For Trudeau, road to comic fame began on York Street

It was early September, 1968. A tall, lanky junior wandered into 202 York St., home of the Yale Daily News, holding a handful of hand-drawn comics — a series about the football team called “Bull Tales.” Nervously, the young man greeted Executive Editor Reed Hundt ’69 LAW ’74. After rifling through the first three or four comic strips, Hundt shrugged. He was impressed with the artist’s humor, but less so with his drawing ability.

Still, Hundt agreed to run the strip.

“Sure. We print pretty much anything,” the young man recalled the editor saying.

Little did Hundt know that he had recruited Garry Trudeau ’70 ART ’73, future creator of “Doonesbury” and now, one of the most widely syndicated cartoonists alive.

“He was a really, really bad drawer — horrible,” Hundt said in a phone interview this week.

Fortunately for Trudeau, his clever humor struck a chord with Hundt. Within just six weeks of that meeting with Hundt, “Bull Tales” was picked up by a syndicate. And the News, then a for-profit paper, felt the effects — financially, at least — since Hundt required Trudeau to sign a contract agreeing to give 10 percent of any future book profits from the cartoon to the News.

“As it turned out, that 10 percent paid for my first year’s tuition in law school,” Hundt said.

And for Trudeau, the turn of events was even bigger than law school tuition.

“It was sheer serendipity,” the notably media-shy Trudeau wrote in an e-mail to the News this week, days after winning an award from the medical school. “I was preparing to be a graphic designer, not a cartoonist,”

‘Peanuts never did this’

Now, 40 years later, Trudeau’s cartoons have swelled in popularity.

While his original cartoons based on the Yale football team were anything but serious, his current strip, Doonesbury, follows two characters introduced in “Bull Tales” — BD and Mike Doonesbury — but through them, confronts serious issues in politics and current affairs.

In fact, just last Saturday, Trudeau was honored by Yale School of Medicine with the Mental Health Research Advocacy Award for his incorporation of post-traumatic stress disorder into the story line of Doonesbury, which appears in nearly 1,400 newspapers across the globe. While Doonesbury’s depiction of Watergate earned Trudeau the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1975, his recent cartoons have drawn attention for their portrayal of combat in Iraq and the recovery of soldiers.

In Doonesbury, BD — who began as a football-playing character drawn with a helmet adorned with the Yale “Y” in Trudeau’s first strip — entered military combat in Iraq. But in the April 21, 2004, strip, Trudeau made an astounding plot shift: BD lost a leg in the war.

But rather than using the injury to reflect the brutality of the war, Trudeau depicted the long recovery process of BD, chronicled in two books, “The Long Road Home” and “The War Within.”

“I don’t know any other cartoon that has ever taken this kind of step,” said Psychiatry Professor John Krystal as he presented Trudeau with the award.

“Peanuts never did this,” he added.

But Trudeau told the News that he had not initially considered the psychological trauma of PTSD when deciding to incorporate BD’s injury in the strip’s story line.

“Initially I was simply mapping the medical path an amputee typically takes towards recovery, but as I got deeper into it, I found that many of the wounded also had serious readjustment issues,” he wrote.

Like any good Yalie, Trudeau did his research, visiting PTSD afflicted soldiers in treatment centers.

When accepting his award, Trudeau spoke of his visit to Walter Reid hospital, where he met a 25-year-old soldier who had lost her left hand in combat in Iraq.

“Her most vivid memory is of her sergeant finding her hand and engagement ring,” Trudeau said.

The account demonstrated the “soldier’s need for narrative,” he said, and stories like these provided the impetus for writing BD’s accident into the plotline.

Making the dark bearable

But it hasn’t been easy depicting the road to recovery in his drawings — especially because he had to incorporate humor.

“You can take [readers] to dark places so long as you make it bearable,” he said.

Fortunately, Trudeau’s experience makes him a master at treading this thin line. As a student at Yale during the Vietnam War, Trudeau confronted war in his early Doonesbury comics from what he calls a “countercultural perspective.”

“The story line was a peacenik fantasy about the commonalities of the combatants,” he said.

Trudeau’s early cartoons appeared in “Stars and Stripes,” a newspaper distributed to soldiers in Vietnam. He said he was amazed by the way the soldiers said they were able to relate to his comics.

“Only years later, after I’d actually met a lot of Vietnam vets, did I understand; the strip meant that they hadn’t been forgotten,” he said. “Someone was thinking about them.”

Now Trudeau works tirelessly to make sure soldiers are not forgotten. Military servicemen in the War on Terror post their thoughts frequently on Trudeau’s Web site through an online forum called “The Sandbox.”

Trudeau’s sensitivity to American servicemen has developed over time, although he has always remained a staunch war critic.

“What has evolved over time is not so much my view on war as my view on warriors,” he said.

In fact, Trudeau has interacted with veterans while researching his strip for more than 15 years. During the Gulf War, he met with returning soldiers in “a long-overdue immersion in military culture.”

Fatefully, Trudeau lived in the same college as a future politician whose policies he would later criticize in his work.

“My junior year, Garry Trudeau lived above me and George Bush lived below me,” Hundt recalled.

According to Hundt, Trudeau — a member of Scroll and Key — was amiable, “dashing,” “witty” and “intensely verbal.” Bush ’68, too, was “agreeable,” “genial,” but he the center of the Davenport College social life as the go-to source of alcohol for his classmates.

Still, Hundt said, “Of the two, one has been a big success — that would be Garry.”

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