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.
Do you regret not pursuing your dream to be a graphic designer?
One of the reasons I stepped away from design was I didn’t think I could get there. The first time I heard the Beatles, I thought, “That’s going to inspire 10,000 bands, and it’s going to cause another 10,000 bands to leave the business immediately.” They would just be overwhelmed at what it sounds like to get it right, note-perfect, every song.
Charles Schulz used to speak as if the characters in Peanuts were the ones writing the strip, as opposed to him. He’d be asked, “Is Charlie Brown’s baseball team ever going to win a game?” and he would say, “I don’t know,” as if the characters were in control.
Certainly, I relate to “I don’t know.” I haven’t a clue where my characters are going. Now it’s not that I feel they lead me — obviously, my imagination is what leads me, and often it will lead me in tiny little increments. Occasionally, it will jump ahead and I’ll have to reverse-engineer it. I’ll say, “Oh, yeah, this is where they’ve got to go,” and I’ve got to figure out how to get them there. Usually I’m moving forward at such a snail’s pace that there’s not much thinking far ahead, because there’s no time. Sparky worked, what, three months ahead? He was, like, a full season ahead, so in the summer, he’d be writing Thanksgiving stuff. That was his comfort zone, to be that far ahead. I think he just felt more comfortable knowing that if catastrophe struck, he had a real cushion.
Were you friends with him?
We were acquaintances. I think he was a bit skeptical from the very beginning about what I was doing, whether the kind of work I was doing belonged on the comics page.
What were your favorite comic books growing up?
All the superheroes. I started, as most kids in the Fifties did, with Batman and Superman, and then the revelation of what Stan Lee was doing at Marvel took over, and I fell into that rabbit hole with Spider-Man and his peers. But a very heavy influence was a serial in the Sixties called Phoebe Zeitgeist. It was written by Michael O’Donoghue, who later became the head writer of Saturday Night Live, and it was illustrated by Frank Springer. It was an absolutely brilliant, deadpan sendup of adventure comics, but with a very edgy modernist kind of approach. To this day, I hold virtually every panel in my brain. It’s very hard not to steal from it.
You’ve made a point of having your original characters grow and change over time. Which ones were the hardest for you to evolve and bring into the present?
I’m not sure degree of difficulty really enters into it. Fictional characters obviously can’t act independently of their creators, so how or even whether they evolve is simply a matter of artistic choice. Of course, in real life, some people learn more from the journey than others, and I hope the strip reflects that. Zonker is stuck in adolescence, but that’s because it’s fun to have his sustained innocence in the mix. Certainly, I know plenty of recovered hippies and could have made him one of them. On the other hand, I literally blasted B.D. out of his life of settled complacency. Exposed to sudden, brutal loss, B.D. became vulnerable in a way that was unfamiliar and frightening to him. He had to change to survive, to rebuild his resilience and create a new normal for himself.
None of this is planned, by the way. I just try to get through the week. There really isn’t any time to worry about how well everyone is aging.
After 40 years, you have so many different characters. Do they live within you? Do you wake up and Joanie says, “Hey, it’s time to pay attention to me”?
No. I don’t live with them at all. I’m never happier than when I’m not working. The strip is a job — that’s why I take money for it. It’s a job I’m passionate about, but it’s a job I totally leave in the studio when I walk out of here, unless I’m late and I have to work at home. I never think of the strip unless I’m compelled to.
On occasion, as I’m thinking about my characters, I do feel that one of them has been underserviced, and that their story line needs to be developed further in some way. If I start with a topic, then I will cast it. If I start with “Oh, I want to write about the Tea Party. How can I find an interesting way into that?” I’ll choose the least likely character, which is Sam, Boopsie and B.D.’s daughter, who has a Sarah Palin action figure. While Sam sleeps, the action figure has little tea parties with the other toys. That came to me as I was watching Toy Story 3.
Is that the kind of training in conceptual thinking you got at Yale?
[Laughs] I do tend to break things down into a set of problems, but I think any artist does that — they create problems that they then set out to solve. Perhaps I became less chaotic as a cartoonist as a result of that training, less anarchic. I didn’t want to get rid of it altogether, though, because that was part of the fun of the strip. It came out of nowhere, and it dealt with material that had never been on the comics page in such an overt fashion. Little Orphan Annie and Pogo and Lil’ Abner had certainly brought political themes to the comics page, but I was the first to play around with the idea of moving beyond allegory and just having politics be part of the everyday lives of the characters, as they were of my peer group. My cohort in the early Seventies was primarily interested in sex, drugs and rock & roll, and politics. When you’re young, you don’t feel iconoclastic — you’re just kind of doing what seems natural, what moves you.
And filling a void that you felt.
That turned out to be true from a marketing sense. When John McMeel, my boss, who was then selling the strip, went out into the marketplace, the way he framed it was: Yes, it’s crude. Yes, it’s not what you’d expect to see in a comic strip. But these are scribblings, dispatches, from the front lines of a generation that you care about — that you, the newspaper editors, care about, because you’re trying to reach them. This is somebody who is, at least generationally, on the bus, this is somebody who is, in fact, living this right now. So these reports have a certain authenticity. I certainly never pretended to be a spokesman for a generation. But my journey, to some extent, reflected that of my generational cohort.
