Garry Trudeau Essay - Critical Essays

Trudeau, Garry


Garry Trudeau 1948–

American cartoonist, essayist, and screenwriter. "Doonesbury" evolved from a series of cartoons entitled "Bull Tales" written for the Yale Daily News while Trudeau was an undergraduate. The strip, which poked fun at campus celebrities, interested a newspaper syndicate and was launched nationally in 1970. Along the way the scope was broadened and the comic became a satire of contemporary politics and culture instead of campus hijinks. "Doonesbury" is one of a few politically oriented comic strips with a continuous story line. It was recognized as revolutionary in the medium because it satirized public officials without the mask of fictional locales such as Al Capp used in "L'il Abner." Real life characters appear as themselves and Trudeau allows them to damn themselves with their own words. All political persuasions come under attack from Trudeau's pen, and he is as unsparing with left-wing characters as he is with right-wing. An intelligent follower of the news and a meticulous researcher, Trudeau sometimes creates strips that are obscure to those without his knowledge of current political events and cultural trends. He does not write his strips far in advance of publication, which makes their appearance in the papers almost concurrent with the events he is satirizing. Because of this topicality and his cutting irony he is sometimes censored in newspapers when his satire strikes too close to home. A strip on Nixon's visit to Watts, for instance, was dropped from the Los Angeles Times. On occasion Trudeau has defended his work from editorial criticism, but such public statements of intention are rare. A reclusive man, he rarely interviews or makes public appearances, preferring to speak through his comic strip or in the essays that appear in various magazines. In addition to a 1975 Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, Trudeau has received an Academy Award nomination for the short subject A Doonesbury Special and several honorary doctorates. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)

Robert C. Maynard

On [May 29, 1973], The Washington Post and about a dozen other American newspapers incurred the wrath of hundreds of their readers by making the decision to omit, on grounds of fairness, a popular comic strip, "Doonesbury" by Garry Trudeau….

Doonesbury's well-earned popularity is based on the pithy way in which its characters sink their teeth into contemporary subjects. The strip is created with a sure-handed sophistication that is pointed even when it isn't funny.

The reason the Tuesday strip was dropped is that it was, in the opinion of the editors of The Washington Post, entirely too pointed and overstepped the bounds of decency, fairness and good judgment.

What Trudeau did was have his "WBBY" commentator give a little Watergate rundown which concluded with the judgment about a principal in the case as being "GUILTY! GUILTY, GUILTY, GUILTY!!"

Howard Simons, managing editor of The Washington Post, explained his decision to drop the strip by saying:

"If anyone is going to find any defendant guilty, it's going to be the due process of justice, not a comic strip artist. We cannot have one standard for the news pages and another for the comics."…

It has long been recognized that cartoons are very much the creation of their authors and the points of view they express are granted a special license…. Any number of strips have expressed a variety...

(The entire section is 593 words.)

Allan Parachini

To Trudeau, [Doonesbury] is simply his public voice, his vehicle to inveigh against social and political wrongdoing, and to cuff wrongdoers. (p. 4)

What is it that has made Doonesbury such a runaway success? One simple reason is that it has attracted … support from young readers…. They find the strip believable and identify with its characters…. [Don Wright, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist,] has high praise for Trudeau's dialogue. "He's a damn good writer. His style is clean and uncluttered…."

Nicholas Von Hoffman … catalogues another Trudeau strength. "He has a golden ear. He pays attention to words and the way they're said, and captures the essence of what's there that most people don't hear." The power of the dialogue and Trudeau's use of a device perfected by Jules Feiffer—keeping the art in each panel reasonably static—increases the impact of the message.

Some critics, including gun-shy editors, find the message all too strong, the humor too harsh and brittle. They also question Trudeau's ability to sustain the strip's momentum in the less turbulent post-Watergate milieu. The growing number of Doonesbury advocates among newspaper readers tends to refute the criticism about excessive harshness. In fact, on subjects other than Watergate, Trudeau displays a droll, subtle sense of humor that works because it underwhelms rather than overpowers. (p. 7)

Allan Parachini, "Social Protest Hits the Comic Pages," in Columbia Journalism Review (© 1974 Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University), November-December, 1974, pp. 4-7.

Nora Ephron

I am not one of those who believe that there is nothing to laugh at about the women's movement; in fact, there is plenty to laugh about without in any way putting down the movement, and I become downright irritable when I read lengthy feminist tracts justifying the women's movement's lack of a sense of humor. "How can we laugh when we're so oppressed?" That kind of thing. It seems to be that the exact opposite is true: how can we not laugh when we're so oppressed. (p. 93)

In any case, the women's movement has spawned very little humor—much less any humor that amuses me. And Joanie Caucus hardly seemed a likely candidate; she was, after all, the creation of a man. Then I started reading "Doonesbury," and there was Joanie, the runaway wife, the day-care center supervisor, the law school applicant, the newly-single woman coping with passes from a hip priest with hot tickets to a Jeb Magruder concert, and I began to roar.

