Last week marked the 52nd anniversary of the Kent State massacre. Garry Trudeau’s strips about the tragedy (which happened about six months before Doonesbury debuted) marked an important step in his early development as a cartoonist. For the first time, Trudeau engaged in a style of activist cartooning that was explicitly political, intentionally devoid of satire or humor, and expressly designed to outrage the reader at an unquestioned injustice. His writing about Kent also reveals something about the dynamics involved when current traumas become touchstones in a culture’s memory of its past.
What follows is an all-too-brief outline of the events at Kent State: If you’re interested in an extended account that focuses on the experiences of the young men and women who were there, check out Derf Backderf’s Eisner Award-winning comix history, Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio
Although Vietnam’s neighbor Cambodia was officially neutral, North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces had long used Cambodian territory to run supplies and stage troops. On 30 April 1970, Richard Nixon announced that the United States had expanded the war in South-East Asia by invading Cambodia. Almost immediately, protests against the invasion erupted on college campuses across the United States.
The day after Nixon’s announcement, students at Kent State University, a college in northeast Ohio, rallied against the invasion. That night, unrest in the town of Kent prompted the mayor to declare a state of emergency and request that the Ohio National Guard be mobilized.
By the time the Guard arrived on 2 May, students were again protesting, and the campus ROTC headquarters had been torched.
On 3 May, protesting students were tear-gassed by the National Guard; after a curfew was declared, guardsmen bayoneted several protesters as they forced them off the streets.
On 4 May, Kent State’s administration announced that a second planned demonstration could not take place; nonetheless, some 2000 students gathered to protest the invasion. Tear gas attacks by the Guard forced students to retreat: as the guardsmen repositioned themselves, they were followed by protesters, some of whom threw rocks at the soldiers. Without warning, the Guardsmen opened fire on the students, killing four people – Jeffrey Glenn Miller, Allison B. Krause, William Knox Schroeder, and Sandra Lee Scheuer. Nine other protesters were wounded.
The murders had national repercussions. Students across the country went on strike, closing over 400 campuses, and 100,000 people gathered in DC to protest the invasion and the massacre. In June, Nixon established the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest (the Scranton Commission), which, after examining the events at Kent State, concluded that:
Even if the guardsmen faced danger, it was not a danger that called for lethal force. The 61 shots by 28 guardsmen certainly cannot be justified. Apparently, no order to fire was given, and there was inadequate fire control discipline on Blanket Hill. The Kent State tragedy must mark the last time that, as a matter of course, loaded rifles are issued to guardsmen confronting student demonstrators.
Families of the murdered students and their allies tried to get the Justice Department to convene a federal grand jury to investigate the massacre and hold the perpetrators to account, but, in August 1971, Attorney General John Mitchell announced that there would be no further investigation.
Trudeau first wrote about Kent State after Doonesbury had been running for a little more than a year. Campus protest was a regular focus of his since the strip’s debut. However, even given the stakes of antiwar activism in the post-Kent era, GBT’s early strips about campus politics were generally designed to get a laugh, and were as likely to take the piss out of the protesters as they were to attack the Establishment. When “Megaphone” Mark Slackmeyer attempts to occupy the office of the President of Walden College, he is disarmed when his target invites him to “come in and rap” and offers to show him where he keeps his “brandy and cigars.” Mark’s later attempt to seize the administration offices ends when President King chastises him for employing methods that had become “unbelievably trite.”
While Kent State underlined the extent to which the Establishment was willing to resort to brute violence to maintain order, even in strips where Mark faced a beat-down from the pigs, there wasn’t a sense of impending tragedy. Rather, Trudeau generally leaned into the comic-strip tradition of violence having no lasting effect. Much as Sergeant Snorkel would beat the shit out of Beetle Bailey, only to have our hero be in fine shape the next day, Mark is never seriously hurt by the cops who shut down his demonstrations: in fact, the violence is more often implied than shown. In one episode, a cop politely explains to Mark why he needs to arrest him before making a lame pun about how attacking him with pepper-spray was “a gas”; in another, the cops stand over Mark with batons lifted and evil expressions on their faces, but there’s no indication that what is about to transpire will have real consequences. The humor in these strips may have been on the dark side, and spoke to a deep cynicism about the cops, but clearly, the intent was to get a laugh out of the reader.
One of the first Doonesbury strips to mention Kent State ran on 28 November, 1971. As with those previous strips featuring Mark, the tone is dark and cynical, but it still ends with a gag. Mark and Mike are sitting outside, reading the newspaper. Mark is frustrated that Mike doesn’t share his outrage after reading “another article which contradicts the official explanation of the Kent State shootings.” Mike might be “irked” at the “deceit” at the heart of the Administration’s response to the murders, but, as far as he’s concerned, it’s time to move on, given that “the Attorney-General has closed the case.”
