Correction to This Article
An article about Garry Trudeau in the Oct. 22 Magazine said that John Mitchell, attorney general in the Nixon administration, had not yet been indicted when a character in Trudeau's Doonesbury comic strip declared him "Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!" He had been indicted, but not yet on charges related to the Watergate break-in.
Page 3 of 5   <       >

Doonesbury's War

So, that's what he looks like: Cartoonist Garry Trudeau in his New York studio, with the art of David Levinthal in the background.
So, that's what he looks like: Cartoonist Garry Trudeau in his New York studio, with the art of David Levinthal in the background. (Michael Williamson - Michael Williamson/The Washington Post)

Dubois scrunches up her face, thinking.

"Nope. No idea."

Dubois says she wouldn't know the cartoonist if she saw him, which is undeniable, since at the moment Trudeau is sitting four feet away. He is head-down, digging into his Caesar salad, doing his best to disappear. He hates things like this. Trudeau is so viscerally averse to self-promotion that he once threw up before a scheduled interview for a Time magazine cover story, then canceled it. (Time wrote the story anyway.)

I'm at Trudeau's elbow on a trip out West because I'm doing the first extensive profile of him in the 36 years since he began the comic strip that became an American icon. That's reason enough, but the fact is, something astonishing has happened to "Doonesbury" in the last 2 1/2 years, after the United States invaded Iraq and Trudeau made the startling, un-cartoonish decision to mutilate one of his characters.

It was not just any character. B.D. had been a Doonesbury fixture since Day One. Literally. On the day the strip debuted in 28 newspapers nationwide -- October 26, 1970 -- B.D. was alone in the opening panel, sitting in his dorm room on the first day of school, football helmet inexplicably on his head, wondering what kind of roommate he'd get. To his everlasting annoyance, it turned out to be Michael Doonesbury.

That was so many years ago -- a generation and a half, really -- that the strip has outlasted even its original cultural references. Does anyone remember that "B.D." were the initials of Brian Dowling, the hotshot quarterback at Yale when Trudeau was there in the late '60s? Or that in Eastern prep-school lexicon of the time, a "doone" was something of a doofus?

It's "Doonesbury" that survived and metamorphosed over the years into what is essentially an episodic comic novel, with so many active characters that Trudeau himself has been known to confuse them. "Doonesbury" has always remained topical, often controversial. Unapologetically liberal and almost religiously anti-establishment, Trudeau has been denounced by presidents and potentates and condemned on the floor of the U.S. Senate. He's also been described as America's greatest living satirist, mentioned in the same breath as Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce.

But for simple dramatic impact and deft complexity of humor, nothing else in "Doonesbury" has ever approached the storyline of B.D's injury and convalescence. It hasn't been political at all, really, unless you contend that acknowledging the suffering of a war is a political statement. What it has been is remarkably poignant and surprisingly funny at the same time. In what Trudeau calls a "rolling experiment in naturalism," he has managed every few weeks to spoon out a story of war, loss and psychological turmoil in four-panel episodes, each with a crisp punch line.

Here's one :

( - Copyright 2006 G.B. Trudeau)
 It is a cliche, and it is also true, that humor springs from existential pain -- from a need to blunt the awareness that life is essentially a fatal disease of unpredictable symptoms and unknown duration. Usually, though, the laughter comes through indirection -- acknowledging that death awaits us all, for example, by joking about memory loss as we age. But there's been nothing comfortably oblique in these episodes of "Doonesbury," no comic exaggeration, no use of metaphor. There is no distance whatever between the pain and the humor.

Over the years, "Doonesbury" has been remarkably consistent in its quality, if not universally beloved. Republicans can make a reasonable case that Trudeau's lefty politics sometimes make him seem a water boy for Democrats. He is not above the occasional cheap shot, such as when he devoted an entire week in 1991 to a felon's unsubstantiated charges that Vice President Quayle had been a pothead. At times, he has seemed to lapse unattractively from political satire to political advocacy -- lending his characters' support to John Anderson in 1980 and Howard Dean in 2004. Some feel he has occasionally been tone-deaf to popular culture -- buying too readily, for example, into the notion of a slacker Generation Y. Undeniably, the strip's edge dulled a little in the mid-1990s, when a Democratic ascendancy left him without a meaty political issue to lampoon.

But there aren't many people -- especially among experts who read and critique comics for a living -- who are calling the continuing saga of B.D. anything other than genius.

<          3           >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company