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
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
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

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

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

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
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
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

Of all the subjects you’ve done, who would you rank as
the most sensitive to ridicule? Who’s been the least
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?
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?
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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