October-December 1970: “Dispatches from the Front”

I’ve been a huge Doonesbury fan since sometime in the early 1980s. A few weeks ago I had the idea to re-read the entirety of the strip’s run 47 year run and to use the exercise as a way to learn more about comics. The plan is to read Doonesbury alongside comics scholarship and criticism so I can indulge myself in a strip that I have loved since I was about twelve years old while learning about the history of comics and the theory behind how they “work” – topics I’ve always been curious about, but never really pursued.

Then, I decided I should write about it. I’ve never written about comics before, and I’ll be learning as we go along. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

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Doonesbury, 26 October, 1970. Things Garry Trudeau apparently couldn’t draw in 1970: mouths, feet, hands.

Garry B. Trudeau’s Doonesbury made its debut on 26 October, 1970. Most of the strip’s first few months consisted of jokes about campus life as experienced by two college roommates who were selected by a computer system for ideal compatibility but who have nothing in common: B.D., the quarterback of the football team (named after Yale QB Brian Dowling) and Michael J. Doonesbury, a clueless nerd who sees himself – all evidence to the contrary – as an irresistible chick magnet. Most of the early strips focused on the everyday humour of college student and athlete life. There are some great football jokes, bits about Mike’s dating failures, and “Odd Couple” gags about Mike and B.D.’s slowly-developing friendship .

Yet even when exploring these fairly standard themes, Doonesbury was different from anything else appearing on mainstream American comics pages in 1970. For this first post, I want to focus less on themes that Trudeau was beginning to explore and more on how his style announced a generational challenge to the orthodoxy of the comics page, a medium that was a key part of mass culture in twentieth-century America. While maintaining the basic structure of the comic strip medium – images and text arranged in sequential panels building up to a punch line – what Trudeau rendered within those panels eschewed accepted aesthetic values in favour of a roughly-drawn scrawl that might have appeared like a middle-finger salute to the form’s middle-class, middle-American ethos.

Trudeau says his early work “… didn’t fit anyone’s idea of what a mainstream comic strip should look like. It was written on the fly, crudely executed, and ignored pretty much every convention of the craft.” Sharp-eyed readers in 1970 may have noticed a hint of the work of cartoonist/illustrator Jules Pfeiffer in Trudeau’s drawing, but readers tuned into changes in the comics medium would have no doubt seen the first Doonesbury strips as following in the footsteps of underground comix artists like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton or the strips in their own campus newspapers. Doonesbury was, in effect, one of those campus newspaper comics: Trudeau got the Doonesbury gig on the strength of Bull Tales, a comic strip he had been drawing for the Yale Daily News beginning in 1968, and many of the first Doonesbury strips were redrawn versions of Bull Tales strips.

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Jules Pfeiffer, The Phantom Tollbooth. Though he draws with a much finer line, the influence on GBT is easy to spot.

I’m currently about halfway through Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics: A History of Graphic Novels and What They Mean, a history and critical evaluation of what Wolk sees as our contemporary “Golden Age” of comic arts. His brief analysis of the underground comix of the sixties and seventies helped me understand Trudeau’s initial rough drawing style in a broader context in three different ways. First, Wolk argues, comix artists strove to be “as transgressive as possible.” Beyond that, Wolk argues that by embracing a style that was “deliberately ugly” comix artists, instead of giving the audience to a chance to participate in a shared sense of joy rooted in perceiving something beautiful, instead prompted in readers a sense of alienation by having them enjoy something that was repulsive, or that at least failed to meet commonly-shared aesthetic standards, thus forcing the individual reader to see herself as an outsider. As Wolk puts it, “the meta-pleasure of enjoying experiences that would repel most people is, effectively, the experience of being a bohemian or counterculturalist.” Finally, Wolk points out, comix artists, reflecting a culture grounded in an ethos of “do your thing,” put much more emphasis on “the quirks of their drawing style” than their predecessors had, seeing the comics they drew as “as artifacts of their artistic personae and creations of their hand, rather than as specific pieces they happened to have made.” 

While acknowledging that there are important differences between underground comix and mainstream comic strips, I find Wolk’s analysis useful for understanding the early Doonesbury and its place in the history of the comics page. Doonesbury might not seem terribly transgressive when compared to, say, Zap Comics, but if we focus on Wolk’s use of the words “as possible,” and limit ourselves to the what was possible while working in the context of daily newspaper funny papers, there’s no doubt that Trudeau’s style and subject matter pushed boundaries that Charles Schultz or Mort Walker never came close to approaching. Furthermore, young readers, by choosing to read Doonesbury first when opening up the comics page instead of like Blondie or Hi and Lois were in a small, but every-day manner, underlining the generational divide being experienced in many American households and reminding themselves how out-of-touch with the new culture their parents were. And, no doubt that Trudeau’s refusal to adapt his style to the conventions of the medium, and his continued success while doing so not only reflected his individuality, it allowed him to develop his artistic persona in a distinct way over the following years and decades.FabulousFurryFreakBrothers

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Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, and Robert Crumb’s Mr. Natural: two of the most enduring bits of the underground comix movement. Trudeau found a way to bring some of this craziness to the mainstream funny pages.

What set Doonesbury apart from virtually every other mass-market comic strip in 1970 was that it roots were firmly planted in the youth and campus culture of the time. Like Walt Kelly’s Pogo before it, Doonesbury brought pointed political and cultural satire to the funny pages. What was different about Doonesbury, however, was that its style, as much as its content, reflected contemporary values of youth rebellion. Trudeau jokingly referred to the “urgent scrawl” that defined his early strips as evidence that he was producing “cartoon vérité.” [1] Trudeau sees his early work as not merely a commentary on its times, but a product of them: “If Doonesbury looked like it had been created in a stoned frenzy,” he maintains, “then that was evidence of its authenticity. The strips were dispatches from the front.” Trudeau, after all, was part of the generation he was writing about, a generation, he notes, that had “effectively hijacked the culture” by the time of Doonesbury’s debut. Doonesbury brought this cultural hijacking to the comics page. Until then the butt of jokes about long-haired, dirty layabouts in the strips of their parents’ generation, the hippies and the peace freaks seized a patch of turf on the funny pages and made it their own. On that piece of turf, Trudeau became a spokesperson for the Boomers and a critical chronicler of his generation and the generations that succeeded them.

In the next few posts I will focus on how a comic that came into the world as a gag-a-day strip about college kids who play football, goof around and try to get laid became one of the most consistently insightful bodies of satire in any genre in American history by looking at how Trudeau began to introduce some of the themes – politics, war, racism, feminism, inter-generational and intra-generational conflict, and others – that he would focus on for the next five decades.

Character Tracker:

In each of these posts, I’ll be tracking new characters’ first appearances as we meet them.

Mike Doonesbury; B.D.: October 26, 1970

1: All quotes are taken from Brian Walker’s essential study of Trudeau and his work, Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau