ONLY ONCE IN the long history of “Doonesbury” has Garry Trudeau’s syndicate ever intensely objected to one of his story arcs. It was 1985, a documentary purporting to show the reactions of a fetus had been released, and Trudeau satirized the film “The Silent Scream” with his own “prequel” strips featuring “little Timmy,” a 12-minute-old embryo.
Those strips never saw wide release in newspapers.
“At that time, we thought the merits of the week would get lost in the larger discussion of abortion,” Lee Salem, president of Universal UClick (“Doonesbury’s” syndicate) tells Comic Riffs. Trudeau and Universal agreed to pull the strips.
Now, however, amid heated debate about pre-termination ultrasound laws, Trudeau has decided to take on the abortion wars head-on for the first time in “Doonesbury’s” four decades.
“To ignore it,” Trudeau tells Comic Riffs, “would have been comedy malpractice.”
[“DOONESBURY”: Next week’s abortion strips pulled by at least several papers]
The predictable result is that many newspaper editors are weighing whether to run next week’s “Doonesbury,” which has about 1,400 clients. The Oregonian in Portland is among at least several papers that won’t be running the series, telling its readers that Trudeau “went over the line of good taste and humor in penning a series on abortion using graphic language and images inappropriate for a comics page.” The Cleveland Plain Dealer, by contrast, plans to run the strips, telling Comic Riffs: “Garry Trudeau’s metier is political satire; if we choose to carry ‘Doonesbury,’ we can’t yank the strip every time it deals with a highly charged issue.” (The Post plans to run the series.)
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Comic Riffs caught up with Trudeau to ask him about how he approached the abortion series, how his syndicate supported the idea — and whether the nation’s comics editors have grown more or less skittish about controversial content on “the funny pages.”
[Note: Some language that follows merits a “PG” rating.]
MICHAEL CAVNA: In 1985, you — in apparent agreement with Lee Salem [at then-Universal Press Syndicate] — decided to pull a week of abortion-related strips around the film “The Silent Scream.” So what's different now? Obviously the angle and execution and point of satiric attack vary some, but what’s changed that spurred you to create an abortion narrative in this climate?
GARRY TRUDEAU: In my 42 years with UPS, the “Silent Scream” week was the only series that the syndicate ever strongly objected to. Lee felt that it would be deeply harmful to the feature, and that we would lose clients permanently. They had supported me through so much for so long, I felt obliged to go with their call.
Such was not the case this week. There was no dispute over contents, just some discussion over whether to prepare a substitute week for editors who requested one. [We did.]
I chose the topic of compulsory sonograms because it was in the news and because of its relevance to the broader battle over women's health currently being waged in several states. For some reason, the GOP has chosen 2012 to re-litigate reproductive freedom, an issue that was resolved decades ago. Why [Rick] Santorum, [Rush] Limbaugh et al. thought this would be a good time to declare war on half the electorate, I cannot say. But to ignore it would have been comedy malpractice.
After four decades, you're an expert at knowing the hot-button satiric words and phrases — such as, in the case next week, terms like “10-inch shaming wand.” Can you speak to how you approached writing these strips?
GT: Oddly, for such a sensitive topic, I found it easy to write. The story is very straightforward — it's not high-concept like Little Timmy in “Silent Scream” — and the only creative problem I had to work through was the physician's perspective. I settled on resigned outrage.
Texas's HB-15 isn't hard to explain: The bill says that in order for a woman to obtain a perfectly legal medical procedure, she is first compelled by law to endure a vaginal probe with a hard, plastic 10-inch wand. The World Health Organization defines rape as “physically forced or otherwise coerced penetration — even if slight — of the vulva or anus, using a penis, other body parts or an object.” You tell me the difference.
MC: Going back through the history of the strip, I'm surprised not to see a previous abortion strip in "Doonesbury's" dossier. Have you tackled abortion before?
GT: No. Roe v. Wade was decided while I was still in school. Planned Parenthood was embraced by both parties. Contraception was on its way to being used by 99-percent of American women. I thought reproductive rights was a settled issue. Who knew we had turned into a nation of sluts?
MC: So what’s the most controversial subject you think you've taken on?
GT: Can't say what was the most controversial subject, but I think my worst year was 1985. There were over a dozen kerfuffles that made the wires — one of which was “Silent Scream.”
MC: This will arguably be the toughest call some newspaper editors make regarding “Doonesbury” since your Obama prediction strip in 2008. ... How do you view these comics gatekeepers as of 2012?
GT: I view them all as wise, loyal and good-looking.
[“DOONESBURY” PULLED BECAUSE OF CHARITY: Trudeau responds to Chicago Tribune’s decision]
Many newspapers' comics pages have remained as staid and relatively sanitized as when “I Love Lucy” was still sleeping Ricky and Lucy in separate twin beds. “Doonesbury,” though, helped change the game for many newspapers and comics creators themselves. Do you think newspaper editors have”loosened up” over the past 40 years regarding comics? Or have they grown more reluctant or skittish — or, even worse, dispassionate?
GT: It's a mix, but in general, I spend much less time playing defense, presumably because of the ubiquity of topical satire these days. “South Park” and “The Daily Show” have stretched the envelope so much, most editors no longer see “Doonesbury” as the rolling provocation they once did.
Plus, I think I get a bit of a pass simply because I've been around so long. After all this time, editors know pretty much what they're going to get with the strip.
[GARRY TRUDEAU: On why this is a booming time for satire]