In the beginning, while still in college, Garry Trudeau thought he might commit to his syndicated strip “for a year or two.” Now, he has reached a rare perch: His “Doonesbury” is one of the few newspaper comics ever to hit the half-century mark as the creation of a single mind.
Trudeau’s trailblazing strip launched into national syndication 50 years ago this fall in 28 newspapers, and in the early going, a swath of stodgy editors wasn’t rushing to publish this Yale-sprung voice of the boomer counterculture. But his gifts for satirizing the zeitgeist persevered. Five years in, “Doonesbury” became the first comic strip to receive the Pulitzer Prize, and his illustrated epic eventually unspooled to include scores of recurring characters — a literary latticework unprecedented on the comics page.
This month, Andrews McMeel Publishing is celebrating the milestone with “Dbury@50: The Complete Digital Doonesbury,” which includes a companion book and a flash-drive archive of the comic’s whole history. To mark the moment, The Washington Post asked Trudeau via email to select and illuminate 10 “Doonesbury” strips that have proved defining and enduringly meaningful to him.
“GUILTY, GUILTY, GUILTY!” (May 29, 1973)
As the Watergate hearings captivate the nation, “Doonesbury’s” own campus radio talk jock, Mark Slackmeyer, profiles various Nixon conspirators.
Trudeau: This strip has long been misremembered as being about Nixon, when Mark’s denunciation was directed at his top henchman, Attorney General John Mitchell. A dozen newspapers across the country dropped the strip on the grounds that not even a fictional cartoon character was entitled to prejudge a suspect before trial.
BABY WOMAN (Dec. 13, 1973)
Amid the era’s women’s rights movement, burgeoning feminist Joanie Caucus teaches young Ellie at her Walden Day Care Center.
Trudeau: I remember the moment when the idea for a “baby woman” came to me, because it so perfectly crystallized the effects of Joanie’s feminist proselytizing on her young charges. It was also a sign of my own growing understanding of feminism as the most impactful social movement of the 20th century. I borrowed Joanie’s last name from the National Women’s Political Caucus, which I supported with a number of benefit shows through the ‘70s. I was their first male member, and while cynical friends assumed my involvement was some sort of dating strategy, I saw it as having a front-row seat at the revolution. I felt I was witnessing history.
THE WHITE HOUSE WALL COMES DOWN (Sept. 2, 1974)
The once-stonewalling president, Richard Nixon, resigns, and Gerald Ford takes office.
Trudeau: I’m sure I wasn’t the only cartoonist inspired by Nixon’s use of the word “stonewall,” but I doubt the others riffed on it for quite so long. Over several weeks, I drew a variety of barriers in front of the White House — stone walls or coils of concertina wire or sharpened stockade posts — until finally Nixon flew off to California and Ford moved in and the wall was struck and the sun came out. Spoiler alert: You’re going to see it again in January.
JOANIE IN LOVE (Nov. 13, 1976)
Joanie Caucus, now a campaign worker, and reporter Rick Redfern share a bed on election night — a daring depiction for a comic strip at the time — and wake up to the dawn of a long relationship.
Trudeau: This was the final strip of a weeklong, wordless, slo-mo pan of dailies that took us from Joanie’s empty bedroom across town to Rick’s apartment. The soapy denouement aside (a little bit of happiness for Joanie was long overdue), I was mostly drawn to the idea of creating suspense by obliging readers to wait all week without any hint of what I was up to. Many clients were not amused — the final strip was removed from some 30 newspapers — but the editor of the Bangor paper had the wit to replace the image of the sleeping couple with that day’s weather forecast.
PALM BEACH CARD CONTROVERSY (June 21, 1985)
A Palm Beach, Fla., ordinance requires low-wage service employees to register with police and carry ID cards.
Trudeau: The legendary Mary McGrory told me that in all her years of writing columns, she wasn’t sure a single one of them had changed anything. That’s not a bar that cartoonists generally set for themselves, but in the case of my story arc about racist Palm Beach pass cards, the strip did have an impact. Exposure of the apartheid-like ordinance proved so embarrassing to Florida that the state legislature passed a law banning it. It was called the “Doonesbury Bill,” and the governor sent me the signing pen. Still, that’s the exception. Most of the time, expecting satire to make a difference is purely aspirational.
DEATH OF DICK DAVENPORT (Nov. 7, 1986)
Back from a nearly two-year sabbatical, Trudeau kills off his character Dick Davenport, husband of politician Lacey Davenport.
Trudeau: After I returned from a hiatus in 1984, I decided it was time to move my characters forward in real time so I could explore the life transitions that I myself was experiencing. It also meant that sooner or later, I would have to deal with death. I decided that birder Dick Davenport would be the first to age out — partly because his wife, Lacey, was a robust-enough character for me to write without him. I tried to put some poetry in the grim business of his demise [by coronary], making him a hero on his own terms: He expires through the excitement of capturing an image of a Bachman’s warbler, then thought to be extinct.
WAITING FOR MARIO (Nov. 30, 1987)
Gov. Mario Cuomo (D-N.Y.) sends mixed signals about whether he will run in the 1988 presidential election.
Trudeau: Literary parody isn’t exactly a staple of the comics — understandable considering the lack of a common syllabus in American education. But I thought drawing from the Theatre of the Absurd to depict Cuomo’s ambivalence about a presidential run would work whether readers were familiar with [Samuel] Beckett’s play [“Waiting for Godot”] or not. It also gave me another chance to move away from the strip’s original aesthetic, which was spare and repetitive, toward something closer to the feel of a graphic novel.
MARK COMES OUT (Sept. 1, 1993)
The late attorney Andy Lippincott suggests to Mark Slackmeyer in a dream that Mark is gay.
Trudeau: In 1975, we meet Andy, the strip’s first gay character, but by 1990, he’d succumbed to AIDS. Around that time, a classmate of mine announced he was gay, which inspired me to send Mark on a similar journey of midlife self-discovery. Andy comes to him in a dream sequence and reveals his true nature, upending Mark’s world. Later, Mark meets Chase, whom he marries, and then — in another comics first — he divorces. Happiness is the enemy of story, so Mark carries on in misery.
B.D. LOSES A LEG (April 21, 2004)
Trudeau — whose blog the Sandbox for years provided a forum for service members and their families — makes news with a main character who is serving in Iraq.
Trudeau: B.D.’s loss of a leg during an RPG attack near Fallujah was unique in a number of ways. First, the strip’s foundational character was physically maimed. Second, the life-altering injury meant my assuming a narrative obligation for months, if not years, to come. And lastly, B.D. is seen without his helmet for the first time ever — as astonishing to longtime readers as the missing limb itself.
TEXAS ABORTION LAW (March 13, 2012)
On Feb. 6, 2012, a Texas law goes into effect requiring that a woman seeking an abortion must first receive a sonogram.
Trudeau: The infamous Texas sonogram bill was intended to shame women who sought abortions, so I did my best to shame those responsible for it. The topic was so incendiary that the strip was removed for the week from some 65 newspapers — the most ever. The good news was that not a single client actually canceled the strip. I had treated the subject with the seriousness it deserved, and I suppose I’d built enough trust through the years to earn a pass. I’ve always assumed most editors make decisions about what’s suitable for their comics pages in good faith. It’s called editing, not censorship, and it’s important for creators like me to say.