When I was young, my father told me all about Terry and the Pirates, a comic strip penned by the amazing Milt Caniff (also known well for Steve Canyon). I picked up some of the old comics, reprinted in my teen years, and was pretty amazed at the honest truth with which a daily comic artist depicted the war. Naturally I mentioned this to the old man. He laughed and said the amazing thing was that comic artists wrote this stuff a week to a month in advance. I still didn’t get it so Dad went and had his mom explain it to me.
During World War II, my grandfather was a navigator in the US Air Force, stationed in Reno, Nevada. I suppose because it was a safe training base, and no one was really going to care about the desert. Granddad never fought, to the best of my knowledge, but he did take jaunts, leaving my accountant grandmother home alone. Granma made the best of it, got a job, etc. She also used to pick up the soldiers and drive them around the base, since she had more free time, and I guess was bored. There’s also this little thing about her liking the boys and being a total Fag Hag, but that’s neither here nor there for this tale.
Gran told me that one of the first things the Air Force boys did when they got home was to ask her about Terry and the Pirates. Why? Because no matter what was going on, they could find out where the fighting was by reading the comic strip. It seemed that Caniff was so good he was able to predict the front of the war and accurately depict the status of our boys over seas. Weeks in advance.
Caniff was so good that my Gran tells the apocryphal tale of how he was hauled in by the government, and ordered to fess up as to where he’d gotten all his information. The truth was that he’d just come up with it.
Ask most service men from WWII and they’ll know Terry and his friends. Pat Ryan, the Dragon Lady, Burma, Connie and so on. With good reason too! Our soldiers got better information from the comics than they did from their own bosses.
Flash Forward, the Gulf War.
Gary B. Trudeau whips out the delightful anti-political, right and left wing, hard hitting comedy drama strip known and loved as ‘Doonesbury.’ Over the years, this comic has tackled topics as vast as Andy Lippincott who died from AIDS, BD who went to ‘Nam to get out of Final Exams, Joanie Caucus who became a liberated woman, and Zonker who gave up professional tanning because of the scare of skin cancer. What? This doesn’t sound funny to you? Believe me, it is.
But Trudaeu (no relation to the former Prime Minister of Canada) isn’t just a funny guy. Every time America’s gone to war since ‘Nam, BD has served, Rolan’s reported, and Mike has watched. By showing us the lives of the three common men, soldier, reporter, Joe American, Trudaeu manages to give us a fair representation of how everyone views the world and how the war affects us all. Yes, he paints a thin veneer of comedy over his truths, but he shows heartache, pain and loss in much the same way that *M*A*S*H* did.
It’s not just the war that Trudaeu expresses, but also politics. Bush Sr., who was never quite his own man, was invisible except for one moment when the outline of self appeared. Clinton, after a write in poll, was depicted by a waffle (versus a flipping coin). Dubya is, much like his father, invisible, but wears a cowboy hat to show that he’s from Texas and not a clone. NPR is lampooned often, and left winger Mark Slackmeyer (who came out in the 90s) and his life partner and right wing republican, Chase, often have disputes on and off air about radio and politics.
Walden College, the initial home of the strip, has remained a constant counterpoint to the real colleges of the world, Pres. King having abolished any grade except an A, and appeared on NPR in a segment titled ‘Sucking up to Alumni.’ Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?
Since the 70s, Trudaeu has let our lives touch his through his comics. His artwork has improved, to the point that he can use light and dark alone to speak to us. In one comic, he draws much like Chet Gould did in the original Dick Tracy, using solid black to show us the profile of his stars, and letting the words speak through shadow.
I couldn’t make it though a war without Trudaeu, and while I can wish for a second Milt Caniff to be born, his hopeful, upbeat attitude about being American sadly no longer fits in our culture. We can not speak or cope without sarcasm, wit and humor, and Trudaeu hands us all three on a platter, once a day every day, without fail.
Thanks, Milt and Gary. We couldn’t do it without you.
(Side note: it took me longer to figure out how the hell to spell ‘apocryphal’ than to write this whole entry!)