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March 24, 2008 | by  | in Books |
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What a Long, Strange Strip it’s Been – The Work of G.B. Trudeau

Cartoonists aren’t known for their high public profiles, except for Man’s Robbie Neilson, who habitually dresses as a giant chicken and photographs himself naked in front of international landmarks. But it wasn’t Robbie’s muscular buttocks that were an invited guest during the recent Writers and Readers Week – it was Doonesbury artist Garry Trudeau.

Trudeau has a reputation for being reclusive, despite the continued popularity of his strip and the strength of his opinions. In practice this means that he grants few interviews. Meeting him after his Embassy Theatre talk in my official capacity as a fanboy, I found him to be charming. It was a strange feeling to shake a hand that seven U.S. presidents would gleefully sever if they were in my position.

Over 37 years Doonesbury has satirised Vietnam, Watergate, disco, the tobacco industry, yuppies… basically anything mentioned in the lyrics of Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire.’ It’s provided an alternative liberal history of American politics and society since 1970. It’s also the ultimate Boomer strip – the characters began as hippie undergraduates and remained stuck at the age of twenty for the next decade, mirroring the mental (if not physical) development of their generation. After Trudeau took an eighteen-month break in 1983 to develop a Broadway musical, the characters jumped ahead to their mid-thirties. Since then, as yuppies, recession casualties and parents, they’ve aged grudgingly but approximately in real time, much like the Boomers themselves, only much less fat.

The Embassy Theatre’s ‘New York Stories’ session with Trudeau was a light once-over of his career, focussing on his recent coverage of the Gulf War and publication of a book of blog posts by American soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. His war cartoons are unusually detailed and sympathetic, dealing with the toll that military deployment takes on the lives and families of ordinary soldiers. Arguably these soldiers are professionals, and the Iraqis don’t seem to be having such a hot time either, but this sensitivity to the longterm trauma caused by war is unique on the comics page.

Trudeau was criticised for editing his cartoons immediately after 9/11 for reasons of taste, but he was also quick to resume attacks on Bush and his administration in a time when criticism was seen as unpatriotic. Later when journalists were ‘embedded’ by the military to present glowing, uncritical portraits of democratic Iraq, Trudeau was interviewing returned soldiers in veteran centres who had endured months of horror and banality. This careful research culminated in 2004 when one of the main characters, ex-college footballer B.D., was blown up in Iraq and lost his leg. Controversially he also had his army helmet removed, leaving him without headgear for the first time since the strip began. Somehow this was more shocking, the cartoon equivalent of Gene Simmons losing his tongue or Helen Clark smiling.

It’s unavoidable that such a long project would have highlights and low points, but after a dodgy post-9/11 period when the Bush administration was defying the boundaries of satire, maiming a main character has recharged the strip. The anger and frustration that B.D. and his family have experienced during his post-traumatic stress disorder and rehabilitation has made the cartoon important again. As Trudeau asserted during his interview, what’s bad for the country can be good for Doonesbury. As ever, it beats the living fuck out of Garfield.

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  1. Kerry says:

    Now that’s what I call a good review! :-)

    Not that I’m biased or anything.
    I’d have been just as impressed by a good review of Gaiman’s work.

    Hey Tristan, how about a regular series on great cartoonists who’ve done other projects outside print media? I could write at least a couple…

  2. Brunswick says:

    Yeah… because that would have wide readership appeal!
    I just wish this wasn’t coming out four days after the DomPost interview with him. Damn you, Easter Bunny!

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