Garry Trudeau looks back at 40 years of 'Doonesbury'

By Michael Cavna
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 26, 2010; 12:50 AM

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."

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