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ENDPAPERS

Two Minutes a Day in Another World

January 24, 1988|RICHARD EDER

Having retailed collegiate contraceptives and insouciant advice from dorm to dorm, the Dr. Feelgood operation is going upscale with a line of boutiques. I don't know that there is a term for the contrary of topping a joke; bottoming it, perhaps, or stuffing it.

Doonesbury is fading. Its author's sabbatical, after which he changed his focus from hippie satire to yuppie satire, has resulted in longer and longer bare stretches. There are flashes--dramatizing the Cuomo question "Will Mario run?" as "Waiting for Godot"--but there are also such endless sequences as Reagan in the shape of a computer-generated Max Headroom. It beats at us over and over again with the identical joke, the graphic stridency of the Headroom image overwhelming the faint thematic variations practiced on it.

Perhaps Garry Trudeau is working up new energies. The Yuppie state as a long-term cartoon theme may not be feasible in any case; partly because we are told it is ending, but mostly because it never was anything in itself. Essentially, it was the absence of other things.

Rebellious youth flamed out, succeeded by a prudent self-indulging. Not a lot of energy in that, and cartooning needs an energetic target.

But whether or not Doonesbury rallies again, we are reminded that every cartoon world has its life cycle; at least the ones that have any real life in them. (I suppose Blondie or Andy Capp may go on practically forever.)

Generally, they die before they stop. George Herriman's Krazy Kat ended in the mid-1940s, but I dare say that its readers had lost touch with its moonbeam insouciance by the time World War II began to take shape. Li'l Abner's mix of cracker-barrel satire and comic fantasy--remember the Shmoo?--came eventually to lose its bite.

Through the '50s and most of the '60s, Pogo reminded us that innocence and wisdom were natural partners even as the paranoid times tried to pair innocence off with gullibility or worse. In the '70s, its playfulness went on but lost its traction.

Peanuts gave us atomic-age children-with-beagle trying to make sense of a world whose authors were adults with illegible handwriting, and who never showed up to re-write. It petered out in T-shirts and Snoopy calendars.

Why the petering out? There is bound to be some mystery to it, but there are also some answers, the least interesting of which is that the author simply got tired or lost steam.

But think of the phrase "cartoon world." The examples I have given, and a few others that could be given, are not simply a succession of whimsicalities involving one or two characters with one or two traits. They are not situation comedies.

What "Kat," "Pogo," "Peanuts," "Doonesbury" and the others created was more than a morsel of wit or absurdity or satire to enliven the reader's world. They created a world that the reader could enter for two minutes each morning. To be more exact, it was an anti-world, supplying some vital element withheld from us by the times; one that we desperately needed.

For the grayness of the Depression, there were the flights of Krazy Kat. For the pomposities, the solemnity of the '50s, its McCarthyism and its Cold War, the feckless but shrewd life in the Okefenokee Swamp and its madly anarchic way with the English language. "Nuclear deterrent," "multilateral force," "fellow-traveler" were starvation phrases; they required someone to alter a Christmas carol into "Good King Sauerkraut looked out/on his feets uneven." The Dionysian and self-righteous fervor of the '60s generation needed Doonesbury's steadying and deprecatory wit.

Anti-worlds; and here is one clue to their mortality. The world moves on, it acquires new ills and new deficiencies. It is the same world but it needs new anti-worlds.

Because we took the cartoons in two-minute bursts, and because they seemed to be essentially witty drawings whose text was secondary, we may not have realized where their real power lay. But if you think of something set down on paper that creates a world that we can enter, what you think of is fiction.

The drawing and the playfulness may obscure the literary nature of the strips, just as the beauty of a Schubert melody may obscure the Goethe text that makes it a song. But a great Lieder singer is above all a great speaker of poetry.

Reading Li'l Abner, Pogo, Peanuts and Doonesbury at the time they came out was to be aware mostly of how they accompanied and responded to the events of the day, or its preoccupations. But when we think back to them, we think of a world and a cast of characters that have more in common with a novel than they do, say, with the daily comments of an editorial-page cartoon.

It was, to be sure, an oddly upbeat variety of novel, and a virtually Utopian world. Because, however sharp or satirical a Pogo or a Doonesbury might be; there was a sunniness that they and the other strips, all very different, had in common.

It was the sunniness of discourse. Whatever happened, whatever disasters, evils, hypocrisies or rogueries were going on, it was always a matter of the characters--swamp critters, Krazy and her Ignatz Mouse, hillbilly yokels, children, or Trudeau's clothespin-nose adults, getting together to talk, to scheme, and to talk about it some more afterwards.

Do we all live lives of solitary desperation? Much of our world and our fiction tells us so. There is even a cartoonist who tells us so: Roz Chast, the most gifted of the newer lot. Her shaky urban characters drift silently, thinking not talking, and alone even in company.

If Krazy, Pogo and Li'l Abner are gone, if Peanuts is bland and Doonesbury is drifting (Bloom County is delightful but it doesn't seem to me to be quite a world), we are poorer for it. Is it no longer possible to believe that somewhere there is an anti-world whose inhabitants are gossiping about us and surviving our wounds?

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