This October marked the 40th anniversary of Doonesbury, the comic strip that Garry Trudeau started as an undergrad at Yale. Over the past four decades, the strip has chronicled virtually every major political and cultural shift, from Vietnam and Watergate to Afghanistan and the Tea Party. When viewed as a single, uninterrupted work of historical fiction, the collected Doonesbury reads less like 14,000-plus reasons to chuckle over your morning coffee and more like this era's War and Peace. Trudeau achieves this the same way Tolstoy did: by methodically constructing a large cast of complex and intriguing characters whom the reader comes to care about, then letting the great tsunami of current events envelop them all. The cumulative result is as affecting and richly felt as any narrative produced by an artist of Trudeau's generation.
Two new books released this month commemorate the milestone. 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective includes 1,800 strips that encompass most of the major story arcs of the series, from Zonker's early pothead days to the budding romance between Mike Doonesbury's daughter and a wounded young Iraq vet named Toggle. And Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau provides a rare glimpse of the artist's original drawings and sketches, as well as the numerous projects that have spun off from the strip.
On a recent morning, Trudeau sat down in his studio in midtown Manhattan to discuss everything from his student days at Yale to the challenges of tackling Obama. "What's wonderful about a comic strip is the stories unfurl in such a tiny, incremental way that you can keep a story alive for weeks," he says. "If I were writing a piece for a newspaper or magazine, it would be a one-off — people might read it that day and then move on. So I can insinuate some of these issues under the skin of the body politic in a way that is not possible for people working in other media."
You grew up in upstate New York and attended Yale at the height of the Vietnam War. What were you like as a kid?
Because I was a diminutive, arty kid, I felt like a misfit in high school — but who doesn't? Then, in college during the Sixties, it was a time of great change and upheaval. There was so much going on, the academic piece seemed beside the point. It wasn't, of course, but it felt that way. So for grad school, I deliberately chose a place where I would get a kind of structured discipline and formal training, which I felt I sorely needed.
Did you wind up getting it?
One of my first teachers at Yale was Richard Lytle. I waltzed into his drawing class with the bravado of a freshman art jock who thought he was going to make an impression on his professor, and I did. I whipped off the usual kind of drawings I was accustomed to making, somewhat effortlessly. One day, after about three weeks of this nonsense, we were working from a model, and he came over to my drawing board and ripped the drawing I was working on into pieces in front of the class. "Yes, yes, I know you can draw," he said. "But what I want to find out is if you can see." He wasn't going to put up with this sort of facile art-student sketching that I had taken such pride in — he wanted me to do the hard work of actually looking at what I was drawing.
How did you react to that?
It was humiliating, but it certainly got my attention. Thereafter I took a long time looking at what I was preparing to render and to break down my attack. I tried to understand how I was going to convey something worth conveying, not just pretty little outlines.
How did Doonesbury come about?
I started the strip as a junior. I had no expectation that it would continue. My goal was to be a graphic designer. After I graduated, I opened a design studio near the Yale campus. It was a going concern for about three years, but by then the strip had gained some real momentum. I finally had to make a decision about whether I was going to be a designer or a cartoonist. It was the middle of Watergate.
So the decision was made.
The decision was making itself with every passing day.
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