Doonesbury is one of my three favorite comic strips of all time (the other two being The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes).
I think Garry Trudeau is a genius, both as a satirist and as a man full of compassion, as evidenced by his recent work on behalf of veterans. Newsvine veteran Rob Ballew wrote here Rob Ballew wrote here about the Sandbox book Trudeau organized and published that is a collection of dispatches and blogs from Iraq and Afghanistan War vets.
Kerry Soper has written a dense, fascinating book about Trudeau as a satirist. I saw this book at a bookstore and immediately begged Soper for an interview. This is the first part of the interview.
The second part will occur in about one month.
I asked Kerry to tell me a little about himself and he wrote back:
I studied commercial art at Utah State University and was a political cartoonist for the college paper there. My junior year I won the Charles M. Schulz award for outstanding college cartoonist in the nation--and this got me thinking about being a professional cartoonist. I headed off to grad school (an MA and PhD in American Studies at Emory University) and did a dissertation on the history of satire in comic strips. Somehow the dream of becoming a cartoonist morphed into a career as an academic. I still do occasional satiric pieces and cartoons for the Chronicle of Higher Education. I now teach at Brigham Young University in the humanities and American Studies program. One of my courses--a seminar on the History of Satire and Comedy in American culture--features discussions of the work of George Herriman, Walt Kelly, and Garry Trudeau."
Hope this helps.
I am going to excerpt two parts before and two parts after this interview
"It is easy to to think of Garry Trudeau as the Thomas Pynchon of comic strips: he is private, reticent and enigmatic, only occasionally speaking in public, and giving interviews just three times in a four-decade career. So deep is his dislike for public exposure, that before one interview, with Time, he actually threw up and then cancelled the interview.
On another occasion he hid in his bathroom for four hours to avoid the questions of a Baltimore Sun reporter." (page 23) (The author goes on to explain why Trudeau may be justified in this behavior what with the public and media's "insatiable" appetite for information about artists thus causing more harm than good to artists...
The author compares Doonesbury to other comic strips:
"His work stands out as an anomaly on the comic page; as one reads Doonesbury within the context of blander strips, its sophisticated, ironic sense of humor, verbal complexity, and dense references to political matters seems to take on added weight or significance. It is a if one were listening to a series of court jesters doing safe, court-friendly gags while reading most of the page, and then a lone truth-teller hits the stage - someone who is not afraid to bring real complexity and chaos to the court. Ironically, Trudeau's irreverence and disrespect for authority figures also benefits from the perceived restrictions placed upon this family-friendly medium.
Scott: Why did you decide to write a book about Garry Trudeau?
I was a cartoonist in college and the cartoonist that I wanted to emulate was Trudeau. I even wrote a senior thesis on his strip, so I'd long been a serious fan and student of his work. In graduate school I continued to study the history of satire in comic strips and had more opportunities to study Trudeau's place among other great cartoonists such as Schulz and Walt Kelly (Pogo).
Is this a book you have also used for a class or vice versa?
I do teach one seminar on comedy and satire in American culture. Several class periods focus on comic strips, but I haven't used the book itself as course material. (Assigning your own work to students always feels a bit awkward to me.)
What was your goal with this book?
To create the first thorough analysis of Trudeau's satiric, comedic, and aesthetic methods in Doonesbury. (I'll leave the definitive biography of Trudeau's life to someone else.)
Is this your first book? Have you always been a Trudeau fan? What other cartoonists/comic strips
do you like?
Yes, this is my first academic book. I've enjoyed Gary Larson (Far Side), Berke Breathed (Bloom County), Walt Kelly (Pogo), Charles Schulz (Peanuts), George Herriman (Krazy Kat), and Darby Conley (Get Fuzzy).
Did you get a chance to talk with Trudeau at all and/or get his reaction to your book?
About eight years ago I met Trudeau at a convention and he was very kind. At the point I was writing a larger study that would have featured Trudeau in a single chapter. He was very encouraging and even offered to review the book for me.
When I contacted him through his assistant about this book focused solely on him, he declined to become involved directly. He did allow his assistant to help me, however, with fact checking and clearing a path to get reprint permissions from his syndicate. I haven't received a direct reaction from him about the book, but his assistant and syndicate offered positive reactions.
While the book ultimately celebrates Trudeau's work, I don't pull any punches in critiquing certain aspects of his art and satire. I think it's admirable of Trudeau's camp that they supported from a distance an objective and sometimes critical work like this.
Note: In a more recent email Kerry wrote, "By the way, I just got a gift from Trudeau in the mail; he sent me some original art as a thank you for the book. He says he's too self-conscious to read it--and modestly suggests that he's never thought his work could hold up to close scholarly scrutiny--but he was very gracious about letting me use illustrations and get help from his assistant in completing the work."
What do you think it is about Doonesbury that has made it still relevant oh thismany years after it first started?
The consistency and integrity of his satiric methods. I don't this his core audience will ever tire of solid, funny satire that reflects on current events in thoughtful ways.
Where do you stand on the issue newspapers face over whether it belongs on the comics page or the editorial page?
I think it belongs on the comics page. There should be room on the comics page for all kinds of comedy and satire--both topical and cosmic. I can understand why editors get jumpy about Trudeau's mix of investigative reporting and distorted satire, but readers should be given more credit for being able to enjoy and understand a variety of comic and satiric voices on the funnies page.
I will leave you with two other excerpts from the book
"Beyond setting his strip apart from the rest of the comics page in tone, aesthetics, and content, this auteurship has had significant influence on other artists, the comic strip industry, newspapers, the world of punditry, and public and political debate. In other words, the things that annoy some observers so much about Trudeau - his seeming disrespect for conventions within his field and his aggressive, supremely confident criticisms of important people - are a necessary part of his status as one of the most significant and effective popular satirists of the twentieth century. To illustrate Trudeau's cultural significance, one can simply consider a sampling of the effects Trudeau's iconoclasm has had on his medium, the world of entertainment, and the culture at large...
This book argues that the successful career of Garry Trudeau challenges parts of this standard narrative of comic strip history - the golden age followed by a large fallow period - by highlighting how in an auteur flourished in an era when comic strips were supposedly in decline. With his sharp-witted political satire, his character-based narrative, and his instinct for controversy, Trudeau produced a comic strip important enough to be denounced by high government officials, including presidents of the United States. This study tells how Trudeau was able to carve out an artistic niche for himself in an unpropitious environment. ...