Trudeau’s Offers Political Commentary

With the creation of the Doonesbury comic strip, satirist Garry Trudeau revived sharp political satire and transformed comic-strip art in the United States.

Summary of Event

In October, 1970, Garry Trudeau, a master of fine arts candidate at Yale University’s School of Art, signed a contract with the Universal Press Syndicate to produce the comic strip Bull Tales, Bull Tales (Trudeau) which Trudeau had originally created for the Yale student newspaper. Because the syndicate feared the name Bull Tales would offend some readers, the strip took a new name from one of its major characters, Mike Doonesbury. The name derived from a Yale slang term, “doone,” which meant a good-natured fool. Trudeau, Garry

As a syndicated comic strip, Doonesbury considered subjects covering a wide range of topics, from the Watergate scandal to the war in Vietnam. Almost immediately, the strip became involved in controversy. The Indianapolis Star and other conservative newspapers dropped the strip almost immediately. Other papers did not object to the strip until it dealt with some especially touchy subject. For many papers, this point came in May, 1972, when character Zonker Harris speculated that the responsibility for the deaths of four students at Kent State Kent State massacre (1970) University in Ohio during a 1970 antiwar demonstration was to be laid at the feet of Attorney General John Mitchell. By this time, however, the strip had a large and vocal following, and some editors found themselves so besieged by protest that they reversed their decisions to drop Doonesbury.

In response to criticism about his presentation of the Kent State issue and about his depictions of a trial of members of the Black Panther Party, Trudeau replied that the truth was often to be found in hyperbole. This seems to have been Trudeau’s guiding philosophy in producing Doonesbury. Because electronic media bring the harshest realities into every home, Trudeau assumed that there was no need to avoid a satirical, humorous approach to these same topics in the comics. That philosophy, however, offended many people who perceived the newspaper comics pages as places for entertainment only. Trudeau replied to such critics that cartoons concern themselves with truth, but that truth delivered straight would destroy the cartoonist’s role as humorist. Moreover, Trudeau noted, as humorists, cartoonists do not have an obligation to discuss all sides of an issue.

As the Watergate scandal Watergate scandal (1973) grew in intensity in 1973, Doonesbury became increasingly controversial for its depiction of President Richard M. Nixon and his associates. At that time, many newspapers moved the strip to their editorial pages. The insights provided by the strip proved to be so powerful that, in 1975, Trudeau won a Pulitzer Prize Pulitzer Prizes;editorial cartooning for Doonesbury, the first time since the inception of those awards that the prize for cartooning went to a comic-strip artist. As a Pulitzer Prize winner only four years into his career, Trudeau described himself as “a thoughtful, concerned, and highly creative young man who is out to make a fast buck.” A less self-deprecating analysis came from The Washington Post, which called Trudeau “the youngest and most successful of the new wave of comic strip artists appearing in today’s newspapers.”

The style of Doonesbury was obviously inspired by the more sophisticated comics of the 1950’s and 1960’s, such as Feiffer, which appeared in The New Yorker magazine. Trudeau’s drafting style was to reduce the drawings to simple forms; this style was well suited to the content of Doonesbury, given that the strip was more literary than visual.

Although conservatives frequently complained about Doonesbury, Trudeau’s work was not ideological in the usual sense. The Doonesbury characters made iconoclastic assaults on liberal ideas and figures as well as on right-wing concepts. From 1976 to 1980, the comic strip frequently pointed out that the Democratic administration of President Jimmy Carter was long on symbolism and short on accomplishments.

Doonesbury has often been described as “liberal,” an epithet that is in some ways misleading. Trudeau has demonstrated a personal commitment to an open and frank discussion of ideas and an accompanying willingness to laugh at the ridiculous inconsistencies and posturings of public figures; this is, historically, a liberal attitude, but it is not an ideological one. Moreover, since Doonesbury entered public view in 1970, most U.S. presidential administrations have been conservative. Such administrations have been the natural targets of Trudeau’s satire, not because of their conservatism but because of their position of national leadership.

The comic strip Doonesbury makes the cover of Time magazine in 1976.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The end of the Watergate era was not the end of satire in Doonesbury. In 1983, Trudeau took a sabbatical to rethink his characters and their futures. At the end of that time, he returned to have them graduate from college and enter business life. The new setting gave Trudeau a platform from which to address the national events of the years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Trudeau satirized Frank Sinatra’s alleged ties to mobsters when the singer received a presidential medal; led viewers on a mountain-climbing-style cartoon expedition through Ronald Reagan’s brain (which was found to be vacant); poked fun at critics of the National Endowment for the Arts; and depicted Vice President Dan Quayle as a feather floating in the air. When Trudeau pointed out that President George H. W. Bush avoided payment of state income tax by claiming as his legal residence a hotel suite in Texas, which has no state income tax, more than thirty thousand Doonesbury fans wrote to the Texas state comptroller asking for Texas citizenship.

