The Wit and Wisdom of Garry Trudeau
Even after 50 years of accolades, including a Pulitzer Prize at 26 for his Doonesbury comic strip, Garry Trudeau reckons he may have gotten too much too young.
Garry Trudeau is an esteemed cartoonist and television creator best known for his long-running comic strip Doonesbury.
Born in New York City in 1948 and raised in Saranac Lake, NY, Trudeau began drawing the cartoon Bull Tales while studying at Yale University. An editor at the Universal Press Syndicate discovered the strip in the Yale student newspaper. After Trudeau’s graduation, the renamed Doonesbury comic launched in newspapers across the United States. With only a few short interruptions, the strip celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2020.
Trudeau’s endearing characters and comic takes on political events won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1975, one of many accolades earned over the ensuing decades. He was nominated for an Academy Award in 1977 for an animated Doonesbury special. He worked with director Robert Altman on satirical TV miniseries Tanner ’88 and created political sitcom Alpha House, which ran for two seasons in 2013–2014.
During the Iraq War Garry Trudeau was preparing to travel to Baghdad with a friend from The Washington Post.
Garry Trudeau: This was at a time when The Washington Post, to get its reporters to the green zone, would stuff them in the back seat and they’d throw a blanket over them and put a civilian next to them. And for some reason, I guess it’s just poor risk assessment, I was thinking, well, I can live with that. The Washington Post, they haven’t lost anyone yet.
But when he told his children, his teenage daughter burst into tears.
Trudeau: And I thought, there are a lot of other people who have to do that to their families. I don’t need to do that to my family to do my job. It’s okay for me to hear the stories about it. I don’t have to be a story.
Trudeau was ready to risk his life in a war zone, but it wasn’t for a newspaper column or a book or a documentary. It was for a syndicated newspaper cartoon series that he has been creating for over five decades.
Trudeau: A comic strip is very much like a public utility. You have to produce this thing 365 days a year. So, in order to do that I had to bring a lot of discipline to it. For some reason, I seem to have the temperament to do that.
Garry Trudeau is the creator of Doonesbury, a comic he’s been writing and illustrating since 1970. That longevity has turned it into a sort of a chronicle of late 20th and early 21st century America. At its peak the strip was published in almost 2,000 newspapers. Over the decades it has become famous and infamous for satirizing and exploring a variety of controversial issues, including war, the AIDS epidemic, and abortion. And it’s garnered attention from some titans of American culture.
Trudeau: My editor called me up and said, well, we just heard from the lawyer, Frank Sinatra’s lawyer, and he said that you’ve misrepresented the facts of what happened at Atlantic City on such and such a date with Sinatra and, and I said, well, of course I have misrepresented, I made them up. And he said, it’s gonna be a very short trial if that’s the standard. It’s satire, it’s a comic strip. I was pretty sure that if he was making noises publicly, that that was actually a good thing. The most extreme vitriol I’ve experienced came from a real gentleman, which is George Herbert Walker Bush. He, you know, is the most polite person on the planet, or was the most polite person on the planet. And he had nothing but really nasty things to say about me. But he took what I wrote about him very personally.
But Trudeau sees things differently. He’s more interested in the people he’s creating than the issues and public figures surrounding them.
Trudeau: Sometimes the political thing is overstated. It’s not really essentially a political project and never has been. It’s actually only maybe 20% of the strips I do, but because it’s caused the most commotion, that’s what people tag it with, that it’s a political strip. I mostly write character humor. I couldn’t tell a joke to save my life. I couldn’t write a joke to save my life. I just show people as they are, as human beings.
Trudeau’s relationship with his Doonesbury universe began when he was an undergraduate at Yale University. He contributed a comic called Bull Tales to the Yale Daily News. The strip was a precursor to what would become Doonesbury and featured several of the same characters.
(Excerpt from Bull Tales)
B. D.: Well, here I sit at college awaiting my new roommate. I know he’ll be cool since he’s computer selected. You just fill out a form, send it in, and presto, ideal roommates.
