50 Years Ago: ‘Doonesbury’ Adds Political Satire to Daily Comics
Over the course of the past 50 years, it's become increasingly apparent that, for many people, satire is one of the best ways to understand American political life. It's a shift due in large part to the comic strip Doonesbury, which debuted on Oct. 26, 1970.
Gary Trudeau started the comic – then called Bull Tales – when he was an undergrad at Yale in the late '60s. Following his graduation, Universal Press International (UPI) made him an offer to publish the strip nationally, and a phenomenon was born. Although not initially centered on national politics – the original characters lived in and around the campus of fictional Walden College, and much of the strip's early years focused on their social lives – Doonesbury soon became one of the beacons of a new national obsession: the merger of entertainment and political commentary.
Traditionally, comic strips appeared on the funny pages and generally contented themselves with telling light, homey stories about Americans. Doonesbury attacked that by exploring its characters' political ideas and by portraying national political figures in its panels (or at least having them speak off-panel). The formula proved to be immediately successful, and, by 1975, Trudeau had created a forum for discussing national political and social issues so powerful that he became the first comic-strip artist to win a Pulitzer Prize.
The influence of the comic continued to expand rapidly. The Pulitzer was followed by an animated short film penned by Trudeau in 1977, which won a special jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival; it was also nominated for an Oscar in the animated shorts category. A musical based on the strip, also written by Trudeau, appeared in 1983. That decade also brought on slew of imitators, and by the '90s, Doonesbury was appearing in more than 1,300 newspapers nationwide and had become a national institution.
Watch 'A Doonesbury Special' From 1977
In retrospect, the secrets of the strip's popularity seem clear. The first is an acerbic take on politics and life. Trudeau has famously depicted presidents and political candidates using images that typify his view of them: George W. Bush appeared as an invisible man under a big cowboy hat, Bill Clinton was represented by a waffle and Arnold Schwarzenegger was drawn as a glove and nicknamed "Herr Gropenfuhrer," a reference to the history of sexual-assault allegations against him.
Doonesbury also spreads its critique across the political spectrum. While the strip certainly leans liberal, it's more deeply rooted in a '60s-style cynicism about power, no matter who's wielding it. Typical of this is the cartoon that appeared on the day after Clinton won the presidential election: It noted that the choice had been between "four more years of doing nothing" and "four more years of doing nothing." In this vein, the Trump years have been presented as a kind of invasion of American politics by a hostile force that seems to hate everything that those politics have traditionally valued - from the White House itself to things like knowledge about the world.
Beyond this political bent, Doonesbury has also been successful because of its relentless probing of issues confronting regular Americans, and it's often explored these issues earlier than much of the rest of the media. It was banned by some newspapers in the '70s for strips featuring a gay character, as well as for strips depicting premarital sex. In the late '80s, it introduced a character named "Mr. Butts" (a burning cigarette) that represented the tobacco industry and satirized that industry's relentless manipulation of public opinion; in the '00s, it devoted a long series of strips to a storyline about one of its central characters losing a leg in the Iraq war and struggling to recover.
But perhaps Doonesbury's greatest contribution is the way it has influenced the broader culture. From Saturday Night Live skits lampooning presidential debates to the infotainment approach of so many contemporary political commentators, it's now an accepted notion that comedy is one of the best ways for people to come to terms with the absurdist theater politics have become. But this was not always the case.
When Richard Nixon campaigned on the comedy show Laugh-In in 1968, it was seen in many circles as unbecoming of the office of the president. When Reagan ran in 1980, people were suspicious at the idea that an actor might become president, because of the distance between the worlds of politics and entertainment. Even as recently as the founding of Fox News in 1996, many commentators still clung to the notion that objective journalism – one that simply reported the facts, without the gloss of showbiz – was adequate to our national life. But alongside these more staid notions was a growing tradition spearheaded by people like Trudeau that champions a kind of entertaining, educated mockery as the only approach that can cut through the shovel-loads of horse poop dumped on us by those in power.
Whether or not this is a perfect solution is debatable. It's also unclear what started the modern cycle people like Trudeau have been attempting to chronicle for a half century: Did politics become ridiculous by trying to capture the attention of a populace inundated by silliness? Or did the population go bonkers because politicians urged them to? In any case, Doonesbury has been there the whole time, trying to help us through as best as it can.