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Giving Chris Muir the Lloyd Bentsen Treatment

Filed under: The Squib Report   Tagged: , , , , , , , , , ,

Martin Schneider writes:

I am indebted to "SEK" at Lawyers, Guns, and Money for directing my attention to the comic stylings of Chris Muir. SEK pivots from some observations on Garry Trudeau (I almost wrote "Marshall"; there are only so many people named "Garry" around) to pick Muir's work apart. That post is worth reading.

If you don't know—I didn't—Muir writes comics that are similar to Trudeau's Doonesbury cartoons, except that they represent the conservative point of view; they're all "Sunday format," as far as I can tell. SEK points out two important things about Muir's work (for which, see here). First, each strip is a transparent attempt to dress up the wingnut talking point of the moment in a wry, witty package (and generally fails); and second, Muir crams in as many unmotivated images of pretty young women in a state of undress as he can. (They're sexualized in a way that Trudeau's Boopsie—who is, after all, a Playboy Playmate—never was; Boopsie has levels, man....)

I'm sure I'm not the first person to point this out, but It's interesting that the inhabitants of Muir's Obama-hostile world appear to be, demographically speaking, Obama voters. Everyone is young and slim; everyone looks like a sleek urban professional; and one guy is a cocoa-colored sort of Obama surrogate. I briefly toyed with the idea that he is the strip's token Obama supporter, but I honestly can't parse a good number of these cartoons—it goes so far in the "wry" direction of the spectrum (while spouting some pretty silly Tea Party truisms) that it's often impossible to tell what the joke, exactly, is. Either way, this light-skinned black man is enlisted in the service of an anti-Obama narrative.

In any case, psychologically, dramatically, that attempt, to dress up Tea Party logic in the trappings of hip and ironic young liberals, simply fails. I'm not even making any broader criticism here, other than to say that these people don't seem like Republicans a lot of the time, and that sometimes makes the strips confusing. (If Archie Bunker had been played by Robert Redford rather than Carroll O'Connor, surely the points wouldn't have landed so effectively.)

I suppose the reason Muir does that is not artistic but political; he wants to make the critiques of Obama seem more grounded than they really are, as if hip, verbal urbanites are forever wringing their hands at the assault on liberty Obama represents.

The strip features that hallmark feature of Hysterical Anti-Obamaism, to wit, the unsubstantiated claim. So we hear that Obama desires to be king, that "this is a center-right nation by any measure" (what about the measure of losing elections?), that Obama is a statist, that he is ruling "by fiat," and so on. All of this is by now so familiar that even I am bored with this paragraph. Yet the point stands, and it's useful to keep mentioning it as long as it remains true.

When comprehension becomes a problem, as it sometimes did for me, it's not surprising that the ones that "succeed" have less of a partisan edge. For example, there's one making fun of the censoring of Muhammad's image on South Park that isn't awful.

I guess it's interesting to see such "hot" rhetoric conveyed in such a "cool" manner. I almost want to give Muir points for that, were it not for the evident truth that "legitimizing" that rhetoric is the whole point.

The parallels to Doonesbury here are at once unmissable and thoroughly implicit, as far as I can tell; nobody ever says outright, "Doonesbury was too liberal" or "This is the conservative's Doonesbury," but the message—should I say "critique"?—is clear either way.

So a few brief points about Doonesbury before I wrap up. I grew up reading 'em, and I'm a fan, although I haven't looked at them much since, I don't know, college. So yeah, you know, I knew Doonesbury, Doonesbury was a friend of mine....

Doonesbury may have been "liberal," but the strip has lasted for several decades now, under presidents both Republican and Democratic, and I didn't notice that the strip got much less funny when, say, Carter was in the White House.

It's a commonplace point, but the mark of a true satirist is that the targets can change but the essential imperative of puncturing hypocrisy or pomp remains the same. True satirists don't go out of business when their guys seize power; only the hacks do. I note as a matter of record that when Trudeau took his 20-month leave of absence, the president of the country was named Reagan—it's a little difficult to imagine Rush Limbaugh doing anything similar, now that the president of the country is named Obama. If Trudeau were really so partisan or really such a hack, surely he would have relished every opportunity to ridicule doddering old Ronald Reagan.

The other thing is that Trudeau did, ultimately, inject more than a modicum of psychological depth into his characters. Rather than play so aggressively against type, as Muir does, Trudeau worked within the archetypes, fleshing each character out over many years, with the end result that they did acquire a good deal of nuance (okay, Duke never did). I sincerely wish that Muir is able to do that sort of thing for many decades (so long as he gets funnier). It would be great if he could poke fun at—shudder—a President Palin or a President Gingrich, should that terrible day ever arrive. I'm not counting on it, though.


Very good points. It’s also worth nothing something about Doonesbury that is inconceivable about “Day by Day”—a lot Doonesbury strips were never about politics at all, or at least not explicitly. The J.J. & Mike dating sequence (way back when in the early 1980s), Alex choosing which college to go to (more recently), Lacey Davenport (R.I.P.) struggling with Alzheimer’s and dealing with Jeremy—has “Day by Day” ever done a single strip that’s just about its characters’ lives? Does Muir understand that this is a part of what made Doonesbury so great (that, and the characters aging, something only “For Better or Worse” was doing at the time)? Does he care?

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2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree