The second-to-last line of this past Sunday’s “Doonesbury” has to be read to be believed and even then I fear readers will accuse me of making it up: “You are all jingoistic self-regarding conquer-monkeys!” The full eight panel cartoon was a mini sermon — in French — chiding American readers for the weeks-old controversy over “freedom” fries. I hereby nominate it as the worst single cartoon in the history of the strip.
Admittedly, the last few months have offered a lot of competition; it’s been almost a race to the bottom. There was the preachy strip in which the Rev. called President Bush’s sanity into question because he may not believe in evolution; the series of jabs at the administration for going to war when it could spent that money to bail out Oregon’s cash-strapped public schools; or the ongoing attempts by Duke to become the authoritarian viceroy of Iraq.
In the '70s and early '80s, “Doonesbury” was the comic strip. It was funny, informed, imaginative and, if you can believe it, edgy. Since about the middle of Reagan’s second term, it has grown progressively more predictable and dogmatic. As cartoonist Chris Muir recently said, “Trudeau is more ‘hip’ to his [baby boom] generation. But today, he’s the Establishment.”
“Day by Day” is Muir’s own three panel answer to that Establishment. Launched online this February, it aims to speak for, and to, the “other half of America.” Normally, I’d say “red staters,” but Muir has something larger in mind than crass political corralling. He calls himself a conservative, but in an interview with blogger Dean Esmay, Muir explained that “conservative isn’t even ‘conservative’ anymore. It’s a label for normal.” The daily strip explores what the non-PC part of America thinks about ethics, the economy, and politics, as well as that “age-old dynamic betwixt men and women.” The recurring characters are four very different professionals at a nondescript design firm.
As an avowedly message-driven strip, “Day by Day” risks becoming a better drawn version of Mallard Fillmore minus the webbing, or, worse, a right-wing analogue to the modern “Doonesbury.” But so far it’s a temptation Muir has avoided. A typical week of strips includes some water cooler sparring by the recurring characters over politics, a nod to the current international scene, a look at the Mars and Venus beat, as well as a surprise or two.
In fact, it’s encouraging to see that the characters are become more human as the strip unfolds. Jan, the designated twentysomething hyperactive liberal, wins the odd argument, and also occasionally admits — horrors! — that she was wrong. Damon, the toon most like Muir, is the rarest of all creatures, a black Republican, but not an apologist for all things GOP. A recent cartoon featured him stupefied over the revelation that Bill Bennett has lost millions of dollars gambling.
No newspapers currently carry the strip, nor is Muir in a hurry to sign a syndication deal. He has promised to develop “Day by Day” for a year, and he may need the time. The two fortysomething characters are not nearly as developed as their younger colleagues, and Muir is still working on his characterization and timing. Also — a bit of unsolicited advice as I take a sip of my cup of joe — he might want to find a better way to connect the regulars with world events than through their reactions to the media.
There are some rather large obstacles standing in Muir’s way, but the strip is building up a sizeable devoted fan base online — fans who would be willing to pester their local papers or help out in countless other ways. It may succeed. And the funny pages will be better for it.
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