WIUM Tristates Public Radio

'I Just Followed My Interests': Garry Trudeau On 50 Years Of 'Doonesbury'

Jan 13, 2021
Originally published on January 13, 2021 5:20 pm

The ground-breaking comic strip Doonesbury has been with us for a half-century. It was the first daily comic strip to win a Pulitzer Prize for tackling social issues, politics and war. It's also been censored for some of those same reasons.

It all began as an irreverent strip called Bull Tales in the Yale Daily News when Garry Trudeau was a junior. Its main character was B.D., who was based on Yale's standout quarterback, Brian Dowling. The strip caught the attention of a fledgling newspaper syndicate which told Trudeau the drawing and lettering needed work but also told him it read like dispatches from the front lines of the counter culture.

"You can't exaggerate the importance of novelty in jumpstarting a career," Trudeau says. "People were so surprised by this strip that was about sex and drugs and rock 'n roll and politics and all the things that I was concerned about and was thinking about in college that I got cut a lot of slack."

The story of how Universal Press Syndicate recruited Trudeau reads like a story from the strip itself. One of the syndicate's founders stumbled upon Bull Tales and approached Trudeau using a pseudonym, offering him a 20-year contract, which the cartoonist resisted. Then, after a deal was struck, a suitcase containing the first six weeks of the new strip was stolen from Trudeau's car.

David Stanford, who's edited the collections of Doonesbury cartoons published as books for some 40 years, compiled an oral history of the syndicate.

"They were just geniuses at trying things nobody else had thought of and being right many times," Stanford says. "Doonesbury was the first big thing they launched and then [came] Ziggy and then Cathy, For Better Or For Worse, The Far Side and then eventually Calvin and Hobbes."

In addition to running the strip's web site, Stanford served as the "duty officer" for The Sandbox, a blog on the Doonesbury website where soldiers, their spouses and caregivers posted about the war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Garry Trudeau is shown at his office on Dec. 22, 1972.
AP

Although Trudeau has opposed most American military interventions of the last 50 years, he developed great respect for the men and women who have served in the all-volunteer armed services. Col. William Nash, a fan of the comic strip, arranged to have Trudeau snuck into Kuwait in the aftermath of the first Gulf War so the cartoonist could get a sense of military life.

The retired major general recalls a time when he was with his unit in Germany and being stunned one morning to see Zonker Harris in Doonesbury reminiscing about the days he was dodging the draft and reading through some correspondence with a Col. Nash.

"It's 6:00 o'clock in the morning. I'm reading this and suddenly I'm in a Doonesbury cartoon," says Nash.

B.D. is his favorite character and he cites the Doonesbury strip in April, 2004, in which B.D. loses a leg during the Battle of Fallujah in Iraq.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004 DOONESBURY © G. B. Trudeau. Reprinted with permission of ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION. All rights reserved.
ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION

"He brought the reality of war to the American people. And that's a very important thing to do," Nash says, his voice choked with emotion. "Bringing the reality of the world through a cartoon, is his great contribution to our society."

By then the Defense Department was well aware of Trudeau's affinity for American soldiers, which was also expressed in a series of strips about veterans having difficulty adjusting to civilian life. The Pentagon brought the cartoonist into Walter Reed Army Medical Center, as it was then called, so he could get to know veterans who'd lost limbs in war.

Trudeau has riffed on other episodes of social upheaval, including the AIDS epidemic.

Doonesbury is credited with being the first major comic strip to have a gay character. Its stories about the AIDS epidemic were criticized by some gay activists but when the character Andy Lippincott succumbed to AIDS in 1990, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an obituary for Lippincott.

Thursday, May 24, 1990 DOONESBURY © G. B. Trudeau. Reprinted with permission of ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION. All rights reserved.
ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION

Another Doonesbury character who came out as gay is Mark Slackmeyer, a campus rabble rouser and DJ at the Walden College radio station. In a 1996 strip, Slackmeyer accidentally outed himself and his partner on the radio. They were co-hosting a program called All Things Being Equal. Slackmeyer's former show was All Things Reconsidered. Shortly after the strips appeared, someone in the NPR New York bureau started paging Slackmeyer on the network's public address system in Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, May 29, 1973 DOONESBURY © G. B. Trudeau. Reprinted with permission of ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION. All rights reserved.
ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION

Through it all, Trudeau says he's just written about what interested him.

"I think in the beginning, I naturally asked the question, 'What might interest an audience?'," Trudeau says. "But, as that's always guesswork at best, I began to ask a different question: 'What interests me?' Because what you learn over time is that the answer's the same to both questions. If I'm not engaged, it's unlikely the audience will be, so I just followed my interests. Sometimes it led me into politics, sometimes to culture, sometimes to social or interpersonal issues."

Trudeau embraced the feminist cause through the character of Joanie Caucus. The inspiration was the cartoonist's cousin, who he describes as a suburban mom with three kids, "who had lived The Diary of a Mad Housewife experience." She left her marriage and Trudeau visited her in Colorado.

Saturday, November 13, 1976 DOONESBURY © G. B. Trudeau. Reprinted with permission of ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION. All rights reserved.
ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION

"I spent three days in a sleeping bag on the floor of her apartment debriefing her," Trudeau recalls. "'What could you have been thinking? What's driving this? How are you changing? How is your world changing? How are the genders changing in relation to one another?' And from all those conversations, I went back and came up with the character Joanie Caucus."

Trudeau said that he chose to give her the last name Caucus because he had been volunteering for the National Women's Political Caucus.

