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.
This week, Garry Trudeau publishes 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective, a huge and gorgeous collection from the most important, and most hilarious, comic strip of our era. Last week, I interviewed Trudeau by e-mail about the highlights of his four decades with Doonesbury.
Slate:Many great cartoonists of your era—Gary Larson, Berkeley Breathed, Bill Watterson, for example—have hung up the pen, but you seem to have Charles Schulz-ian stamina. How have you avoided burnout?
Garry Trudeau: I suppose it's just curiosity. I'm still passionately interested in what my fellow humans are up to. For me, a day spent monitoring the passing parade is a day well-spent. And if someone wants to pay me to do that (plus a little drawing), what could be better?
I don't mean to minimize the stamina issue. Comics are like a public utility: We're up 365 days a year, and you do have to be built for it. It's why syndicates now insist on development deals—to find out if a creator has the right temperament. Larson and Watterson set challenges for themselves that were quite different from what I do. Larson created an absurdist universe with no running characters, story lines or topicality. Every morning he stared at a blank piece of paper and developed an idea from scratch, which is exhausting if you have standards as high as Gary's. Watterson had stories and supporting characters, but the strip was essentially built around a single relationship. Bill built the interactions between Calvin and Hobbes into a marvelous fugue, dense and complex, but it must have been a bear to sustain. I admire both of them for knowing when it was time to get out; it certainly wasn't obvious to their readers.
Slate:How does the current political era stack up against eras past? Is it more or less funny? Is there more or less material?
Trudeau: I no longer compare them. Each era is the best of times, worst of times. Besides, I'm a pointillist, just working my tiny little piece of the canvas. I'm not so good at perspective.
Having said that, I can tell you that there have been some periods when cartoonists were definitely in clover. Watergate was the perfect subject, because every day brought fresh outrages. Everyone was on his game, and we felt unconstrained, because Nixon's wounds were self-inflicted. Monica was good for cartooning, but it was only one running joke. Bush's misrule—accidental war, torture, Katrina, etc.—provoked great cartoons, but there was so much associated tragedy, there wasn't much fun in it.
Slate: Are there any satirical targets you wish, in retrospect, you'd left alone? Are there any you passed up and wish you hadn't?
Trudeau: Any obvious satirical target I pass up is usually spared because of a failure of imagination. I just wasn't able to think of a fresh way in. As to regrets, usually by the time I hone in on someone, they've proved indisputably worthy of ridicule. I don't go cruising for unknown evil outliers.
Slate:Over the years, Doonesbury has been censored, criticized, shrunk, moved around the newspaper. What's the most memorable or egregious attack on Doonesbury?
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.