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Tue October 26, 2010

Trudeau Reflects On Four Decades Of 'Doonesbury'

Originally published on Thu July 14, 2011 10:32 pm

Forty years ago this morning, nerdy freshman Mike Doonesbury met his roommate at Walden College, and since that day, the funny pages haven't been the same.

Created in the throes of '60s and '70s counterculture, Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury comic strip blurred the lines between comics and the editorial pages, and produced some of the most memorable cartoon characters ever sketched.

Trudeau started drawing Doonesbury in 1970 as a Yale undergrad. "It was basically a sports strip," he tells NPR's Renee Montagne. But he soon had to scramble to find a way to sustain the strip's humor on a grander scale.

"Comic strips are like a public utility," Trudeau says. "They're supposed to be there 365 days a year, and you're supposed to be able to hit the mark day after day. And I had no idea whether I could do that."

In the four decades since its humble beginnings, Doonesbury has become much more than a sports strip. Trudeau marks his characters' 40th anniversary in the hefty new collection 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective.

'Dispatches From The Front Lines'

Trudeau developed Doonesbury around three foundational characters -- everyman Mike Doonesbury, football quarterback B.D. and campus radical Mark Slackmeyer. They represented the center, the right, and the left, Trudeau says.

Six weeks after Doonesbury was first published on campus, Trudeau was offered what he calls an "out of the blue" syndication deal. "It's a ridiculous story, and it nauseates my children," Trudeau says, "that I would find my life's work six weeks into it."

The strip wasn't an instant hit -- at first it was syndicated in just 26 papers. But Doonesbury's popularity quickly grew -- a success that Trudeau attributes to the novelty of a cartoon that took on the nation's generational divide. "Nobody had seen anything quite like it," Trudeau says. "The way we framed it was: These are dispatches from the front lines ... of youth. You know that the creator is on the bus and he's sending us reports from the counterculture movement."

'I Replaced The Helmets With Other Helmets'

As Doonesbury grew in scope, the characters started coming into their own. In early comics Mike Doonesbury was drawn without a mouth. "I'm not sure what that was about," Trudeau admits. He suspects he was "trying to find a way to depict the character so that he remained as deadpan as possible."

Then there's the quarterback B.D., with his signature helmets -- a detail that Trudeau says "took on a kind of metaphoric significance that was wholly unintentional."

Trudeau initially had the idea that B.D. would keep his football helmet on to impress young women -- how else would they recognize who he was if he wasn't in his uniform?

"But then it kind of took on some new meaning as he moved through life and I replaced the helmet with other helmets," Trudeau says. "He changed [football] teams, he became a National Guardsman, he became a California highway patrolman, and finally he became a soldier in both Iraq wars."

In 2004, B.D. lost a leg in the second Iraq war, and Trudeau drew B.D. without his helmet for the first time in 34 years. It was a stunning moment for the strip's longtime readers.

"Many found it moving to see his graying, matted, sweaty hair revealed for the first time," Trudeau explains. "It conveyed a kind of vulnerability. It sent the message that for him, life would never be quite the same. That he had to struggle to move into the life of a wounded warrior and find out what that new normal looked like."

'I Really Had To Sweat The Details'

As readers got to know Trudeau's characters over the years, they began taking on lives of their own. In 1974, feminist Joanie Caucus earned her law degree from the University of California, Berkeley's Boalt Hall -- both in the cartoon strip and in real life.

As Joanie considered where to go law school, programs from around the country began sending Trudeau applications. He didn't send the applications back, but he selected Berkley's Boalt Hall -- for "no particular reason" he says -- and the law school simply treated Joanie as a real student.

"I got all the mailings, and student ID, and had to fill out all the forms," Trudeau says. "When she graduated, her class invited me to come speak. And they put a mortarboard on her chair in the front row. I made the speech as if she in fact were not imaginary and was graduating with the class."

Joanie's story resonated with many of the Berkeley students at the time. "Boalt Hall was unusually friendly to women law students, and particularly women who were returning after raising families," Trudeau explains. The graduating class of 1974 included many women who, like Joanie, had decided to change the course of their lives by applying to law school.

For many loyal Doonesbury readers, the character who has undergone the most powerful transformation is B.D. In 1972, the popular quarterback of Walden's football team went to Vietnam to get out of writing a term paper. By 2004, the former athlete had served in three U.S. wars and lost his leg -- not to mention his symbolic helmet.

These dramatic plot decisions didn't come easily to Trudeau -- especially the decision to seriously injure B.D. in battle.

"Normally I don't shoot any higher than verisimilitude," Trudeau says. "But in this case, I really had to sweat the details. I had to more closely observe what B.D. might be going through psychologically. And as a result the strip kind of took a more naturalistic turn. It's not as surrealistic as it used to be -- but it's been an astonishing journey for me."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It was 40 years ago this morning that Mike Doonesbury met his roommate at Walden College, and the funny papers have never been the same.

Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" gang blurred the line between comics and the editorial pages.

RENEE MONTAGNE: host,

It also produced some of the most memorable characters ever sketched. To mark four decades of the strip, Garry Trudeau is out with a hefty new collection called "40: A Doonesbury Retrospective."

In the beginning there was the everyman, Mike Doonesbury; the stoner, Zonker; and that roommate, the not quite sharp as a pencil quarterback, B.D.

Mr. GARRY TRUDEAU: (Cartoonist): He was the foundational character. The strip was really developed around him when I was a college student. And B.D. is a true knucklehead. He feels that his players are mediocre and unserious. Meanwhile they're trying to play with his head most of the time. In fact, Zonker's only on-field goal is, in fact, to mess with him.

And the first strips were about that. It was basically a sports strip.

MONTAGNE: You were offered a syndication deal while you were still a student at Yale, quite soon after the strip got going.

