Blogs > Cliopatria > B.D.'s Helmet is Off

Apr 22, 2004 7:40 pm

B.D.'s Helmet is Off

Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury is one of the longest-running and most fascinating comic strips in existence. It's also one of my favorites, I'll be honest: I wouldn't subscribe to a newspaper that didn't carry it. His characters age and change, though slowly, and interact with reality. His political commentary is consistently liberal, but not radical. And he sometimes does things that aren't funny at all, but which are nonetheless powerful because of the care and continuity of the stories.

He has killed a few characters over the years, which in itself sets him apart from so much mainstream culture. Congresswoman Lacey (a gentle soul, a decent Republican, and an honest politician), and her bird-watching husband, for example, and a character who died of AIDS. These are not throwaway characters (like the Original Star Trek security officers whose presence on a mission seemed nearly always fatal) or story lines of random death just to explore grief, but events shaped by reality, well integrated into the characters' lives and the lives of other characters. Death is a real presence in the strip, just as it is in our lives: not a constant dramatic danger, but a fact of life.

Now he has done it again. The B.D. character has been with the strip since its beginnings, an honorable and patriotic man. B.D. always wears a helmet. In college it was a football helmet, and that's still what he wears when he's at home sometimes. In Vietnam, of course, he wore a combat helmet. In his civilian life, he worked as a member of the California Highway Patrol, with their distinctive headgear, and he's a National Guardsman, recently called up and serving in Iraq. But today the helmet came off. His hair is short, of course, a little grey around the sides, and a there's a little"hat head" muss to it.

Why? Why change an icon? Because B.D., like so many of our real troops, has been wounded: the helmet was removed by medics providing field aid and prepping him for medevac transport. In fact, B.D. joins thousands of US service personnel who have been permanently scarred by our failure to plan for peace: the final panel, which shows his hair for the first time, also shows his leg as a bandaged stump.

It's not funny: it's very sad. Sure, it's a little silly to be so affected, as I am, by this fiction. But that's what great fiction does: it makes things real. B.D. is a representative of many very real people. Many who don't personally know anyone in Iraq know this character. Many people who do know someone, or who are in Iraq, see B.D. as a surrogate, a representative. And his helmet has been a symbol of his constant service, which is offered by so many real people and which was honored by its presence in this long story. And it's sad to see that lost.

I don't think B.D. is going to die: he seems to be in good hands (though we will probably see some very pointed commentary on the state of military and veterans' hospitals in the near future). But he'll never be the same. Neither will we, loyal readers or loyal Americans, ever be the same.

Update: Ralph Luker found this:

"The Journal-Advocate," of Sterling, Colorado,"has chosen not to publish this week's Doonesbury in the paper because of the graphic, violent battlefield depictions of Iraq in this week's installment. The Doonesbury comic strip for this week is available to our subscribers at the front counter, or by fax, mail or e-mail, if requested. We will resume printing Doonesbury in the paper when the content is deemed suitable for publication in the Journal-Advocate."
Several other newspapers are reportedly concerned about the language B.D. will use when he comes out from under anesthesia and realizes that his leg is gone. And I'm not the only person who feels this way about B.D., either: pisher, at Daily Kos, is probably more typical of a Doonesbury fan who views B.D. as fundamentally wrong, but nonetheless felt his loss as keenly. Oh, and I forgot"Walden College football coach" on B.D.'s civilian resume. Here's commentary by a lot of strip fans (and the odd critic).

Update #2: NPR also had a commentary on B.D.'s injury, which says pretty much the same things I did. I'm pretty typical in my reaction, apparently.

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Name Removed at Poster's Request - 4/26/2004

Yep, you're a RINO, Richard, admit it.....
(heh, sorry)

From what I've read, there is no basis in relevant 18th or 19th century writings (court cases, laws or indication of legislative intent) for the prohibitionist view. To what degree regulation is allowed is certainly open to question.

The Pink Pistols tend to be more libertarian than most gun rights groups, but in my experience they are still mostly people of the Right. Even so, they're very accepting, making very clear from the beginning that straight people are totally welcome. (The group was started in part by people who were not only gay but also into the B&D scene, so they are very big on not condemning or excluding people, and are very laissez faire.)

BTW, I'm not a member, just belong to its politics email list, not even to its main list. Here's the URL:

Richard Henry Morgan - 4/25/2004

Yeah, I'm familiar with a group called the Pink Pistols -- they've decided that, convenient as it might be for the government that they be victims, they have chosen not to accomodate that wish. I'm not sure, however, that there is such a thing as a right to a gun (the Second Amendment seems deliciously ambiguous -- I am sure, though, that an honest attempt at scholarship in the area can't dismiss either side as yahoos). And what does it say that I'm a Far Side fan, which doesn't seem to break either way politically? My God, maybe I'm as wishy-washy (or as the NY Times would say, "nuanced") as Kerry?

