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Gary Trudeau Reflects on 40 Years of Drawing ‘Doonesbury’

December 23, 2010 at 6:05 PM EDT
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It's been 40 years since Garry Trudeau first drew the popular comic strip "Doonesbury." The Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist speaks with Jeffrey Brown about a new book chronicling his decades of work.
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MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight: celebrating 40 years of the “Doonesbury” universe and its legacy.

Jeffrey Brown talks to its creator.

JEFFREY BROWN: In October 1970, a young man in a football helmet going by the name B.D. met his new college roommate, one Mike Doonesbury. In the 40 years since, those two and a cast that’s grown by the dozens and into several generations have inhabited the phenomenon known as “Doonesbury,” one that has entertained and provoked readers, as part baby boom generation chronicle, part sharp political commentary, and, oh, yes, part very funny comic strip.

In 1975, its creator, Garry Trudeau, became the first comic strip cartoonist to win the Pulitzer Prize for his Watergate cartoons. Decades later, he’s brought new attention to the valor and suffering of contemporary war veterans, working with the Defense Department and visiting Walter Reed and other military hospitals.

Looking back at it all, the brand-new “40: A Doonesbury Retrospective,” has just been released.

And Garry Trudeau joins me now. Welcome to you.

GARRY TRUDEAU, cartoonist: Thank you so much.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the introduction to this new collection, you write that it is not about — it is not about Watergate, gas lines, Reaganomics, Monica, all these things that you have sort of written about, in fact, over the years.

What is it about, and what now, in retrospect, is “Doonesbury” about?

GARRY TRUDEAU: Well, I think what it began as, a kind of diary of my generation coming of age, became the main driving force behind it.

It’s just inherently fun watching a generation evolve, to see what it’s meant to be.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s what you have always thought about it, as, I’m going to watch my generation evolve?

GARRY TRUDEAU: I think so, but I don’t think it was — I had quite such a grandiose take on it. I was just trying to get through the day and create a series of jokes and meet a series of deadlines.

But I think, looking back on it, that’s pretty much what it became. It was certainly marketed that way, that, when this strip was taken out to editors — and it was a very old-fashioned business — it was all relationships. The salesmen would go to individual editors around the country and sell it one by one.

And I think the way they framed it was, look, it’s a little amateurish. He doesn’t have the skill set that you normally associate with a professional big-time comic strip, but it’s fresh. It’s — it’s — it has a kind of authenticity. It was sold as kind of dispatches from the front lines of the countercultural wars.

JEFFREY BROWN: And all these characters that we became familiar with, B.D., Zonker, Joanie Caucus — I mean, you can go on and on and on here — they’re — they’re people that you knew or knew of and then exaggerated, or what, and then put into the real world somehow, right?

GARRY TRUDEAU: Yes, I — you know, I think that many of the characters — and I get into this in the book — were inspired by people I met. But they’re rarely models.

It’s just a place to begin. It’s a series of characteristics. And, in many cases, I would take someone who was wholly admirable and turn them into someone who was completely reprehensible. This is what I did to people I loved when I was first starting out.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Sweet, yes, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

GARRY TRUDEAU: Because they’re just more interesting if they’re not…

JEFFREY BROWN: More interesting to look at their…

GARRY TRUDEAU: If they’re not prancing around as role models, but if they’re flawed. And there is — there’s just more you can do with them.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, some years ago, I came to visit you in your studio. And I remember you telling me that you spend — that the beginning of your working day is really just reading the news, right?

So — but why? How do you use the news for the strip?

GARRY TRUDEAU: Well, I just try to feed my head.

And, actually, this is one of the things that I most like about the Internet and the surfing phenomenon, is that I can link my way — just follow my interests. And it’s so quick to find myself in unexpected places. It’s such — and it’s such — it’s often such a pleasure to just follow my curiosity into places that I otherwise wouldn’t have gone.

But, yes, I marinate in all this stuff that’s happening around me. Sometimes, an idea will occur to me quickly, and, by Thursday, I’m hard at work on it. I send out a casting call. I decide which characters will work best.