Trudeau’s satire has not been without its price. In 1990, Trudeau was dropped from a USO (United Service Organizations) trip to visit troops in Saudi Arabia during the run-up to the Persian Gulf War, even though Doonesbury was carried by the U.S. military newspaper Stars and Stripes. At that time, Doonesbury’s character B. D. was an Army reservist deployed to the Persian Gulf, and his girlfriend, Boopsie, was learning to cope with the problems of managing on her own.


Trudeau’s Doonesbury represented both a continuation of and a departure from tradition. It spawned a host of imitators and transformed the landscape of newspaper comics. Comic-strip writers have always dealt with the ambiguities of life and with the need for human beings to triumph over, or at least to endure, the conditions of life. Comic strips, however, have the privilege of creating a fantasy world within which these ambiguities are examined. Doonesbury has used this privilege to undertake a provocative analysis of American life.

The presentation of Trudeau’s views in comic form enormously extended the audience for those views. It has been estimated that 80 percent of all Americans who live in towns with populations greater than twenty-five hundred read the newspaper comics pages on a regular basis. Furthermore, people with more education show more interest in comics. More than half of all Americans say they have a favorite comic-strip character, and about three times as many Americans read the comics as read the news. It has been estimated that more than seventy million people read Doonesbury every day, far more than normally watch a nationally televised address by the president of the United States.

Many comic strips have given birth to animated films, radio serials, television specials, and popular songs based on their characters. A Broadway play based on Doonesbury ran for four months, and an anti-Reagan play inspired by Trudeau’s work toured the country for four years. Comic-strip spin-offs such as lunch boxes, calendars, and paperback collections of strips are big business, but for many years, Trudeau resisted the production of commercial spin-offs from Doonesbury. In the early 1990’s, however, he began to permit these developments, with the understanding that the profits would go to the numerous charities he supports.

Comics often have characters that become real to readers or that suggest solutions to real-life problems. During the Great Depression, a comic-strip character named Gordo enjoyed a nutritious dish made with beans and cheese; more than eighty-five thousand readers wrote in to request the recipe. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, the character Jiggs in Maggie and Jiggs enjoyed corned beef and cabbage at a corner saloon named Dinty Moore’s; soon a line of canned goods was successfully marketed under that brand name. Doonesbury has exerted a similarly strong influence, as demonstrated by the thousands who requested Texas citizenship at Trudeau’s suggestion.

By dealing with real issues in the comic-strip format, Trudeau performed an important task. Most Americans get their news from brief television presentations; Trudeau brought selected events to a wide audience and highlighted these events vividly. For example, in one story line, his character B. D. lost a leg in combat in Iraq and then faced a struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder when he came home. Trudeau has noted that, as a satirist, he sees no reason for Doonesbury to be balanced so as to avoid offending those who disagree with his views. He has stated that “to fault a satirist for being unfair is like faulting a nose-guard in football for being physical.”

Of course, Trudeau was not the first comic-strip artist to deal with contemporary issues in his work; the comics pages have long featured familiar themes from the news as well as from everyday life. Doonesbury, however, set new standards in the complexity and controversial nature of many of its real-life-inspired topics. Thus, Mike Doonesbury, working in an advertising agency, is troubled by the health hazards of smoking, but he nevertheless draws up an advertising campaign making cigarettes appear glamorous so he can keep his job. The presentation of such a dilemma speaks to the human condition much more forcefully than do the stock situations so common in older comics such as Blondie.

In many modern comics, reader response goes beyond enjoyment. Comics mirror life as the readers understand it and as it is presented by the writer. This is obvious in Doonesbury. The strip originated in and was set in an academic culture. Although the characters long ago graduated and left college, educated, young, socially and economically mobile people continued to find the strip appealing because it reflected their world. When Trudeau has his characters comment on politics, he is saying what many of his readers actually feel.

Further Reading

  • Heer, Jeet, and Kent Worcester, eds. Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004. Collection of scholarly essays discusses comic strips, both as social phenomenon and as art form, from the late nineteenth century through the 1960’s. Provides historical context for the advent of Doonesbury and the strips that followed. Includes index.
  • Trudeau, Garry. “Real Life with Garry Trudeau.” Interview by Jonathan Alter. Newsweek, October 15, 1990, 60-66. Trudeau has been a rather shy person most of his career, making this relatively lengthy interview unusual. Trudeau reveals a little about his personal beliefs and his family life with his wife, television personality Jane Pauley.
  • Waugh, Coulton. The Comics. 1947. Reprint. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991. Substantial, readable study of the comics deals with their history in a scholarly, analytic fashion. Includes index.
  • White, David Manning, and Robert H. Abel. The Funnies: An American Idiom. New York: Free Press, 1963. Examines newspaper comics to see what they say about American culture. Notes that American comics have a worldwide following and are a window for much of the world on American humor, drama, adventure, and fantasy.

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