Doonesbury Turns 40

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As you've worked to keep the strip relevant, have you come to see the current generation as different in any fundamental ways than your generation was back in the Sixties?
Well, to begin with, there's no "generation gap." In the Sixties, few families were spared the turmoil brought on by profound changes in society. All in the Family, the number-one TV show when the strip launched, was premised on that generational divide. Boomers generally seemed to have learned from that experience, and the good news today is that families have never been closer. But that could also be the bad news. All the hovering may have taken a toll on self-reliance and resourcefulness.

In any event, I really like this cohort. Some of them don't think I do, because my younger characters can act like such idiots, but so can my older characters. No one should look to a comic strip for role models.

How has your relationship with readers changed in the age of Facebook?
Most of the mail I used to get has almost completely evaporated. When people have something to say, it's all online now — it's on blogs, it's on chat groups. I think it's very dangerous for people who do anything that's public to venture on the Web and check out what people are saying about them. Yes, you're bound to find things that will delight you — but you also find things that will make you brood and feel bad about yourself. Why would you intentionally invite that into your life?

That's what school was for.
That's what high school was for.

Does the Obama administration make your job easier or harder?
Like a lot of my cartoonist peers, I find Obama difficult to get a handle on as a subject. He doesn't have salient features, either physically or in terms of his temperament or his policies. I know there are people who think he's a fascist or a socialist. I happen to think he's a raving centrist, so in that assessment of him, I find it difficult to find things to exaggerate as cartoonists do.

How do you produce the strip each week?
I do it with pencil and then fax it to my assistant, who puts it on a light table and traces over it. Then all of this other stuff is filled in by computer, all the zips and the blacks and the dialogue. The shame of it is that I no longer have originals I can do anything with. For the first 20 years I had original ink drawings, but my ritual at the end of every workweek was to take them and tear them up.

You destroyed the originals? I can't fathom that.
It finally stopped when Jonathan Alter did this piece and told me I was mad. After a while I realized, "OK, maybe I should be holding on to them."

Are you worried about the comic strip becoming an obsolete form as more and more newspapers disappear? If you were getting out of Yale today, would you be thinking of doing a comic strip?
As you note, it's not really comics that are becoming obsolete — it's newspapers generally. We're all going off the cliff together. Up until now, strip syndication was the closest thing to tenure that pop culture offered. If you got your foot in the door and developed a readership, you had a career. Today my client list is eroding, but since it's so large to begin with, I can probably look forward to several more years of this. I'll be one of the old dudes they ask to turn out the lights.

Needless to say, I no longer advise anyone to get into the business. Even online comics are so far mostly a bust. The future is with graphic novels or animation or something no one has imagined yet. If I were graduating now, I'd be standing with my portfolio outside of Pixar.

Did you ever get tired of the strip and decide, "OK, this is enough, I'm done"?
Comics have always been treated as something of a public utility — we were required to produce this product 365. After Bill Watterson retired from doing Calvin and Hobbes, I got a call from my editor at the time, Lee Salem. He said, "There's something not quite right about how we take care of our creators as opposed to how we take care of all the other employees, that you don't have any kind of break." He said that he was going in front of the board and proposing that anyone who had been there for five years or longer would be entitled, at his or her option, to take vacation weeks and send out reruns.

When I brought this news home, there were great hurrahs throughout the house. As soon as the kids went to bed, or they'd go down for a nap or get up early, there was always a deadline hanging over me — it was a real quality-of-life issue. Having this gift of several weeks of downtime over the year changed my life for the better, and had the intended effect of keeping me in the saddle longer. I don't feel nearly as stressed out as I did in the old days, because I know there are these vacations on the horizon.

How long do you plan to keep doing it?
I feel like I'm good to go for as long as my imagination supports the work. Certainly, there's no absence of things to inspire me as I move through the world. There's no shortage of subjects for me to write about. The one innate quality that I have is curiosity, and that doesn't seem to have abated. I wake up in the morning and I can't wait to get to the paper downstairs. As long as that interest in what's going on in the world stays with me, I can't imagine giving up the strip. This is my small contribution to the national conversation.

So will Doonesbury live on after you're gone, like Dick Tracy or Gasoline Alley?
What my generation of creators introduced is the idea of an auteur as comic-strip writer — that it's a signature voice that would be very hard to replicate without changing the strip dramatically. Plus, I was able to wrangle my own copyright, so I have no legal obligation, as many artists do, to surrender the strip. I don't know if I'll do it until I drop. I don't know if I'm a lifer. But the strip will perish with me.

This was an article from the November 11, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone. This issue is available Friday, October 29th on newsstands and online via Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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