REVIEW: DUKE -- DOONESBURY'S UNCLE DUKE, THAT IS
By Thomas Wheeler
One of the best known comic
strips of the past several decades is
Doonesbury. Named after its lead character, a comparative straight-man/
everyman named Michael Doonesbury, the strip has been the platform from
which its creator, Garry Trudeau, has launched a decades-long extreme
leftist assault against America and its most visible conservative
politicians and practices. To that end, for whatever reason, Doonesbury
has become a readily recognized name, as has the overall distinctive
style of the strip, which in and of itself is actually quite good. I
find Trudeau's politics, values, and beliefs repugnant and reprehensible,
along with his tendency to present them as unarguable fact, but I can't
argue with the success of his work, even if I don't understand why anyone
would buy into it.
But I'm not here to discuss
politics. I'm here to review action figures.
One of the most outrageous character creations within the world of
Doonesbury is unquestionably Uncle Duke. Uncle to former hippie and
burnt-out stoner/slacker Zonker Harris, Uncle Duke is not-too-loosely
based on gonzo writer, the late Hunter S. Thompson. But I doubt even
Thompson managed to get into quite the level of trouble that Uncle Duke
has managed over the decades.
Over the course of his career,
Uncle Duke has been governor of Samoa,
ambassador to China, coach of the Washington Redskins, Iranian hostage,
owner of a bar and restaurant in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm,
boat driver to Donald Trump, manager of an orphanage (where his son,
Earl, turned up -- sharking loans to the other kids), and unsuccessful
presidential candidate in 2000. And that's just scratching the surface.
Actually, Duke's assorted
adventures have been some of the most amusing
reading in the entire strip. I certainly don't approve of the character's
well-known drug and alcohol abuse, but Uncle Duke has managed to get
such absurd levels of trouble that they manage to exceed the politics
surrounding them. On one occasion when he was committed to a mental
hospital, his own nephew remarked, "Then our long national nightmare
finally over." Within the world of Doonesbury, Uncle Duke is almost
force unto himself -- not unlike a really loud fart, perhaps, but still...
While it could be argued
that if the world were truly like Trudeau
portrays it, much of what takes place within "Doonesbury"
conceivably happen to the characters (or anyone else), it's almost
impossible to believe that much of what Uncle Duke has managed to --
accomplish over the years could actually take place. At least and have
Duke survive it all. And that's probably what makes him such a standout.
In 1992, Andrews & McMeel
Publishing decided to honor Doonesbury's bad
boy. Andrews McMeel, as it is known today, is a publisher of, among
things, compilation books of a wide range of newspaper comic strips.
of "Dilbert", "For Better & For Worse", "Mutts",
"Pooch Cafe", "Get Fuzzy", "Red & Rover",
"Baby Blues", "FoxTrot", "Rose
is Rose", and many other comic strips can find them compiled in
books. In years past, the company also published books for "The
and "Calvin and Hobbes". They also publish Doonesbury books.
So it was in 1992, that a
book presenting over a decade and a half's
worth of Uncle Duke's various adventures was published, from his first
appearance through his days of running a restaurant in Kuwait City during
and after Operation Desert Storm. Few, if any, characters within the
strip have seen the sights, traveled to the places, and been part of
action that Uncle Duke has. Few would probably want to be. Indeed, Uncle
Duke is the "action figure" of the Doonesbury world.
Which apparently gave somebody
a heck of an idea. The book was not only
titled "ACTION FIGURE!" But it actually came with a 5"
action figure of
Uncle Duke himself!
Attached to the back cover
of the book "Action Figure", was a cardboard-
blister-carded action figure of the popular Doonesbury character. You
couldn't find it in toy stores. It was in bookstores.
The actual manufacturer of
the action figure is a mystery. I suspect that
some company in China was contracted by Andrews & McMeel, or by
or whomever, to manufacture the figure. The only clues to the origin
the Uncle Duke figure are on the back cover of the book, which merely
says that the figure was made in China, and the blister card was made
Hong Kong. The book itself was printed in the U.S.A., and for all I
the entire mess was put together as a single unit in Belize. Clearly,
though, this was an international effort. And who but Uncle Duke, with
his globe-trotting adventures, is more deserving?
The figure is surprisingly
good. Articulation isn't all that much --
head, arms, and legs. But the likeness is remarkable. One thing about
Trudeau's art style -- it looks like something that would be difficult
translate into three dimensions. His characters tend to be seen either
profile or 3/4 view. Very seldom are they shown looking straight forward.
And Duke is one of the more unusual faces. He's got a nose on him that
Batman's arch-foe The Penguin would be envious of, and he's constantly
wearing dark glasses that manage to obscure his eyes from any angle.
Throw in the cigarette and cigarette holder he always seems to have
sticking out of his face, and that's not going to be an easy sculpt.
only other three-dimensional rendering for Uncle Duke of which I am
are some CGI animated spots that were done for Uncle Duke's presidential
candidacy in 2000, which could be accessed online. And I pity whoever
to do those.
Whoever did the head sculpt
for the figure did an amazing job. Uncle
Duke looks just like he should, from the customary profile and 3/4
angles, and looking at the figure straight on, it's not hard to imagine
that this is what Duke would look like if Trudeau ever drew him from
The figure's head is a bit
large for the rest of the body, even by the
somewhat cartoonish proportions of the comic strip. Still, it's not
badly off. Uncle Duke is dressed in a black T-shirt, and olive-drab
military-stylr trousers, and black military style boots, ready to live
to the title of the book. He even has his cigarette and holder. Easily
one of the few action figures that's ever been equipped to smoke (and
probably just as well, too).
His accessories included,
as I recall, a golf club and a martini glass.
There's a knife molded to his right leg. The back of his shirt has "(C)
1992 G.B. TRUDEAU/U.F.S.", referring to United Feature Syndicate,
"MADE IN CHINA" embosses on it. No indication of a manufacturer.
front of the shirt has a very neatly spplied insignia on it, which has
white circle with a blue center, with the drawn profile of Uncle Duke
with wings in the background, and crossbones below, and the words, "DEATH
BEFORE UNCONSCIOUSNESS" within the outer white circle.
According to the Barnes &
Noble Bookseller Web Site, the book, "Action
Figure", was re-released in 2001 -- but without the Uncle Duke
figure. While that is still listed on the Web Site, it was also listed
out of print and not currently available. This development doesn't
surprise me, as doubtless the manufacturing of the action figure added
fair amount to the cost of producing the book and toy, and was certainly
an unusual step for a company that is otherwise a book publisher.
As such, I'm really not sure
as to the availability of the Uncle Duke
action figure. He was one of a kind. There is no "Doonesbury"
figure series. And he's not something that would necessarily appeal
the average action figure collector. But if you're familiar with the
character, and can find the figure of him, he's really pretty cool.
Uncle Duke, at least.