Jeffrey Toobin on his favorite Doonesbury character, Mike Doonesbury.

About Garry Trudeau's comic strip.
Oct. 26 2010 10:30 AM

The Grown-Up

Jeffrey Toobin on his favorite Doonesbury character, Mike Doonesbury.

Slate and have compiled a list of  Doonesbury's 200 greatest moments. Read David Plotz's  interview with Garry Trudeau. See Slate's complete coverage of  Doonesbury's 40th anniversary.

Mike Doonesbury.

Mike is the Nick Carraway of Planet Doonesbury. As Nick both observed and indulged (a little) in the riotous goings-on next door at Jay Gatsby's, Mike stands both with and apart from his nutty friends. Zonker, B.D., and (especially) Duke are cartoons, but Mike is so sane that he scarcely belongs in a comic strip. He is, as Trudeau writes in the character sketch about Mike, "the group's designated grown-up."

And that, of course, is what makes Mike indispensable—and a clue to the enduring appeal of Doonesbury as a whole. It's only a minor overstatement to say that Trudeau's strip provides a comprehensive history of the past 40 years. Reading through this collection (which is easier than lifting it), we see that Trudeau has his enduring obsessions—Vietnam, for starters—but every trend, inanity, and insanity of recent American history has gotten the once-over in the strip. Safe sex to global warming, virtual reality to reality TV—it's all there. (Even NAFTA, for God's sake.) But Trudeau isn't just trend-surfing popular and political culture; he's got a real, sometimes fierce, point of view on it all.


Consider the defining Mike Doonesbury moment: his advertising campaign for R.J. Reynolds, featuring the friendly Mr. Butts. "Believe me, there's nothing cooler than a 15-year-old walking down the street with a cigarette! Here, try one!" It's funny enough, but what endures is Mike's anguish at his complicity in this outrage. And outrage it is. Sure, Doonesbury is reliably funny, amazingly so under the circumstances. (Forty years …) But the ballast, unspoken but ever-present, is Trudeau's fearless outrage at the wrongs in the world. This is a guy who devoted a full Sunday strip to a father talking to his son who is dying of AIDS in a hospital.

Mike often figures in my favorite Doonesbury tic: the wordless third panel. It's a pause, a beat, where you know the characters so well that you don't need to be told what they're thinking. (See an example of the third-panel beat here.) When it's Mike, you know it's a sensible, if overwhelmed, reaction to the chaos around him. He'll try something and probably fail. Mike's life (all life?) is damage control. And so Mike, like the rest of us, beats on, leaky boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

(Check out the strip where Mike becomes a Republican.)

Like Slate on  Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.

Jeffrey Toobin is a staff writer for The New Yorker, a senior analyst at CNN, and the author, most recently, of The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court.



Don’t Expect Adrian Peterson to Go to Prison

In much of America, beating your children is perfectly legal. 

Ken Burns on Why Teddy Roosevelt Would Never Get Elected in 2014

Cops Briefly Detain Django Unchained Actress Because They Thought She Was a Prostitute

Minimalist Cocktail Posters Make Mixing Drinks a Cinch

How the Apple Watch Will Annoy Us

A glowing screen attached to someone else’s wrist is shinier than all but the blingiest of jewels.


Rainbow Parties and Sex Bracelets

Where teenage sex rumors come from—and why they’re bad for parents and kids.


You Had to Be There

What we can learn from things that used to be funny.

Legendary Critic Greil Marcus Measures and Maps Rock History Through 10 Unlikely Songs

Catfish Creator Nev Schulman’s Book Is Just Like Him: Self-Deluded and Completely Infectious

Sept. 12 2014 5:54 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Sept. 12 2014 6:07 PM Steve Southerland’s Remarks Should Spur Florida Women to Vote
The Juice
Sept. 12 2014 3:40 PM Ford’s Big Gamble It’s completely transforming America’s best-selling vehicle.
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 13 2014 8:38 AM “You’re More Than Just a Number” Goucher College goes transcript-free in admissions.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 12 2014 4:05 PM Life as an NFL Wife: “He's the Star. Keep Him Happy.”
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 12 2014 5:55 PM “Do You Know What Porn Is?” Conversations with Dahlia Lithwick’s 11-year-old son.
Brow Beat
Sept. 14 2014 7:10 PM Watch Michael Winslow Perform Every Part of “Whole Lotta Love” With Just His Voice
Future Tense
Sept. 12 2014 3:53 PM We Need to Pass Legislation on Artificial Intelligence Early and Often
  Health & Science
New Scientist
Sept. 14 2014 8:38 AM Scientific Misconduct Should Be a Crime It’s as bad as fraud or theft, only potentially more dangerous.
Sports Nut
Sept. 11 2014 7:29 PM Why Is Terrell Suggs Still in the NFL? Like his teammate Ray Rice, the Ravens linebacker was accused of beating up his wife. But in his case, there was no video.