GARRY TRUDEAU: DOONESBURY AND THE AESTHETICS OF SATIRE, by Kerry D. Soper, University Press of Mississippi, 186 pages, (cloth $50, softcover $22).
It took a literature and humanities professor at Brigham Young University, Kerry Soper, to analyze the importance and meaning of the large body of work of cartoonist, Garry Trudeau, creator of "Doonesbury."
For 40 years Trudeau has toiled at the political and social satire behind his comic strip, and in the process angered a number of public figures.
It is Soper's contention that "the survival of popular, independent satire is critical to the health of an open, democratic society," meaning that Trudeau ought to be saluted by the public, whether in agreement or not.
Soper even puts Trudeau in the same league as Voltaire, Mark Twain and Thomas Nast. He compares his work to Walt Kelly's "Pogo" and Al Capp's "Li'l Abner" in its consistent political and topical point of view. Like Trudeau, both Kelly and Capp had their share of battles with editors and executives who were wary of publishing some their strips.
Early on (1975), Trudeau was rewarded with the Pulitzer Prize for his political cartooning, a controversial decision partly because political cartooning had been defined as consisting of a single panel, whereas Trudeau draws multi-panels.
It was obvious by anyone's estimation that "Doonesbury" captured the public debate.
In Soper's opinion, Trudeau's drawing ability is "limited," something that might have labeled his work a failure if it had been intended for a commercial art medium. Instead, it has been a work of "aesthetic" success. Trudeau's seemingly simplistic figures actually denote the rich and complex lives of our society.
Soper uses an abundance of Trudeau's strips in the book to illustrate his admiration for his work. Since publishing comics is a business, Trudeau has faced a number of instances in which a particular strip has been pulled by several newspapers or consigned to a separate place in the paper to make it either seem to disappear or to stand out.
In fact, Trudeau took a "sabbatical" in 1984, then requested that newspapers run his strip at an increased size, which then brought criticism from other cartoonists who thought his ego had become outsized. Some newspapers responded by dropping his strip, but it generated a new look at comic strips nationally.
Soper considers Trudeau's strips to
be "highly verbal," suggesting that the message is more important than the cartoon figures he draws. Soper quotes Trudeau saying, "I have always felt that I'm not much of a writer and I'm not much of an artist but I reside at the intersection of those two disciplines and that's where I make my contribution, such as it is."
What Trudeau refers to is the use of "exaggeration, irony, caricature, wordplay and understatement."
Soper discusses at some length the main characters in "Doonesbury" Mike, Mark Slackmeyer, Zonker, B.D., Joanie, etc. They each have "a heavy-lidded eye, with a dark shadow beneath," which symbolizes to Soper a "range of attitudes with which many educated, adult readers can identify: a knowing irony, a world-weariness, skepticism, middle-aged fatigue."Soper further thinks that Trudeau intends to picture "an entire generation of baby boomers." This is a book of unusual cultural depth. Besides, anyone who likes "Doonesbury" will eat it up.