The Creative Endeavors Thread Ponders Garry Trudeau

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Starting to follow through the past couple of weeks on a long-held resolution to seek out new comic and artistic work, especially online, but found myself engrossed, too, in an extended discussion on Garry Trudeau, and using such for another creator-dedicated Creative Endeavors Thread. Trudeau is, of course, the creator of Doonesbury, one of the longest running continuously-written comics in American history (now in its fiftieth year, though its release schedule has grown more sporadic in the past decade) and, for my money, one of the most entertaining and thought-provoking artistic vehicles around to explore modern American politics and society.

Trudeau started writing comics at Yale in the late 60s; Bull Tales was a rough precursor to Doonesbury, which began in 1970 and entered syndication quickly thereafter. The main cast primarily consisted of a group of New England college students living on a local commune, and would continue to do so into the 80s, until Trudeau broke a two-year hiatus by graduating his characters and popping their somehow timeless communal bubble (itself, I think, a sly comment on how the rebellion and idealism of the sixties persisted in an anemic fashion throughout the following decade). Mike Doonesbury and his friends would both engage with and generate political and social change (and reaction) on local and national levels, congressfolk, governors and even Presidents joining in the satirical fun (with their real-life counterparts often engaging in their own—generally disapproving—commentary). While the action continues to this day, since 2014 the strip has gone to new releases every Sunday instead of daily, hardly a surprise given the longevity of Trudeau’s legendary work ethic.

I came to Doonesbury after seeing the odd mention as a kid in Bloom County, which I loved first but now largely remember with the nostalgia of distance, Breathed’s anarchic silliness impressing less than Trudeau’s often startling incisive eye and comic timing. As a growing liberal smartass in a largely conservative Southern city, I found Doonesbury one of those breaths of fresh air I needed to strengthen my own opinions and sense of public self, and I found many of the mentions, references and plotlines unexpectedly helpful in developing a better sense of contemporary American history. The odd bit of controversy and calls for banning the comic from the local papers only served to bolster my identification. More recently, in my own return to visual art, looking back through collected retrospectives and albums of early material gave me a happy sense of familiarity; Trudeau seemed to be getting technically better in his early days, at least, at the same rate I was.

That said, there were a few melancholy notes. Trudeau’s note on JJ Caucus, conceptual artist and Mike’s former wife, in the mammoth 40th-anniversary retrospective, seemed to underline his gradual transformation into something of a Boomer scold (as well as clarifying how I was always a little bothered at how the cards seemed stacked against her), and while we’re all products of our time, it’s hard not to look at more recent strips with something of a more jaundiced eye given my own changing opinions. I’m not the only one, either; I stumbled across Paul Hebert’s blog Reading Doonesbury this weekend, and have been trying to ration his careful reread and discussion of the entire strip from its beginning. What I like is that he’ll often cite (as occasionally does Trudeau) issues or events from the strip’s (and country’s) past in discussing either the contemporary political nightmare or Trudeau’s own autumnal survey thereof. Even having said all that, as I’ve more or less fallen away from reading the strip myself, some of the more recent developments are pretty eye-opening and a bracing take on our troubled times.

The header is a panel from one of Trudeau’s strips in the final days of the Nixon Administration, delivering an indelible image to go with one of the most extraordinary and depressing spectacles in American politics until the last four years. I could have sworn that I’ve done posts since the new WordPress switchover that included images, but I can’t seem to insert them into this post. Many apologies, not least as Trudeau’s work needs to be seen along with the commentary, but hopefully these words will encourage people to seek it out if they aren’t already familiar.

How’s your work going?