An Interview With Garry Trudeau
The Doonesbury creator on his stamina, the difficulty of satirizing Obama, and the most bizarre attack on his strip ever.
Trudeau: Would you settle for the most bizarre? Years ago, I did a series on Joanie Caucus bedding her then-boyfriend Rick Redfern. The week starts with a drawing of Joanie's empty bedroom. It's followed by a three-day, dialogue-free tracking shot that takes us out the bedroom window, across town, and into the window of Rick's bedroom, where Joanie and Rick are intertwined in post-coital bliss. This was too much for many comics editors, and many papers, reluctant to run the foreplay without a payoff, banned the whole week. But the Bangor newspaper had the most unusual solution; in the last frame, instead of the scandalous tableau of Rick and Joanie, the paper ran the day's weather forecast.
Slate: Where is the comic strip headed in the post-daily-print-newspaper age? Is the medium healthy?
Trudeau: No, we're all in free-fall together. And Web comics don't seem to be an alternative, unless you're uninterested in making a living. There are so many entertainment alternatives to comics now, I'm not sure they'll be much missed. In their heyday, comics were a dominant force in popular culture, but that's over.
There's not much future in being a strip artist now. That's quite a turnaround in fortunes, because presiding over an established syndicated comic strip used to be the closest thing to tenure that popular culture offered. If I were starting out now, I'd probably continue on the graphic design trajectory I was on before I got sidetracked with comics. Colbert-like TV would be OK, too, except you have to be brilliant. I advise young cartoonists now to get into graphic novels—or head for Pixar.
Slate:Who are your favorite cartoonists, past and present?
Trudeau: I loved Pogo and Peanuts when I was growing up, but Jules Feiffer was probably my strongest influence. The stripped-down drawing style, lack of balloons, and stacks of dialogue all conveyed a radical notion: Here be ideas. And immediacy. Feiffer was actually a master draftsman, but he made the art looked tossed off, like he was doing it on the subway on his way home from sessions with his shrink.
Slate: You've said that you don't spend time with Doonesbury characters in your off-hours. What do you mean by that?
Trudeau: I just meant that the only time I ever think about my characters is when I'm consciously working. Coming up with ideas is really hard—they don't spontaneously pop into my head while I'm cutting vegetables.
Slate:How do you "report" the strip? If you're covering the war or a political scandal, how do you research it? If you want to capture how a 22-year-old speaks, what do you do?
Trudeau: I guess I just listen to my kids and their friends, but not in any conscious way. By now, I have a fairly practiced ear. As to research, given my deadlines, it's unavoidably perfunctory. But it's a comic strip, authoritative about nothing, and I can usually get by with verisimilitude, what Colbert calls truthiness.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.
Photograph of Garry Trudeau by David Levinthal.