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Nov. 4, 2020, 12:25 p.m. EST

Garry Trudeau looks back as Doonesbury turns 50

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Brett Arends

I always loved “Doonesbury.” I once had a giant stack of cartoonist Garry Trudeau’s collections. At college I had a panel from one strip photocopied and stuck to my door: It featured the character “Honey,” in a lifejacket, desperately trying to get her boss “Duke” out of their sinking boat as water swirls up to their knees. “Sir, we’re going down!” she shouts. Duke, unfazed, with a cigarette in his mouth and clutching a martini, calmly replies: “I know. I can’t get over it. Thank God I’m stoned.”

Now the AARP reports that the legendary cartoon strip—not the author, or the characters, but the strip itself—is old enough to join its organization. Yep, it’s 50 years since B.D., Mike, Boopsie, Zonker and the crowd first hit print—quickly catapulting Trudeau, then 22, into a sensation.

How’s that for making you feel old?

And the generally reclusive Trudeau, who rarely gives interviews, has just spoken to the monthly AARP Bulletin. It’s a fun read.

Among the takeaways:

· It’s a “fool’s errand” to try to sum up the baby boomers (or any generation) he says, even though he was considered one of the key voices of the boomers almost from the moment his strip first appeared. “There’s too much diversity within the cohort to make broad generalizations, at least from my vantage point,” he says.

· Maybe his biggest change during the entire life of the strip was to start letting the characters grow and age, Trudeau says. Doonesury began life as a strip about life on a New England, Ivy League campus. But after Trudeau took a year’s sabbatical in 1984, he says, “I started to move the characters forward in real time, aging them, giving them real jobs, families. I realized that by keeping them frozen in time on a college campus, I’d been neglecting all the generational transitions that I myself was experiencing,” he tells interviewer Hugh Delehanty.

· His biggest influences were the playwright and cartoonist Jules Feiffer and the filmmaker Robert Altman, which is why his characters are generally talking past each other. “People don’t really listen carefully to one another. In real life, most conversation collides, overlaps and tails off,” he says.

· Of writing a comic strip he says, “There’s nothing I’d rather be doing but it’s still work. And I never think about it when I’m not doing it.”

Trudeau jokes that his legacy may be that he “made comics safe for bad drawing. Without Doonesbury there’s no ‘Cathy,’ ‘Bloom County’ or ‘Dilbert.’”

But Doonesbury goes way beyond that. These days our culture and the media has retreated into echo chambers and social media babble. The more limited output of two generations ago had its downsides, but it also allowed more of a shared national culture or focus. 

“Neither the comics nor editorial cartooning are anywhere near as impactful as they once were, but we’re still in the good fight,” Trudeau says. I have to wonder how true that is.

It’s hard to realize just how influential something like Doonesbury once was. His strips from the Watergate era were legendary, and earned him a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning—the first one ever awarded a cartoon strip ( See the famous ‘Stonewall’ strip here .) 

And Gerald Ford, while president, once remarked: “There are only three major vehicles to keep us informed as to what is going on in Washington, the electronic media, the print media and Doonesbury—not necessarily in that order.”

You can think social media, constant babble on your smartphone, and the madness of crowds may be a better way of getting understanding. I’m not so sure.

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