While Joanie Caucus has aged visually as she went from being a mom to grandmother in the strip, Zonker Harris doesn't look a day older than he did when he showed up in B.D.'s football huddle in September 1971.

"I would say that Zonker is probably the Snoopy of Doonesbury," Trudeau says. "I don't draw him any differently, haven't given him any gray hair. I allow him to be kind of forever young, although he has become a little bit more responsible now that he's running a business."

The business being the cultivation of recreational marijuana. At Wesleyan University in Connecticut, students have for decades celebrated Zonker Harris Day in April to salute "New England's Greatest Living Slacker."

At its height, the strip was carried by nearly 2,000 papers, some on their editorial pages. But Trudeau takes issue with the perception that Doonesbury is a political comic.

Thursday, March 15, 2012 DOONESBURY © G. B. Trudeau. Reprinted with permission of ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION. All rights reserved.
ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION

He stopped drawing the daily strip in 2014 to focus on television writing and on the Sunday comic, which has primarily focused on politics over the past four years. "The one thing I miss about not being able to write the [daily] strips is that I can't tell stories anymore." But Trudeau says he doubts he will return to writing a daily strip because he has fallen out of the rhythm of it.

He has been enjoying time with his kids and grandchildren. He's been developing movie and television projects but refuses to talk about them until they're real. But he will say that on inauguration day, he plans to suspend work on the Twitter feed of his character Roland B. Hedley, Jr., which has been a comedy haiku that gave the cartoonist an opportunity to comment on the Trump administration.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The groundbreaking comic strip "Doonesbury" has been with us for half a century. Its willingness to tackle social issues, politics and war made it the first daily comic strip to win a Pulitzer Prize. "Doonesbury" has also been censored for some of those same reasons. To celebrate the strip's 50th anniversary, there's a new book that includes a thumb drive with all 15,000 strips. Jon Kalish spoke with its creator and prepared this report.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: "Doonesbury" started when Garry Trudeau was a junior at Yale. It was originally called "Bull Tales," and it caught the attention of a fledgling newspaper syndicate. Trudeau says he was told the drawing and lettering needed work, but it read like dispatches from the front lines of the counterculture.

GARRY TRUDEAU: You can't exaggerate the importance of novelty in jump-starting a career. People were so surprised by this strip that was about sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll and politics and all the things that I'd been concerned about and thinking about in college that I got cut a lot of slack.

KALISH: "Bull Tales'" main character was B.D., who was based on Yale's standout quarterback Brian Dowling. In "Doonesbury," he emerged from the football huddles to serve in Vietnam and later in Iraq, where he lost a leg in the battle of Fallujah.

TRUDEAU: Let there be no doubt. B.D., for a wide variety of reasons, is my favorite character.

KALISH: William Nash is a retired Army general who fought in Vietnam and the first Gulf War. He first read "Doonesbury" in his local paper and later in the military's Stars and Stripes.

WILLIAM NASH: To give a major character with whom you've been associated all the years - to take away a limb, that's a big deal. They had brought to the American people the reality of war, and that's a very important thing to do. Bringing the reality of the world through a cartoon is his great contribution to our society.

KALISH: Nash heard of Trudeau's interest in covering the war and arranged for the cartoonist to embed with his unit. Trudeau then spent time at the Walter Reed Medical Center, getting to know veterans who lost limbs. His interest in covering topical issues has also gotten him in trouble.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Some newspapers say they will not run next week's "Doonesbury" comic strip involving a Texas abortion law.

KALISH: A 2012 series about the law was dropped or rewritten by scores of newspapers. More than a dozen papers refused to publish a 1973 cartoon in which the character Mark Slackmeyer declared former Attorney General John Mitchell guilty for his role in the Watergate scandal. Slackmeyer, we should note, went on to host a radio show called "All Things Reconsidered."

At its height, the strip was carried by nearly 2,000 papers, some on their editorial pages. But Trudeau takes issue with the perception that "Doonesbury" is a political comic strip. It has become something of an American history lesson, says David Stanford. He's edited the collections of "Doonesbury" cartoons published as books for more than 40 years and runs the strip's website.

DAVID STANFORD: He came to it to think and comment on what's happening in the country, and he created this platform for himself, a microphone. And thank God that that worked out because "Doonesbury," in a way, forms a social history of the U.S.

KALISH: For his part, Trudeau says he just wrote about what interested him.

TRUDEAU: I think in the beginning, I naturally asked the question, what might interest an audience? But as that's always guesswork at best, I began to ask a different question - what interests me? - because what you learn over time is that the answer is the same to both questions. If I'm not engaged, it's unlikely the audience will be. So I just followed my interests. Sometimes it led me into politics, sometimes to culture, sometimes to social or interpersonal issues.

KALISH: Trudeau tackled the AIDS epidemic through the character of Andy Lippincott. When he succumbed in 1990, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an obituary. Trudeau stopped drawing the daily strip in 2014 to focus on television writing and on the Sunday comic, which has primarily focused on politics over the past four years.

TRUDEAU: The one thing I miss about not being able to write the individual strips is that I can't tell stories anymore.

KALISH: And he worries about the future of daily comic strips.

TRUDEAU: I'm still on a lot of comics pages just because readers have created that particular habit, and editors are loath to break that habit. So just the fact that they're hanging in there and that they're running what we call the "Doonesbury" classics, which are repeats, you know, I'm very grateful that editors think it's worth the second time around. I'll be one of those guys who turns out the lights, I think.

KALISH: But not yet. Garry Trudeau has no plans to stop creating.

For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTINE AND THE QUEENS SONG, "TILTED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.