Forty years ago this October, a young cartoonist debuted a new kind of comic strip in two dozen newspapers nationwide. Set in a commune near fictional Walden College, the strip was a blazing amalgamation of character drama and eye-opening comic commentary on current events. Before long, Mike Doonesbury, Zonker Harris and B.D. were household names. Doonesbury has always satirized the events of its day but much of the strip’s appeal lies in the affection readers have for its cast. Creator G.B. Trudeau will mark the anniversary with 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective, a deluxe hardcover collection encompassing more than 1,800 strips and 18 essays about the characters we’ve grown to love.
You’re celebrating a comic strip so richly populated and thematically diverse that it’s hard to sum up. What flavor did you want to bring to this collection?
I’ve drawn close to 14,000 strips since I started in 1970, so obviously no single volume could contain more than a fraction of the published work. My first instinct was to put together a definitive greatest hits collection, since that had long been the organizing principle for my books. The problem was I couldn’t get fired up about it—it was too familiar. So after pondering a variety of other approaches, I hit upon the concept of a character bible, a detailed retelling in strips of where the principle players had come from and how they’d evolved over the years. In this book, I’m finally giving the founding dudes their due. After all, it’s the cast, not the controversy, that’s created reader loyalty through the years.
What sets Doonesbury apart from its contemporaries, and what gives the strip its staying power?
I’m not sure it’s for me to say what sets it apart from other strips, but I do think its staying power is related to the periodic rejuvenation of the cast. Also I haven’t set up any barriers between the strip and the real world, so I’m free to explore whatever’s engaging me at the moment. Sometimes I’m tracking the news, but more often than not, I’m simply following my own curiosity. Certainly when I injured B.D. in Iraq, I had no idea it would lead me into a deep thicket of other wounded warrior issues, such as PTSD, military sexual assault and aphasia. So I think it’s having a flexible enough vehicle to support that kind of creative wandering that’s kept me fresh.
During the past 40 years, the characters that populate Doonesbury have lived entire lives, with all the great joys and terrible tragedies that life brings. As their creator, what’s it been like for you to watch them grow up over the years?
Well, my relationship with them is not passive, of course, and it’s not always benevolent. I’m constantly causing bad things to happen to them, because without conflict, it’s hard to write stories that matter. It’s the opposite of being a parent; you don’t always have their welfare in mind. I noticed a while ago that almost none of my main characters have had successful careers. Successful careers are boring. It’s the struggle that’s interesting.
The collections have traditionally featured vocal criticism from the targets of your humor. Over the years who has contributed your favorite reaction to the strip?
Donald Trump and George Bush Sr. have contributed the most generously to our anti-blurb collection. Neither of them seemed to grasp how continuously attacking a cartoonist might not put them in the best light. Dubya was much more disciplined; he never gave his critics the satisfaction of being noticed.
This collection is a real gift to longtime readers. What do you hope they get out of 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective?
Well, you’re right. We think the audience for this book is the reader who has stayed with the strip for at least a significant part of its run. For them, it will be a reunion with old friends. They may be surprised to find this volume so light on politics, but I don’t think they’ll mind. It’s the relationships that endure.
A Doonesbury Retrospective hits bookstores tomorrow. For more excellent graphic books, check out our list of top fall graphic titles here.
40: A Doonesbury Retrospective
Andrews McNeel / Oct. 26, 2010 / 9780740797354 / $100.00