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"DOONESBURY": Next week's abortion-law strips pulled by at least several papers

Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury." (Courtesy of Universal Uclick/Courtesy of Universal Uclick)

Next week, “Doonesbury” will tackle the ultrasound-before-abortion debate that has roiled Texas and Virginia and the nation in recent weeks, as lawmakers fought over a procedure deemed physically invasive and medically intrusive by some critics, who dubbed it “state rape.” Last month, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who opposes abortion, insisted upon revisions in legislation so the state would require only transabdominal ultrasounds prior to abortion.

Into this political tempest wades Garry Trudeau, the Pulitzer-winning creator of the oft-controversial “Doonesbury” that over four decades has helped alter the boundaries of what newspaper editors allow on their “funny pages.”

[THE ‘DOONESBURY’ INTERVIEW: Trudeau says to ignore abortion debate would have been “comedy malpractice”]

Starting Monday, “Doonesbury” will skewer the politicians who have pushed for vaginal ultrasounds — a weeklong satiric approach that has prompted at least one newspaper not to run the abortion strips. At The Oregonian in Portland, Features Editor JoLene Krawczak tells Comic Riffs that her paper “has decided to pull the week’s strips and will direct readers online if they want to read them.”

“Doonesbury’s” abortion-law series features a woman receiving a compulsory ultrasound and refers to a “shaming room” and a ”10-inch shaming wand” — and seems to equate the procedure to rape. The Oregonian, in a note to readers Friday, says that 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.”

Trudeau tells Comic Riffs that he and the syndicate are offering substitute strips for clients who don’t wish to run the abortion series.

[Update No. 1: Some newspapers, such as Florida’s Gainesville Sun and Ocala Star-Banner, won’t run the abortion strips, the AP reports. Other papers that aren’t publishing the abortion strips in print include the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the U-T San Diego, the Press of Atlantic City and the Fort Worth Star Telegram.]

[Update No. 2: Other newspapers, including the Kansas City Star, the Houston Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times, say they will run the abortion series on their opinion pages.]

This isn’t the first time “Doonesbury” has stirred deliberation over whether to run abortion-themed strips. In 1985, Trudeau and his syndicate decided themselves to pull back the strips.

“I, too, recalled the 1985 week of ‘Doonesbury’ that was about abortion,” Lee Salem, president of the Kansas City-based Universal UClick (which syndicates “Doonesbury”), tells Comic Riffs. “At that time, we thought the merits of the week would get lost in the larger discussion of abortion.

“The context now is a very different one,” continues Salem, noting that Universal Uclick will offer replacement strips to clients. “Thanks to the actions of the Virginia legislature, the Congressional hearings in Washington and the pronouncements of Rush Limbaugh, words like ‘contraception,’ ‘abortion,’ ‘slut’ and [medical] ‘wand’ are part of the vernacular.”

Since 1985, Salem notes, “‘Doonesbury’ has an additional 27 years of exploring topics rarely read on comics pages and provoking discussion. More readers, I believe, have come to expect that of the strip.”

Debbie Van Tassel, assistant managing editor of features at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, tells Comic Riffs that she and other top editors have decided to run next week’s strips, which feature a woman who sits in a “shaming room” as she awaits a pre-termination sonogram and a check-up from a legislator. “We didn’t deliberate long,” Van Tassel tells Comic Riffs. “We all agreed that some readers will be upset by them, mainly because they appear on the comics page, but also because of the graphic depiction of a transvaginal sonogram.”

Van Tassel cites the larger journalistic context in which “Doonesbury” appears. “This newspaper deals with those issues routinely in the news sections and in our health section,” she tells us. “Our page one today, for example, carries a story about the movement by women legislators across the country to curb men’s abilities to get vasectomies and prescriptions for erectile dysfunction. I haven’t heard of any objections to that story yet.”

The Plain Dealer also believes “Doonesbury” deserves a long satiric leash. “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. His fans are every bit as vocal as his critics. We are alerting readers to the nature of the strips so they can decide whether to read them next week.”

{The Post, for the record, plans to run “Doonesbury’s” abortion series next week.)

[NEW: To subscribe to Comic Riffs’ public updates on Facebook, you can click HERE.]

Writer/artist/visual storyteller Michael Cavna is creator of the "Comic Riffs" column and graphic-novel reviewer for The Post's Book World. He relishes sharp-eyed satire in most any form.



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