THE-EDGE: News - The Mutiny of Beetle Bailey

The Mutiny of Beetle Bailey
Gar Smith / The-Edge

It's been no secret that Gary Trudeau and Aaron McGruder are not exactly in George W. Bush's corner, but Dubya knows he's really in trouble when Beetle Bailey enlists in the Dump-Bush Campaign.

McGruder's Boondocks strip was among the first to criticize Mr. Bush on a political and personal level. In one classic Sunday episode, (shortly after Mr. Bush famously cut his head after a fainting spell allegedly suffered while scarfing pretzels and watching TV) the wild-haired Huey Freeman walks out to the lonely windswept cliff where he feels free to speak his deepest thoughts. After a sober pause, Huey clears his throat and yells: "Pretzel, schmetzel! The guy was drunk!"

In another classic strip, printed on April 20, 2002, Huey is sitting in of a TV set and glowering as the speaker drones the following message: "And in other news -- Do not ask questions about the president. Do not ask questions about the war. Do what we say. We are your only defense against the evil people of the world. You are getting veeery sleepy. Buy Nikes...."

Trudeau, of course, has been merciless and unremitting. With the same withering iconographic scorn that turned Vice Presidential lightweight Dan Quayle into a floating feather, Dubya first appeared in the Doonesbury strip as an empty Texas Stetson shadowed by a floating asterisk -- a constant reminder that he was never actually elected president.

After 9/11, when a "new Bush" emerged and began using the terrorist threat to claim unprecedented powers, the floating cowboy hat morphed into a floating Roman general's helmet. Still shadowed by the ever-mocking asterisk.

It was in Doonesbury that a character turned in frustration to America's Sunday comics readers and screamed: "Listen up! There never was any connection between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks! None!"

It was Doonesbury that brought the Iraq war home by turning one of the leading characters into a war casualty. In a bizarre twist, the same day that BD, Trudeau's perpetually helmeted jock, lost his leg in an Iraq ambush, another comic character also lost a leg in Iraq -- a cousin of Rob Wilco, the lead character in Darby Conley's strip Get Fuzzy .

And, when the rest of the US media was busy touting the dawn of Iraqi "sovereignty," it was Doonesbury, not the New York Times, that informed millions of Americans: "The US is currently building 14 permanent bases in Iraq. Does that sound like we're fixin' to hand over actual power?"

More Cartoonists Join the Anti-Bush Rebellion
Bush-bashing has even reached into the middleclass cartoon living room of Karen Montague-Reyes' Clear Blue Water, whose main characters are a Manny Torres, a mullet-haired proto-Republican and his liberal, wavy-tressed wife, Eve -- a mother-of-three-with-twins-on-the-way.

On August 20, 2004, the following exchange took place:

EVE: This country is being almost exclusively run by rich white men. It's always BEEN run by rich, white men. In 200 years, nothing much has changed.
MANNY: Mmmm. Hmmm.
EVE: I tell you what we need. We need a Black, disabled, Jewish, lesbian to become president with a Hispanic or Asian atheist VP.
MANNY: Now THAT would be an interesting ticket.
EVE: Wouldn't it? It'll never happen.
MANNY: Well, I'd say it has about the same probability of happening as the alcoholic, frat boy son of an incompetent ex-president stealing an election and becoming the leader of the Free World.
EVE: Yeah, Like THAT could ever happen....

But who could have predicted that Beetle Bailey, the perpetually lazy, preferably prone, non-involved, life-long private would ever take a stand on a political issue?

Beetle Bailey, Greg and Mort Walker's legendary strip has long been lambasted by the anti-war camp, which has complained about the strip's lack of realism. Beetle Bailey is, by definition, “pro-war" but neither Beetle, Sarge, Zero, Plato or any other members of Beetle's brigade ever go to war. They are never sent overseas to fight and die. Nobody at Camp Swampy ever expires in combat or loses a limb in a military exercise. Even "Killer" never has to worry about being shot down -- unless it's by one of his would-be dates.

The strip's only physical threat comes from Sarge who perpetually beats Beetle into a pile of toothless, broken-limbed rubble (from which Beetle always rises, intact, like Wily Coyote in khaki). Beetle, of course, never files a complaint with his superiors and Sarge never serves time in the brig for abusing his troops.

But in Election Year 2004, that has all changed. Beetle Bailey has become politicized.

Beetle Draws a Bead on Bush
On June 16, 2004, General Halftrack and his aide are mocked for playing "war games," hiding behind their desks like children, brandishing toy pistols and yelling "Bang! Bang!"

On June 26, Sarge tries to entice Beetle into re-enlisting. "Free room and board, free clothes, a chance to learn new skills, free medical and dental care, good physical training... Great reasons to re-enlist. What more can I say?" To which Beetle responds bleakly: "I notice you didn't say one word about being shot at."

But the most incendiary Beetle blast may have been the subtle visual grenade that was lobbed on May 17, 2004. In that day's strip, Sarge bends over a confused-looking Beetle who looks up from his bed and mutters: "I had the weirdest dream last night." In the second of two panels, Sarge replies: "It wasn't a dream" and the panel expands to show Beetle's bed.

A goofy-looking balloon bobs over the headboard, a large stuffed bear is propped against the side, and a note is pinned to a nearby wall with a dagger. Beetle's arm sports a new tattoo, he's wearing stripped prison pants, there's a broken ankle-cuff on one leg and a "Number one" blue ribbon pinned to his shirt. But the most remarkable part of the drawing appears on the far right side and continues "off-panel." Beetle is shown holding a rope tied to what appears to be a donkey. The donkey is wearing a half-visible banner. The banner clearly reads: "Vote for Kerry."



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