A novel created a few frames at a time

By Michael Cavna
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 26, 2010; C01

The room is rapt as Garry Trudeau, grinning, prepares to share the first secret of his success. The scores of assembled guests, numerous luminaries in their own right, crane with curiosity, eager to discover how a plucky Yale graduate once smuggled sex and politics and rock-and-roll past the gates of the nation's stodgiest newspaper muckety-mucks.

A dewy "Doonesbury" was still trying to gain a foothold on the funny pages, Trudeau tells the room, but the strip had hit a high garrison wall: An elder generation of disapproving journalistic gatekeepers wasn't buying it. Literally. Demoralized, the young Trudeau confided his frustrations to his fledgling syndicate's founders, who over drinks comforted their dispirited talent with a simple two-word reassurance about graying publishers and aging, out-of-touch editors:

"They die."

The pithy line, in the parlance of comedy, kills. As the room laughs, the cartoonist continues: "Sure enough, they began to die" - and the strip began its stunning rise. His boyish eyes smiling, Trudeau glances over to syndicate co-founder John McMeel and his longtime editor, Lee Salem, both sporting neat white hair. Pausing an expert comedic beat, Trudeau nods to the intervening four decades and looming senior citizenship by sighing a secondary joke in lowered breath:

"That line seemed funnier then."

And right there, in real time, the guests - knowingly or no - had just lived the privilege of being in, essentially, a true-life "Doonesbury" cartoon.

The scene was the Blaine Mansion in Northwest Washington, where Trudeau and his syndicate, Universal UClick, celebrated the release of his new book, "40: A Doonesbury Retrospective," a mammoth retrospective of more than a thousand strips. ("Lift from the knees," Trudeau advises.) Trudeau's signature timing and wry poignancy made the room feel like a living strip in which real-life figures from the media-political complex, including Jim Lehrer and Jake Tapper, Andrea Mitchell and Alan Greenspan appeared. Yet the more striking realization was that though the room was full, it still didn't hold as many people as populate "Doonesbury," which the cartoonist says now features more than 80 identifiable characters he readily deploys as needed.

As one thumbs through the book - which Trudeau edited by culling more than 14,000 strips - it is near-impossible not to be struck anew by the weight of the comic's achievement in storytelling: Beyond the biting politics and topical commentary, "Doonesbury" at 40 reads like a novel told one poignant punch line at a time. As if by stringing together four decades of one-a-day calendars, the cumulative effect was Joyce.

"I was surprised by its overall coherence," Trudeau says this week, adjudging his opus many months after completing the edit. "Comic-strip artists generally have very modest ambitions. Day to day, we labor to fit together all these little moving parts - a character or two, a few lines of dialogue, framing, pacing, payoff - but we certainly don't think of them adding up over time to some larger portrait of our times. That's not the way readers experience the strips, so why would we?"

Yet as the book tracks the growth of the Pulitzer-winning strip from Yale-sprung student life (including goofy "everyman" Michael Doonesbury and quarterback roommate B.D.) to its expansive, multigenerational branches, the characters' story lines gather the force of comic literature.

"I concentrated on the major character narratives, pruning away most of the political and social ephemera," Trudeau says. "I didn't want to annotate the book - comedy explained is not comedy experienced - but I left in just enough references to anchor the characters in time and place.

"The final result is more novelistic than reportorial. The book is not another greatest-hits collection, nor does it provide a checklist of the major events of the last 40 years. It's more like a real-time diary of what it felt like to live through them."

When Universal Press Syndicate scouted and signed Trudeau's college strip, "Bull Tales," his then-minimalist style was influenced by Village Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer - but the elder artist thinks "Doonesbury" quickly became its own unique accomplishment.

"I may have been an influence early on," Feiffer says this week, "but it's turned into a kind of Dickensian novel. I think Garry got himself into this situation and took on a reality that outstripped the satire. . . . His people became increasingly real. The humor and satire are still there, but it now has a depth and a resonance - which comes from years of building [an internal] reality - that satire seldom achieves. It's in a class by itself."

'I had much to learn'

From the art to the satire, "Doonesbury" launched into national syndication in 1970 as a diamond in a rough aesthetic.

"I spent the first few years floundering around until my style stabilized," Trudeau says. "I was recruited while I was still in college, so I had much to learn."

