Dear Doonesbury

Nick Welsh Corresponds with Comic Strip God Garry Trudeau

We heard that Garry TrudeauDoonesbury, who created the politically oriented comic strip The Independent in 1970, doesn’t do interviews. So when was contacted by UCSB Arts & Lectures with the opportunity to interview the only comic strip writer to ever win a Pulitzer Prize, we jumped at the chance. The prescribed format? A short introduction by the writer and a few questions. The result? Read on.

» Dear Garry Trudeau,

First, many thanks for the interview.

Secondly, by way of introduction, my name is Nick Welsh, and I’m the news editor at The Independent, a weekly paper in Santa Barbara. Most of my time is spent covering trials, City Council meetings, school board debates, and the like. I also write a weekly column, which attempts to fuse snot, vinegar, and attitude with some new, if disjointed, information that has a modicum of actual nutrient content, usually of political nature.

LongRoadHome.jpgLike a lot of writers, I discovered my calling when I found that I could not draw to save my life. I’m a frustrated cartoonist trapped in the body of a newspaper reporter. Help! It is the unhappy lot of my son’s life that he can draw extremely well. Where other fathers seek to force their kids into sports so they can live vicariously through their children’s athletic exploits, I seek to find release for my cartooning impulses through his pens and pencils. I only have to say, “Isaac, I have an idea …” and he starts running.

In that vein, I have been a lifelong reader of newspapers’ comic sections. I was lucky to grow up in the Washington, D.C., area where the Washington Post dedicated a huge amount of space to the comics. It is now — and always has been — the first section of the paper I read every morning. Where your strip is concerned, I have been a regular reader and a huge admirer since you first came onto the scene. That being said, I sometimes don’t know whether to praise you or to curse you.

The praise part is obvious. Yours is a great strip and I’ve always loved it. For most of my life, I delighted in the fact that you tried to tell political truths where people lived, and if this made people squirm, then so much the better.

As to the cursing part, that’s less clear. My beef is that it seems to me that you opened the door to a host of other cartoonists whose work is equally political, if shriller and more heavy-handed in tone and delivery. Now when I open the comic section, I encounter the same obnoxious screech-and-preach fest that I go out of my way to avoid elsewhere.

It seems newspaper editors have responded to you by seeking balance. As a result, the L.A. Times gives us a couple of bonafide conservative strips every morning — Mallard Fillmore and Prickly City — whether they’re incisive or not. On the left, until recently we had The Boondocks as well as Candorville and La Cucaracha. I’ve written to the Times’ comics’ page editor suggesting that if they want a conservative perspective, why not give us Johnny Hart of Wizard of Id and BC fame? But Hart is prone to sporadic outbursts of religious sentiment, so we get the screamers instead.

And that leads me to my first question: >>>

Do you ever worry that you opened the door to the wholesale politicization of the comic pages, and that it hasn’t necessarily been a good thing for the comic pages of American newspapers? I can’t really worry about something I have no control over. Editors decide what goes into their papers, and if topical humor draws in readers, that’s what they’ll do. The average comics page is continuously shaped by polling, so it’s usually a pretty good barometer of public tastes.

If I have anything to answer for, it’s making the comics page safe for bad drawing. The early crudeness of the strip was shrewdly marketed as authenticity — hastily scrawled dispatches from the frontlines of the culture wars. The traditional skill set, to include professional draftsmanship, was overlooked in the interest of message. Without the Doonesbury aesthetic, it seems unlikely that we would have a Cathy or Dilbert or even South Park. Content has become king.

Is it difficult for a strip to be political and good at the same time? It’s hard to draw a good strip no matter what it’s about. I don’t see how a political orientation is inherently more difficult to pull off.

Are there other political strips out there that you think deliver the goods? Now that Jules Feiffer has retired, no. But that’s an uninformed view — I don’t see a lot of what’s out there.

How would you assess the creative health of the funny pages today? In terms of their impact on society, the comics have been in decline since the advent of television. And the talent pool has shrunk, seeing as good artists and writers are drawn to animation. There are a few good strips that set the standard, but as a whole, I think the industry has a rapidly shrinking share of public mind-space.

With the Internet and blogosphere taking off, are the funny pages doomed? Yes, probably. I don’t know anyone who is younger than 30 and reads my strip in a newspaper.

Do you even read the funny pages? If so, which ones do you like? The big three for me in recent years were Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, and Dilbert. I’m down to Dilbert. On the editorial side, I love Tom Toles.

I think your current work with the American soldier BD is some of the most powerful and moving stuff you’ve ever done. It’s very sympathetic to the vets; yet, when you called out the names of the dead, you got a lot of people angry. A few even questioned your patriotism. What’s the range of reaction you’ve received? I’ve been at it long enough now that most of the reaction to the series is very supportive. Some of the letters on the Blowback page of our Web site are incredibly moving. I think even vets who have no use for my politics generally appreciate my introducing issues that affect them into the public conversation.

