‘Doonesbury’ still feisty after 35 years
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) – Not long after the dust settled from the Iraqi explosion that took Doonesbury comic strip character B.D.’s left leg last year, the Pentagon was on the phone.
The frequent target of Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, the Defence Department offered the satirist extensive access to soldiers wounded while fighting in Iraq and the doctors and caregivers trying to put their bodies – and psyches – back together.
“There are so many ways to get it wrong,” Trudeau said of portraying the soldiers’ struggles accurately during a recent meeting of the American Association of Sunday and Features Editors. “They figured, correctly, I could use all the help I could get.”
It also spoke to the fact that Doonesbury, an often funny, sometimes frustrating and frequently controversial comic strip born in syndication 35 years ago, is still considered weighty enough to get the government’s attention.
Over the years, the strip – which started as a cartoon that Yale graduate Trudeau, 57, wrote for the college paper – has used humour and biting commentary to address a broad sweep of society, from race relations and AIDS to same-sex marriage and stem cells.
His huge cast of characters have aged along the way: Mike Doonesbury, the strip’s lead character, has gone from idealistic college student to befuddled dad of a college-age daughter; Zonker Harris, the former professional tanner is now a nanny; Uncle Duke, the Hunter S. Thompsonesque mercenary, ran for the presidency in 2000 and, until recently, was serving as mayor of the fictional Iraqi city of Al-Amok.
But he’s always come back to raw politics, taking a page of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, which pioneered the use of poking fun at politicians on the funny pages. Most recently, he has relentlessly hammered the war and U.S. President George W. Bush, who’s depicted as an asterisk wearing an increasingly battered Roman helmet.
“Well, it’s a humour strip, so my first responsibility has always been to entertain the reader,” Trudeau said in response to e-mailed questions from the Associated Press. “But if, in addition, I can help move readers to thought and judgment about issues that concern me, so much the better.”
Many times, those efforts have landed him in trouble with newspaper editors who have pulled or edited his strips because of salty language, uncomfortable images or controversial subjects.
Last fall, 20 newspapers objected to a strip that had Vice-President Dick Cheney using a profanity as he remotely coached Bush through a press conference. The strip married two real-life controversies – a similar profanity Cheney used on the Senate floor and rumours denied by the White House that a mysterious bulge under the president’s suit jacket was an audio receiver, designed to help him through a debate.
His subjects often claim he’s unfair and trying to score political points for liberals.
In 1984, a week of Doonesbury strips depicting then-vice-president George Bush placing his “manhood in a blind trust” so he could serve in the Reagan White House led to this Bush retort: “Doonesbury’s carrying water for the opposition. Trudeau is coming out of deep left field.”
In a column last year criticizing the B.D. story line in Doonesbury, Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly said Trudeau was using “someone’s personal tragedy” to generate opposition to the war. He led off the column with an anecdote about Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels using images of fallen soldiers to encourage war against Poland.
Trudeau, who describes his politics as “stone dull moderate,” said he’s supported Republicans in the past but has felt compelled to go after “mindless ideologues like the ones who’ve had a stranglehold on power the past five years.”
Some observers say the war has given Doonesbury a new energy, one that they say was largely absent during the 1990s, when American politics and culture didn’t deliver the high-stakes issues that experts say satire needs to thrive.
“I think Doonesbury was really of the Vietnam generation and became a voice of the Vietnam generation, and what’s interesting to me is that decades later (Trudeau) tapped into that exact same thing with the Iraq war,” said Matt Davies, a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist for The Journal News in Westchester, N.Y. “Because of his reputation and perhaps his infamy, he rose to the challenge with the Iraq war and was back throwing barbs on the comics page. He’s still got it. He’s still an angry young man.”
Of course, Doonesbury is no longer the oddity it once was. In the 1970s, the idea of using humour to skewer the political and social issues of the day was still rare in popular culture.
“Those were very self-serious times,” said Trudeau, who won a Pulitzer in 1975. “The end of the Vietnam War changed all that. The nation exhaled, Saturday Night Live hit big, and satire really took off.”
Christopher Lamb, an associate professor of communication at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, dedicated a chapter to Doonesbury in his book Drawn to Extremes: The Use and Abuse of Political Cartoons.
“He rides the cultural, political and social waves,” said Lamb. “He’s a heck of an observer.”
Reason magazine Managing Editor Jesse Walker, on the other hand, said the strip has become more Democrat polemic than satire.
“Ultimately what happened to Trudeau was he got older, no longer had his finger on the pulse and started writing as an outsider,” Walker said.
‘Doonesbury’ still feisty after 35 years