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'Doonesbury' Turns 50: Garry Trudeau Reflects on the Iconic Comic Strip

Cartoonist gives his take on success, boomers and political satire

spinner image photo of garry trudeau sitting on a park bench with an oversized pencil in hand drawing a cartoon
Garry Trudeau, 72, launched ‘Doonesbury’ as a syndicated comic strip 50 years ago.
Andrew Hetherington

What would you tell your 22-year-old self?

Don't turn 23. If that can't be arranged, watch out for 34, 53, 65 and 71. You will have challenges. Everyone does.

You were an overnight sensation, getting a deal with the Universal Press Syndicate six weeks after the strip appeared in your college newspaper. What is the downside of improbable success?

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The high likelihood of feeling entitled. All the bad stuff flows from that. I was lucky enough to meet someone [broadcaster Jane Pauley] who was also experiencing early attention. That's a huge thing we have in common. There were a few other things as well, so we got married. And we've tried to keep each other grateful and grounded. When our daughter was young, she decided her mother wasn't actively leveraging her status and accused her of being a “bad celebrity.” She was right.

"Doonesbury” began as dispatches from the front lines of the generational divide, but it evolved into something far more complex. What was the key turning point for you?

After returning from a sabbatical in 1984, I started to move the characters forward in real time, aging them, giving them jobs, families. I realized that by keeping them frozen in time on a college campus, I'd been neglecting all the generational transitions that I myself was experiencing. Ever since, I've been chronicling their life passages and watching two new generations come of age.

spinner image doonesbury cartoon panel created exclusively for a a r p by garry trudeau
Illustration created exclusively for AARP by Garry Trudeau

What's your take on the boomers now?

I've ducked that question my whole career. Because I was so young when the strip first clicked, I was tagged with — and marketed as — a “voice” of my generation. In fact, I was only representative of a thin slice of my peer group. The newsweeklies used to put the boomers on their covers every 10 years, trying to sum them up at age 40, 50. It was a fool's errand. There's too much diversity within the cohort to make broad generalizations, at least from my vantage point.

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This month you release a package called DBury@50, which will contain all 50 years of the strip. Who influenced you the most?

Jules Feiffer, whom I discovered first as a playwright, only later as a cartoonist. His was the first strip I ever saw that was about ideas, not punch lines. Robert Altman also had a profound effect on me. Especially his insight that people don't really listen carefully to one another. In real life, most conversation collides, overlaps and trails off, with none of the clean back-and-forth of scripted dialogue. And none of the jokes. Altman understood that the richest humor comes from people just being themselves.

Do you believe this is the golden age of political satire?

I do. Late-night comedy is flourishing, as is a new crop of online performers. The times haven't been as good for my own art form. Neither the comics nor editorial cartooning are anywhere near as impactful as they once were, but we're all still in the good fight.

Do you ever get cartoonist's block?

All the time. Back when my syndicated work appeared in uninterrupted daily increments, people would ask me what I did when I ran out of ideas. I always thanked them for not noticing. Failure to send in something was never an option.

What kind of jokes work better with millennials than with boomers?

I haven't a clue. I couldn't write a joke if my life depended on it. I write character comedy, specific to the individual.

What series of strips are you most proud of?

As a broad category, the strips on the military. The tragic stuff is the most challenging to write because of the concurrent obligation to keep it entertaining.

Over the years, your portrayal of war has become more nuanced. How did that happen?

When I started out, I was a college student, and my first take on the Vietnam War was a hippie fantasy about a Vietcong fighter and a GI grunt learning what they had in common. My stories couldn't have been less grounded in reality, and yet the strip ran in Stars and Stripes, which signaled to the troops that at least someone was thinking about them. That earned me enough goodwill that, later, an Army colonel who'd served in Vietnam asked me to embed with his troops in Kuwait following Operation Desert Storm. The relationships I formed there proved invaluable when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. After [my character] B.D. lost his leg in Fallujah, the Department of Defense invited me to talk to amputees at Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center]. I strongly opposed the war itself. Fortunately, the military seemed mostly unfazed by that. I even found myself signing books inside the Pentagon. The last time I'd been there was to protest the Vietnam War.

If you were a “Doonesbury” character, how would you portray yourself?

As a left-of-center moderate with a steady job, a stable family and a normal nose. I'd be the most boring character in the entire strip and I'd be cut within a few weeks.

Has the strip gotten easier as you've aged?

As hard as it's ever been. There's nothing I'd rather be doing, but it's still work. And I never think about it when I'm not doing it.

Any thought about when the strip will end?

To be honest, I've been so preoccupied with my 50th year in the business that I haven't given any thought to my 51st. We'll just have to see. The continuing collapse of the newspaper industry may make the decision for me.

What is the legacy of “Doonesbury"?

I'm not sure it's healthy for anyone to dwell on legacy. There's no danger of my writing a memoir. But I will say that I have made comics safe for bad drawing. Without “Doonesbury,” there's no “Cathy,” “Bloom County” or “Dilbert.” Nobody's ever thanked me for lowering the bar and democratizing comics, but it may be my greatest contribution.

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