New book traces evolution of “Doonesbury”

Garry Trudeau ’70: Cartoonist. Although this title is accurate, it hardly conveys the scope, longevity, and importance of Trudeau’s career as the author of the infamous “Doonesbury” comic strip.

Brian Walker’s “Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau,” released by the Yale University Press in time for the strip’s 40th anniversary, helps to convey these ideas by enveloping the audience into the world of Trudeau and his iconic work. Although the book contains academic analysis worthy of any scholarly journal, it reads like a scrapbook (a high-end, glossy one, not of the sleepover variety).

In fact, “Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau” could easily be skimmed and read for only the comics. Walker does an excellent job compiling and arranging the comics to show the evolution of the strip. He includes the most famous “Doonesbury” strips, like some from the 1960s and ‘70s dealing with the then-controversial issues of homosexuality and premarital sex.

Walker’s commentary, on the other hand, is quite enlightening for any “Doonesbury” follower.

The author begins with a sympathetically drawn family history of Trudeau. Trudeau’s talented bloodline is impressive. With a great-grandfather who worked with John James Audubon, Trudeau was destined to be a renowned artist.

Walker discusses the early years of Trudeau’s passion for comic art – in high school and, of course, at Yale, where he wrote the infamous “Bull Tales,” which debuted in the Yale Daily News on Sept. 20, 1968.

Yale students in particular should read Walker’s book if only to see the best strips from the “Bull Tales” series. Today’s Yalies, still surrounded by extraordinary peers, can relate to “Bull Tales” because, as Walker says, the comics humanize Yale’s superhuman students — for instance, poking fun at the star quarterback Brian Dowling ’69, known as “B.D.” in the strip.

Walker then recounts the tale of how Trudeau quickly became a sought-after cartoonist, being picked up for publication by Universal Press Syndicate two months after “Bull Tales” first appeared.

“Doonesbury” itself made its first appearance on Oct. 26, 1970, and the comic’s popularity has sustained it for the last 40 years.

Walker describes the key features that characterize “Doonesbury.” First, all the characters have hooded eyelids — “Doonesbury has never been adapted in to live performance sucessfully because the peformers have too wide-open eyes. Second, readers practically need a directory to keep track of all the characters in the strip, although a character chart Trudeau published on May 26, 1996 — found on page 149 of the book — helps. Finally, Trudeau focuses on the dialogue, although that is not to say the artwork is not equally stunning and effective.

Walker attributes Doonesbury’s success to a certain “human vulnerability” in the work. It was this quality that won Trudeau a Pulitzer Prize a mere five years after “Doonesbury” debuted.

But Trudeau’s wit goes further. In the same vein of political sketch comedies like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” Trudeau takes a stand on political, social, and cultural issues using humor. Like these shows, he does not use slapstick; his comedic style is dry.

Walker’s commentary on Trudeau, from his language to his graphic design work, never strays from admiration. The author obviously respects Trudeau as well as his work, and never differentiates between the two.

“Similar to other personality-driven features that revolutionized comics in the 1970s, ‘Doonesbury’ is closely associated with its creator,” Walker says.

“Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau,” then, is really an exploration of the interwoven nature of Trudeau and his work. As “Doonesbury” evolves, so does Trudeau, and Walker’s book successfully documents this process.

Even further, Walker’s book humanizes Trudeau. For many years the artist maintained a mystical identity, never talking to the press or the public, but simply speaking out through his work. In “Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau,” Walker creates a portrait of the artist not as closed off from the world, but rather as an activist for the voices of the public.

Editors’ note: The print version as well as a previous online version of this story was accompanied by a illustration of a “Doonesbury” character reading a book whose title read, “Garry Trudeau Returns to Yale.” The image — originally drawn by Dr. Kerry Soper, a Brigham Young University professor and cartoonist — was taken from the website of BYU and modified without permission. The attribution to Dr. Soper was also omitted. The News regrets the error.

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