Name Removed at Poster's Request - 4/25/2004

Don't count me back yet, Jonathan. I've read the last two weeks on ucomics:
and I'm having the same problem with some of the strips that I've had with most of Doonesbury: I don't identify with or particularly like some of the characters and they don't interest me enough to get over that, and some of the humor just doesn't tickle my funnybone. However, the sequence with BD losing his leg seems like classic Doonesbury, if the situation is much darker than what I remember Trudeau serving up during what I thought were the best years of his strip. I said I'll give the strip a chance, and I will. I haven't read enough of it yet to really get a feel for it, given its large number of characters.

One of my favorite strips, which is written in a highly intelligent manner, and I think would appeal to many though not all educated people, is called Dykes to Watch Out For, about a group of lesbians and their friends and loved ones in a liberal city somewhere in the U.S. (Creator Alison Bechdel says it's based on the Minneapolis lesbian community.) Characterization is strong and the strip is very well-written. It is basically a longterm soap opera (in the good sense) and takes a while to get into. It has an online version, but it looks better in print (usually in local gay newspapers) and is also sold in compilations. If it matters, DTWOF has two academic characters, Ginger and Sydney:

Since disclosure is the fashion these days, I'm a web comic and comic book fan who hits my local story once a week when new books are out.

BTW, I know where you're coming from on Star Trek, Jonathan. I followed DS9 and Voyager, even with their problems, but never got into Enterprise, which looked like a cheaply made version of Voyager, with less imaginative plot lines.

Name Removed at Poster's Request - 4/25/2004

As far as alien cultures, being a leftwing SF Bay Area gay guy in the gun rights movement has been good for a lot of interesting moments.

Richard Henry Morgan - 4/23/2004

Well, Ok, one can argue these things. There's an article on Doonebury over at Reason that captures something of what I feel.

The other thing is the feeling of having walked into an alien culture. I had a similar feeling when I walked into MI years ago, and found so many there interested in science fiction. And again, at a meeting where the right wing was well-represented, the very mention of Reagan brought tears to many eyes -- I thought I was going to laugh. And now this.

Ophelia Benson - 4/23/2004

Yep. I did say I'd stopped following it closely, and for a good many years. But I still feel a kind of loyalty to it. Odd, isn't it...

Ophelia Benson - 4/23/2004

Oh dear. I've been trying and trying to make the case for disputandum at B&W - but I'm losing the battle.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/23/2004

My respect for Trudeau's work is not worship. He does strips I don't care for, and has characters (like Duke and Honey) whose amusement and enlightenment value comes and goes more than others. I agree that audience loyalty is not a right (and after being abused for years by ST: Voyager [which only got worse after Seven was dropped in] and ST:DS9's deeply unimaginative fluff [two whole seasons could be deleted], we've stopped watching Enterprise entirely).

Very few artists achieve uniform greatness, particularly working under the kind of pressures of constant production of a daily strip. But some, like Trudeau, earn the benefit of the doubt. Welcome back.

Name Removed at Poster's Request - 4/23/2004

I feel like I've stepped into an alternate universe by reading the responses on this page and in Jonathan's fan commentary link. I didn't know there were so many fans of Doonesbury back to when the strip started!

I loved the strip during its first few years, but felt Trudeau lost his sense of humor after that, and I know I'm not alone based on letters to the editor of our local paper that carried the strip (the San Francisco Chronicle). I admire Trudeau for taking on Frank Sinatra, and getting his strips censored by the Chron (and other papers?) when Sinatra made legal threats, but that wasn't enough to get me back into following the strip.

I'm definitely not a loyalist. I dropped Peanuts in the 1970s when Schultz focused on peripheral characters that I didn't like, and I don't worship every movie Woody Allen ever made (I especially enjoyed hating the 80s yuppiefest Hannah and Her Sisters, bu am more than happy to disagree with those who couldn't handle Crimes and Misdemeanors). Creators certainly have the right to grow, change and do different work, but they don't have a right to audience loyalty.

