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Garretson Beekman Trudeau

Garretson Beekman Trudeau

Garretson Beekman (Garry) Trudeau (born 1948) was a comic-strip cartoonist, Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of "Doonesbury, " playwright, and animated cartoon-maker for film and television.

Garry Trudeau was born in New York to parents of Canadian ancestry. When he was five his father, a doctor, moved to Saranac Lake, New York, where Garry spent an idyllic childhood. His parents divorced in 1960, and Garry was sent to St. Paul's school in Concord, Connecticut, where he compensated for the school's overemphasis on sports by concentrating on art. During his years at Yale University, where he prepared his B.A. and M.F.A. in the School of Art and Architecture, he began to spoof his fellow students and the staff in "Bull Tales, " in which most of the antics of the liberated generation were irreverently portrayed.

In 1970 John McNeel and Jim Andrews inaugurated the Universal Press Syndicate by publishing Trudeau's work under the less offensive title of "Doonesbury, " a name concocted from the Yale slang for a good-natured fool ("doone") with the last syllable of a roommate's surname. Trudeau's lack of reverence for public persons soon got him into trouble. Indianapolis publisher Eugene Pulliam canceled the strip soon after its debut in the Indianapolis Star, the Phoenix Republic, and the Muncie Press. In 1972 it was banned by the editor of the Akron Beacon Journal, Perry Morgan, but reinstated after reader protest. An episode in which then Attorney-General Mitchell was declared guilty of Watergate misdemeanors was canceled by Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post, by the Los Angeles Times, and by the Boston Globe. The Providence Bulletin moved Doonesbury off the comic pages on to the editorial page, and later there was trouble with the Philadelphia Bulletin over the alternation of an offending word.

Despite the controversies, Trudeau was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 and received a D.H.L. (Doctor of Humane Letters) from Yale in 1976. In 1977 he received an Academy Award nomination and a special jury prize from the Cannes Film Festival for his film "A Doonesbury Special."

He later expanded his activity into theater and television, one of the offerings being a series of television spoofs on the 1988 election campaign: "Tanner, '88." His work has been collected into many albums.

In 1980 he married Jane Pauley, the CBS television show host, and had three children, twins Ross and Rachel and Tom. He was extremely reticent by nature and refused to discuss his private life.

Trudeau's comic strip was considered by some, such as Art Buchwald, as "some of the best satire that has come along in a long time." Michael—"Mike"—Doonesbury, the eponymous figure, is a good-natured, undistinguished fellow with a pencil shaped nose and granny glasses, not too successful with the opposite sex, and generally bemused by the antics of his companions. The cast of characters surrounding him date from the exuberant and unconventional early 1970s in the campus world. Many of them refer to known personalities: "Megaphone" Mark Slackmeyer (activist Mark Zanger), "B.D." (grid star Brian Dowling), the Rev.W. S. Sloan, Jr. (The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr.), Uncle Duke (journalist Hunter S. Thompson), and Congresswoman Lacey Davenport (Millicent Fenwick?). To these are added figures representative of topical groups: Zonker Harris, the hippie; Joanie Caucus, the liberated wife and mother, who abandons her family to go to law school; Virginia, her Black roommate, with her hanger-on lover, the flashy Clyde; Phred, the engaging Vietnamese terrorist; Boopsie, B.D.'s addle-brained sexy girl friend; Honey, Uncle Duke's Chinese admirer; Black Panthers, and a number of precocious children. All of these mingle with and comment on figures currently in the real world, chiefly those involved in political upheaval: Nixon; John Mitchell; James Dean; Gerald Ford ("Snowbunny"); William Simon, the Treasury "Czar"; Kingman Brewster, president of Yale. Ronald Reagan's brain is dissected and found to be equipped only to see a rosy past; George Bush is depicted as an absence surrounding a pair of lips.

In 1983 Trudeau decided to take a leave of absence in order to "graduate" his characters into the 1980s. After 1983, he resumed work with a newly-sharpened pen, taking on such sensitive topics as negligence in the Navy after the Iowa tragedy, "Star Wars, " anti-abortionists, homelessness, and the invasion of Panama.

Trudeau's pungent satire was often seen as offensive chiefly to conservatives, but he was equally unsparing of trendy behavior of any variety: drug dealers and takers, like Uncle Duke; yuppies living in redecorated coldwater attics in New York; ecologists going to the extreme of refusing to diaper their children; house husbands; and two-income parents who hire anyone, such as Zonker, to baby-sit while they pursue their careers. Trudeau did not hesitate to tackle the delicate subject of AIDS and the embarrassed and embarrassing public treatment of the theme. This sequence was withdrawn by the Boston Globe, but reinstated because of general protest.

Trudeau's jagged drawing techniques (due in part to the influence of Jules Feiffer) and spidery script did not win much praise from artists, but his penetrating humor was compared to Daumier's. Occasionally an underlying anger—for example, regarding the slaughter of villagers in Vietnam, the plight of Cambodian refugees, or the Kent State massacre—recalls the satire of Defoe. Yet there was less malice than concern in Trudeau's comments. He defended his attacks on our national and social weaknesses by declaring, "Obviously, all of the institutions of this country are understandably imperfect. They are in any society. But it cannot be considered sanity to hide the imperfections from our children so that they will grow up blind to them. Is it not better to tell the truth, even in hyperbole, and hope that they will do something about it?" (response to Sharp Whitmore on the Iowa incident).

Trudeau's aim was defined by himself to be "to let the small meannesses of life face each other in distortion, stretched, juggled and juxtaposed, but always lit with laughter to ease the pain of self-recognition; to seek out the vignette that speaks much to the lives of many; to distill and refine language so as to epitomize; and to look everywhere for simple meanings…."

The fact that "Doonesbury" was at both the top and the bottom of opinion polls among comics readers suggests the impact of Trudeau's social criticism. As the 1990s began, Trudeau began working on a new project. The project was a film about AIDS. Trudeau has centered many of his cartoon strips around AIDS. He states that the focus is to create awareness. In 1995 a celebratory book was released by Trudeau called Flashbacks: Twenty-five Years of Doonesbury.

Further Reading

World Encyclopedia of Comics (1976), edited by Maurice Horn, places Garry Trudeau in the context of world-class cartoonists and analyzes his comic strip. Contemporary Literary Criticism (1980) edited by Dedria Bryfonski and Gerard J. Senick, provides interesting analysis and comment. Contemporary Authors (Volumes 81-84), edited by Frances Carol Locher, and Something About the Author (Volume 35, 1984), edited by Anne Commire, both offer more recent comments on Trudeau's work. Who's Who in America (45th Edition, 1988-1989) contains a recent, but very brief, biography. Among Trudeau's best-known works are: Doonesbury (1971; play, 1983), The Doonesbury Chronicles (1975) Doonesbury's Greatest Hits (1978), and Rapmaster Ronnie (with Elizabeth Swados; 1984). □

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