A Comic Strip That Always Makes Me Laugh


I talk a fair bit about comic strips. Sometimes it’s over on my mathematics blog, where there’s a fresh batch of mathematically-themed strips. Here, it’s mostly about ones that have failed. They’re stuffed with joke-like constructs or weak art. Or they fail so completely they turn into weird outsider-art projects. Here’s an exception. It’s from Garry Trudeau, whose Doonesbury defined the genre of story-driven editorial cartoons superlatively well. Many strips try to imitate it, for good reason. It does incredibly well at humanizing big issues, at finding the politics in everyday life, at supporting a diverse and ever-increasing cast, and at keeping many storylines going.

Or it has. For several years now, the strip has been a Sunday-only publication. Trudeau’s been putting his main creative thrust into making the Amazon-distributed TV series Alpha House, about which I’ve heard good things. That’s mostly sad for the comics page, although some compensation for that has been the Classic Doonesbury run of reprints. This has been skipping through the years and bringing back important storylines. It’s also given people a chance to find out the backstory, intricate and tangled enough that Dickens would say “that seems a little much”, albeit in more words.

So here’s a strip from 1985, when Mike Doonesbury was still married to JJ. She had just got her first big break as a modern artist, doing the bathrooms of some guy’s new club. That’s already a fine premise, with admirably loopy moments like JJ pondering the downsides. “A downside? To painting a total stranger’s toilets for free?” And here it escalates.

JJ explains her concept for a nightclub's men's room. 'The urinals need a concept?' wonders Mike. 'I'm installing them in old TV's like this. It will compel the user to come to terms with his feelings about mass culture!' 'JJ, as a long-time user ... ' 'And to make the experience more theatrical, I'm filling them with dry ice.'
Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury rerun the 11th of February, 2016. It ran originally sometime in 1985.

I do not know how many times I’ve read this particular strip since 1985. I can tell you that it never fails to make me laugh. It has everything. It starts with the serious treatment of the silly, and the spoofing of modern art (a target of comic strips ever since comic strips were something), throws in the clash between the mundane and the conceptual, and then if the dialogue weren’t funny enough throws in physical comedy and dry ice. Characters, dialogue, and art converge magnificently. Would that every comic strip were written to this level.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

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