Mr. TRUDEAU: Oh, very unexpected. It came out of the blue six weeks after I'd been doing it. It's a ridiculous story, and it nauseates my children that I would find my life's work six weeks into it.

But it was not an instant hit. We started with 26 papers or so. But I think that its early success probably was owed to the fact that it was an utter novelty. Nobody had seen anything quite like it. I think the way we framed it was these are dispatches from the front lines.

MONTAGNE: Of youth.

Mr. TRUDEAU: Of youth. You know, that the creator is on the bus and he's sending us reports from the countercultural movement.

MONTAGNE: How did it happen that Mike Doonesbury took the place of your original central character, B.D.?

Mr. TRUDEAU: We didn't really so much take his place, as he shared it. There were three foundational characters - Mark, Mike, and B.D., and I think...

MONTAGNE: Mark Slackmeyer.

Mr. TRUDEAU: Mark Slackmeyer.

MONTAGNE: Campus radical.

Mr. TRUDEAU: Campus radical. And they were the tent pole characters, and the idea was that they represented the left, the right and the center, and that they would create a kind of creative tension that I could play off of.

And so I had to go out and think hard about how I was going to sustain that. Comic strips are like a public utility. They're supposed to be there 365 days a year, and you're supposed to be able to hit the mark day after day. And I had no idea whether I could do that.

MONTAGNE: There's a strip from 1971 between B.D. and Mike Doonesbury with B.D. sitting there with a sigh over his head. On the opposite side of the desk is his roommate, Mike Doonesbury, and he said, How is your biology paper coming? Doonesbury is like, Okay, fine, whatever. And he goes, What are you writing on?

Mr. TRUDEAU: And Mike replies, Juxta-branchial organ secretions in the higher mollusk, what's yours on? And B.D. replies sheepishly, Our friend the beaver.

MONTAGNE: There's so much you're able to say in these early cartoons which are very simple, with just a stroke. In fact, Doonesbury doesn't even have a mouth here.

Mr. TRUDEAU: I'm not sure what that was about. I think it was probably - I was trying to find the way to depict the character so that he remained as deadpan as possible.

MONTAGNE: How much do characters dictate to you how you draw them? Like B.D.'s helmet would be sort of a perfect example.

Mr. TRUDEAU: That's really its own category. It took on a kind of metaphoric significance that was wholly unintentional. The helmet at first was, of course, the headgear that he wore during the games. The idea that he might not remove it came to me when I was thinking of sending him to a mixer.

And I thought, well, he needs to be able to telegraph to all these attractive young women who he is. They might not recognize him out of uniform. So he would wear his uniform and his helmet to mixers.

But then it kind of took on some more meaning as he moved through life and I replaced the helmet with other helmets. He changed teams, he became a National Guardsman, he became a California highway patrolman, and finally he became a soldier in both Iraq wars.

And when B.D. becomes wounded, and he loses a leg in battle, the reveal on that was twofold. First, as the camera, if you will, pulls back above the wounded soldier, you see a missing leg, but you also see the helmet is off for the first time.

And for many readers that had a kind of real significance. Many found it moving to see his graying, matted, sweaty hair revealed for the first time.

MONTAGNE: (Unintelligible) 34 years of the character.

Mr. TRUDEAU: Because it conveyed a kind of vulnerability. It sent the message that for him life would never be quite the same, that he had to struggle to move into the life of a wounded warrior and find out what that new normal looked like.

MONTAGNE: So I want to get back to this maybe at the very end, but I do want to touch on some of your other characters. I mean, Joanie Caucus, another very well-known and long-standing character, she was a feminist back in the '70s, when being a feminist really meant something.

And she ended up being very real in the real world. Tell us about how she got to law school.

Mr. TRUDEAU: Well, I picked up the idea of - it was time to move Joanie into the future. So I had her apply to a number of different schools. I didn't actually send in the applications, but after the names appeared in the strip, the applications started coming to me.

Of the ones that accepted her, I chose Boalt Hall at Berkeley, for no particular reason. Well, it turned out Boalt Hall was unusually friendly to women law students, and particularly women who were returning after raising families. So there were a number of women her age at Boalt Hall at the time.

So I sent her there, and again, everyone continued to treat her as if she were an actual student. I got all the mailings and student ID, and had to fill out all the forms. And when she graduated, her class invited me to come speak. And they put a mortarboard on her chair in the front row.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TRUDEAU: And...

MONTAGNE: And you went and spoke. I mean, it was Joanie Caucus.

Mr. TRUDEAU: And I went and gave the speech as if she in fact were not imaginary and were graduating with the class.

MONTAGNE: You know, I think people following the strip would say that the character who's gone through the truest transformation is B.D. You know, he ended up in Vietnam in '72 because he wanted to get out of a term paper.

Mr. TRUDEAU: Right.

MONTAGNE: And it was kind of an exciting idea.

Mr. TRUDEAU: Yes. His catastrophic wound has shaken him out of the life of settled complacency that he had been living for many, many years. And I think the nature of the narrative decision that I made to separate him from a leg was that I had to look at the consequences in more detail than I normally do.

Normally I, you know, I don't shoot any higher than verisimilitude. If it sort or seems like it might be accurate or it seems - that's usually good enough for me to clear the bar. But in this case I really had to sweat the details. So I had to more closely observe what B.D. might be going through psychologically. And as a result, the strip kind of took a more naturalistic turn. It's not as surrealistic as it used to be, but it's been an astonishing journey for me.

MONTAGNE: Garry Trudeau's retrospective of 40 years of Doonesbury is out today.

INSKEEP: And that's MORNING EDITION'S Renee Montagne. You can relive four decades of memorable Doonesbury moments at NPR.org. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.