Garry Trudeau ’70 ART ’73 has broken one too many barriers. For starters, he has written his own obituary.
Trudeau will die at age 93, in February, during the 2040s. He will be best remembered for his uncanny basketball prowess. After a successful yet fleeting run as a cartoonist, he found his niche under the auspices of the New York Knicks.
This, of course, is a fabrication — or rather, Trudeau’s thought experiment of reverse engineering his own future during a retrospective talk he shared at the Yale University Art Gallery Wednesday evening. But what he later shared with an audience almost entirely composed of baby boomers was far more real.
Trudeau gave an overview of his Pulitzer Prize-winning comic strip, “Doonesbury,” within the changing political landscape of America from the Vietnam era to the post-9/11 world. He framed the discussion through the narrative of his character B.D., the irascible quarterback-turned-war hero with the ubiquitous helmet.
“Doonesbury” traces its origins back to 202 York St. in the form of “Bull Tales,” a sports strip which officially began in September 1968 in the pages of the News. But the beginnings of “Doonesbury” and Trudeau’s rise to fame were anything but humble.
“After six weeks, I was offered syndication,” he said at the talk. “That’s it. It was ridiculous. The story nauseates my kids.”
What followed after graduation was 40 years of vicissitudes, in and out of the strip. Trudeau’s success has not overshadowed his perpetual desire to report on the present from his perspective, with a particular interest in war and its effect both on the home front and on the battlefield.
Trudeau describes “Doonesbury” as a “lover’s quarrel” with his country, and certainly, the satirical undertone that has made the strip so popular has also stirred up accusations of disloyalty.
But as Trudeau takes us through B.D.’s journey, from the Vietnamese jungle with Phred to his perilous days at Camp Blowback, the war stories are a far cry from B.D.’s famous football-huddle monologues during “Bull Tales.” Trudeau’s interest in casting a light on the unspoken by-products of war are now an intrinsic piece of his cultural legacy.
His focus on the adversity facing veterans struggling to readjust after they have come home — who either suffered through traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, command rape or aphasia — brought these issues into the mainstream and into the forefront of living-room discourse. Americans, whether they liked it or not, were faced with the crude realities that had impacted many of their countrymen.
“That’s why I write so much about life and death,” Trudeau said. “It seems necessary.”
But to what can we attribute the longevity of “Doonesbury”? Wednesday’s audience of 60-somethings was no coincidence: Their lives at one point or another were reflected in Trudeau’s magnum opus. He is his readers’ contemporary; he lives the times he depicts, allowing him to forge a globally syndicated generational identity.
Still, his storylines are not completely his own: he researches, he talks to veterans, he attends retreats, he listens to those he is trying to acclaim. The life of B.D., he says, is not being told at the expense of the military, but in their honor. And such a task can be complicated.
“I’m not writing a soap opera. I’m writing satire. It’s black art,” he explains. “I sometimes try to describe grief and end up causing it.”
Through his own line of work, Trudeau has passionately built a mirror to our ever-changing times, showing the reader what one might have overlooked amid the hullabaloo of daily life and politics. He has woven a modern-day epic, one comic strip panel at a time. In the words of School of Art Dean Robert Storr, who introduced the talk, Trudeau — the man who exceeded the artistic versatility professed by former Dean Josef Albers himself — is “a reminder that a lot of people can do a variety of things, and one man can do them all.”
Where do you go next after your life’s work has been running in print and other media for over 14,600 days? If you are Garry Trudeau, you are still busy.
“I leave [Friday] noon and still have a week of strips to do,” he writes in an e-mail to WEEKEND. “Cheers, Garry Trudeau.”
Cheers to that.