Mike’s lack of concern, however, isn’t rooted in apathy: it grows out of his awareness of just how bad things are getting. If he were to “get [himself] into a state of impotent rage over Kent State,” he reasons, then his “indignation over Attica would be compromised.” Mitchell has “[done] us a favor by dismissing Kent State, because now we can concentrate on fresher, more recent tragedies.” In the final panel, Mark, perhaps exasperated, perhaps blown away by Mike’s cynical yet all-too-realistic analysis, hides his head under a section of the paper. Mike then delivers the punchline, one that underlines the extent to which horrifyingly violent events like Kent State and Attica were becoming the norm in those troubled times: “Hand me the comics, will ya?”
A few days later, GBT began an arc in which Mark moderates a student congress about the war. Like GBT’s previous writing about campus politics, much of this episode pokes fun at the anti-war movement. One strip, however, represents a significant shift in Doonesbury’s tone. For the first time, Trudeau used the comics medium as an explicitly activist platform, seeking not simply to amuse, but to give voice to the shock and outrage that he shared with the student movement.
Most of the student congress strips spoof common tropes about campus activism. There’s a joke about outraged youth: Mark screens “a film clip on government atrocities such as Vietnam,” and as the audience unites in anger, Mark smiles smugly: “government atrocities always bring us youths together.” There are gags drawing on student politics’ reputation for being amateurish and nasty: Mark’s attempts to get the Congress to pass a resolution about Vietnam, giving him “just the kind of ideological victory [he’d] been waiting for” are stymied when Zonker characteristically, flakes out and changes his vote at the last minute; the resolution gets watered down to read “War is bad.” Nearly coming to blows over the question of whether “the war,” “the pigs,” or “the political machine” should be the priority, the students fall into pandemonium until they unite behind a “common goal”: “KILL THE MODERATOR!”
The 4 December 1971 strip, however, differs from anything GBT had produced previously. A young man addresses the congress, urging students to “use [their] electoral power to bring an end to government-sanctioned violence … so that violent campus repression may never be tolerated again.” B.D., sitting in the front row, yells back: “I’m sick of you radicals sounding off on violence! Who do you think you are!?”
The young man looks down and answers B.D.’s question with quiet rage, his fists clenched at his sides: “The delegate from Kent State.”
There’s no joke here: the reader isn’t meant to laugh as they might’ve at the possibility of Mark facing a comics-page beat-down, or even chuckle uncomfortably as they may have when Mike argued that lingering anger at Kent State might interfere with rage at Attica.
This was the first “serious” Doonesbury strip, the first time that Trudeau used his voice in a way that wasn’t shaped by the need to get a laugh, as dark as the joke might be. The next time Trudeau expressed himself in a similar way, the context was still the horrific events at Kent State.
Zonker is outside, leaning on a fence; Mike is standing behind him. Zonker tells Mike: “…it’s very pretty in Ohio this time of year: They say it was a very pretty day exactly two years ago today at Kent State.” Mike and Zonker stand in silence for a moment, and then Zonker sarcastically adds: “Have a nice day, John Mitchell.”
The strip leaves a mark on the reader without using a joke to soften the blow, a blow that is all the more powerful because of who delivers the line. As Mark represents the politically-driven, SDS-inspired faction of the 60’s counterculture, Zonker is a Prankster who had checked out from an inherently unjust society to follow his own calling. The obvious choice would have been to have Mark voice sarcastic disgust at the egregiously political miscarriage of justice represented by Mitchell’s refusal to bring the Kent State murderers to account: by putting the line into Zonker’s mouth, GBT underlines the extent of a generation’s revulsion at Kent State and America’s failure to find justice for the dead. Not even the biggest freak on campus can ignore it.
The Mitchell strip is one in a long list of comics that got Trudeau in trouble with newspaper editors. By the time it ran, six newspapers had dropped Doonesbury because of its political slant, though half of those reinstated it after readers protested; other papers spiked individual strips because of their political content or moved Doonesbury off the comics page, either to the editorial page or to be buried in the classifieds. As James Ricci wrote in a 1972 portrait of GBT that ran in the Akron Beacon-Journal, Perry Morgan, the Beacon-Journal’s editor, spiked the Mitchell strip because he saw it as “an out-and-out editorial and a sign that Trudeau was openly proselytizing for a particular political point of view.”
Trudeau told Ricci that he drew the strip after being prompted by Kent State graduate student Paul Keane, who “[had] been active in pushing for a federal investigation of the shootings.” (In 2016, Keane recalled how, in 1972, GBT sent him a copy of the strip with a note reading: “I wrote this after I talked to you…” ) While Trudeau acknowledged that the strip represented a move towards activism on his part – or at least a gesture of solidarity with a political cause – he claimed it was “an isolated example” of him dabbling with explicitly political messaging:
I have not crossed the line permanently. I really put entertainment as my first priority. I don’t want to do political cartoons. I want the chance to develop characters.James Ricci, “The Doonesbury Shuffle,” Akron Beacon-Journal, 5 November 1972
That said, the Mitchell strip may well have pissed off people other than Midwestern newspaper editors: Keane maintains that he “[has] it on good authority that the cartoon banished from the Akron Beacon Journal infuriated [Ohio Governor Jim] Rhodes. I only hope it irritated Attorney General Mitchell too.”
