thrift store finds: still a few bugs in the system – a doonesbury book

Today we’re looking at Still a Few Bugs in the System: A Doonesbury Book by G.B. Trudeau, published by Holt, Rhinehart, and Wilson in 1972. Original cover price was $2.95. This is the first in the original series of Doonesbury trade paperbacks; the comic would be collected in smaller books like this until sometime in the late 1980’s when the strip would switch to what was a more traditional format for the time.

Still a Few Bugs in the System opens with an introduction from columnist/humorist Art Buchwald. I’m a little ashamed to say I’m familiar with the guy only from his lawsuit with Paramount Pictures over the Eddie Murphy movie Coming to America. That is to say… I don’t know much about Buchwald. He delivers a very tongue-in-cheek introduction, saying that he’s sure Garry Trudeau will soon cash the comic strip’s popularity into a variety of shoddy merchandise. I thought this bit was particularly interesting, if also prophetic:

When I first started reading Doonesbury, it was already a very well-established part of both the funny page landscape. A scant three years after Buchwald’s introduction, Trudeau won the Pulitzer Prize, the first comic strip artist to ever have that honor.

I only started reading Doonesbury sometime during the strip’s second decade of existence. I mention that because there is a world of difference between the Doonesbury of the 1990’s and the Doonesbury presented in this collection. The comics collected in Still a Few Bugs in the System have a sketchy, scrawly, rawness to them.

To call the use of backgrounds “minimal” would be kind. Most of these strips feature characters standing against a white void while they deliver their lines.

I don’t mention those things to disparage Doonesbury, but rather to praise its’ uniqueness. Even in 2012, look at these strips and you can understand how crazy it would have been to see Doonesbury paired with The Family Circus and Hi and Lois in the funny pages. Part of the appeal of Doonesbury initially is that Trudeau’s draftsmanship wasn’t really present they way it would be in the coming years. Most readers wouldn’t have any trouble imagining these comics hastily scrawled out on the back of a diner placemat sometime after a hippie orgy or something.

Trudeau obviously understood this about his work and turned those perceived weaknesses into strengths. He took advantage of this perception of himself and his comic as outsiders to the newspaper biz to introduce never-before-seen character types and plotlines into the funny pages. Mark Slackmeyer, for instance… I’m relatively sure no one who lived on Gasoline Alley self-identified as an agitating radical/revolutionary…

…to say nothing of Calvin. Calvin’s a great character for two reasons. One is that Trudeau actually had the balls to introduce a Black Panther to the newpaper pages in the 1970’s.

Two… Trudeau anticipated what most of his readers’ reaction would be to an African American character and subverts that expectation by making Calvin calm, down-to-earth, and most of all… funny.

Of curse, we’re in early days with Doonesbury strip, so for every wonderfully done strip about the politics of the day

there are a couple of truly corny strips focusing on Mike Doonesbury’s rather hapless love life

to say nothing of the endless number of “B.D. in a huddle with his team” gags.

Still, you can’t deny that, even at this early stage, Trudeau had all the personalities down pat. While Trudeau would add new facets and dimensions to these characters over the years, they have remained essentially the same as they were presented in the first few strips. It’s sort of extraordinary, when you think about it. For example, Trudeau would eventually go on to reveal Mark Slackmeyer was homosexual, a rather gigantic controversy at the time. Mark is not identified gay in these strips… but he’s also never involved in any of the girl-chasing shenanigans of Mike and B.D. With the remarkable consistency of the strips, I have to wonder if Trudeau had Mark’s sexuality planned all along.

…so while none of the long-standing epic storylines are introduced here, and Trudeau’s artwork is in its’ infancy, the strips collected her are a fascinating snapshot of both the era and the artist.

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One Response to “thrift store finds: still a few bugs in the system – a doonesbury book”

  1. […] thoughts and opinions about Doonesbury were pretty well-covered when I wrote about the very first collection of strips, Still A Few Bugs in the System. This particular presentation of the Doonesbury strips are the ones I’m most familiar with, […]

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