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Doonesbury Turns 40!

February 16th, 2011

Believe it or not, 2010 marked the 40th anniversary of Garry Trudeau’s seminal comic-strip Doonesbury.  I was lucky enough to have received as gifts, recently, two tomes that were recently released in order to celebrate that event.

The first is Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau, by Brian Walker.  This gorgeous, over-sized hardcover coffee-table book spotlights the illustration and design work of Mr. Trudeau (as opposed to a focus on his strips’ political satire and/or relevance).  As Mr. Walker comments in his introduction, “I had always felt that [Trudeau] had not received adequate recognition for his talents as an artist and graphic designer.”  In order to remedy that, the book includes beautiful reproductions of a wealth of Doonesbury-related materials drawn by Mr. Trudeau.

There is, first and foremost, a healthy sampling of reproductions of the strip itself.  Sometimes these comics are produced in the clean, colored, finished versions that one could read on the newspaper page.  Other strips — far more interestingly, to me — look to be scans of Mr. Trudeau’s original art boards, so we can get  a sense of how the ink and lettering were originally applied, where mistakes were corrected, etc.  As an artist myself, I found it super-cool to get a glimpse at these samples of Doonesbury in their rough form.

But the book is far more than just a handsome collection of cartoons.  Mr. White has included hundreds of other images of Doonesbury material.  We see promotional material created by/for the syndicate to promote the strip.  We see Doonesbury posters, t-shirts, buttons, etc.  We see Doonesbury illustrations that Mr. Trudeau produced for magazines (like Rolling Stone, Life, & Newsweek) that spotlighted the strip.  We see illustrations from the Doonesbury: the Musical (an experiment from 1984 that I had never heard of before!) and the Doonesbury board game, designs for Doonesbury stamps, illustrations for various Doonesbury collections from over the years, and so much more.  My single favorite image was a lovely reproduction of the poster for Sally’s Pizza in New Haven, CT (the best pizza place on planet Earth, in my humble opinion) drawn by Mr. Trudeau that I always admire on the wall when eating there.

The book also spotlights some of Mr. Trudeau’s key creative partners, which is fascinating.  One, though, was quite a shock to me — I had no idea that, almost since the very beginning, Mr. Trudeau has not inked his own work!  No, he pencils the strip, and the cartoons are then inked by Don Carlton.  This is unbelievable to me!!  Now, there’s no shame in an artist using an inker.  Many do — and, in fact, the penciller/inker partnership is a key element of the way most comic books are produced.  But, I dunno, if Mr. Trudeau is partnering with an inker than I really feel that his name should also be on the strip!  Mr. White bends over backwards to defend Mr. Trudeau, and to criticize the media outlets who attacked Trudeau as “Garry Vanilli” in 1991 when this came to light.  He includes a quotation from Don Carlton himself, stating “I’m perfectly happy to have Garry Trudeau’s name to be the one on it because it his creation.”  That may be so, but the arguments of Mr. White and Mr. Trudeau that the drawing is entirely Trudeau’s and Mr. Carlton is just converting the images to photo-reproducible black lines are incredibly weak.  Of course Mr. Carlton is adding some of his own artistry to the finished work — just compare the Carlton-inked samples of Doonesbury with the earlier, Trudeau-inked ones found in this very book!  Again, I have no problem with Mr. Trudeau collaborating with another artist — I just think that artist then deserves his proper share of the credit for the finished work.

OK, back to business.  Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau is a hefty tome, but it is dwarfed by the positively mountainous 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective. This ginormous hardcover volume is a collection of a great swath of Doonesbury cartoons from the last 40 years.  This collection focuses solely on the cartoons themselves, as opposed to Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau‘s spotlight on other Doonesbury-related artwork.  However, this collection also chooses not to emphasize the political nature of the strip.  Rather, the intention of this volume is to focus on the journeys of the wealth of characters, created by Mr. Trudeau, who have populated the strip over the years.  It’s an interesting tack to take, and one that I certainly enjoyed.

I will admit that I haven’t finished reading this yet.  Have I said that it is ENORMOUS?  I mean, really!  The hardcover volume is about fourteen inches tall, ten inches wide, and over two inches thick.  In his introduction, Mr. Trudeau estimates that the collection contains 13% of the over 14,000 total published Doonesbury cartoons.  But that’s still a LOT of cartoons!

The cartoons are presented chronologically, though occasionally they are very slightly reordered to give greater clarity to a character’s story-line.  There are also text pieces, inserted at various points in the book, spotlighting many of the different characters.  I really enjoyed that aspect of the book — even as a long-time fan, I often have a hard time remembering who exactly is related to whom, so it’s fun to see how all of the characters fit together in the tapestry that Mr. Trudeau has created.

I’ve read many of the previous Doonesbury collections, and there have been periods where I followed the comic religiously in the paper every day (though I haven’t for years, now) — so I’d already read a number of the strips contained herein.  But the one’s I’ve read, it’s a pleasure to revisit, and there are also an enormous number of cartoons that are entirely new to me, which is fun.  Strip away all of the hype and the praise/criticism — Doonesbury is, without question, a heck of a comic-strip.  It’s an absolute joy to go back to the beginning and make my way through such large portions of the saga.

Neither of these volumes are intended for a Doonesbury newbie — but if you’re a fan, they both represent treasure-troves of greatness.

Congratulations on your fortieth anniversary, Mr. Trudeau!  See you at fifty!

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