Still scrawling after all these years
In Dublin to receive an honorary doctorate for four decades’ work on his Doonesbury cartoon strip, Garry Trudeau tells FRANK McNALLYabout his family’s link to old Irish bank notes and that despite the doom and gloom, he remains an optimist
IN ANOTHER LIFE, Garry Trudeau might have been a real doctor, never mind an honorary one. Not that he has any aptitude for medicine, by his own estimation, but his great-grandfather was a famous physician who played a leading role in one of the medical sagas of his era: the fight against tuberculosis.
Edward Livingston Trudeau, who suffered from the illness in the 1870s, recovered his health by leaving New York for the cool air of the Adirondack Mountains. He later established a sanitorium there and, with the help of benefactors, also set up the first laboratory in the US to study the condition. It continues today as the Trudeau Institute.
TB took its toll on the family, even so. A son of the doctor and the cartoonist’s great-uncle, Edward Livingston Trudeau Jnr, died of the illness, leaving a beautiful young widow. Her name was Hazel Martyn, but she’s better known to us, via a later marriage, as Lady Lavery, whose portrait adorned the first bank-notes of independent Ireland.
The Trudeau marriage was not one of her happier episodes, apparently. Despite that, her great-nephew-in-law used to keep one of the notes in her honour. (He doesn’t say what happened to it.)
Although he did not inherit a medical vocation, Garry Trudeau may owe to his ancestors something of the seriousness that sets his long-running cartoon strip apart from its neighbours on the funny pages. Behind the jokes, there’s a campaigning earnestness about Doonesbury that people either love or hate.
So it may come as a surprise to fans that the series started out more than 40 years ago as a sports strip. It was called Bulltales, and was inspired by a local American football hero named Brian Dowling (long since abbreviated to BD). But, as Trudeau says, it was hardly a standard sports cartoon.
“It had no action. The first dozen or so strips were all set in a football huddle, the wheelhouse of the game, where the quarterback directs the other players. Or tries to. In Bulltales, there was lots of push-back and second-guessing. It was a debating society. BD’s authority was undercut at every turn. So even though the early Doonesbury was about jocks, the counterculture template was set early.”
The visual style was set early too. Even today, it is not polished. But like many artists, Trudeau looks back on the early stuff with horror: the inadequacies he sees in it worsened by the knowledge that it was an almost instant success. “Doonesbury began syndication when I was 23. I wasn’t trained. I was undisciplined. I learned my craft in full public view in hundreds of newspapers. It wasn’t pretty.”
The things that embarrass him now probably helped the strip’s breakthrough. “The unsophisticated art wasn’t as problematic as you might think. I cringe at the sight of those early drawings, but there’s no question readers found them arresting. Doonesbury didn’t look like any other strip. The unruly scrawl conveyed a sense of urgency – cartoon dispatches from the front lines of generational change. At least that’s what we told editors. I like to say I made the comics page safe for bad art, although in fairness to my colleagues, maybe we should call it alternative art.”
BD REMAINS AN ANCHOR character, though he almost died a few years ago when he was a US solider in Iraq. Instead, Trudeau had the former football hero lose his leg. When he was being treated, BD appeared without a helmet for the first time in the strip’s history. It was a pivotal moment in more ways than one.
“If I’d killed him off, it would have caused a minor sensation for a few days and then been quickly forgotten. But by giving him a grievous wound instead, I committed myself to a significant exploration that would keep veteran issues front and centre for years. It was the right call.”
After that, Trudeau took to meeting war veterans to discuss their experiences, finding them eager to talk about their injuries, however awful.
Trudeau gives few interviews and this one is by email. In the early days, he threw up from nerves at the prospect of meeting a reporter from Timemagazine, but he dismisses the suggestion he may be reclusive.
“I’m not particularly shy, but early in my career, Doonesbury generated a lot of controversy. The interview requests became an enormous distraction, and I always seemed to be in a defensive crouch. Since comic strips don’t really depend on publicity to generate readership, I decided to spare myself the aggravation of interviews so I could stay focused on the work.”
When he does choose to explain himself these days, the defensive position is gone. He doesn’t apologise for his politics, which are summed up in his attitude to Barack Obama. Although disappointed in some aspects of the presidency, he was – unlike many of his countrymen – pleased at the rock-star reception the Obamas received in Ireland recently.
“I always held a pretty realistic view of what was possible, especially when it became clear what a mess Obama was inheriting. I like the patience and seriousness of this administration. And Obama’s actually delivered on far more of his campaign promises than is commonly understood.
“I was delighted that our president was so well received by your countrymen. He needed a break from us.”
