For a few years I thought Trump was a fictional character.
I know. It’s the day after the 2016 election. The last thing you want to see is another Trump article. That said, this is actually something I’ve been thinking about writing for a while. During the spring I even felt I should write it as quickly as possible before it lost its relevance; who’d want to read about Trump after he lost the candidacy race? But he’s stayed around, providing huge amounts of fodder for future political scholars, and now this. So why not.
UK newspapers, or at least the ones my parents read, didn’t have cartoon strips in the daily copies. The Sunday Times had a color comics supplement, usually with a page of Asterix or Tintin, but that was about it. Instead my household had collections of comic strips: Calvin & Hobbes and The Far Side and Bloom County, with Asterix and Tintin from the local library, and Dilbert and Garfield coming later. I devoured all of these, and I still have almost every Calvin & Hobbes strip committed to memory (a feat which is sadly not commercial enough to put on a resume).
In retrospect, my enjoyment of Bloom County seems odd. After all, Bloom County is frequently topical and/or political, and many of the gags are unfathomable without knowing what was going on in the news that week (which is why I love IDW’s Complete Library editions of the strip, since they include footnotes). Now, I was eight or nine when I first read Penguin Dreams in the mid-90s. I had minimal knowledge of American politics in the 80s, and practically none about the celebrity ephemera.
Yet I found it funny. Yes, there are plenty of incomprehensible jokes, but these are mixed in with more general humor, like Opus trying to write his autobiography (despite not having done anything in his life), or the entire cast going naked for a week in an attempt to increase ratings.
Or the storyline where a rich guy’s body was smashed by an anchor, so his brain was transplanted into the body of Bill the Cat, and he kept on thinking like a millionaire even though he was penniless.
So when the story said that the millionaire’s name was Donald Trump, I took it as the character’s name and nothing more. I had no reason to think he was a real person any more than I’d assume Steve Dallas or Oliver Wendell Jones was real (another gag I only noticed later). He was simply an addition to the cast. Can you blame me?
Trump the character is selfish without malice. He sees himself as rich and important, regardless of his actual predicament, and some of the gags are simply him espousing his worldview. His attempts to return to his status either involve comically inept enterprise (like rebranding roach hotels ‘Trump Hotels’ and acting surprised when the roaches don’t leave) or trying to woo back his then-wife Ivana. After his debut storyline ends he becomes part of the supporting cast, popping in on other stories like the aforementioned autobiography (his is called “A Rump Called Trump Buys A Lotta Junk”). And finally, in probably the most dramatic way I’ve seen a newspaper strip end, Trump simply buys the strip and orders everyone to vacate. I love the scenes of the cast auditioning for parts in other strips.
Because of this, I have a bit of an odd relationship with Trump. Until this election cycle I hadn’t encountered him much – the Brits have their own version of The Apprentice and the USA version never showed up on TV – so whenever I think about the real Trump, I’m always comparing him to his fictional version. I look at the news and part of me can’t help but think of him as a funny character who walked out of a fictional world and into the real one, and it’s disappointing that along the way he lost so much of what made him enjoyable.
Still, if one figure can bridge the gap between fiction and reality, perhaps more of them can. And isn’t that what we lovers of books used to fantasize about? Besides, it means I can hope that, someday, Opus too will wander around the corner.
And then run for president, because if we’re defictionalizing Opus we might as well recreate his Bill the Cat/Opus ’84 ticket.
Where to find it:
Trump may have appeared in one-off gags earlier in the series, but he became part of the cast in Happy Trails!, the final Bloom County collection (until the 2015 revival). That volume also appears in volume 5 of The Complete Bloom County Library, 1987-1989, and volume 9 (1989) in the digital version.