- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 17, 2005

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Not long after the dust settled from the Iraqi explosion that took Doonesbury comic-strip character B.D.’s left leg last year, the Pentagon was on the phone.

The frequent target of Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, the Defense Department offered the satirist extensive access to soldiers wounded while fighting in Iraq and the doctors and caregivers trying to put their bodies — and psyches — back together.

“There are so many ways to get it wrong,” Mr. Trudeau said recently of accurately portraying the soldiers’ struggles.

“They figured, correctly, I could use all the help I could get,” he continued during a recent meeting of the American Association of Sunday and Features Editors.

It also spoke to the fact that Doonesbury, an often funny, sometimes frustrating and frequently controversial comic strip born in syndication 35 years ago, is still considered weighty enough to get the government’s attention.

Over the years, the strip — born out of a cartoon that Yale graduate Mr. Trudeau, 57, wrote for the college paper — has used humor and biting commentary to address a broad sweep of society, from race relations and AIDS to same-sex marriage and stem-cell research.

His huge cast of characters has aged along the way: Mike Doonesbury, the strip’s lead character, has gone from idealistic college student to befuddled dad of a college-age daughter; Zonker Harris, the former professional tanner is now a nanny; Uncle Duke, the Hunter S. Thompson-esque mercenary, ran for the presidency in 2000 and until recently was serving as mayor of the fictional Iraqi city of Al-Amok.

But Mr. Trudeau has always come back to raw politics, taking a page from Walt Kelly’s Pogo, which pioneered the practice of poking fun at politicians on the funny pages. Most recently, Mr. Trudeau has relentlessly hammered the war and President Bush, who is depicted as an asterisk wearing an increasingly battered Roman helmet.

“Well, it’s a humor strip, so my first responsibility has always been to entertain the reader,” Mr. Trudeau says in response to e-mailed questions from Associated Press. “But if, in addition, I can help move readers to thought and judgment about issues that concern me, so much the better.”

Many times, those efforts have gotten him in trouble with newspaper editors, who have pulled or edited his strips because of salty language, uncomfortable images or controversial subjects.

Twenty newspapers objected last fall to a strip that had Vice President Dick Cheney using a profanity as he remotely coached Mr. Bush through a press conference. The strip married two real-life controversies — a similar profanity Mr. Cheney had said to Sen. Patrick Leahy on the Senate floor and rumors, denied by the White House, that a mysterious bulge under the president’s suit jacket was an audio receiver, intended to help him through a debate.

Mr. Trudeau’s strips also have attracted the ire of his subjects, who claim he’s unfair and trying to score political points for liberals. In 1984, a week of Doonesbury strips depicting Vice President George H.W. Bush placing his “manhood in a blind trust” so he could serve in the Reagan White House led to this Bush retort: “Doonesbury’s carrying water for the opposition. Mr. Trudeau is coming out of deep left field.”

In a column last year criticizing the B.D. story line in Doonesbury, Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly said Mr. Trudeau was using “someone’s personal tragedy” to generate opposition to the war. He led off the column with an anecdote about Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels using images of fallen soldiers to encourage war against Poland.

Mr. Trudeau, who describes his politics as “stone-dull moderate,” says he has supported Republicans in the past but has felt compelled to go after “mindless ideologues like the ones who’ve had a stranglehold on power the past five years.”

Some observers say the war has given Doonesbury a new energy, which they say was largely absent during the 1990s, when American politics and culture didn’t deliver the high-stakes issues that experts say satire needs to thrive.

“I think Doonesbury was really of the Vietnam generation and became a voice of the Vietnam generation, and what’s interesting to me is that decades later [Mr. Trudeau] tapped into that exact same thing with the Iraq war,” says Matt Davies, a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist for the Journal News in Westchester, N.Y.

“Because of his reputation and perhaps his infamy, he rose to the challenge with the Iraq war and was back throwing barbs on the comics page. He’s still got it. He’s still an angry young man.”

Of course, Doonesbury is no longer the oddity it once was. In the 1970s, the idea of using humor to skewer the political and social issues of the day was rare in popular culture.

“Those were very self-serious times,” says Mr. Trudeau, who won a Pulitzer in 1975. “The end of the Vietnam War changed all that. The nation exhaled, ‘Saturday Night Live’ hit big, and satire really took off.”

Now, Doonesbury has been joined by politically minded strips ranging from the racially charged Boondocks to conservative-leaning Mallard Fillmore and Prickly City.

Internet blogs broadcast a wide range of perspectives, and TV viewers can tune in nightly to Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.”

Circulation of the strip has increased in recent years to 1,500 newspapers worldwide, and Mr. Trudeau has been a finalist for two more Pulitzers. But is Doonesbury still relevant?

“That’s for the readers to adjudge, but I will say that in general, public commentators have nowhere near the clout that we enjoyed 35 years ago, the age of four TV channels and no Internet,” Mr. Trudeau says. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s all good. You can’t have too many voices in a democracy. Talented people will find their audiences.”

Reason magazine Managing Editor Jesse Walker, on the other hand, says the strip has occasional breakthroughs but has become more Democratic polemic than satire and Mr. Trudeau’s best work is decades behind him.

“Ultimately, what happened to Mr. Trudeau was he got older, no longer had his finger on the pulse and started writing as an outsider,” Mr. Walker says.

However, he adds, Mr. Trudeau’s legacy is the stamp he has left on other political cartoonists.

One of those is Scott Stantis, a Birmingham, Ala.-based cartoonist who writes Prickly City for 75 papers. Mr. Stantis disagrees with Mr. Trudeau’s politics, but he says he learned character development by studying Doonesbury and thinks Mr. Trudeau’s latest war-related work has been “genius.”

“I think [in] the ‘90s he faced the same challenges as a commentator as I am having now in that my side is winning,” Mr. Stantis says. “Then the Iraq war broke out, and he just came to life. The stuff on B.D. losing his leg, while not comic writing, is great writing.”

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