Yet as Kent State pushed Trudeau to take a more activist stance, he also drew on the tragedy’s significance as he worked on his stated goal of “developing characters.” He also used the memory of the tragedy to signal the end of an era defined largely by rage.
Between “The Delegate from Kent State” and “Have a Nice Day, John Mitchell,” Trudeau introduced Reverend Scott Sloane, the “fighting young priest who can talk to the young.” Scott is not shy about using his activist history, including the Kent State tragedy, to establish his radical cred. Scott seems to have been at all of the defining moments of the counter-cultural revolutions: when he meets Mark, he asks: “Didn’t you read about me in Look? Birmingham, Selma, Chicago ‘68, Washington ‘67?”
On 13 April 1972, Zonker, who seems to have seen through Scott’s penchant for self-promotion (… earlier, he’d called the fighting young priest a “big phony”) is at Scott’s coffee shop. Scott had been working with Rufus, exploring more culturally-relevant approaches to Christianity, including calling God “Dad.” Zonker, unimpressed, asks Scott why he has to “act like such a hip dude when [he’s] teaching the Bible.”
Scott is angry at Zonker for doubting his hipness: after all, he tells Zonker, he was “at Watts. AND Selma.” “Sonny,” he continues:
I was even at Kent State, and Washington in ‘68. And you question my hipness?! I was in CHIGAGO!
Scott’s list serves a few purposes. As usual, it puts him at the center of his revolutionary times and reinforces the extent to which he sees his history as lending him moral authority. Underneath the joke, however, lurks Trudeau’s activist voice. A close reading of Scott’s list underlines the extent to which violence, notably at the hands of the state, defined much of the era. We think we are in uniquely troubled times today, but these numbers are staggering, and represent only some of the worst episodes of the era:
- The Watts uprising (thirty-four people died protesting police violence).
- Selma (two dead, dozens – including future Congressional Representative John Lewis – beaten by the cops as they protested for voting rights for African-Americans).
- Kent State (four dead, nine wounded in protest of the Cambodia invasion).
- Washington (thirteen dead, over a thousand wounded in a four-day-long uprising that followed the murder of Martin Luther King).
- Chicago (eleven dead, some 500 injured in a police riot during the 1968 Democratic Convention).
By November 1974, Zonker seems to have gotten over his dismissive attitude towards Scott. One day, he’s hanging out with the fighting young priest as he’s working on the jacket biography for his first novel – one that, again, reads like a checklist of the radical 1960s experience:
It traces the growth of a young philosophy student who gets involved in the Berkeley free-speech movement, then moves on to a Buddhist commune in Michigan. Later he is arrested for conspiracy in Chicago, but escapes to become a medic at Woodstock. Finally, freaked out over the war, and wired on six tabs of acid, he drives his V.W. camper over a cliff at Malibu. It’s sort of about the Sixties.
Scott’s bio reveals that he “lives alone with his faithful Irish Setter, Unconditional Amnesty” (a reference to the peace movement’s demand that Vietnam-era draft dodgers not be prosecuted). Zonker reminds Scott that he’s leaving out a member of his household. Scott adds a line to his bio: “…and his cat, Kent State.”
This strip marks a change in how GBT wrote about the Sixties. While academic historians may debate when, exactly, the “long Sixties” ended, 1974 and the Nixon resignation make as much sense as any other specific moment as an endpoint for the political and social upheavals that are central to that era, and to Scott’s self-conception. In Scott’s estimation, “the Sixties” are now a period to be looked back upon, the fodder for a semi-autobiographical novel, not a force currently shaping his life. (This holds equally true for Zonker, whose jaded expression and “Yeah, man, I been there” comment convey a feeling that we’re talking about something from the past…).
With Kent State and the other traumas of that era now safely confined to the past, Scott – and, maybe, Doonesbury – moved away from the rage that “brought us youths together” to, if not quite nostalgia, a place where naming a house-cat after an unspeakable tragedy, something that would have been unimaginable to that angry young man at the student congress, makes a certain kind of sense.
When GBT took a sabbatical in 1983, he said that he needed a break because “investigative cartooning is a young man’s game.” I’ve yet to delve into Trudeau’s work as an “investigative cartoonist” and the arcs where he performed something resembling legitimate journalism. Recently, though, I have begun to explore GBT’s work as a Gonzo cartoonist who blurred the line between fact and fiction and subjective and objective positioning to get at a deeper truth. Add to this list of GBT’s incarnations a third, that of the activist cartoonist, a writer and artist who, sometimes directly, and sometimes couched in satire, speaks up for the oppressed.
While far from the first time Trudeau’s work engaged with politics, the Kent State strips were the first time he deliberately avoided the need to give funny page readers a laugh as he did so. We’ll see how Trudeau developed his activist voice in future posts, but an interesting irony that comes to mind is the fact that arguably, his best and most important work in that vein would be on behalf of soldiers.