I've heard my mother and people of her generation recall how much of the slang of their youth came from comic strips like the Gumps, Barney Google and Toonerville Folks. For Baby Boomers like myself, the important sources were Marvel Comics, Peanuts and Doonesbury.
As it has been for most of its existence, Doonesbury remains an object of controversy. The other week The Times dropped a series of strips satirizing Ronald Reagan appointees who have resigned. While I've relished many of Garry Trudeau's political lampoons, I've enjoyed the interaction of the characters in the strip as much as its political commentary.
When I was at UCLA, the characters in Doonesbury seemed to be the spokespeople for those of us who were too young, too timid or too sensible to indulge in the more radical aspects of the counterculture of the late '60s and early '70s. We felt much closer to the inhabitants of Walden Commune than to the gritty, drugged-out denizens of the underground comix, like the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.
Trudeau has always had an extraordinarily good ear for the catch phrases of his generation, and his characters sounded exactly like people we knew. Mike, Mark, Zonker, Joannie and BD often seemed as real to us as the people we encountered on campus-- more real , in some cases. This sense of identity grew so strong that our language and behavior began to reflect the comic strip, instead of vice versa.
When Rufus, Mike's black tutorial pupil, began taking white liberals on "Ghetto Tours" of his neighborhood, the idea appealed to my friend, Kevin. He started giving similar tours of the apartment of our bodybuilder friend, Brad. Brad lived in Brentwood, but his place was often literally ankle deep in old newspapers, tuna cans, dirty gym clothes and barbells: It looked more like a slum than Rufus' fifth floor walk-up.
I learned to be suspicious of compliments on my scholastic ability from a strip in which BD extravagantly praised Mike's performance, especially in an English class: "Nobody can touch you in that class, intelligence-wise!" Mike easily discerned the reason for BD's sudden enthusiasm: "I assume you want to borrow my notes." And while Mike was working on a biology paper entitled "Juxtabranchial Secretions in the Higher Mollusks," BD was writing "Our Friend, the Beaver." Some teaching assistants I know still use that title to designate Mickey Mouse efforts from their students.
Asked by his father what sort of job he wanted after graduation, Mark replied, "I don't know what field it'll be in, but I know that it will have to be creative--a position of responsibility, but not one that restricts personal freedom . . . it must pay fairly well; the atmosphere relaxed, informal; my colleagues, interesting, mellow and not too concerned with a structured working situation . . . a job that doesn't compromise me, a job I can . . . enjoy!"
He sounded exactly like my friends at the Daily Bruin, who declared they would never compromise with "the Establishment," but who planned on having houses in the country with fireplaces, big trees and home-baked bread. (A lot of them subsequently went to law school, but Mike ended up in advertising, writing commercials for Reagan's reelection campaign.)
One of Mark's earlier adventures provided an expression that still regularly occurs in conversations with my best friend, Stuart. Mark found an ad on a matchbook for a job as a computer operator--"earn $7,000, impress your friends, meet girls"--but a recalcitrant terminal destroyed the program he had slaved over.
Swathed in computer tape, he staggered into his supervisor's office, screaming "Aiee!!" with increasing horror. (Nonplussed, the supervisor replied, "I take it you want out.") Whenever I need help with some major disaster--like the time the hot water heater burst and flooded my apartment--I just call up Stuart and scream "Aiee!!" three times: It's easier to remember in a crisis than 911 or the Morse Code for SOS.