhaps the nation’s one vet who actually liked Vietnam; he enlisted in the army to avoid writing a term paper) to find closure on his wartime experiences and runs into his favorite Communist, Phred (“Where’s my favorite running dog?” Phred calls upon entering a bar where B.D. is listening to Jimmy Thudpucker, failed American folk star, who’s made it big in postwar Asia).

Mike falls head over heels in love with Kim, a beautiful young computer programmer that he supervises, and then has to fire her. (Remember that “last Vietnamese war orphan” that came to the United States, many years and many strips ago? That’s Kim.) Meanwhile, across town, his ex-wife J.J. has become the Sheet Metal Goddess of Greater Seattle and is making giant metal sculptures for everybody who’s anybody – she even sends a childcare check to Mike. (“Incredible. A total dis,” Kim comments. “I’ll never cash it,” Mike vows in response.)

And that’s not all: Marvelous Mark Slackmeyer finds true love at last, and Duke is hired to do some dirty work for Donald Trump. (Whose comments grace the book’s cover, as it happens; “Trudeau is a jerk,” Trump says. “A total loser. A pathetic moron. A third-rate talent.” How can one not buy a book that’s so lavishly praised?)

Because I started reading Doonesbury with a few randomly-selected old paperbacks, and graduated almost immediately to What A Long, Strange Strip it’s Been (a 25-year retrospective, a kind of Doonesbury greatest-hits, with commentary and random details in the margins, published in 1995) and Planet Doonesbury, I’ve been learning some things in the wrong order. I knew, for instance, that J.J. was Joanie Caucus’s daughter – but I didn’t realize her initials stood for “Joan, Junior” until last week. I knew J.J. started dating some guy named Zeke after she broke up with Mike, but I didn’t realize Zeke had been her high school boyfriend, too. Things like that.

One of the great things about Doonesbury, though, is that you can dive in at any point and its world makes sense almost immediately because it’s so comprehensible and so (terrifyingly) similar to our own. Which means that even if you’re not up on the last twenty-five-plus years of the Trudeau’s oeuvre, you can pick up Planet Doonesbury and be right at home in minutes.

It’s also a great political education. I know more about the Reagan years now than I ever dreamed possible, thanks to Trudeau’s multitudinous Reagan strips (especially the ones where an intrepid reporter goes on safari into Reagan’s disastrous brain). Ditto for the Gulf War. Ditto, oddly, for Whitewater, which I never managed to make sense of on the daily news.

The best thing about Trudeau’s political wit is that no one is immune from it. Newt Gingrich is portrayed as a floating bomb (lit and sparking); Bill Clinton is portrayed as a floating waffle. Trudeau takes shots at liberal parents and conspiracy buffs alike.

Let’s not mince words: I think Trudeau is a genius. It’s no wonder he was the first cartoonist to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He’s a satirist of the calibre of Swift, say, or Twain. And he’s side-splittingly funny. Even when you’ve read the strips five, ten, a hundred times.

If you want a quick fix of Doonesbury, get thee to the Doonesbury Town Hall at
. You can get a “daily dose” of the strip. It’s two weeks old, but if your local paper doesn’t carry it, this is a great way to follow what he’s doing now. (At the time of this writing, a hilarious set of strips about Jesse “The Body” Ventura hiring Duke to get rid of Garrison Keilor. “It turns out he’s a national treasure,” Honey cautions).

You can also take “Mike’s Kwik Kwiz” of Doonesbury trivia, learn about the entire cast of Doonesbury characters, see Trudeau’s answers to reader questions, and – best of all – search the entire archive of ten thousand-plus Doonesbury comic strips for anything you want. Want every strip involving Andy Lippincott and answering machines? Vice-President Quayle and Annie Hall? Vietnam and cheerleaders and oregano plants? No problem. (It’s actually kind of staggering.)

I’m proud to be a Doonesbury freak. It’s my goal to collect every one of the Doonesbury books in existence, and I’m well on my way; our collection fills a good piece of a bookshelf now. Of course, Trudeau is still churning them out, so I may never catch up – but I’m willing to take that risk. And Planet Doonesbury is a fine, fine addition to the Doonesbury sphere. Give it a whirl – chances are, whether you’re Democrat or Republican, geek girl or baby boomer, you’ll find something of yourself in its pages.

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Rachel Barenblat is co-founder of Inkberry, a literary organization in the Berkshires. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. A chapbook of her poems, the skies here, was published by Pecan Grove Press (San Antonio) in 1995. Learn more at