At Altria Theater, a packed auditorium of baby boomers came to see Garry Trudeau, inflammatory satirist and creator of influential comic strip “Doonesbury.”
Trudeau’s lecture, called “What a Long, Strange Strip It’s Been,” covered topics that ranged from his career to the recent massacre at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, France. Trudeau was born in New York City and went to Yale University, where the comic strip he wrote for the school paper, called “Bull Tales,” was picked up by Universal Press and renamed “Doonesbury.”
Trudeau did have some setbacks in his pursuit of art at Yale. He recounted a story about his freshman art teacher, who ripped up his work because he knew Trudeau could draw, but didn’t know if he could see. However, Trudeau didn’t have to struggle like most other artists before getting a spot drawing his own strip for a newspaper.
“There were no dues, no 10,000 hours of practice,” Trudeau said.
“Doonesbury” has been around for more than 40 years. The comic strip has evolved over time as “Doonesbury’s” 20-plus characters aged and changed along with the times. Some of “Doonesbury’s” characters were even enlisted in the Iraq War. Trudeau was embedded with American soldiers during the Iraq War to provide an accurate representation of the conflict.
In 1973, “Doonesbury” first faced controversy with Trudeau’s cartoon about Watergate, which showed one of his characters calling Nixon guilty before his trial. This strip caused several newspapers to drop him, including the Washington Post. Trudeau’s boss at the time assured him not to worry, because soon the old guard at these papers would be dead. He was right; when younger owners took over these papers, Trudeau was published again.
“Our client list soared on the tears of widows,” Trudeau said.
Among “Doonesbury’s” other controversial strips was one published in 1976 showing an unmarried couple in bed together, and another in 2012 that critiqued Texas’ mandatory vaginal sonogram bill, which led to him being dropped from 70 papers, the largest backlash against his work.
“It’s hard to not get caught up in the euphoria of being noticed,” Trudeau said. “You don’t see the downsides.”
The elephant in the room was the murder of several satirists on Jan. 7 at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo for its controversial cartoons, including drawings of the Prophet Muhammad. Trudeau called this the difficulty of satire, the invisible red line that you don’t cross in your work.
“Is anyone laughing at all? Then maybe you’ve crossed it,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau critiqued the French government’s relaxed laws on hate speech as a contributor to the attack. He also blamed the French magazine for marches in Niger, where 10 marchers were killed.
“Did the editor of Charlie take responsibility?” Trudeau said. “Of course not.”
During his speech, Trudeau made it known he would never draw a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad and that there was no real reason for Charlie Hebdo to draw the controversial cartoons besides the fact that they could do it.
“Jokes about the disenfranchised just aren’t funny,” Trudeau said. “Satirists have to punch upwards.”