As for the US at large, four decades of satirising it have not diminished Trudeau’s optimism and his belief that, despite appearances, things are getting better. “US pollsters have a perennial chestnut: Do you think the country is heading in the right direction? Much of the time we say no, but that’s because we’re a nation of amnesiac fabulists. We misremember even our recent past.
“I grew up in Cold War America, stunted by fear, racism and conformity. Now we have a black president, presiding over a nation that enjoys more freedoms and rights than at any time in its history. I need not enumerate our problems – they’re there for all to see, and I get paid for pointing them out – but I’m still an optimist. Most satirists are. When you slip into cynicism, you become part of the problem.”
I mention PJ O’Rourke, the political humorist who started out a lefty, but who now jokes that he’d like to meet his former student radical self, so he could punch him in the mouth. Have Trudeau’s politics changed at all since the 1960s?
“[O’Rourke is a] good case in point. Where does that contempt for our better nature come from? O’Rourke started out as a Hunter Thompson wannabe – all self-conscious ‘outrageousness’ – but as he found his own voice, he settled into pure cynicism. Parliament of Whores? Perfect title: all disdain, no hope. Fortunately for him, he’s very funny.
“Now, if you’d prefer I actually answer the question, the answer’s yes. The idealistic affect of youth is unsustainable. Eventually I came to understand that the more we step up to personal responsibility, the better society generally works. But I still believe opportunity should be available to everyone. I still believe that the increasing concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few – and the politics it’s produced – is bringing this country to its knees.”
As for the nuts and bolts of producing a regular strip, have decades of practice made it easier or harder? How long does an average strip take to produce from vague idea to finished artwork? Trudeau doesn’t quite know.
“I work in batches, so it’s hard to say. But it’s a daily strip and I put in a long day, so let’s just say I’m fully employed.”
There must be many days when the ideas don’t come. What does he do then? Walk in the park? Dose himself with double-espressos? “That pretty much describes every day. I spend a lot of time not coming up with ideas, but assuming you’re temperamentally suited for deadline work, you do learn to trust the boys in the back room.
“I know how to prepare myself, but I have no idea how the actual imagining works. I often abandon an idea as hopeless, only to find weeks later that my brain has mysteriously solved the problem without any apparent guidance from its owner.”
Nor does he know how many characters he has created, though he put the spotlight on more than 70 of them for a 40th anniversary retrospective. But he has favourites. Of the founding characters, tellingly, he particularly likes the feckless Zonker, “who’s everything I’m not – I envy his lightness of being”.
As for the second generation, Iraq again looms large: “The one I most enjoy writing is Toggle, the brain-damaged Iraq War veteran. He suffers from something called Broca’s aphasia, which greatly compromises his ability to communicate. His disability presents a set of creative problems that I find endlessly interesting.”
The easiest character to imagine was the now-deceased US congresswoman Lacey Davenport, whose voice came directly out of Trudeau’s childhood. “My mother inherited some money, long gone, that once put her in the company of ladies who lunch.”
But asked to identify a strip or theme of which he’s especially proud, he opts for the mid-1970s sub-plot in which a retired housewife Joanie Caucus gets journalist Rick Redfern into bed. “A slow, four-day reveal that tied editors up in knots,” recalls Trudeau, it was “edgy for comics circa 1974”.
Among other cartoonists, where does he look for laughs? “Charles Schulz made me love comics. Jules Feiffer made me want to be a cartoonist. On your side of the ocean, I always loved Searle and Scarfe.”
He doesn’t read strips he does not enjoy, unlike some of his critics, who are among Doonesbury’s most loyal followers. “I’ve never understood that impulse. I apparently have many readers who despise my work, but have read it since its debut. What’s up with that? It’s like chewing sandpaper every morning.”
A running theme of Doonesbury in recent years has been the problems facing American newspapers. These are reflected in the number of titles carrying the strip. “In recent years, my combined [daily and Sunday] list has slipped from a high of about 1,300 to 1,100. Some of that’s budgetary, some editorial, some existential. Part of that lost revenue is recovered through online sales.”
But those are still figures most cartoonists would give their non-drawing arms for, as Trudeau readily concedes. After four decades of success, he could afford to quit and is sometimes tempted. That said, he has no time-table for retirement and he’s not sure the industry won’t “take us all over the cliff” first.
So does his optimism desert him when he thinks about the long-term future of journalism? “Yep. But I’ve had a 40-year run, so if I complain, who’ll listen?”
UCD confers Garry Trudeau with a doctorate tomorrow. ‘A Conversation With Garry Trudeau’ is at the Tierney Building, UCD, at 9.30am tomorrow. All welcome