On October 26, 1970, Garry Trudeau's comic strip Doonesbury debuted in 28 newspapers around the United States, revolutionizing the language and cultural significance of cartoon art forever with its depth of focus, breadth of satirical targets, and richness of character development. From its roots as a Yale Daily News strip satirizing college life, Doonesbury expanded the horizons of its content and its popularity until, almost 30 years after its first national appearance, it was a feature in over 1,350 newspapers across the country.
Following on ground broken by Walt Kelly's Pogo, Trudeau challenged the definition of the comic page as escape and silliness by bringing sharp satire, social commentary, and adult issues into his strip. His heroes, and their quirky responses to the ups and downs of life in the late twentieth century, have stood the test of time, chronicling the changing priorities and dilemmas of the baby-boom generation from college into middle age. His style of cartooning, with its panels of complex artwork and extensive bubble-free dialogue, has been much imitated.
In the 1970s, the initial Doonesbury focus was on the inhabitants of an anonymous eastern college campus and its nearby Walden commune. Conservative, gung-ho football star B.D. (a tribute to a real Yale athlete, Brian Dowling) and his loopy, girl-crazy roommate Mike Doonesbury formed the initial core of the strip. Soon they were joined by "Megaphone Mark" Slackmeyer, a campus radical, Calvin, a revolutionary Black Panther, and Zonker, a stoned, irreverent hippie. B.D.'s cheerleader girlfriend Boopsie, and her intellectual roommate Nicole have perpetual disagreements about women's liberation, while the clueless college president constantly tries to sidestep controversy. As time passes, Mike learns about economics, racism, and class when he tutors a savvy inner-city black kid, while B.D. takes his raging drive to win from the football field to Vietnam, where he is captured by Phred, a charming Viet Cong terrorist who teaches him something about the history of Vietnam and the absurdities of war. Those still left at school move to a communal house on idyllic Walden Puddle, where they are joined by still more refugees of the turbulent 1970. One such is Joanie Caucus, an older housewife who has left her stifling life and her husband behind to return to college, and becomes the spokesperson for women's liberation while she tries to get into law school.
Across the decades, these core characters, and many others, tracked the trends and current events of their time and place in history, graduating from college, surviving the yuppie years, and experiencing marriage, divorce, and parenthood. Through many thousands of ingeniously created panels, Doonesbury has offered complex insights into personal relationships together with incisive social commentary. Joanie Caucus, remarried to Washington, D.C. columnist Rick Redfern, bemoans the difficulty of non-sexist child rearing as her young son, holding the doll she gave him for Christmas as if it were the rifle she would never buy him, aims it straight at her. Radio talk-show host Mark Slackmeyer, still the leftist radical, comes out as gay late in the 1980s, but his boyfriend is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who gets along with Mark's right wing father better than Mark ever did. The quandaries of everyday modern life ring true, as does Trudeau's ironic, wish-I'd-said-that dialogue.
Interspersed with the "personal" stories of the characters are direct visitations from public figures. A favorite Doonesbury scenario is a four-panel strip with the White House in each panel, unchanged except for dialogue. In these, presidents from Nixon to Clinton are effectively skewered by the words Trudeau puts in their mouths. In later years, with a technique possibly inspired by the icons of modern computer jargon, presidents and others have been represented only by meaningful icons—a floating feather for vice-president Dan Quayle, for example, or a buttery waffle for Bill Clinton, proving perhaps that a symbol may be worth a thousand caricatures.
One of the most powerful symbols Trudeau created is that of Mr. Butts, the talking spokes-cigarette for the tobacco lobby. Mr. Butts originally appeared in a troubled Mike Doonesbury's nightmares when Mike, by then an advertising agent, is asked to design a campaign to improve tobacco's image. The cynical Mr. Butts has reappeared frequently thereafter to lampoon the tobacco lobby, becoming a powerful image in the anti-smoking campaign. Indeed, Doonesbury has frequently been a catalyst for change as well as presaging events. Senator Bob Dole once called the strip the "best source for what's going on in Washington." In 1971, well before the conservative Reagan years, a forward-looking B.D. called Ronald Reagan his "hero." In 1984, almost 10 years before Congressman Gingrich became Speaker of the House, another character worried that he would "wake up someday in a country run by Newt Gingrich." Repressive laws in the wealthy town of Palm Beach, Florida, allowed people of color to be stopped regularly by police, and required domestic servants to register with local authorities. After the bright light of Doonesbury's satire was focused on the town's policies for a time, the laws were repealed.
Because of its mission to attack difficult issues and mock public figures, Doonesbury has always roused controversy. Many newspapers place the strip on their editorial page, considering it inappropriate for the comics, while others regularly pull individual strips when the content is judged too extreme. In the 1990s, when Doonesbury came out with a series of strips in support of legalization of marijuana for medical use, the attorney general of California railed against the strip and tried unsuccessfully to have it pulled from papers in the state. It is this hard-hitting political satire that earned Garry Trudeau the Pulitzer Prize for political cartoon commentary in 1975, the first time that honor had ever been conferred on a comic strip.
Trudeau, born into a family of physicians in New York City in 1948, came honestly by his gift for trouble-causing satire—his great-great-grandfather was driven out of New York because of the caricatured sculptures he made of his colleagues. Known for his avoidance of the press, Trudeau, an avid student and researcher of the U.S. political scene, also writes editorials and draws editorial cartoons for the New York Times. He has written film scripts, and the book for a Broadway musical of Doonesbury in 1983, though many critics did not think the cartoon translated well to the stage. He has also created Doonesbury television specials and a musical revue called Rap Master Ronnie, spoofing the Reagan years. For decades, he refused to compromise the principles of his creation by allowing merchandising, but he finally succumbed in 1998, when he permitted Doonesbury products to be sold, with all proceeds going to the campaign for literacy.
In 1988, when president George Bush said of Trudeau, "He speaks for a bunch of Brie-tasting, Chardonnay-sipping elitists," he was simply referring to the most negative baby boomer stereotype of the 1980s, the pampered yuppie. But Trudeau's strip speaks for more than the elite, clearly addressing a far wider audience than liberal Americans of a certain generation. Doonesbury fills a need in the American press for progressive readers who appreciate the demystification of complex issues through no-nonsense, direct language and humor. Though, by the late 1990s, many other comics had appeared that attempted to fill this need (even one especially for conservative readers), Doonesbury paved the way for these, and for a comics page that explores adult issues through humor. The characters who inhabit the panels of Doonesbury are old friends to its readers, and one of Trudeau's great talents is his ability to make these characters—with the possible exception of faceless politicos—lovable to his readers. They keep reading to enjoy a cynical and satirical take on current events. And they keep reading to see how life is turning out for the old gang.
Satin, Allan D. A Doonesbury Index: 1970-1983. Metuchen, New Jersey, Scarecrow Press, 1985.
Trudeau, G. B. Flashbacks: Twenty-Five Years of Doonesbury. Kansas City, Andrews and McMeel, 1995.