“Doonesbury”: Jerked off the funny pages

Hundreds of papers might be pulling this Sunday's strip for referring to the health benefits of masturbation. Garry Trudeau talks to Salon about his comic's 32-year history of controversy.

Topics:

"Doonesbury": Jerked off the funny pages

After commenting on almost every political and cultural controversy of the past three decades — from Vietnam to Iraq, from revolutions sexual to Starbucksian — Garry Trudeau is at it again. This Sunday, “Doonesbury,” his popular and beloved comic strip, might be pulled from roughly half of the 700 newspapers that syndicate it.

Why the uproar? Because Trudeau has dared to address the ever-sensitive issue of getting off — specifically, how getting off can keep you healthy. The strip is based on a recent study in the New Scientist that finds that frequent masturbation can help prevent prostate cancer. Despite the subject matter’s rather heartwarming implications, 19 out of 34 editors polled by the Milwaukee Journal said they would not publish it.

Trudeau talked with Salon by e-mail, about the masturbation furor, “Doonesbury’s” history of controversy, and which of his characters would be most likely to take the study about prostate cancer to, er, heart.

So it looks like you’re the new Joycelyn Elders. What do you think it is about the M-word that has provoked such a strong response?

Well, there are certain words that trigger a response simply because they’ve never before appeared in a family-friendly context like the comics. “Masturbation” is obviously a loaded word, but as a descriptor, it’s not actually vulgar or coarse, which is why I’m comfortable using it. And the strip in question isn’t actually about masturbation or cancer, it’s about the inability of two particular adults to find a mutual comfort zone to discuss a serious subject. Since the more traditional viewpoint (Boopsie’s) is presented without mockery, conservative readers really shouldn’t be offended.

Still, the syndicate and I understood that some papers would not be prepared to accommodate this little depiction of the shifting nature of taboos. After all, editors are still arguing over the acceptability of the word “suck.” So we offered a substitute strip for editors who themselves felt caught out of their comfort zones by the strip.



Do you feel as if the climate for publishing controversial strips has changed since you first began publishing “Doonesbury”?

Absolutely. It’s much more friendly. In the early years, I was constantly preoccupied with blowback. “Doonesbury”-related controversies used to flare up at least once a month. One year there were 12 wire service stories about dropped strips. It was a constant struggle keeping everyone onboard.

But then two things changed: First, editors got used to me and began to understand that I did not wake up in the morning trying to figure out how to piss them off, but was actually writing about serious issues in a reasonably responsible way, considering it’s satire. Second, the world changed: The bar got lowered with raunch radio, “South Park,” and “Tonight Show” jokes about fellatio. Against that backdrop, “Doonesbury” no longer seemed quite so shocking. Which after 33 years is fine with me. It was exhausting to always be in a defensive crouch.

What do you personally consider to be the biggest risk you ever took with a “Doonesbury” strip?

Well, I never thought of myself as being at risk, which is probably why I got away with so much. I simply followed my interests and concerns, and trusted my editor to tell me when he thought I’d gone too far. Part of the secret to slipping tough material into a comic strip is pacing. Jim Andrews, my editor in the early days, once said to me, “You can write about bombing in Cambodia this week, but you damn well better write about football next week.” If you’re in it for the long haul, you have to know when to remove your knee from the reader’s windpipe. Aaron Magruder’s ["Boondocks" creator] still working on that one.

Which scandals, in hindsight, seem the most ludicrous?

In hindsight, of course, they all seem ludicrous, but my favorite was a series I did linking then-Gov. Jerry Brown to Sidney Korshak, who was on the FBI’s list of top mob figures. The strip was bounced from papers all over California, condemning it as unfair. In a nice touch, the only other newspapers in the country who shared their outrage were in Las Vegas and Reno.

Of all the characters in “Doonesbury,” who would be the most likely to “censor” a comic strip, and why?

You have to be careful here. Technically, the exclusion of my strip from a newspaper is not censorship. It’s called editing. Newspaper editors have a right and responsibility to control the content of their papers. They’re public stewards and have to make dozens of calls every day on what meets the standards of their particular community. I don’t always admire the rationale for dropping a strip (see California story above), but I see no reason why I should expect to be in every one of 700 papers every day. The miracle is that I have appeared as often as I have.

Having said that, the answer is Duke, whose fundamental belief in the efficacy of authoritarianism makes censorship a no-brainer.

And finally, which character do you think would be the one who would most actively launch a preventive strike against prostate cancer?

The college boys, Jeff and Zipper, although I’m sure all the characters take sensible prophylactic measures.

Sheerly Avni is a freelance writer living in Oakland.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>