Having said all that, I'm wowed by the reaction that BD's injury has gotten from Doonesbury's fans. Trudeau may be a powerful writer. Anyway, I've bookmarked his strip into my folder of daily webcomics and will check it out for a while. Thank you all for pointing me in that direction.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/23/2004

Don't get me wrong: 50s-60s Rock&Roll was fantastic music, still is. And I'm a big fan of country music, starting with American folk/traditional, bluegrass, blues and even some mainstream country, from Hank Williams to Garth Brooks (the inclusion of "Achy-Breaky Heart" on the recent list of "worst songs of all time" is prime evidence of the complete lack of a sense of humor or fun or pleasure among our most vocal cultural arbiters.) Great sounds, great feel. Even flashes of humor or reality which is sadly lacking in most pop music.

But the evolution of country music, the whole genre, into something which already existed and was passed on is an odd phenomenon. Perhaps it's just recognition that a big portion of the population didn't want to move on into 70s-80s rock, and that's fine and country came and filled the gap. But there's something about it which seems to go in circles, and there's an increasingly generic feel to the music being produced which is just not all that interesting.

Richard Henry Morgan - 4/23/2004

de gustibus ...

Ralph E. Luker - 4/23/2004

Richard, Trudeau is not even intended to be laugh out loud, split your sides, funny. As with this piece on B. D., however, he often touches a very responsive public chord. I think that he is surely among our best cartoonists and has been for a long time.

Richard Henry Morgan - 4/23/2004

The funniest thing I ever found about Trudeau is how he was taken in by the Leverstein Presidential IQ Hoax, and how he was so graceless afterward. I admire his wife, though.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/22/2004

This seems about right to me, Jonathan. Although I'm not familiar with some of your other examples, Spiegleman and Trudeau seem to me to be pretty sophisticated practioners of their art. As a lover of 50s-60s rock&roll and a devoted contemporary country dancer, I'm still mulling over your generic dismissal of what I have to dance to. I _can_ tell you that about 10 minutes of clogging gives me a pretty thorough workout, but that's a different issue.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/22/2004

Yeah, you have to be careful what you write, because you never know who's going to read it.

I admit that I came to graphic novels from an interest in superheroes. But then I discovered that some of them are written by really good writers: Neil Gaiman being my personal favorite, but there are others who are considered leaders, like Art Spiegelman (of "Maus" fame) and Will Eisner (who is in the "boy, I wish I had more time and money" category). As in any art form, there's variation in quality and there's some experimentation for the sake of being different, and of course the "edgy" sex&violence crowd has it's say. But there's stuff out there worth the intellectual effort.

I've tried very hard not to sneer at forms, but at individual failures of forms, though sometimes a genre just seems to run its course (modern country, for example, which seems to be 50s-60s rock&roll with accents, and a little fiddle and dobro thrown in) and go nowhere for a while.

Ophelia Benson - 4/22/2004

Ah, very sly, Jonathan: you've been reading the discussion of 'elitist' pop culture critics and whether aesthetic values are mere handwaving at B&W. Funny, even when I posted the above I didn't make the conncetion, but of course Doonesbury is a perfect example of popular culture that is good as opposed to popular culture that is merely popular. She says, waving her hands. I'll have to add this to the discussion.

Interesting about graphic novels. I used to sneer at the idea (I'm a great sneerer, I'm afraid), but then I thought of things like Doonesbury, and Alison Bechdel's brilliant series - and changed my mind. Also administered sharp slap to self for sneering. Then soon found something else to sneer at, I'm sure.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/22/2004

Adam Kotsko and I have been discussing the uses of fiction over on his blog, The Weblog, and I think Jonathan's reference to Doonesbury is to the point in it. Doonesbury engages us in ways that a policy analysis, an important piece of contemporary journalism, or a historical narrative are not likely to. With the loss of B. D.'s leg, we sense a real loss in the family.

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/22/2004

Perhaps there is an intellectual difference, particularly because something like Dooonesbury actually interacts with our environment, is a coactor on our journies.

But, truth to say, if one invests emotions in something for years, then there will be a bond.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/22/2004

I agree. I've been thinking about this a lot since this morning, and I've come to the conclusion that there is a (objectively meaningless waving of hands alert!) difference between being attached to a piece of literature with critical and satirical and moral/ethical elements like Doonesbury (one of the longest graphic novels ever written) and a purely sentimental story like a soap opera.

The greatest moments in storytelling come at the point of no return: true commitment. This is one of them.

Ophelia Benson - 4/21/2004

Oh, I don't think it's silly, not a bit. I'm an old Doonesbury fan from - from the very beginning. I remember the shock of surprise on first seeing it in the Sunday paper - I think Trudeau was still at Yale then. Certainly Mike and Nicole and Zonker and Mark were. I remember when they first met Joanie. I haven't followed it much lately (and by lately I mean the past couple of decades), but I certainly don't think it's silly to be affected by it. If it were Dick Tracy, now, I would, but not Doonesbury.