The creator of America's first and best satirical daily newspaper
cartoon talks about 40 years of upsetting politicians and editors
26 October 2010
The first Doonesbury strip, published 40 years ago today, seems naive
looked at through modern lenses. It begins with a character so
sparsely drawn he barely exists, though you are intrigued immediately
by the American football helmet he is wearing while sitting in an armchair.
He is joined by a scraggy-haired young man with a pencil for a nose
and the letter O to represent his glasses. This is Michael Doonesbury
and the helmeted football player is his new college roommate, BD.
Little did their creator Garry Trudeau know when he sketched out that
first awkward encounter between them, published on 26 October 1970,
that he had just made comic history. Nor did he have any idea that he
was embarking on a journey that would stretch into the indefinite
future and that those scratchy beginnings would turn into a chronicle
of modern times.
The strip had come about almost by chance. Trudeau had been having a
bit of fun as a third-year Yale student, dabbling with a sports
cartoon called Bull Tales based on a real-life quarterback in the
local team called Brian Dowling. Trudeau expected the strip to die at
the end of that football season. But the cartoon was spotted by a
book editor who thought he'd take a punt on it. Out of the blue,
Trudeau, at the tender age of 21, was invited to turn the strip into
a syndicated newspaper feature, an extraordinary privilege given the
national exposure and the almost tenure-like terms it offered with
contracts lasting 20 years.
"I had given no consideration to a career in cartoons," Trudeau says
now. "I thought I was on track to become a graphic designer. So I
asked for a one-year contract. My editors howled with laughter."
You could say that was the first Doonesbury joke, and readers have
been howling with laughter ever since. And not just laughing. They've
been frowning, shouting, crying, blushing the full gamut of
emotions as a result of a strip that broke the mould of the comic
page and shattered countless conventions. Over the last four decades
Doonesbury has established itself as so much more than a traditional
cartoon. It is a soap opera, a tragedy, a comedy, an investigative
agency, a liberal political commentary, a scourge of pomposity and
corruption, a humanitarian exercise, all rolled into one.
We are sitting in the east-side Manhattan apartment that Trudeau uses
as a studio. I'd expected some scruffy garret quarters, a sort of
scraggy-haired bricks-and-mortar equivalent of that first Doonesbury.
Instead Trudeau welcomes me into a very light and pleasant space with
a wonderful view over Roosevelt Island. The room is richly carpeted
and the walls lined with pictures by New York artist David Levinthal.
The centre of the room is dominated by a draughtsman's board, on
which the latest strip is being crafted.
Trudeau's working day has changed remarkably little in 40 years. He
begins it by what he calls "marinating the news", devouring the New
York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal at home a few
blocks away in the company of his wife, former television journalist
Jane Pauley. "Mostly I'm just waiting for something to happen, in me,
and mostly it does."
He starts with a subject, and from that the week's offering evolves,
produced as a block of six days' strips. The one he's currently
working on sees Jeff Redfern in Afghanistan trying to sell the
products of his company Overkill to Hamid Karzai. That's pretty
typical of what he does, Trudeau says, "taking these highly
improbable characters and having them collide with real events".
Trudeau takes me to a back room where volumes of his past work are
stored in a cupboard, with his original pencil drawings stacked
alongside the inked versions that are done for him by an associate.
"In the old days I didn't much value the pencil originals," Trudeau
tells me. "So for the first 20 years my Friday ritual would be that
as I faxed the last one I would take the six drawings and throw them
in the trash can."
Lining this back room are framed magazine covers, six Newsweek and
two Time, each one devoted to Doonesbury. That in itself tells a
story. When Trudeau began his syndicated cartoon he entered a world
where the comics page was almost entirely non-topical and devoid of
any political reference.
That was partly the result of logistics strips had to be drawn six
weeks in advance in order to circulate them to newspapers across
America and partly because cartoons were meant to be just that:
politics-free, family-friendly fun.