JEFFREY BROWN: Where does that call go to?

(LAUGHTER)

GARRY TRUDEAU: It just goes to some place in the lizard brain where everybody lives.

JEFFREY BROWN: Synapses…Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

GARRY TRUDEAU: And I try to figure out if there’s a character that works for the idea. If not, I’m perfectly happy to create new ones. I have just created two new ones in the last couple weeks, just because there wasn’t any one quite right for what I had in mind.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because of the political edge, you have seen the strip moved around, right, in some cases, many cases, moved off the comics page into the editorial page, sometimes taken out altogether.

We call it the funnies, right, the funny pages. What is the role — what is the place, I guess, for political satire? Where does it belong, do you think?

GARRY TRUDEAU: Well, I think that, if it were strictly political satire, it would be easy to make the argument, as many editors have, I think speciously, that it belongs on the op-ed page. And the reason I…

JEFFREY BROWN: You have fought that.

GARRY TRUDEAU: I have fought that because — because, you know, I have long, extended periods of times where I’m telling stories that aren’t necessarily edgy or topical or anything that would justify putting them on that page.

So, we — yes, we have respectfully requested that newspapers put us back on the comics page.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to ask you about one strip before I — before we finish here, which is — goes to this most recent focus on the war injuries.

And that’s the strip in 2004 where B.D., the — one of the original characters, right, we find that he’s lost his leg in battle. We also find that he has lost his helmet. For the first time, readers see him whole, in a sense, right? We see his hair, his head, but we also see what’s happened to him.

GARRY TRUDEAU: Right. It took on this kind of metaphoric resonance that wasn’t wholly intentional. I was racing through that particular strip. It was the end of a three-day reveal where B.D.’s lost consciousness and he’s — he’s cutting in and out. And his teammate is trying to keep him alert, because he has a better chance of surviving.

And, in the last panel, the camera, if you will, pulls back, and we see, looking right down on B.D. on a stretcher, that he’s missing his leg and he’s missing his helmet.

The decision to remove the helmet came at the last second. I was trying to sort through the details of what happens to somebody during that golden hour on the battlefield. And I was saying, what’s important to include and not to? Well, they take off the helmet. I thought, aha, take off the helmet. That works on a number of levels.

And so I just scrawled in a little matted wet hair on top of his head. I didn’t think out how he was going to look later — I figured I would worry about that later — and just barely made my deadline. And I had all these consequences that I then had to live with.

I had never, I think, within any one particular strip, ever signed on for this tremendous rolling responsibility that telling that story would entail. And so here I am…

JEFFREY BROWN: You felt…

GARRY TRUDEAU: I felt it then. I felt it weight of it then.

And — but I got a lot of help very early on. The next day, I got a — I was contacted by the Department of Defense. And they said, we see where you’re going with this, and we suspect you might need some help.

So, I was invited down to Walter Reed to start talking with warriors and caregivers.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, when you went through all this — finally, when you went through all this 40 years of strips to put this together, did you feel a coherence, a cohesion to the tale that you had put together?

I mean, after all, you’re doing sort of day by day by day. Then you add it up. What does it add up to at 40 years?

GARRY TRUDEAU: I think that, yes, it sort of took me by surprise that it had a kind of novelistic totality that certainly was unintentional.

I’m a short-order cook. I’m just trying to get through the week. I’m just trying to — to push the story forward a little bit. And — and I do that in the most erratic way possible. I will do — I do a week at a time. And, sometimes, I will do a Thursday strip, and then I will have to reverse-engineer it to figure out how I got to it.

JEFFREY BROWN: How did you get there? Yes.

GARRY TRUDEAU: How I got there.

And so I kind of lurch around — lurch along telling little bits of the story, and try to imagine the next few steps ahead. And that’s about it. So, it was very surprising to step back, to go through the 40 huge notebooks, one per year, to edit this book down, and to see that it actually told a story of a generational journey and the beginnings of another journey, the generation that has followed.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, 40 years of “Doonesbury.” Garry Trudeau, thanks for talking to us.

GARRY TRUDEAU: Oh, my great pleasure.