Do we need more evidence that comics are routinely denigrated and underappreciated by the media? When Garry Trudeau’s strip Doonesbury turned 40 last month, a headline in the local daily paper marked the occasion, but labelled it “Doonesbury.” An article in a campus publication at Trudeau’s alma mater repeatedly called the strip “Doonsebury.” And an alt-weekly misspelled the title too, in its table of contents.
Four decades to learn how to spell the name of a popular feature that actually runs in some of those very papers, and they still get it wrong. Magazine articles haven’t been much better. The Atlantic got Trudeau to write his own reminiscences of the strip, then lessened the impact of that coup with a shoddy layout. Vanity Fair devoted only a few paragraphs to the milestone, perhaps unaware of how seldom Trudeau allows himself to be interviewed. The only worthwhile interview of a decent length was with Rolling Stone, which has long understood Trudeau, dating back at least as far as its Jimmy Thudpucker cover story of 1978.
Most of the media coverage has had to do with two elaborate coffee table books which marked the anniversary. But again, the angles generally taken have shown a casual dismissal of the strip and its continued relevance and impact. The intimation was that these books were somehow legitimizing Doonesbury by reprinting it in such large quantities. But that overlooks the fact that Doonesbury has been regularly compiled into book form since its very beginnings as an undergraduate offering in the Yale Daily News. Doonesbury books have routinely been bestsellers. And the bigger of the two new coffeetable tomes, the anthology “40,” was surpassed years ago by a volume which included a DVD-Rom of the strip’s entire history. Doonesbury is also comprehensively archived online.
No, Doonesbury has earned proper tributes from properly appreciative writers, and deserves better treatment.
The longevity is indeed astonishing. Of the long-running top-flight strips which essentially died with their creators (as Trudeau has promised Doonesbury will), George Herriman’s Krazy Kat klocked 31 years, Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon flew for 41 and Charles Schulz’s Peanuts punted eight months short of a full 50. If Trudeau stays as fit as he looked when speaking at Yale earlier this month (he’s 60, and looks mid-40s) it’s a safe bet that Doonesbury will last another decade and surpass Peanuts. That’s assuming, as Trudeau worried in his talk, that there will still be newspapers around to print the strip.
But Doonesbury’s continued popularity, relevance and controversies are even cooler than its turning 40. The Simpsons is 23 and lost its cultural cred many seasons ago. Saturday Night Live? Aside from Tina Fey’s guest shots, forget it. Doonesbury remains some of the most vital social satire to be found in the mainstream media, regardless of when it began.
Trudeau, it appears, takes both the kudos and the cluelessness in stride. He’s too humble, or modest, or reclusive, to show concern about how his work is being perceived in the media these todays. He’s fought battles with editors, publishers and feature writers in the past about how the strip is represented, but rarely and only when his reputation seemed at stake.
After all, it’s clear that the cartoonist’s millions of readers get it just fine. Their polite yet passionate adulation was unmistakable when Trudeau and his biographer Brian Walker signed books at the Yale Barnes & Noble bookstore prior to his Nov. 3 lecture at the Yale Art Gallery.
That talk, a prepared presentation which dovetailed with another tribute to Trudeau—the “Doonesbury in Time of War” exhibit at Yale’s Beinecke Library—didn’t alter its war themes for celebratory remarks. So maybe Trudeau’s happy to downplay his own achievements as well. Perhaps I shouldn’t even point out the final indignity—that when the Beinecke held a post-lecture reception for Trudeau, it was clear across the building from where his Doonesbury strips were being exhibited.