Within a year of those tentative beginnings Trudeau had torn up the
rules of the cartoon strip and begun rewriting them, one strip at a
time. His work was risque, spikey and above all of the moment. "I was
writing about the issues of my day sex, drugs, rock'n'roll,
politics. That was wholly new to comics, which were broad in their
humour and rarely touched on anything remotely topical."
Was he aware of what he was doing? "One of the great things of being
young is that you're not aware, you lack self-consciousness," he
says. "I was wholly clueless about the things I was not supposed to
be doing. I didn't set out to be a troublemaker, though quite quickly
the strip became a cause of trouble."
That's an understatement. In contrast to his fellow cartoonists, who
were busily drawing fluffy animals and naughty schoolchildren,
Trudeau waded into Vietnam, Watergate, feminism, abortion, hypocrisy
in the White House, pot smoking and sex. Though he himself came from
a moderate Republican background, Trudeau found himself manning the
barricades of the counter-culture.
"It was the cauldron, the late 60s, when I began to think as an
adult. All hell was taking place, the Black Panthers were on trial,
students were shot in the Kent State protests, war was waging on the
other side of the globe, it was very hard not to be swept up in all of that."
Printers loved him. He pushed his deadlines further and further back,
to make the strip more and more live. One printer in Kansas City,
Trudeau learned years later, did so much overtime setting his strips
that he bought a yacht with the extra earnings and called it Doonesbury.
But editors had kittens. And the owners of local newspapers had fits.
Several began cancelling the strip altogether, or censoring its
wilder equence in which Zonker extols the virtues of "fine, uncut
Turkish hashish" to a young child.
Dozens more dropped the sequence in February 1976 when Andy
Lippincott was introduced, the first gay character to appear on the
comics page. In November of that year more than 30 newspapers
scrapped a four-day tease in which Joanie and Rick Redfern (who later
spawned Jeff) end up lying in a postcoital embrace in bed. The Bangor
Daily News blocked out that final frame with the weather forecast
("Fair, cold, highs in the 30s").
Censorship was straightforward, and Trudeau never complained because
he says "I knew the editors were caught between a rock and a hard
place". More sinister was the decision of about a third of the papers
that carried him to switch him from the comics to the editorial page
alongside their political commentators. "We resisted the move,"
Trudeau says. "For the simple reason that there are far more readers
on the comics page than on the comment page and you want to be where
the reader is."
Watergate was the point of no return. Trudeau provoked indignation
and adoration in equal measure when his character Mark Slackmayer, a
radical DJ, declared Nixon's former attorney general, John Mitchell,
"guilty, guilty, guilty!" even before he had been charged. The
Washington Post commented sniffily that "If anyone is going to find
any defendant guilty, it's going to be the due process of justice,
not a comic strip artist."
But the Washington Post hadn't counted on the tenacity and the thick
skin of Garry Trudeau. As he wrote on the 25th anniversary of
Doonesbury, "Satire is unfair. It's rude and uncivil. It lacks
balance and proportion, and it obeys none of the normal rules of
engagement. Satire picks a one-sided fight, and the more its intended
target reacts, the more its practitioner gains the advantage. And as
if that weren't enough, this savage, unregulated sport is protected
by the United States constitution. Cool, huh?"
But it must have been scary, I ask him, having such opprobrium thrown
at him when he was still so young and so new to the trade.
"Yes I suppose it was. And very distracting. I found myself crisis
managing almost as much as I was creating. I made a decision about
three or four years into it, that I better step back from giving
interviews. Once I did that I found it quite suited me. I found that
not having a public profile was not hurting the work, and it freed me
up to be the satirist I wanted to be. It also had the unintended
consequence of creating a mystique of Trudeau as a hermit, but that
wasn't it at all."
Trudeau has maintained that publicity blackout, and with it the
mystique of the silent artist, right up to this day. Our meeting
marks something of an emergence for him, out of the cave into which
he crawled in the 1970s and back into the glare of a public existence.
The reason for his decision to end his almost four-decade-long state
of purdah is that he wants to lend his support to a new collection of
his work, 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective. The book is a vast tome
that runs to 695 pages, yet it contains just 13% of the total strips produced.
