Emanata: Doonesbury at 40

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The big “Doonesbury” news this week is that G.B. Trudeau’s comic strip is reaching its 40th anniversary–its first episode ran October 26, 1970. (Trudeau’s celebrating the milestone with 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective, a mammoth book reprinting about 1800 strips.) A smaller but welcome piece of news is that this week also sees the publication of Brian Walker’s Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau, a coffee-table art book that offers some surprising insights into Trudeau’s work.

Trudeau is sometimes treated as a writer who happens to draw, too (or as a writer who doesn’t draw, but we’ll get to that). That’s unfair to him as an artist. The earliest incarnation of “Doonesbury,” as the “Bull Tales” strip he drew as a Yale undergrad, is technically awful-looking–you can tell he was staging every scene to get away with drawing as little as possible–although his gift for expressive, stylized faces was already taking shape. A Yale Daily News cartoon from 1967 reproduced in Walker’s book borrows both its technique and its pacing from Jules Feiffer’s “Sick, Sick, Sick”; by the time “Bull Tales” became “Doonesbury” in 1970, there was a faint hint of “Peanuts” about some of Trudeau’s faces, and nothing else that resembled any other comic strip of its day.

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It’s true that the first couple of years of “Doonesbury” read like the work of a very funny writer who grudgingly agreed to draw pictures to go along with his text. (R.C. Harvey’s “The Art of the Funnies” argues that “Doonesbury ushered in the era of poorly drawn comic strips.”) By 1972, though, the look of the strip started to firm up, and it started to be consistently funny to look at. Joanie Caucus first appeared that year, and there’d never been a comic strip character who looked like her: middle-aged and exhausted, hair pulled back, bags under her eyes (a variation on the deadpan eye design that’s Trudeau’s hallmark), dry-witted and fiercely smart.

There’d been a quiet change in the strip’s production in late 1971, as Walker points out. One of the book’s three spotlights on Trudeau’s collaborators is an interview with Don Carlton, who took over inking the strip around that time (and lettering it a bit later). Carlton tends to stay out of the spotlight; he’s gotten very little press, most of it wildly misleading. In the early ’90s, a couple of articles, apparently written by people who don’t understand what inking is, suggested that “Doonesbury” was actually ghosted by Carlton. In fact, Trudeau pencils everything–and, judging from the many examples in Walker’s book, pencils it very tightly. Walker notes that until 1990, Trudeau generally discarded his pencilled originals; since then, he’s kept them, and his pencil art from the second half of “Doonesbury”‘s run to date is the most revelatory part of Walker’s book, subtler and more three-dimensional than the cleanly finished look of the way the strips appear in newspapers.

The line of “Doonesbury” as we know it is distinctively Carlton’s, and it’s hard for anyone else to get it right. (The book reproduces a handful of cels from 1977′s half-hour animated show “A Doonesbury Special”; everybody’s obviously drawn from Trudeau’s designs, but the familiar characters look totally off, and the characters who only appeared in the special barely seem to be in the right place.) But the design and details of every image are Trudeau’s work, and Walker’s book makes it clear that he’s been stepping up his game as an artist continually over the past four decades. The character acting is sharper, the settings are better defined, the drawing does more of the work of getting his point across. For most of “Doonesbury”‘s run, the first panel of the Sunday strip was just the title and Trudeau’s name; in recent years, he’s started including a little scene-setting image, which he’d never have been able to pull off in the early years.

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Some of the improvements to the look of “Doonesbury” can be at odds with his technique as a writer, actually. The essence of a lot of his jokes is pitting a static element against a dynamic element: steadfast Honey next to out-of-control Duke, a motionless exterior shot of the White House with Presidential awfulness emanating from it, everybody singing “Hands Across America” while Zonker’s breaking into “Just a Gigolo.” That was easier to pull off in the early years, when he tended to frame a single scene the same way for four panels and lets the gag roll across it.

Especially since he returned from his first sabbatical in the early ’80s, though, Trudeau’s generally staged his strips so that something visually novel is happening in every panel. He’s got a couple of standard tricks–very often, the third of four panels is a silhouette–but occasionally he messes with the formula even more. Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau reproduces a 1986 sequence where Uncle Duke, about to die, sees his life flash before his eyes in progressively tinier panels, until one of the “jagged shards of memory” flying around his head in the final strip lodges under the thumbnail of the guy who’s about to knife him. It’s a magnificent, and magnificently drawn, gag. If more cartoonists took their cues from Trudeau’s work once he matured as an artist than they do from the early years where his writing did most of the heavy lifting, the comics page would be a much more interesting place.

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