The first scholarly book to examine Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury comic strip notes that for all its cultural significance and political influence, the cartoon has been at times as misunderstood as another artist's New Yorker cover satirically depicting the Obamas as terrorists.
Brigham Young University humanities professor Kerry Soper chronicles Trudeau's 40-year career in Garry Trudeau: Doonesbury and the Aesthetics of Satire, published this month by the University of Mississippi Press.
Soper, who wrote his undergraduate honors thesis and doctoral dissertation on Trudeau, is an accomplished cartoonist himself. He won the Charles M. Schulz Cartoonist of the Year prize in 1990, given annually to the top college cartoonist.
His book highlights the episode in the early 1970s when one of Trudeau's characters, on his radio show, pronounces "guilty, guilty, guilty!" U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell, accused of complicity in the Watergate scandal. Outcry followed, but Soper points out that a closer reading of the strip suggests that Trudeau was actually mocking the media's rush to judgment and hysteria surrounding the issue.
The stir caused by that strip - and more recent ones publishing only the names of soldiers killed in Iraq - demonstrate Soper's main premise. He argues that even practicing a much-dismissed art form, Trudeau became the most significant cultural critic and satirist of his age. And that even amidst the decline of newspapers and cartoons, his consistency, integrity and quality outshines modern challengers, from Saturday Night Live to The Simpsons to The Daily Show.
"He has a very traditional belief that satire is a sort of a moral endeavor, that you are waging this righteous battle against powerful figures and institutions and you can actually affect and change society and people's lives through your satire," Soper says. "People might find that naïve or self inflating. He does have a big ego in that sense. But he is also very principled."
For example, the book discusses how Trudeau's treatment of his character B.D., an Iraq war veteran who lost a leg in combat, is complex in its satiric treatment of what Trudeau probably perceives as an unjust war while still honoring the sacrifices of its fighters. The series' empathy and gritty realism is not only unusual for comic strips but for most forms of popular entertainment, Soper says, successfully blending humor and pathos.
Trudeau is critical of Saturday Night Live and its ilk, Soper continues, because they "are scattershot and indiscriminate in their targets, reflexively rebellious in their treatment of anything on the cultural radar."
Trudeau's career began as cartoonist while he was at Yale, where he was a contemporary of one of his future targets, George W. Bush. Soper points out that Yale's quarterback at the time was named Brian Dowling, whose initials inspired B.D., whom Trudeau sketched wearing a football helmet all day, every day before his military service. Doonesbury began in 1970 and has been carried by as many as 1400 newspapers. Trudeau won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1975, and his 60 books have sold more than 7 million copies.
That immense success insulated Trudeau against some of the commercial pressures that would have felled lesser satirists, Soper argues. He highlights the many times controversial treatments resulted in editors cancelling the strip, only to revive it after intense letter-writing campaigns from its fans, many of them baby boomers seeking counterculture material that contrasted with the bland, neutral comics on the rest of the funny pages.
On the eve of the 1980 presidential election, Trudeau ran a weeklong series called "Mysterious World of Reagan's Brain" that depicted the candidate's mind as "deep, neglected, uncharted territory - a sort of brain of darkness," Soper says. More than two dozen papers dropped the strip, including the Indianapolis Star. Editors there received 850 phone calls of complaint and succumbed to pressure to reinstate the comic.
In his book, Soper coins the term "sateur" to describe Trudeau's ability to engage in principled social criticism for many years within intense institutional and economic pressures. It's a combination of "satirist" with the French term "auteur," more commonly applied to filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock or Preston Sturges who successfully created a distinctive body of popular work within the restrictions and pressures of the Hollywood studio system.
Trudeau is also unique in his ability to deliver political commentary outside the editorial page.
"Many editors felt he didn't belong on the comics page," Soper observed. "His is political cartooning in a comic strip form and thus unlike most comic strips; at the same time, it is superior to a lot of the political cartoons because there is character development and ongoing narrative complexity."
Soper's admiration has its limits, though. He criticizes aspects of Trudeau's drawing ability and expresses ambivalence about the practice of combining satire with a kind of investigative journalism that Trudeau has attempted from time to time. The cartoonist suggested the government suppressed evidence that could have indicated drug use by Dan Quayle. He even used his strip to offer a $10,000 reward to anyone who could provide proof George W. Bush served in the National Guard.
"You expect a satirist to engage in exaggeration and distortion," Soper said. "But that runs counter to the roles or objectives of an investigative journalist, who has to be very strict about sources and information and make sure it's accurate. I defend his right to do it, but it causes grief for editors and readers who may not know what they are reading."
Trudeau is famous for depicting sitting presidents with symbols - a waffle for Bill Clinton and an asterisk for George W. Bush's first term, for example. Looking forward, Soper takes a stab at predicting how the venerable strip may depict an Obama or McCain administration.
"Obama could be difficult, but Trudeau might target his penchant for elevated rhetoric and deeply resonant voice that can sometimes sound pretentious," Soper guessed. "Maybe his symbol would be some kind of floating trumpet coming out of the clouds, like a pronouncement from the heavens.
"He'd have an easier time with McCain, who is often depicted as a hothead. You wonder if he'd go with a stick of dynamite with the fuse lit, or hammer the age stereotype with a walker of some kind."
Writer: Lee Simons