Trudeau explains that he and his collaborators decided to focus on
the characters and their relationships, rather than the more topical
storylines, which in many cases would now have lost their relevance.
"There is nothing worse than annotated humour," he says.
The characters resonate over the years, starting with that initial
odd couple. Trudeau invented the name Doonesbury by combining doone
boarding-school slang, he says, for "a good-natured dufus, a clueless
sort without any mean to them" with the ending of the name of his
friend Charlie Pillsbury. "Charlie was like that, innocent but with a
kind of grace, and to my amazement he's been perfectly happy with
this association, which just proves he's a doone."
Then there was BD, the original star of Bull Tales. Trudeau's BD was
as obtuse and arrogant as the real BD was admirable and
self-effacing. Trudeau didn't know Dowling, but much later they met
and became friends, and the former quarterback has been supportive of
his fictitious namesake.
Such positive feedback was not forthcoming from the model for Duke,
the self-obsessed, utterly unscrupulous epitome of evil who has sent
a chill down readers' spines for all these years. He was a parody of
gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson, who was deeply resentful of it,
seeing his Doonesbury appearance as a form of copyright infringement.
Thompson sent an envelope of used toilet paper to Trudeau and once
memorably said: "If I ever catch that little bastard, I'll tear his lungs out."
"One never knew quite how seriously to take that, though he did shoot
his assistant in later life," Trudeau notes.
Other public figures whom Trudeau targeted were no less undignified
in their responses. Donald Trump called him a "jerk" and a "total
loser". When Trudeau invoked Frank Sinatra's links with the mafia in
an astonishing strip that ended with a photograph of the singer
cavorting with his mob friends, Ol' Blue Eyes made the mistake,
during a concert at the Carnegie Hall, of attacking not just Trudeau
but also his wife who was a big television sweetheart at the time.
"Well, that's the first rule of the neighbourhood, you don't go after
the women and children," Trudeau says. "The audience booed him, which
must have come as a shock to Sinatra."
The lesson of all this is that when Doonesbury comes calling, do not
react, no matter how hurtful the things the strip says about you. It
will only make Trudeau redouble his attack if you do. It was funny
how few of his victims understood that basic principle, not least the
politicians. Dan Quayle, whom he depicted as a feather, wailed that
Trudeau had a vendetta against him. George Bush the elder was
incapable of not responding, saying he wanted to "kick the hell out
of him". Jeb Bush once came up to Trudeau at a Republican convention
and cautioned him to "walk softly". "And of course that just
encouraged me, I knew I was on the right track. I could never
understand why they took it so personally. Satire is a form of social
control, it's what you do. It's not personal. It's a job."
Trudeau is now on to his eighth president, who turns out to be one of
his hardest. Obama he sees as a "raging moderate"; and satirists
don't do well with moderates as "there's not a whole lot to get hold of".
He's also on to the third generation of characters. Doonesbury and BD
have both procreated and now, he says, "it's about time for the
second wave of characters to have children. That's a frightening thought."
Though the original duo have grown older, they continue to be anchors
of the strip. BD led the way into Trudeau's current passion,
exploring the traumas and travails of the wounded warrior. It's been
Trudeau's device for dealing with the wars in Iraq and Afghanisatan
opposing the wars, yet honouring the men and women who have given
everything to them. BD's loss of a leg at Fallujah, followed by his
removal, finally, of his helmet, was a poignant symbol of sacrifice.
"He had had his helmet on him for 35 years. When it came off it
conveyed that he was now vulnerable and his life had changed for
ever. I had to figure out who the new BD would be."
So many years, so many characters, so many strips. Fourteen thousand
in all. Doesn't he ever fear he will grind to a halt, lose his edge,
have nothing more to add? "I try not to permit myself that feeling.
It's like climbing a mountain you don't look down. I don't want to
contemplate the possibility too deeply that one week I'll come up blank."
Has that ever happened?
"Oh yes. All the time. Thanks for not noticing."