Comics historian Brian Walker's new book, "Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau" (Yale University Press), elegantly chronicles how the strip's graphic aesthetic evolved. "I have always felt that Garry Trudeau has not received adequate recognition for his artistic abilities," says Walker. "In the early years of his career, 'Doonesbury' was criticized for being poorly drawn, but by the mid-1980s, it was one of the most graphically distinctive creations on the comics pages.

"The 40th anniversary of the strip will, I hope, provide an opportunity for the public to appreciate Garry Trudeau's talents as an artist and designer."

Although his early writing and illustration might have been raw, Trudeau says this served him well as he stormed the comics pages, a new generational voice waiting for those more out-of-touch newspaper editors to step aside or pass on.

"The advantage of an early start is the absence of inhibition," Trudeau says. "When you're young, with less on the line, it's easier to be audacious, to experiment. So I introduced the concerns of my generation - politics, sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, etc. - to the comics page, which for many years caused a rolling furor.

"But I never did it for the rush, to provoke outrage, as many editors suspected," the cartoonist clarifies. "And having stretched the boundaries some, I'm perfectly content now to work within them. 'Doonesbury' doesn't need to become 'South Park.' You won't ever see any singing turds."

The controversial comic paths blazed by "Doonesbury" - whether it was the unmarried couple Rick Redfern and Caucus wordlessly depicted in bed together, or a helmetless B.D. shouting "Son of a bitch!" after losing a leg in Iraq - have provided dividends to be reaped by the generations after Trudeau.

"Although some might see Trudeau's legacy as a political one, to me it's larger," says "Pearls Before Swine" cartoonist Stephan Pastis. "By covering the topics that he did - sex, drugs, counterculture, AIDS - he kicked down down doors into whole new rooms that the rather staid comics world had never ventured, giving all of us who followed a bigger comedic house to work in."

"To this day, he gives me cover," says Pastis, who this month returned with Trudeau and other cartoonists from a USO tour to Afghanistan. "I might do something that I think is a bit questionable, but then he does something even more provocative, drawing all the fury onto himself."

"He has been a spokesperson for his time," Feiffer says of Trudeau. "I think the guys doing underground comics [in the 1960s and '70s] were out to shake the system to its roots. I think Trudeau was trying to expose the system." (Trudeau famously became the first comic-strip cartoonist to win the Pulitzer Prize, in 1975, for his Watergate cartoons.)

All in the timing

At 40, "Doonesbury" remains committed to saluting the troops - and telling their stories with honorable distinction.

"The wounded warrior stories are probably more closely observed and naturalistic than the nonmilitary stories," Trudeau says. "The last thing I want to do is contribute to the suffering I'm trying to describe, so the storytelling is a little more nuanced. But I still have the same obligation to entertain, to tease out the absurdities. Readers don't mind dark material as long as you make it bearable."

Feiffer says Trudeau has even become the Bill Mauldin of his generation, speaking about and for the troops with uncommon connection, poignancy and frankness.

So while many cartoonists and comics fans believe "Doonesbury" is as relevant and vital as ever, an issue at the forefront of Trudeau's mind is: Will the newspaper print comics page, in effect, die before Michael Doonesbury is ready to retire?

"I'm not sure there's any strategy for reversing the decline," Trudeau says. "There have been scores of thriving industries wiped out by the march of ones and zeros. Besides, the artistry and cultural prominence of comic strips arguably peaked mid-century, when they had far less competition from other media. With a few big exceptions, we've been on a downward glide path ever since."

What if Trudeau were comics editor - would he have a battle plan to save the funny pages?

"If it were my paper, I'd run fewer comics, much bigger, in full color - and a huge package on the Web site," the New York-based cartoonist says. "But we may be talking deck chairs here. Newspapers have an existential problem, and it's not clear that even brilliant content gets them back to profitability. Even the New York Times, a national treasure, is fighting for its life."

So whether "Doonesbury" remains a satiric force for decades longer seems - as it did back when the strip launched 40 years ago - again largely in the hands of publishers and top editors.

"As to a personal game plan, I feel it's out of my hands," Trudeau says. "It all depends on whether newspapers can remain sustainable. Even if they can, I'd like to go out with a minimum of drama. I've never plotted the strip more than a week or two in advance anyway, so turning out the lights won't be a prolonged affair. I promise."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company