What about now? What motivates you to keep doing it after so many years?
In the beginning, I was floundering. I wasn’t quite sure what the strip was meant to be. It revealed itself to me over time — the strip is an eyewitness to a generation as it comes of age and as it defines itself. That is so inherently interesting, no matter what generation it is, that now, 40 years later, I have 73 or 75 characters, because I’m also trying to pay attention to the subsequent generations and how they all interact. As the times demanded, I created new characters to reflect them.
Many of the original characters who started off as kids now have kids of their own.
In 1983, I moved the characters out of this time warp they’d all been in and moved them into real time, so that they started to age. They would intermarry and have children, so it became necessary to think about what the subsequent generations were going to be like and what the forces were that were molding them. Alex Doonesbury, Mike’s daughter, has actually become the animating force in the strip now, way beyond what her father is. When I go to him, I go to him as the Everyman. He’s utterly predictable; we know basically how he’s going to respond to almost anything that happens. His daughter is still in the act of becoming, she’s still evolving.
How old is she now?
She was born — in the strip — in 1987, so she’s 23, and she’s a grad student now.
In terms of research, is there somebody you turn to to find out what’s on a 23-year-old’s mind today?
I occasionally check in with my three kids, but mostly I just try to pay attention to them, to their friends, to younger colleagues. I don’t expect other people to do the anthropology for me. I just try to stay alert to the world, to read widely. That actually constitutes about 80 percent of what I do, simply front-loading. Now that my kids are gone, it’s a lot easier for me to get out into the world. They moved off to college just as I got involved with the issue of wounded warriors, which required a lot of travel and research. That wouldn’t have been possible when they were still at home. So I’ve gone back out into the world in a way I haven’t been able to since the Seventies.
What drew you to the issue of wounded soldiers?
What primed me for it was the first Gulf War. A commander of a tank brigade, Col. Bill Nash, invited me over to Kuwait and took me on a tour of a battlefield that was still smoldering. He said, “Here’s the deal: You can go out to all the places where we saw action, you can have the run of the camp, you can play with our toys, you can go check out the Humvees and the M1A tanks and drive them if you want, get a feel for the physical culture. But then I want you to go talk to my guys — that’s the deal.”
That was a fabulous deal. Because Desert Shield had lasted so long — and they’d been stuck in the desert for something like six months before the war began — the troops didn’t have much to do other than stay fit and hydrated. They had a lot of downtime, and they read Stars and Stripes, which was one of my first clients, so they were familiar with all the strips I’d been writing about the war. They had a lot to say to me, both good and bad.
Stars and Stripes was one of the first subscribers to Doonesbury?
I don’t know their reasoning.
Weren’t you the antithesis of what they were looking for?
I frankly haven’t a clue, but I was thrilled when they bought the strip. Later on, in the mid-Seventies, there was a movement to get rid of it, but by then it had become entrenched and the soldiers liked it.
As I gathered from talking to Vietnam vets years later, it wasn’t that I got it right. How could I? I was 21 years old, I was a hippie college student, and I created in the strip this kind of fantasia in which the Viet Cong, represented by Phred, and the U.S. soldiers, represented by B.D., came together in a counterculture sensibility: “Can’t we all get along?” Obviously, that had nothing to do, whatsoever, with the reality of the American GI in Vietnam. I think the soldiers were drawn to it because it was evidence that somebody was thinking about them, that they were on somebody’s radar screen, and it was appreciated. Many Vietnam vets have told me that. It baffles me, because it didn’t really reflect their experience, but at the same time I’m delighted that it made an impact.
And now the Pentagon brass has embraced the work you’re doing on injured soldiers.
When I made the decision during the Battle of Fallujah that B.D. was going to suffer this grievous wound, some old friends at the Pentagon called up and invited me to Walter Reed hospital. They wanted to make sure I got it right, and everyone was enormously helpful. It is odd for an old peacenik like me to have so many people with “colonel” and “brigadier general” in front of their names in my Rolodex.
I think of you, in some ways, as our generation’s Bill Mauldin — the cartoonist who chronicled World War II from the soldier’s point of view. The military has so much to do with the strip, and you’re entirely sympathetic.
While at the same time not trying to obscure my views of the war and why they’re there. I’ve tried to keep the politics pretty much out of the strips about the wounded warriors in any direct fashion. My only agenda is to encourage people to think about the responsibility that this country owes not just its fallen warriors but all of its veterans and soldiers. I’ve seen far too many Vietnam veterans still in treatment for the psychological wounds they received in Vietnam, and we owe them better. There’s a real disconnect in this country between most of the population and its military culture.
More so than in the 1960s?
Yes, because in the Sixties, everybody theoretically had skin in the game — anybody, theoretically, could be drafted. Now we’ve emotionally outsourced the war. We’ve asked the warrior class to fight a war that many people have just put out of their minds. No leaders have asked us to make any sacrifice, other than budgetary.
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.