The ground-breaking comic strip Doonesbury has been with us for a half-century. It was the first daily comic strip to win a Pulitzer Prize for tackling social issues, politics and war. It’s also been censored for some of those same reasons.
It all began as an irreverent strip called Bull Tales in the Yale Daily News when Garry Trudeau was a junior. Its main character was B.D., who was based on Yale’s standout quarterback, Brian Dowling. The strip caught the attention of a fledgling newspaper syndicate which told Trudeau the drawing and lettering needed work but also told him it read like dispatches from the front lines of the counter culture.
“You can’t exaggerate the importance of novelty in jumpstarting a career,” Trudeau says. “People were so surprised by this strip that was about sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll and politics and all the things that I was concerned about and was thinking about in college that I got cut a lot of slack.”
The story of how Universal Press Syndicate recruited Trudeau reads like a story from the strip itself. One of the syndicate’s founders stumbled upon Bull Tales and approached Trudeau using a pseudonym, offering him a 20-year contract, which the cartoonist resisted. Then, after a deal was struck, a suitcase containing the first six weeks of the new strip was stolen from Trudeau’s car.
David Stanford, who’s edited the collections of Doonesbury cartoons published as books for some 40 years, compiled an oral history of the syndicate.
“They were just geniuses at trying things nobody else had thought of and being right many times,” Stanford says. “Doonesbury was the first big thing they launched and then [came] Ziggy and then Cathy, For Better Or For Worse, The Far Side and then eventually Calvin and Hobbes.“
In addition to running the strip’s web site, Stanford served as the “duty officer” for The Sandbox, a blog on the Doonesbury website where soldiers, their spouses and caregivers posted about the war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Although Trudeau has opposed most American military interventions of the last 50 years, he developed great respect for the men and women who have served in the all-volunteer armed services. Col. William Nash, a fan of the comic strip, arranged to have Trudeau snuck into Kuwait in the aftermath of the first Gulf War so the cartoonist could get a sense of military life.
The retired major general recalls a time when he was with his unit in Germany and being stunned one morning to see Zonker Harris in Doonesbury reminiscing about the days he was dodging the draft and reading through some correspondence with a Col. Nash.
“It’s 6:00 o’clock in the morning. I’m reading this and suddenly I’m in a Doonesbury cartoon,” says Nash.
B.D. is his favorite character and he cites the Doonesbury strip in April, 2004, in which B.D. loses a leg during the Battle of Fallujah in Iraq.
“He brought the reality of war to the American people. And that’s a very important thing to do,” Nash says, his voice choked with emotion. “Bringing the reality of the world through a cartoon, is his great contribution to our society.”
By then the Defense Department was well aware of Trudeau’s affinity for American soldiers, which was also expressed in a series of strips about veterans having difficulty adjusting to civilian life. The Pentagon brought the cartoonist into Walter Reed Army Medical Center, as it was then called, so he could get to know veterans who’d lost limbs in war.
Trudeau has riffed on other episodes of social upheaval, including the AIDS epidemic.
Doonesbury is credited with being the first major comic strip to have a gay character. Its stories about the AIDS epidemic were criticized by some gay activists but when the character Andy Lippincott succumbed to AIDS in 1990, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an obituary for Lippincott.
Another Doonesbury character who came out as gay is Mark Slackmeyer, a campus rabble rouser and DJ at the Walden College radio station. In a 1996 strip, Slackmeyer accidentally outed himself and his partner on the radio. They were co-hosting a program called All Things Being Equal. Slackmeyer’s former show was All Things Reconsidered. Shortly after the strips appeared, someone in the NPR New York bureau started paging Slackmeyer on the network’s public address system in Washington, D.C.
Through it all, Trudeau says he’s just written about what interested him.
“I think in the beginning, I naturally asked the question, ‘What might interest an audience?’,” Trudeau says. “But, as that’s always guesswork at best, I began to ask a different question: ‘What interests me?’ Because what you learn over time is that the answer’s the same to both questions. If I’m not engaged, it’s unlikely the audience will be, so I just followed my interests. Sometimes it led me into politics, sometimes to culture, sometimes to social or interpersonal issues.”
Trudeau embraced the feminist cause through the character of Joanie Caucus. The inspiration was the cartoonist’s cousin, who he describes as a suburban mom with three kids, “who had lived The Diary of a Mad Housewife experience.” She left her marriage and Trudeau visited her in Colorado.
“I spent three days in a sleeping bag on the floor of her apartment debriefing her,” Trudeau recalls. “‘What could you have been thinking? What’s driving this? How are you changing? How is your world changing? How are the genders changing in relation to one another?’ And from all those conversations, I went back and came up with the character Joanie Caucus.”
Trudeau said that he chose to give her the last name Caucus because he had been volunteering for the National Women’s Political Caucus.
While Joanie Caucus has aged visually as she went from being a mom to grandmother in the strip, Zonker Harris doesn’t look a day older than he did when he showed up in B.D.’s football huddle in September 1971.
“I would say that Zonker is probably the Snoopy of Doonesbury,” Trudeau says. “I don’t draw him any differently, haven’t given him any gray hair. I allow him to be kind of forever young, although he has become a little bit more responsible now that he’s running a business.”
The business being the cultivation of recreational marijuana. At Wesleyan University in Connecticut, students have for decades celebrated Zonker Harris Day in April to salute “New England’s Greatest Living Slacker.”
At its height, the strip was carried by nearly 2,000 papers, some on their editorial pages. But Trudeau takes issue with the perception that Doonesbury is a political comic.
He stopped drawing the daily strip in 2014 to focus on television writing and on the Sunday comic, which has primarily focused on politics over the past four years. “The one thing I miss about not being able to write the [daily] strips is that I can’t tell stories anymore.” But Trudeau says he doubts he will return to writing a daily strip because he has fallen out of the rhythm of it.
He has been enjoying time with his kids and grandchildren. He’s been developing movie and television projects but refuses to talk about them until they’re real. But he will say that on inauguration day, he plans to suspend work on the Twitter feed of his character Roland B. Hedley, Jr., which has been a comedy haiku that gave the cartoonist an opportunity to comment on the Trump administration.