There is nothing more hopeless than attempting to explain why something is funny…. I have no idea why she is funny. I just know she kills me…. It's not just that I know women like her and that I'm a little like her myself. It's not just that my friends constantly tell me stories about trying to bring the movement to their children, stories that are remarkably like the episodes in this book. It's also that there is something about what she looks like and the way she behaves—so downtrodden...

(The entire section is 415 words.)

Dominique Paul Noth

[Trudeau is funny, pertinent and incisive and] daringly hard to categorize. At the same time [his work is] nothing new—at least in terms of bringing political statement to the comic pages. Trudeau, however, may be the best, the most plugged in to society of a long line of cartoonists with messages to drop. And instead of disguising his points within a whimsical swamp, Dogpatch or adventure, Trudeau uses today's locales….

[Trudeau] has an uncanny radar that sweeps up material across the American scene. While many readers presume a leftist bent to his views, Trudeau has taken on the sacred cows and semantic bull of all sides. He has poked at both Nixon and the press, activists and reactionaries. He has looked with a strange mixture of sadness, love and humor at his own generation….

[Trudeau rejects] the idea that his work ought to be isolated in some safe, adult compartment of a newspaper. He once wrote:

I am often infuriated by the editor who responds to the cry that comics should remain irrelevant and sanitized to encourage moral rectitude on the part of the adolescent comic reader. Why the double standard? The same adolescent comic reader can watch "Mod Squad" in the evening, a kid shooting up in the playground and can even, God forbid, browse through the rest of the newspaper, where topics forbidden on the comic page abound in great numbers.

Dominique Paul Noth, in Milwaukee Journal (© 1975, by The Milwaukee Journal), May 20, 1975.

Richard R. Lingeman

Beginning with B. D., the hard-helmet Jock, and on through Joanie Caucus, the feminist; Zonker Harris, the hippie; Mark Slackmeyer, campus radical—not to mention Michael Doonesbury himself, who is Charlie Brown's older brother kicked out into the world—Mr. Trudeau steadily evolved into a first-rate political satirist of contemporary immorals and unmanners. This progress is admirably charted in "The Doonesbury Chronicles," a collection of 572 of what Mr. Trudeau considers his best strips. They culminate in Watergate, and these are the most slashing, but reading the whole of Mr. Trudeau's work one comes to see him as a satirist who gentles his barbs with a laugh or a "what-can-you-do?" shrug, and who is always held...

(The entire section is 147 words.)

Chuck Stone

We'll Take It from Here. Sarge is a ba-a-ad book.

Not white folks' conventional notion of bad—invidious, malevolent, and naughty. But black people's revision of bad—hip, together, and super-good.

In this brief but brilliant burlesque on busing (apologies to Spiro Agnew), Garry Trudeau has captured a quality which eluded thousands of newspaper articles, editorials, and television reels on Boston. He has reduced America's cancer of race hate to the essential sadness of its humanity.

Little innocent white Bobby Matthews and his streetwise black friend, Rufus, A. B. (after busing) are juvenile pawns caught up in an adult savagery that is as vibrant today as...

(The entire section is 521 words.)

Ralph Schoenstein

"An Especially Tricky People" is a nicely satirical look at certain parts of the current scene, from the inscrutable East to the inscrutable West. Unfortunately, the current scene changes too fast for political satire in a book: To talk about Mao Tse-tung and Gerald Ford today is to talk about the husband of a traitor and a golfer at N.B.C.; but Trudeau is so sharp that even his dated panels trigger laughs. For example, the questioning of an ambassador by a United States Senator:

"Did the President say anything about your accelerating obsession with drugs?"

"Of course not. Jerry and I have an understanding. I don't make any comments about his lack of motor skills and he doesn't...

(The entire section is 199 words.)

William F. Buckley, Jr.

What is there to say about Doonesbury, or even about the comic-strip mode?… There is, for instance, the nagging mechanical—and therefore artistic—problem of reintroducing the reader to the synoptic point at which he was dropped the day before. In a collection this is more aggravating than if twenty-four hours have gone by since arriving at the point where the artist left you, and you need a little nudge. Trudeau handles this very deftly, usually by introducing into the panel a tilt of some sort that takes the reader slightly beyond where he was left yesterday, so that he is relieved of that awful sensation of turning wheels without moving forward.

The other problem is the presumptive...

(The entire section is 846 words.)