Mike Doonesbury: Oh, hi there. My name’s Mike Doonesbury. I hail from Tulsa, Oklahoma and women adore me. Glad to meet your roomie.
B. D.: Of course, there are still a few bugs in the system.
Trudeau: B. D. was a knucklehead and Mark was a radical who spoke in slogans. And Mike was the every man and the every man in my mind was Charlie Brown. He was a bit of an empty vessel, but always good as a straight man for the other two. So, that’s very sort of mechanical. From a political standpoint they represented three different points of view. They were archetypes from my experience as a college student that I understood.
For Trudeau, the road from college newspaper comic scribbler to syndicated cartoonist was abnormally short. Right after he graduated, a press syndicate company began distributing Bull Tales under the name Doonesbury. It was one of the biggest breaks a young comic artist can ask for, but it also came with a cost.
Trudeau: I mean, it really was learning in prime time ’cause I came right out of college. I didn’t have the skill sets that are commonly associated with my craft. You know, I really wasn’t ready. And frankly, the first 10, 20 years, even though there were all kinds of wonderful things that I was fascinated by, that I was writing about, I look at now and grimace.
Trudeau: There weren’t very many people who have chosen to do work like I have, who have thought, well, sure, I’ll just bring sex, drugs, rock and roll, and politics to the comics page. You have to be young and clueless to think that’s a good idea, which is, sometimes, thankfully confused with audacity.
But beyond improving his writing or drawing Trudeau also learned another important lesson early on, the power of silence.
Trudeau: I finally called up my editor in the early ’70s and said, you know, it would be very good for the work if I weren’t always preoccupied with defending it. So, would you be okay if I just stepped away from that? I don’t need to promote it.
AJC: And that was when you made the decision, no interviews?
Trudeau: Yes, no interviews.
For the next 17 years Trudeau kept quiet. His public silence was so palpable that when he broke it to give an interview to Newsweek in 1990 the magazine cover proclaimed, “Garry Trudeau Finally Talks.” Trudeau accomplished more with a decade and a half of focused silence than most people do with a lifetime of talking. Five years into writing Doonesbury, just before he turned 27, he became the first comic strip artist to win a Pulitzer Prize for his Watergate cartoons.
(Excerpt from Doonesbury)
Reporter: Ron, does the president have any comments on the most recent disclosures in the Watergate case?
Ron: No. Watergate, Watergate. What’s the matter with you guys? What is this senseless orgy of recrimination week after week? I’ve already said all that I’m going to, so why don’t you stop wasting both our time and ask me questions I can deal with?
Reporter: Ron, what color shirt is the president wearing today?
Ron: That’s better. Blue.
And his work has left a mark beyond the comic page. His strips about a 1980s law in Palm Beach, Florida, requiring low wage workers to register with police and carry ID cards, pushed the state legislature to pass a law banning the practice. It became known as the Doonesbury bill. But Trudeau takes the most pride in his work around an area where his characters, especially B. D., mainstay of the strip since the beginning, have had the greatest impact: the battlefield.
Trudeau: I had sent B. D. to war when he was young, without having any sense of what that meant. It was a kind of hippie fantasy that I sent the gung-ho soldier to Vietnam, where he’s captured by a Viet Cong fighter. And they get lost and they learn what they have in common. And it was such a kind of ’60s fantasy. I really hadn’t even read that much about Vietnam other than just the daily reports in the newspapers. The soldier experience I was largely ignorant of. So, when I got those opportunities later with the first Gulf War and then the invasion of Iraq and I was invited, I was welcomed into that world and into that culture. I tried to take full advantage of it. I tried to think, okay, let me see if I can reverse engineer this character I’ve created and find out, and dig a little deeper into what might’ve motivated him to be a soldier.
In 2004 Trudeau made a gutsy choice. He had B. D. lose a leg while fighting in Iraq. It was a consequential decision that meant just as much to real members of the military as it did to Trudeau’s fictional ones.
