“We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
The almost immortal words of Pogo, whose cartoonish take on the world captured the spirit of the age in the middle years of the 20th-century. Trying as we are to make sense of a social and political moment that brings Brexit to Britain, with ripples of chaos throughout the U.K., Europe, and all over the world, and the inexplicable presidential campaign in America, offering two candidates that most Americans believe are not trustworthy, my mind was drawn to the age-old wisdom that “the artists get there first.” While I have spent my life working to understand that reality as it plays out in film, music, painting and more, it is also true for comics, its own modern art form– even the cartoons get there first.
My grandfather saw that, and that he did still intrigues me. While his days were full of Colorado’s cattle, spending a half-century buying and selling livestock from the Western Slope (as the true natives describe the western side of their state) back to the high plains along the Front Range, on Sunday he would teach the adult class in his Presbyterian church in Greeley. For all the years of my boyhood he was the teacher to his peers, week by week bringing perspective to his fellow parishioners about living in the world under the Word.
And sometimes that meant bringing Pogo with him.
I still remember his consternation about the reaction of one man whom my grandfather had known for most of life. Rather than being illumined by Pogo, this man was aghast, sure that comics had nothing to do with Sunday School, surely not anything to do with the Sabbath day. I never heard my grandfather curse, but if he did, that might have been a day for that. He did shake his head, and in some way that my ten-year old self understood, he wanted me to feel what he felt, i.e. that we needed to learn to read the Word and the world at the same time.
Remembering all of this, I was intrigued to read that “Doonesbury” saw Trump coming, almost 30 years ago. While most of us have been asleep at the wheel of history, not paying attention to what is happening to us and among us, Gary Trudeau— the cartoonist who brought the comic strip into being as the counter-culture was winding down —saw something that we are now living with, perplexed as we are, outraged as we might be.
Why did he have eyes to see? What is it about artists that allow them to feel the world first? Those have been my questions for the years of my life, and it is a rare moment when I speak or write without an honest reference to the arts as a critically-important window into the world in which we live. Sometimes a poet, sometimes a filmmaker, sometimes a painter, sometimes a novelist, sometimes a singer/songwriter, and even sometimes a cartoonist… each in their own way someone with a vocation that sees and hears and feels the air the rest of us are breathing, before we do.
“Biggest! Best! Me! It’s unbelievable! Biggest! Tallest! Mine!” Yes, of course, those are the words of Donald Trump, captured in a cartoon almost 20 years ago. He hasn’t changed, but we have, and that is what is most sobering about it all.
Yes, Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”