'Doonesbury' as history

The Argument

Garry Trudeau has produced 'the comic strip of record' of the United States since 1970.


March 07, 2004|By Scott Stossel | Scott Stossel,Special to the Sun

Among the many rareified accomplishments to which the cartoonist Garry Trudeau can lay claim -- a Pulitzer Prize, an Academy Award, a cartoon strip that runs in more than 1,400 newspapers, a 20-year marriage to Jane Pauley -- perhaps the most revealing is this one: Trudeau is surely the only person to have had one of his books prefaced with an essay by the arch-conservative William F. Buckley Jr. (Doonesbury's Greatest Hits: A Mid-Seventies Revue, Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1978, 250 pages, $12.95) and another prefaced with an essay by the uber-liberal-feminist Gloria Steinem (Doonesbury Dossier: The Reagan Years, Henry Holt, 224 pages, $22.95).

From Buckley to Steinem; That encompasses a pretty broad range of American political culture -- a range that symbolizes, in some sense, the achievement of Trudeau's comic strip Doonesbury. Since 1970 Doonesbury has taken as its purview the whole of American society, from left to right and from top to bottom, taking in every significant political and cultural moment and, like a slightly cracked mirror, reflecting them wryly back at us.

In fact, it's fair to say, I believe, that for the last quarter-century Doonesbury has been America's Comic Strip of Record.

What do I mean by "comic strip of record"? Simply this: A hundred years from now, readers could get a pretty good sense -- a better sense, I'd wager, than from many contemporary history books -- of the last three decades of American political history by reading the Trudeau oeuvre.

Generally speaking, there is a clear distinction between comic strips that appear on a newspaper's "funny pages" (which often have regular characters and narrative pacing, and which are usually devoid of overt political content) and the editorial cartoons that run on a newspaper's editorial pages (which aim to provide commentary on, satire of -- and perhaps an ideological point of view toward -- the political events of the day). Doonesbury completely blows up that distinction.

This -- Doonesbury's ability to be read as either a strip comic or an editorial cartoon -- is the hybrid creature's most notable trait, and one that has flummoxed legions of newspaper editors, who have wrestled perennially with the question of where to put the thing. Does Doonesbury belong with Garfield and Dilbert on the funny pages, which is where it resides in the Baltimore Sun? On the editorial page, where it appears in the Knoxville News-Sentinel and many other papers? Or somewhere else entirely -- like in the Style section, which is where it appears in The Washington Post?

Other cartoonists have tried to emulate Trudeau's melding of editorial humor and strip humor; usually, they fail badly. On the right, for instance, Bruce Tinsley's dreadful Mallard Fillmore is neither funny nor politically trenchant. On the left, Aaron Magruder's Boondocks channels racial anger in a way that can be provocative and sometimes mordantly amusing but that too often comes across as nothing more than a series of irritable gestures.

There are, of course, other editorial cartoonists whom future readers might read to glean a similarly cockeyed -- yet basically accurate -- sense of the politics of our era. Jules Feiffer and Tom Toles, to name two, have been good for a long time, and they share Trudeau's ability to nail a political moment with an image or a joke. But Trudeau does more than capture political moments; he captures the whole of the culture and its evolving social mores.

Because Doonesbury has regular characters, and uses narrative story lines, its rendering of politics has more range, and a more modulated pitch, than conventional editorial cartoons. Sometimes Trudeau does resort to more or less straight editorial humor -- think of his trademark drawings of the White House or the Capitol Building with politicians' voices coming out of them.

But often Trudeau both softens and deepens his satirical wit by having what the politicians are saying on television mediated through the reaction of one of his characters. The signature version of this is when the character Mike Doonesbury, say, is watching a news conference on television. What the politician on the television is saying is somehow absurd -- the joke would work even without Mike's presence in the strip. But a slight change in Mike's facial expression, or a subtle turn of his head toward the readers, offers an additional level of commentary and ironic distance.

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