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Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau

Brian Walker

(Yale University Press; US: Nov 2010)

I read the Doonesbury comic strip in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but I’m not certain I truly appreciated it until I read Brian Walker’s Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau.


Some things, of course, are never fully appreciated or recognized as iconic in the moment—the television series M*A*S*H for example.  Perhaps this is true for Doonesbury, as well.  Even Walker, as he notes in the preface, was a little surprised when researching the book: “As I continued my research, I became increasingly overwhelmed by the scope of the story to be told… After I shared with Garry the wealth of material I had accumulated, he admitted that he was surprised by all that had transpired since the strip started”. 


Written to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the strip, Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau takes us through the history of Doonesbury and, using both text and images, illustrates what made Doonesbury groundbreaking and what makes it iconic.  Walker begins with Trudeau’s childhood and Bull Tales, the comic he started during his college years. Named after Yale University’s mascot, it “chronicled the on-and-off field exploits of the star current quarterback, Brian Dowling”. 


Later, Bull Tales morphed into Doonesbury, and Walker relates: 


Trudeau expanded the range of topics beyond football and dating, the main preoccupations of his early strips. Among the many issues he explored during the first decade of Doonesbury were women’s liberation, the war in Vietnam, divorce, communal living, media exploitation, presidential elections, class warfare, drug use, the energy crisis, homosexuality, rock and roll, political corruption, suntanning, higher education, organized crime, religion, physical fitness, the environment, and natural childbirth.


Walker does an excellent job of blending Trudeau’s professional and personal lives. In addition to the expected information about Trudeau’s life (i.e., marriage, children, and awards), Walker includes background stories that are particularly memorable: Trudeau “once hid in a bathroom for four hours, avoiding a reporter from the Baltimore Sun… On a talk show in Boston, the host asked him how it felt to be ‘rich, famous, and eligible.’ He didn’t do another television interview for thirty years.”  Or simply the story behind the name Doonesbury itself: Trudeau combined “doone, a preppy slang term for a well-meaning fool, with the name of his former roommate, Charles Pillsbury, an heir to the Minnesota flour fortune”.


Walker’s examination of Doonesbury is thorough. He touches on Trudeau’s “collaborators” including Don Carlton, David Stanford, and George Corsillo and discusses Doonesbury: A Musical, which received mixed reviews. Walker covers the comic’s sabbatical in the ‘80s and many other Doonesbury projects such as The 1990 Doonesbury Stamp Album and The Sandbox, “a military blog for soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan… Service members were invited to send in comments, anecdotes, and observations from the front and were encouraged to focus on both the ordinary and extraordinary details of every day life”.


The text is simple but eloquent, well-researched and honest. Walker relates the criticisms as well as the praises. He notes “Although Trudeau continued to court controversy throughout the 1990s, many believed that the strip had lost its edge during the Clinton years. ‘It’s not as biting now,’ remarked the political analyst Jeff Greenfield. ‘He’s more hostile to the Republican Congress than he is to the vaguely liberal president.’” Walker also includes Trudeau’s response “Balanced satire is a contradiction in terms. Satire has a point of view. An even-handed satirist is more correctly called a humorist. They’re not the same thing. Clinton may have rained disgrace on himself, but Bush did irreparable harm to the country. Why would I treat them the same?”


Walker is a masterful storyteller; don’t skip the text. Don’t give in to the temptation to just look at the images. It will be a strong temptation, however. Flipping through the pages of Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau is the literary equivalent of walking through a museum. It’s a beautifully designed book, from the layout to the font to the images.  Reprints of the comic strip, of course, dominate. Each appropriately captioned, panels include the “Ink Spill” strip “when a news story forced Trudeau to rewrite an entire week of strips” in 1989, the four strips from 1976 that “introduced premarital sex to the comics pages”, as well as more recent strips with Mike’s daughter Alex. Strips are shown both in finished form and as pencil drawings.


Other visual treats include magazine covers, the playbill and promotional sketches for Doonesbury: A Musical, and playing cards and postcards. My two personal favorites: the pencil sketch for “Charles ‘Sparky’ Schultz, commemorating the fortieth anniversary of his comic strip Peanuts” and the picture of a mangled fax with the caption “Don Carlton almost missed a deadline when his cat Murray had his way with a Doonesbury strip coming out of the fax machine.”


Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau makes me a little sad that I don’t read a newspaper, anymore (and hence haven’t kept up with Doonesbury even though current strips can be found at doonesbury.com). Like so many Americans, I get most of my news online now, a fact that doesn’t escape either Walker or Trudeau, and the last sections of the book focus on technology. On the lighter side, Walker notes that Twitter has been mentioned in Doonesbury: “on March 2, 2009 the TV newscaster Roland Hedley, using the social networking service Twitter, sent a message to his followers: ‘About to scratch myself, stand by’”, and a book of Hedley’s Tweets was published later in 2009.


Walker ends the book on a more serious note, though. He quotes Trudeau who states “‘I don’t think newspapers are going to be around in paper form much longer… Our art form is inextricably dependent on newspapers; without them we’re dead,’ he lamented. ‘Unless media outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post band together and start charging on the cable model, I don’t see a future for us.’” A very discouraging thought, indeed, but all the more reason to cherish Walker’s book that gives fans a permanent way to relive their favorite Doonesbury moments.

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