Superlatives are weak and ineffective when in presence of a true master in his field: the newspaper comic strip. Judging from the size of the crowd, Garry Trudeau, the man behind the comic strip Doonesbury, clearly has more fans than one would expect, given the niche-ness of comic strips. One of these fans is British cartoonist Steve Bell, the host at this Book Festival event. In fact, Trudeau is one of Bell’s great inspirations, as I would expect he is for many other comic and cartoon artists.
Trudeau is second to none in his field. His creation, Doonesbury, a satirical daily strip about America, American politics and culture (and initially sex, drugs and rock’n’roll of course) will be 40 years old come October this year. In short, Doonesbury has become an American institution, a comic read by world leaders and decision makers. In the UK we get our daily dose in The Guardian’s G2 section, and all in all Doonesbury is syndicated to around 1,400 newspapers all over the globe.
Trudeau, who coincidentally went to university with George W Bush (yes, that one), began his journey as a 22-year-old graduate trying to capture the late 60s, “explaining a generation,” as he put it himself. In 1970 the strip became syndicated to a small number of publications, and five years later Trudeau became the first comic strip artist to win a Pulitzer prize. Over the years, his creation, and its many many characters, have grown older and more mature, less burlesque even. More serious, but also more seriously funny and thought provoking.
Trudeau’s strip has a huge amount of main and supporting characters, more than 70, which can be a problem for new readers trying to get into it, “it’s like opening up a Russian novel in the middle and trying to make sense of it”, as Trudeau described it.
One of the best known recurring characters is Uncle Duke, based on the persona that the late American author and journalist Hunter S. Thompson created for himself. I’m sure I’m not the only one who got into the works of Thompson via Doonesbury. Trudeau has never met the late Thompson, who publicly stated that he wasn’t thrilled by being turned into a comic strip character. “He was very resentful that I used him as the departure point for Uncle Duke. He felt it was his brand, and that it was a copyright infringement, that he had created this character in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas [by the name of Raoul Duke]. As a gesture of his estimation of my work he sent me an envelope stuffed with, eh, used toilet paper.”
Steve Bell wanted to know how Trudeau does it. “You explain America to us, certainly to me, but I should think to a lot of people here as well. I mean, I don’t know how you do it. How do you do it in four frames a day?”
That’s the secret, it seems.
Garry Trudeau was in Conversation with Steve Bell at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 23 August, 8pm