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, and the subject was abortion.
Starting Monday, amid heated debate about pre-termination ultrasound and sonogram bills in Virginia and Texas, Trudeau, whose comic strip has about 1,400 clients, will tackle the politically sensitive issue of abortion head-on.
“To ignore it,” Trudeau told The Washington Post, “would have been comedy malpractice.”
The result is that many newspaper editors have been weighing whether to run this week’s “Doonesbury.” The Oregonian in Portland is among at least several papers that won’t be running the series. In a note to readers Friday, the editors said 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 paper is directing readers online if they want to read the strip.
The Associated Press reported that two Florida papers, the Gainesville Sun and the Ocala Star-Banner, have decided against running the strips as well.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer, by contrast, plans to run the strips, saying, “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 Kansas City Star will run the series on its op-ed pages. The Post plans to run the series.
The Post spoke with Trudeau about the current strip and the 1985 strips, which were yanked by Trudeau and Universal Press Syndicate, now Universal UClick, “Doonesbury’s” syndicate.
Q: In 1985, you decided to pull a week of abortion-related strips satirizing the film “The Silent Scream,” which purported to show the reactions of a fetus. So what’s different now? What spurred you to create an abortion narrative in the current political climate?
A: In my 42 years with UPS, the “Silent Scream” week was the only series that the syndicate ever strongly objected to. [Syndicate president Lee Salem] 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 [which 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.
Q: After four decades, you’re an expert at knowing the hot-button satiric words and phrases — such as, in the case [this] week, terms such as “10-inch shaming wand.” Can you speak to how you approached writing these strips?
A: Oddly, for such a sensitive topic, I found it easy to write. The story is very straightforward — it’s not high-concept like [the satiric] 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 [bill] 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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?
Q: Over the past 40 years, “Doonesbury” helped change the comics game for many newspapers and comics creators themselves. Do you think newspaper editors have “loosened up” over time regarding comics? Or have they grown more reluctant or skittish — or, even worse, dispassionate?
A: 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.