BY MARC LEEPSON
The first panel of the first Doonesbury cartoon had one character sitting in a chair, in profile, football helmet on his head, beer can in his hand. “Well, here I sit at college awaiting my new roommate,” the character, known only as B.D., says in the cartoon that appeared in newspapers across the country on October 26, 1970. “I know he’ll be cool since he’s computer selected.”
Of course, the roommate, Mike Doonesbury, did not even come close to meeting B.D.’s definition of “cool.” B.D. played football, fought in Vietnam, and leaned to the right of the political spectrum. Doonesbury, who is based on the cartoonist himself, looked like he weighed 125 pounds, spent long hours in the computer lab, and was a card-carrying liberal.
And so began Doonesbury, the comic strip that has spent the last 36 years chronicling the often-tumultuous lives and times of B.D., Mike D., and a large, multi-generational cast. That includes Mark Slackmeyer, one-time campus radical; Zonker Harris, the unreconstructed hippie; Joanie Caucus, the runaway housewife; Rick Redfern, the Washington Post reporter; J.J., Joanie’s daughter and Mike’s one-time wife; and Alex, J.J.
and Mike’s daughter. Since 1970, these and other Doonesbury characters’ storylines have intersected in innumerable ways. Today, the strip appears in more than 1,400 newspapers, and Trudeau contributes daily to his web site, www.doonesbury.com
Garry Trudeau in 1975 became the first comic strip artist to win the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning, and has been inducted as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. VVA will add to his honors by presenting Garry Trudeau the President’s Award for Excellence in the Arts at VVA’s National Leadership Conference in Tucson in August.
“We’re honoring Garry Trudeau for being one of the most important creative voices of the Vietnam War generation,” said VVA President John Rowan. “An important part of that includes his accurate, compassionate, yet humorous, portrayal over all these years of B.D., the strip’s Vietnam veteran character. It’s been a good thing for Vietnam veterans and for Americans in general to follow B.D. and the other Doonesbury characters of our generation from their adolescent days to today.”
Garry Trudeau, who was born in New York City in 1948, created Doonesbury in September 1968 when he was an undergraduate at Yale University. It began life as a strip called Bull Tales, which appeared in the Yale Daily News. The comic strip began by looking at local events at Yale, but broadened that outlook to national social and political issues, always leavened with a daily dose of humor.
From the beginning, the cartoon has dealt with politics, often from a liberal perspective, and often whimsically. Trudeau, for example, has depicted our nation’s leaders and other characters as symbols with cartoon thoughts. George H.W. Bush was a point of light, Dan Quayle a feather, Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke a swastika, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich a bomb, Bill Clinton a waffle, and George W. Bush an asterisk wearing a cowboy hat. Some newspapers even run Doonesbury on their op. ed. pages. When Time magazine put B.D., Mike, and other characters on its February 9, 1976, cover, the headline blared: “Doonesbury: Politics in the Funny Papers.”
Since Doonesbury’s 1970 debut, Garry Trudeau’s cartoons have been collected in nearly 60 hardcover and paperback editions that have sold some seven million copies worldwide. At the Tucson Leadership Conference, Trudeau will be signing copies of his latest book, The Long Road Home, which deals with B.D.’s experiences after he lost a leg fighting as a National Guardsman in Iraq.
The book’s story line was inspired by Trudeau’s visits to wounded troops he has met during many visits to Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital and Fisher House. The latter is part of a group of non-profit residences on the grounds of military and veterans hospitals for families of the wounded. Garry Trudeau is donating all proceeds from sales of The Long Road Home to the Fisher House Foundation.