Friday, March 11, 2005

COMICS: Doonesbury and the Duke

Pop will eat itself. So this week's "Doonesbury" strips by Garry Trudeau feature the odd spectacle of a fictional creation paying homage to the suicide of the real character who inspired him. Of course, I'm talking about Duke, taking on the bullet-propelled farewell of Hunter S. Thompson. The whole week's worth of strips to date can be found here at the official site and I encourage you taking a look.

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Strip absolutely and 100% copyright all those people it's supposed to be copyrighted to.

The sequence this week has the uneasy feel of a satirist trying to be sincere, and it doesn't really work. A shame, because "Doonesbury," going for about 79 years now, has been on a high lately, with the great sequence about longtime character B.D.'s wounding and leg amputation in Iraq.

But this week, Trudeau stumbles, clumsily mixing Ralph Steadman-type art with the wacky character of Duke, who has long since grown far, far away from the inspiration of Thompson back in the '70s. The last few decades, Duke has mostly been a kind of penny-ante dictator in various American-occupied territories, from Kuwait to Samoa to China, a kind of highly exaggerated and malicious parody of the American id, all greed, decadence and lust for power. Originally, Duke was actually a Rolling Stone writer with crazy drug habits, much like Thompson (who reportedly absolutely loathed Trudeau's take on him). But just like "Cerebus" started as a Conan homage and ended up worlds away, so has Duke in the "Doonesbury" realm.

Suddenly having him addressing the death of his "maker" is a stretch, even for a strip that often breaks the fourth wall. It doesn't really work at all for me; the sensible thing to do would have been either to ignore it, or "retire" Duke (who for me has always been one of the less interesting, more one-noted "Doonesbury" characters anyway). Retiring Duke isn't really an option, so I guess Trudeau felt he had to tackle it. Pretty much a no-win situation for him, and a speed bump in the strip's usually successful journey. Both Thompson and Duke probably deserved better.

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