Garretson Beekham Trudeau was born in New York City in 1948. At school he specialised in painting, but later developed an interest in the graphic arts and spent much of his time at Yale University (1966-70) drawing cartoons for Yale’s humorous magazine, The Yale Record, and the student newspaper The Yale Daily News. He became a postgraduate student at the Yale School of Art, gaining a master’s degree in graphic design in 1973. His cartoon strip Bull Tales, produced while he was still an undergraduate, developed into the Doonesbury strip in 1970. Within 10 years of its first appearance, Doonesbury was syndicated in 900 American newspapers. Trudeau was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartoons in 1975, the first to receive this accolade. He sees himself as a typical baby boomer with a liberal East Coast outlook.
His drawing style is very simple, with faces sketched out in a few lines and distinctive features like large stylised noses. The style reminds me of the English cartoonist Kenneth Bird (pen name Fougasse) but Trudeau himself attributes his style to Jules Feiffer, an American cartoonist who was noted for the simplicity of his drawings and his satirical take on life. Trudeau sometimes adopts a low viewpoint, particularly when portraying the White House, maybe to give the average person’s view of grand buildings. His strip, normally consisting of four panels, often has the third panel reversed in colour like a black-and-white photographic negative. His economy of style, cast of mostly gentle, well-bred characters and clever satire have made the Doonesbury strip very popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Many of Trudeau’s characters are based on real people; he has been satirising Donald Trump for some 30 years, probably never guessing that Trump would one day become president. It may be this practice of adapting characters from real life which has made the strip so believable and so enduringly popular. The strip appeared for many years in The Guardian newspaper; historic strips still appear daily, with a contemporary strip published once a week.
The first character to appear was the dumb college quarterback BD, followed by Mike Doonesbury and Mark Slackmeyer. An early addition was Zonker Harris, the perpetual hippie who somehow – through no effort on his part – always seemed to fall on his feet, whatever he did. Zonker, Boopsie and Duke are my 3 favourite characters in Doonesbury. Zonker was the eternal hippie, whose life consisted of doing odd jobs, sponging on friends, getting stoned and never going on a second date. The Doonesbury cartoon in the Cartoon Museum’s collection is a black-and-white drawing with a caption panel and 8 other panels in a 3 x 3 format. It shows Zonker as a waiter at McFriendly’s fast food restaurant, serving a man and his wife. The strip satirises the extremely large portions served in these restaurants – welcomed by the overweight husband, deplored by the less substantial wife.
Boopsie was Barbara Ann Boopstein, described by Trudeau as “a naive pre-feminist bubblehead” with an “enduring lack of cynicism.” Boopsie’s eyes were depicted by the arc and dot convention, which Trudeau saw as an expression of innocence. Other characters in the strip had a “hint of sophistication and detachment”, expressed in a more complex and realistic eye shape. An attractive woman, in the early strips, Boopsie was a college cheerleader. Later she became an actress, model, New Age channeler (she claims to have been reincarnated many times), and Hollywood film star. Boopsie channelled Hunk-Ra, a 21,000-year-old warrior, and numerous other historic figures. She is married to BD; they have a daughter named Sam.
The character of Duke is based on the real-life Hunter S Thompson, one of whose pseudonyms was Raoul Duke. His lawyers sought royalties for the use of Thompson’s likeness in a Duke action figure. Thompson pioneered “gonzo journalism”, the reporting of personal experiences and emotions, in contrast to traditional journalism, which employs a detached style and uses facts or quotations that can be verified by third parties. Trudeau’s Duke takes a gonzo approach to life in general, exploiting situations in the world’s trouble spots for his own gratification and financial gain. A heavy drug user, he is hardly ever completely sober. His assistant, Ching “Honey” Huan, was inspired by Tang Wengshen, the female Chinese interpreter when Mao met Nixon. Honey is hopelessly in love with Duke, but he never responds – indeed, he hardly even notices, so self-absorbed is he.
When I first started drawing cartoons myself, I wanted a simple style – so began by copying Fougasse and Trudeau characters. As a result, I have a special affection for both artists.
The original Doonsbury strip that the Cartoon Museum has was donated by G.B. Trudeau himself when he was in London for a book signing. He just showed up and generously donated his strip. It is now part of the Daily Funnies: An Exhibition of Strip Cartoons at the Cartoon Museum until 25 March, 2018.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Trudeau, G.B. 2010. A Doonesbury retrospective. Kansas City (MI): Andrews McMeel Publishing.
“Doonesbury.” Wikipedia. Accessed 21/12/2017.
“Garry Trudeau.” Wikipedia. Accessed 21/12/2017.
Pilkington, Ed. 2010. “Garry Trudeau: Doonesbury Quickly Became a Cause of Trouble.” The Guardian. Accessed 02/01/2018.
Trudeau, G.B. “Doonesbury.” The Washington Post. Accessed 03/01/2018.