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March 16, 2000

Doonesbury delivers satirical satisfaction

BY AARON GLAZER
The Johns Hopkins News-Letter

Every week, hundreds of newspapers publish harsh social commentaries and opinions regarding political and societal events. It is not unusual to find people lambasting the decisions of the government or reacting to the growing problem of smoking among youth. It just is not what one expects to find on the comics page.

Doonesbury, a daily comic strip written by Gary Trudeau, is nothing less than biting social commentary. It began in 1968 as a strip for the Yale Daily News while Trudeau was in the middle of his six years at Yale University in New Haven. Originally called Bull Tales, Trudeau spent much of the early strips commenting on college life and the bitter ironies held within it. On October 26, 1970, it debuted in twenty-eight different newspapers after being picked up by Universal Press Syndicate. From then on, Doonesbury took on a new role: regulator of the idiocy present in the United States government and commentator on an ever-changing society. And don't forget, of course, the daily soap opera dealing with the characters' attempts – and general failures – to attract members of the opposite sex.

President Gerald Ford once said, "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." There is little doubt of the accuracy of this statement. Trudeau was determined that his strip was going to make an impact and endeavored to cover the controversial topics of the day. At the height of the Vietnam war, former football star B.D. enlisted in the army to avoid completing a term paper. While over there, he becomes friends with a Viet-Cong terrorist, Phred. Not only is this a topic few would touch in the editorials section of a newspaper, it was unheard of for a cartoonist to do. For Trudeau, this type of social commentary – reminding readers (and voters) that people on both sides of the war were human – was exactly what Doonesbury was about.

Doonesbury is most certainly biased. Trudeau uses it to explain his point of view, and he makes no effort to hide his personal beliefs. In the 1970s, he has a group of his characters living in a commune. One character, Joanie Caucus, leaves her abusive husband, joins the commune, and eventually goes to law school, after a brief stop working at a day care center, where she convinces the girls that they want to grow up to be more than just "mommies."

In 1976, Trudeau introduced Andy Lipcott, a gay character into the strip. As had happened previously and would happen again, dozens of newspapers dropped the strip. Trudeau has a way of pushing the limits, and often he would overstep unwritten boundaries, attempting to force people to deal with issues such as homosexuality. Miami Herald editor Larry Jinks said, upon dropping the strips dealing with Lipcott, "We just decided we weren't ready for homosexuality in a comic strip." Trudeau gets that a lot. He was the first nationally run comic strip to portray premarital sex by showing a couple in bed. That got such a response that one paper replaced the final panel, showing the two in bed, with the daily weather report.

Doonesbury addresses all of these topics in the age old satirical fashion. Humor is Trudeau's weapon. There are rarely comic strips that aren't funny, although a daily dose of The Washington Post or The New York Times is often necessary to understand the topics. While Trudeau likes addressing mainstream events, he also includes details which often require an in-depth understanding of the news.

He's taken on topics ranging from the Vietnam War to Donald Trump and from USA Today to Dan Quayle. He is what one would call an "Equal Opportunity Offender."

And Trudeau is still on the go. Recently, the Doonesbury character Duke declared his campaign for President (http://www.duke2000.com/). On the web site, Duke is quoted, "We require seat belts; why don't we require sidearms?" Just as he has done previously, Trudeau will use Duke's candidacy to poke fun at – and point out holes in – the larger political scene. Already, he's taking on George W. Bush and Al Gore.

What makes Trudeau amazing is that he manages to both reflect societal ideas and to influence them. He can make stories that exhibit people's ideas about politics and society, but he also uses his strip as a way of showing different ways of looking at things.

He presents varied views on topics such as abortion, war and political campaigning, and intertwines it so well with humor that he keeps people interested, unlike the opinions page. It is this blend of satire and opinion that makes people want to read Doonesbury. It also makes me agree with Gerald Ford. Doonesbury is my main source for political and social commentary.


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