40 years of Doonesbury

That’s the first Doonesbury cartoon, from October 26, 1970. Today, The Guardian, which has been the home of the strip in the UK for most of that time, celebrates the anniversary by way of an interview with Garry Trudeau.  For me, Doonesbury, along with Steve Bell, is one of the things that makes The Guardian an essential part of the morning ritual. The strip provides an insight into American politics and society (though sometimes from this side of the pond its meaning can be a bit opaque), and it is funny, humane and often deeply moving.

I think  the only time a cartoon strip has reduced me to tears was in May 1990 when Doonesbury depicted the final moments of Andy Lippincott, dying of AIDS. Lippincott was a character who first appeared in January 1976, in a law library. Joanie Caucus fell in love with him before Lippincott confessed he was gay, leaving Joanie heartbroken.  He disappeared from the strip for a few years before reappearing in 1982 as an organizer for the Bay Area Gay Alliance, contributing to the congressional re-election of Lacey Davenport. In 1989 he returned again when he was diagnosed with AIDS. Over the course of the next year, Lippincott’s battles with the disease, and eventual death from it, helped bring the AIDS crisis into popular culture. Ultimately, Andy is shown dying to the sound of the Beach Boys’ song Wouldn’t It Be Nice, on the first release of the CD version of  Pet Sounds (Trudeau has also used the strip to closely observe the changing phases of technology).  This storyline led to a Pulitzer Prize nomination for Garry Trudeau, but three newspapers of the 900 carrying the strip refused to publish it as being in bad taste.

[Click on a strip to enlarge]

I remember that in September 2005 when The Guardian relaunched in the Berliner format, Doonesbury was dropped from G2 due to space considerations. This act of vandalism provoked reader uproar, and after a flood of complaints the strip was reinstated with an omnibus covering the issues missed and a full apology.

Today’s Guardian interview notes that in the 1970s, in contrast to his fellow cartoonists who were busily drawing fluffy animals and naughty schoolchildren, Trudeau waded into Vietnam, Watergate, feminism, abortion, hypocrisy in the White House, pot smoking and sex. Though he himself came from a moderate Republican background, Trudeau found himself manning the barricades of the counter-culture:

It was the cauldron, the late 60s, when I began to think as an adult. All hell was taking place, the Black Panthers were on trial, students were shot in the Kent State protests, war was waging on the other side of the globe, it was very hard not to be swept up in all of that.

He’s now on to the third generation of characters. Doonesbury and BD (the characters in that first strip) have both procreated and now, he says, ‘it’s about time for the second wave of characters to have children. That’s a frightening thought.’  Though the original duo have grown older, they continue to be anchors of the strip. BD led the way into Trudeau’s current passion, exploring the traumas and travails of the wounded warrior. It’s been Trudeau’s device for dealing with the wars in Iraq and Afghanisatan – opposing the wars, yet honouring the men and women who have given everything to them. BD’s loss of a leg at Fallujah, followed by his removal, finally, of his helmet, was a poignant symbol of sacrifice. ‘He had had his helmet on him for 35 years. When it came off it conveyed that he was now vulnerable and his life had changed for ever. I had to figure out who the new BD would be.’

Doonesbury began as a continuation of Bull Tales, which appeared in the Yale University student newspaper from September 1968. It focused on local campus events at Yale.  As Doonesbury, the strip debuted as a daily strip in about two dozen newspapers on October 26, 1970.  Since then, as Ed Pilkington comments in The Guardian:

Doonesbury has established itself as so much more than a traditional cartoon. It is a soap opera, a tragedy, a comedy, an investigative agency, a liberal political commentary, a scourge of pomposity and corruption, a humanitarian exercise, all rolled into one.

The current storyline has Jeff Redfern (onetime CIA agent and son of sixties liberals Joanie Caucus and Rick Redfern) in Afghanistan trying to sell the products of his company Overkill to Hamid Karzai. That’s pretty typical of what he does, Trudeau says, ‘taking these highly improbable characters and having them collide with real events’.


One thought on “40 years of Doonesbury

  1. Oh yes! Absolutely! I *cannot* believe that remarkable AIDS strip was 1990. Twenty years ago! Jeez. It moved me too. An astonishingy powerful way to render in one simple cartoon strip a host of cultural ‘signifiers’ that cut right to the heart.

    On other days and other topics, I burst out laughing at the end of four simple frames. Nothing else I read has this effect. His recent takes on Obama’s aloofness have been priceless.

    And yes, We the Boomers should keep Gary in clover, and in the Guardian, until the end of our days.

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