Trudeau: What I realized is that I had done something creatively that I really hadn’t done before, which was set off on an arc that I was totally, totally morally obligated to finish. You can’t maim a character and then walk away from the consequences, not just on him, but on his little girl, on his wife, on his friends and-
AJC: How much forethought went into that action? Did you know what you’re getting yourself into?
AJC: And then when you did it, when you executed it-
Trudeau: This is how little thought went into it: I decided I was gonna do it because I was so upset about the losses. And the Marines had just endured a horrible battle in Fallujah. There had been losses, huge losses, on both sides. And I thought, I can’t just have my characters on the periphery of all that pain. I have to put one of them in the center of it and so I did it. And I was actually leaving on vacation and I called up my long-time editor, David Stanford, said, David, I have to leave right now, but could you do just a fast piece of research for me? Could you tell me what happens to a soldier in the first hour when they’re wounded on the battlefield? I wanna know all the steps that the medics would take and what’s available to them. What are their tools? What are their goals? What do they have to get done during the so-called golden hour? And he said, yeah, I’ll do that. So I went off, I came back, and here was all this great stuff that he’d found. And so I immediately plugged that in. And then I thought, okay, now what? And I got a call from some friends I’d made at the Department of Defense. They said, well, we’ve seen what you’ve done and we’d like to help any way we can. And, of course, the subtext was, so that there’s a better chance you get it right, because this was a big thing.
Trudeau was invited to speak with soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Trudeau: So, I walked into the first room that I had been granted permission to, and there was this lovely young woman, maybe 25, sitting on her bed talking on her cell phone, and she was missing… her forearm and her left hand. She starts telling me her story and she said, I was an MP, and she’s sent to a police station in a small town outside of Baghdad. And she’s sent up on the roof. An RPG rips through her position, blows up on the wall behind her. So, she’s about to return fire when a second RPG comes in and slices off the arm that she’s had up and blows up all the sandbags and so she’s covered in sand. Her sergeant runs up to the rooftop and digs her out and they take her down and put her on the hood of a Humvee and they tie off her arm. And this is her telling the story, she said, and then he did something amazing. He went back up onto the rooftop, against orders, dug through the sand, found my severed arm and hand, removed my engagement ring, came back down, and put it in my one remaining hand. And she said, he didn’t have to do that. I coulda gotten another ring, but it meant the world to me. Well, that’s soldier love. That’s what soldiers do for one another. This is the first room I walked into, the first story I heard. And I thought, okay, this is not only rich and powerful, these kinds of stories, but if I can figure out how to get them into the strip in a way that’s also entertaining, maybe I can be useful in two different ways.
And useful he was. Trudeau’s exploration of the impacts of war earned him the Commander’s Award for Public Service from the US Department of the Army. In 2005, war veteran and then-senator, the late John McCain, wrote the forward to a book by Trudeau documenting B. D.’s recovery. Writing comics, of course, is nothing like fighting in a war, but the idea of recovery is a fitting way to think about Trudeau’s own journey over the past five decades of Doonesbury. There are painful and ugly moments highlighting some of the worst traits of America, but Trudeau isn’t guided by pessimism. He’s stuck to it for so long because he believes things can always recover and get better.
Trudeau: Most satirists I know always try to find a grain of hope in what they’re doing. They always think that the world could be better if people didn’t behave like this. I don’t think you can be a good satirist if you’re cynical. You have to be an optimist. You have to believe things can improve. Otherwise, that’s what motivates almost all of us. No, cynicism is the enemy of so many things, but it’s something that I highly resist as any kind of motivation for what I do.
Garry Trudeau is an outlier in our frenetic, constantly-changing world. Someone who has been committed to the same project for over half a century. That dedication has demanded adaptation and humility, but also the self-confidence to stay the course, to focus on the absurdity and humanity of life one panel at a time.