When you focus on a political theme, do you find that it’s harder to keep it fresh or funny and not just be obvious? How do you avoid the trap of merely pointing your finger and, in effect, saying of your subject, “You’re stupid because I disagree with you”? That’s the art of satire. Sometimes it’s subtle, surprising, and illuminating; sometimes it’s heavy-handed and tiresome. Obviously the former is the ideal, but that’s true on any subject, not just politics.

In your mind, what’s weirder: that some Yale student with limited drawing skills has made an incredibly successful career not just as a cartoonist but as an international satirist whose day job is lampooning the most powerful people in the world? Or that George W. Bush — whom you reportedly know somewhat — has now become our commander in chief? My success at cartooning is certainly weird to me because it wasn’t the career path I was preparing myself for; Bush’s success is weird in that it represents a total breakdown in the meritocracy that we imagine supplies qualified choices for president.

I’ve grown up with every president since JFK. I remember how froth-at-the-mouth furious Nixon made people; and there was Reagan, who had people pulling out their hair. But compared to George W. Bush, Nixon and Reagan seem like wise men, even sages. But how do you see it? From your perspective, who is the scariest? And how do you keep yourself from getting so sputtering mad that you can’t be funny? Is that tough? Well, you can’t leave Carter and Clinton off the list of presidents who made people apoplectic. But to me, Bush is the scariest because he is easily the most radical. Nixon still caused the most harm — 30,000 Americans and many more Vietnamese died needlessly on his watch — but don’t count Bush out. There are still plenty of countries to take down.

As for not becoming overwhelmed by outrage, that’s exactly the purpose humor serves — an outlet. It keeps me from going sputtering mad.

How has George W. Bush impacted your work? Not much. I’d still be doing it if he weren’t president. Having said that, we’re living in the shadow of a deeply tragic presidency. I do feel a greater sense of urgency.

A number of times, you’ve situated some of your strips right here in Santa Barbara. There were the homeless issues you wrote about back in the late ’80s, and then there was Michael Huffington when he ran for Senate. You drew him as an empty suit. How did these come to your attention and how did you decide to make them your targets? I can’t say with any certainty how I first heard about either of them. And I’m not sure how I choose topics — they usually find me. There have been many, many things I’ve wanted to write about, but through some failure of imagination I can’t find a way in.

While Michael Huffington has retired from the stage, Arianna has reincarnated herself as L.A.’s leading lefty salonista. Don’t you think she’d make a great target? Or would that be too easy and obvious? I rather like her now. For a cable regular, she wears well — debates intelligently, and with considerable civility and wit. I’ve wondered whether I give her a pass now just because I like her politics, but I don’t think so. It’s simply that the world is so full of people who genuinely piss me off that slamming Arianna is pretty far down my to-do list.

It’s tempting to imagine you have teams of researchers scouring the globe for absurd situations. It’s also probably the case that you get people lobbying you all the time to go after one thing or the next. How do you decide who will be your target and what kind of research do you do? See above. I’m just grateful for an idea — any idea. Every week for the last 36 years has been finals week. Each deadline is a triumph of will over inspiration. My “research” is generally whatever I can pull off Google that will lend verisimilitude to whatever it is I’m writing about. Hope this doesn’t disillusion, but there’s a lot of hack in me.

What did you make of the Danish cartoon mess? I understand that you said you would never play with the image of Allah. But did you feel you should have done so out of a sense of professional solidarity, or to make a statement about freedom of speech? What exactly would that statement be? That we can say whatever we want in the West? Everyone already knows that. So then the question becomes, should we say whatever we want? That, to me, is the crux. Do you hurt people just because you can? Because you feel they shouldn’t be deeply hurt, does that mean they aren’t? Should the New York Times run vicious caricatures of blacks and Jews just to show the First Amendment in action? At some point, common sense and sensitivity have to be brought to bear.

Is it awkward running into the people you skewer? I rarely do. But yes, it can be.

In hindsight, are there any strips you wish you’d done differently, where you think, “Oh, I really gave it to that guy and he didn’t have it coming after all”? I can’t think of any.

Of all the subjects you’ve done, who would you rank as the most sensitive to ridicule? Who’s been the least sensitive? Most sensitive, George H. W. Bush. He talked incessantly about the strip; nobody knew why. Least sensitive, Reagan. He never took anything personally, even the best shots of his critics. Nancy was a different story.

If you were a 20-year-old kid with a serious sense of attitude today, do you think you’d wind up a cartoonist? I think young cartoonists today are far more attracted to animation than comics. I don’t know any 20-year-old who wouldn’t give their eyeteeth to work on Family Guy.

Do you worry that if you stay at it too long, your strip will wind up kind of like Blondie and Dagwood? And if that happens, will you give Mike some Dagwood Bumstead cowlicks? It’s hard to know when you’ve overstayed your welcome. Oddly, the marketplace doesn’t always tell you. And an established comic strip is the closest thing to tenure that pop culture offers, so many creators have been tempted to draw until they drop. Not too surprisingly, my disdain for them has diminished considerably throughout the years.

And that’s all I got for you Garry. Once again, thanks so much.

Yours truly, Nick Welsh

4·1·1 UCSB Arts & Lectures presents Garry Trudeau at the Arlington Theatre on Thursday, October 26. For tickets and more info, see or call 893-3535.

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