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Who Reads Doonesbury (Anymore)?

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It gives me no pleasure to ask this, but who still reads Doonesbury?

Do you? When did you stop?

Does the strip, which is said to be running in around 1500 newspapers, still matter?

It used to be essential. In its golden age beginning in the Watergate era, the strips and the popular books of reprints reported the edgy, satirical side of the news at a time when cable was something that held up bridges and Jon Stewart was playing French horn in high school. As the years went on, newspapers would regularly censor or pull installments, move the feature off of the comics pages and run news reports about controversies caused by the strip's attacks on powerful people.

When Garry Trudeau created the strip as a student at Yale in the late 1960s he, like most college students, felt that college life, dormitory culture and youthful rebellion were the intellectual centers of the universe. By the mid-eighties, Trudeau found himself chafing at the Walden College construct and took a 22 month hiatus. When he returned to the strip, his characters had graduated, entered the workforce, started families and even started aging, (albeit in cartoon, as opposed to real time). Many readers felt that this was the watershed moment, when Doonesbury went downhill, "jumped the shark," and stopped being funny.

But the truth is not that simple. Although Trudeau's focus shifted from Washington scandals to the inner lives of his characters, he was still inspired by tasty targets like Dan Quayle, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. Then came the Iraq war, and Garry Trudeau got pissed.

The horror, stupidity and destruction of the invasion of Iraq motivated him to take up the cause of returning soldiers, especially wounded, traumatized and marginalized ones. He introduced a storyline where his football hero character B.D. lost a leg in a rocket attack near Fallujah, and began a long narrative that continues to this day amplifying the experience of veterans.

As the Washington Post wrote in 2006,

In what Trudeau calls a "rolling experiment in naturalism," he has managed every few weeks to spoon out a story of war, loss and psychological turmoil in four-panel episodes, each with a crisp punch line.

But the punch lines have, in recent years, grown less crisp and the "rolling naturalism" has tumbled away from the satire that made Doonesbury the only comic strip many people (well, me) once made a point of reading. Maybe Garry Trudeau has outlasted his ability to defy George S. Kaufman's famous dictum that "satire is what closes Saturday night." But now that the strip is a web presence and tchotchke selling brand it's lost focus, bite and bark.

Nor is it always interesting. I have a pretty decent attention span. I've read books over 500 pages long. But I often find myself getting bored halfway through a four-panel Doonesbury strip and giving up before reaching the end.

Many great artists have tired of what made them famous in their youth and gone on to other challenges, even if it meant alienating audiences. From the Beatles to Harry Potter, we've learned to live without some of our favorite cultural icons. Including, it should be mentioned, other formerly "must-read" comic strips like Bloom County and The Far Side(which also live on as web presences and commercial brands).

Garry Trudeau should, of course, be free to continue Doonesbury as a daily strip as long as he wants to. If he gives up the space, no doubt Glenn Beck or Bono will take up cartooning. But Garry, isn't there a novel you've always wanted to write? Screenplays? Maybe a Senate run?

Comments, anyone? Doonesbury -- should it stay or should it go?