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Trudeau Reflects On Four Decades Of 'Doonesbury'

Forty years ago this morning, nerdy freshman Mike Doonesbury met his roommate at Walden College, and since that day, the funny pages haven't been the same.

Created in the throes of '60s and '70s counterculture, Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury comic strip blurred the lines between comics and the editorial pages, and produced some of the most memorable cartoon characters ever sketched.

Trudeau started drawing Doonesbury in 1970 as a Yale undergrad. "It was basically a sports strip," he tells NPR's Renee Montagne. But he soon had to scramble to find a way to sustain the strip's humor on a grander scale.

"Comic strips are like a public utility," Trudeau says. "They're supposed to be there 365 days a year, and you're supposed to be able to hit the mark day after day. And I had no idea whether I could do that."

In the four decades since its humble beginnings, Doonesbury has become much more than a sports strip. Trudeau marks his characters' 40th anniversary in the hefty new collection 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective.

Trudeau, 24, at his office in December 1972. "It was an utter novelty," Trudeau, now 62, says of <em>Doonesbury</em>. "Nobody had seen anything quite like it."
/ AP
Trudeau, 24, at his office in December 1972. "It was an utter novelty," Trudeau, now 62, says of Doonesbury. "Nobody had seen anything quite like it."

'Dispatches From The Front Lines'

Trudeau developed Doonesbury around three foundational characters -- everyman Mike Doonesbury, football quarterback B.D. and campus radical Mark Slackmeyer. They represented the center, the right, and the left, Trudeau says.

Six weeks after Doonesbury was first published on campus, Trudeau was offered what he calls an "out of the blue" syndication deal. "It's a ridiculous story, and it nauseates my children," Trudeau says, "that I would find my life's work six weeks into it."

The strip wasn't an instant hit -- at first it was syndicated in just 26 papers. But Doonesbury's popularity quickly grew -- a success that Trudeau attributes to the novelty of a cartoon that took on the nation's generational divide. "Nobody had seen anything quite like it," Trudeau says. "The way we framed it was: These are dispatches from the front lines ... of youth. You know that the creator is on the bus and he's sending us reports from the counterculture movement."

'I Replaced The Helmets With Other Helmets'

As Doonesbury grew in scope, the characters started coming into their own. In early comics Mike Doonesbury was drawn without a mouth. "I'm not sure what that was about," Trudeau admits. He suspects he was "trying to find a way to depict the character so that he remained as deadpan as possible."

Then there's the quarterback B.D., with his signature helmets -- a detail that Trudeau says "took on a kind of metaphoric significance that was wholly unintentional."

Trudeau initially had the idea that B.D. would keep his football helmet on to impress young women -- how else would they recognize who he was if he wasn't in his uniform?

"But then it kind of took on some new meaning as he moved through life and I replaced the helmet with other helmets," Trudeau says. "He changed [football] teams, he became a National Guardsman, he became a California highway patrolman, and finally he became a soldier in both Iraq wars."

In 2004, B.D. lost a leg in the second Iraq war, and Trudeau drew B.D. without his helmet for the first time in 34 years. It was a stunning moment for the strip's longtime readers.

"Many found it moving to see his graying, matted, sweaty hair revealed for the first time," Trudeau explains. "It conveyed a kind of vulnerability. It sent the message that for him, life would never be quite the same. That he had to struggle to move into the life of a wounded warrior and find out what that new normal looked like."

'I Really Had To Sweat The Details'

As readers got to know Trudeau's characters over the years, they began taking on lives of their own. In 1974, feminist Joanie Caucus earned her law degree from the University of California, Berkeley's Boalt Hall -- both in the cartoon strip and in real life.

As Joanie considered where to go law school, programs from around the country began sending Trudeau applications. He didn't send the applications back, but he selected Berkley's Boalt Hall -- for "no particular reason" he says -- and the law school simply treated Joanie as a real student.

"I got all the mailings, and student ID, and had to fill out all the forms," Trudeau says. "When she graduated, her class invited me to come speak. And they put a mortarboard on her chair in the front row. I made the speech as if she in fact were not imaginary and was graduating with the class."

Joanie's story resonated with many of the Berkeley students at the time. "Boalt Hall was unusually friendly to women law students, and particularly women who were returning after raising families," Trudeau explains. The graduating class of 1974 included many women who, like Joanie, had decided to change the course of their lives by applying to law school.

For many loyal Doonesbury readers, the character who has undergone the most powerful transformation is B.D. In 1972, the popular quarterback of Walden's football team went to Vietnam to get out of writing a term paper. By 2004, the former athlete had served in three U.S. wars and lost his leg -- not to mention his symbolic helmet.

These dramatic plot decisions didn't come easily to Trudeau -- especially the decision to seriously injure B.D. in battle.

"Normally I don't shoot any higher than verisimilitude," Trudeau says. "But in this case, I really had to sweat the details. I had to more closely observe what B.D. might be going through psychologically. And as a result the strip kind of took a more naturalistic turn. It's not as surrealistic as it used to be -- but it's been an astonishing journey for me."

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