Arts & Culture

Garry Trudeau, artist

Book review

Tom Tomorrow, a New Haven resident, is the creator of the nationally syndicated political cartoon This Modern World. His real name is Dan Perkins.

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I have been reading Doonesbury for most of my life. At the age of 12, my understanding of the immediate post-Watergate era was largely shaped by the Doonesburycompilations I would read while standing unobtrusively in the aisles of University Book and Supply in Iowa City, Iowa. A few years later, when my parents had divorced and I ended up with my mom in rural Arkansas, a buddy and I would clipDoonesbury from the paper each morning and tape the strips together end to end, eventually forming long, unwieldy rolls of Garry Trudeau’s work. I don’t really remember what we found appealing about this awkward format, but thinking back on it, it’s hard not to think of those coiled Doonesbury collections as a lifeline out of my conservative Southern Baptist proto–Tea Party surroundings and into a more expansive world of possibility.

Without Doonesbury there would have been no Tom Tomorrow, and I told Garry Trudeau ’70, ’73MFA, exactly that, after meeting him at a party. To which he replied, and I am quoting as exactly as memory permits, “Hey, don’t blame me!” (Full disclosure: Trudeau once contributed an original strip to an auction raising funds for my son’s day care center.)

It has been 34 years since I clipped those cartoons from the paper, and six more since Trudeau began his national journey as chronicler of a generation. Two extravagant new compendiums have just been published to mark the latter and more significant of those anniversaries: Doonesbury and the Art of G. B. Trudeau, by Brian Walker, and 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective, a 700-page compilation that the casual reader might assume to contain every Doonesbury strip ever published, though of course it does not. Trudeau notes in the introduction that it includes “only 13 percent of the over 14,000 published strips.” Trust me, it’s enough to keep you busy for a while. And for those who have somehow avoided exposure to Trudeau’s work over the past 40 years, it’s an excellent chance to catch up, facilitated with commentary by the cartoonist.

For a longtime fan, or even for readers who may have lost touch with the gang from Walden Puddle over the years, the handsomely produced and eminently readable Doonesbury and the Art of G. B. Trudeau is a sheer joy to browse through. In the words of Walker, an author and comics historian who has known Trudeau since 1973 and who ably captures the strip’s evolution, “this monograph should provide a long overdue showcase for his artwork and give some insights into his creative processes.” And it’s true. Anyone still laboring under the misimpression that Trudeau is anything but an accomplished and talented artist should be thoroughly disabused of the notion by this volume, rich as it is with early sketches, pencil drawings, paintings, and other artistic output spanning his long career. Of particular note to those interested in the mechanics of producing a comic strip in the pre-Photoshop age: the black-and-white strips in this book are actually photographs of the original drawings, so rather than seeing the strips as they would have appeared in the newspaper, the reader is allowed to peek behind the scenes at paste-up marks, Wite-Out lines, and so on.

Trudeau hit it very big, very early, making the transition from college paper to national syndication within a few months. Consider this: when he took his famous, and, at the time, unheard-of 20-month break from cartooning, he was all of 34 years old and had already been producing a daily strip for nearly 15 years. This must have astonished him as much as anyone, given the early uncertainty evident in a 1969 letter to his syndicate: “Since I have been doing Bull Tales at Yale this year and have been having a rugged time of it doing five a week, I’m beginning to fathom just how much work it would be to do six a week.” In order to lighten his workload, the syndicate put him in touch with an inker, Don Carlton, with whom he has worked for the duration of his career. This division of labor would lead to a ginned-up controversy in the early nineties, when Entertainment Weeklyand the Wall Street Journal took shots at Trudeau for not drawing his own work—apparently unfamiliar with the common comics-industry practice of parceling out penciling and inking duties to separate artists. Trudeau responded wryly: “After years of absorbing the blame for the drawing in Doonesbury,it’s odd to wake up one day and find myself stripped of the credit.”

Among the more fascinating tidbits in Walker’s book are early high school drawings clearly influenced by the work of longtime Village Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer; as Trudeau himself notes in reference to the early days of Doonesbury,“the minimalist aesthetic was all Feiffer.” Which is entirely appropriate. Like Feiffer before him, Trudeau is as much a storyteller as a satirist. In its volume and scope, 40 reacquaints us with the astonishing narrative intricacy of the universe he has created. In addition to the real-world characters who make cameos in his cartoon universe, from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, Trudeau has populated an entire world of his own imagining with successive generations of characters living out their lives in four panels (and more on Sundays, of course). In this massive compilation, we follow the progression of his characters from relatively simple beginnings into something far more complex: Mike Doonesbury, introduced as a dweeb and butt of easy jokes, becomes the strip’s resident voice of maturity; B.D. starts out as a knuckleheaded caricature of a right-wing football player (based loosely on Yale quarterback Brian Dowling ’69) and evolves into a veteran dealing with the loss of a leg in Fallujah. In Trudeau’s world, as in ours, people grow and change and become more interesting as life experience accumulates. In the introduction to 40, the cartoonist writes as if his characters exist almost independently of their creator, noting that “even B.D.’s daughter Sam has someone to inspire and motivate her. Unfortunately it’s Sarah Palin, but I live to serve my characters, and to Sam, the feisty former pageant queen is catnip.”

For four decades Trudeau has engaged, battled, and reflected the culture in a way that no other cartoonist has matched, and, one suspects—in our era of fragmented digital culture—a way that no other cartoonist is likely to again. These volumes stand as testament to that singular achievement. Happy anniversary, Garry.  


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