A Comic Strip Writer has Got to Understand Life


This article originally appeared in Issue# 20

An exclusive interview with Doonesbury artist, Don Canton

How are you benefiting from the partnership of an insightful New York City writer and a reflective Kansas City artist? They've been peopling your breakfast table with hundreds of characters every morning for almost twelve years now.

They call themselves GB. Trudeau and Don Canton. You call them "Doonesbury," and smile with a certain admiration and fondness. Zonker. Duke. Joanie Caucus. Lacey Davenport. Professor Kissinger. Rev. Scott Sloane, Jr., "the fighting young priest who talks to youth." The playful barb.

"A comic strip writer has really got to understand life: how and why people behave the way they do," said Canton in a recent interview for Media&Values in his Kansas City studio. "That's a hard commodity to come by — somebody who can truly articulate people's (and one's own) feelings with the verisimilitude that's needed."

Since Trudeau does not grant any interviews and "avoids publicity as one would the plague,' a rare interview with Canton was itself a kind of metaphor of the work the two men do together: the invisible creative genius brought into shape and substance by his artist friend and associate.

Garry's revealed in the strip, but he's much more than the strip, too," Canton offers. "He's Mr. Humanity himself, with vision and humanness. Nobody can dislike him once they've met him."

Understandably, Carlton paints Trudeau as an off-camera, offstage director. "A comic strip is very much like a play," Carlton explains. "Art illuminates life by creating characters that communicate with an audience in a way a real person couldn't. The characters can be stereotypical or caricatured, but they still have characteristics that the reader can identify and say, 'I know that person; that touches the way I think or feel."


Editors still think comics are for kids, thought readership surveys show they're read more by adults.

"The Doonesbury 'actors' are an extension of the playwright/director's craft. The comics give the reader a visualization to use to reflect upon themselves, on interior feelings," Carlton claims.

But that's where comparing the "Doonesbury" experience to a play ends. Although both Trudeau and Carlton have access to the thousands of letters the strip elicits, they can't see readers' faces over the cereal bowl.

"That somebody else reads and enjoys the strip is secondary," Carlton muses. "Unlike the actor, we're removed from the reactions. Like any genuine art form, the comic strip has to come from the soul of the creator."

"It's a kind of labor of love, though it's not easy love. He works very hard at it, and fairly constantly, because that's his nature."

They both work hard. Carlton draws one week of strips at a time, each three times larger than they appear in the paper. He spends about two hours per daily strip, or 12 hours a week, actually drawing. The Sunday strip takes four to five hours to render and color.

In addition, the two men are in touch by phone several times a week to talk over concepts and each pencil sketch that Trudeau has mailed to Kansas City.

"Garry overwrites — often ten times as much dialogue as could fit into the panels," says his artist. Trudeau does all the editing, telling Caflton to hold off doing the lettering until the deadline. They talk again by phone — before it goes off to Universal Press Syndicate, conveniently located just minutes away...

Apparently it was sheer luck that Jim Andrews, co-founder of the fledgling syndicate, in 1970 discovered the Yale undergrad's "Bull Tales" comic strip in the school paper and signed up the young graduate. A year later, Andrews teamed Canton with Trudeau.

The artist insists that syndicating a comic strip is practically impossible without that kind of luck. And in "Doonesbury's" case, it shouldn't have succeeded, even with luck."

"It broke all the traditions in a field where tradition was everything," chuckles Carlton.

He continues, "Comic strips have a unique place in Asierican life. They're bought to attract readers, to attract sales." Mi-tars still think comics are for kids, though readership surveys show they're read more by adults.

"So here comes something unique. It offers fairly adult satire, fairly adult commentary. It deals with virtually anything in the way of current events or the world."


Not surprisingly some readers have tried to get editors to stop carrying the strip.

So why did it succeed? Maybe it was the times. Maybe the third-generation Yale grad from a wealthy upper New York family had a long view on life. Maybe the characters reflected us best as we moved insecurely through the new eras of realities like Vietnam and Watergate and feminism and drugs.

Not surprisingly some readers have tried to get editors to stop carrying the strip.

"There are only a few cancellations now," Carlton reports. "In its early years it would be cancelled frequently, but it would always get back in because the readers would suddenly rise up. Today editors take it upon themselves to delete words right in the middle of a panel, or skip a particularly sensitive week. But even during the 'Reagan's Brain' week, which made national news during the '80 campaign, almost no one left it out entirely. The moment it doesn't appear readers say, 'Wow, this must really have been a good one — what did Trudeau say this time?' and they get on the phone or buy out-of-town newspapers instead." ("Doonesbury" regularly appears in over 700 newspapers.)

Can this medium influence people's values, then? Or does "Doonesbury" merely reflect life? Canton believes it influences precisely because it does such a good job of "communicating the same reflection the writer has on that set of value circumstances."

Carlton uses his own personal reactions to the strip as a gauge of the values clarifying that he thinks "Doonesbury" provides. He talks about a recent strip in which Joanie briefly wonders to Rick if she should have an abortion. They quickly dismiss the idea, yet Carlton found the strip bothersome.

"Is that a common option being placed before couples these days?" he wonders. "To me that strip illuminated a sense of where our values have been taken. Touching on issues like that are cause for the reader to have that kind of response, too. It creates that internal examination of things--of our culture and what it all means. The fact that things like that stay with me suggests that they stay with a lot of readers, too."

The daily strip is done only weeks ahead of appearance--the shortest deadline of any strip around. But rarely does that kind of timeliness change what Trudeau would have presented anyway.

"Most of the reflections in the strip are not about the events, you'll notice, but about people reacting to events. It's how the nation feels that becomes grist for the strip."

Carlton is astonished, in that way, at how often life imitates art. Watergate, for example. "It was kind of eerie. I began to think of Carry as some kind of seer," Carlton remembers.

"We were three to four weeks ahead of our appearance dates. I started being concerned we'd done strips we'd have to eat because we'd carried it too far. But I don't think we wasted any strips at all that year. By the time "Doonesbury" appeared in the papers, the plotline was even more appropriate than at the time it had been drawn.

"The strip has a life of its own. Somehow these characters are out there working and doing their thing and making statements. It's strange."

What's not strange is that understanding this comic strip doesn't seem to have anything to do with age or political viewpoint, according to Canton. He is continually amazed at its vast reach.

"I have had elderly women come up to me and I've found kids down in the lower grades who read it regularly. About every six months I'll encounter a third grader who knows all the exotic characters.

"They continue the creative process," Carlton notes. "Some see symbolism in what I've drawn and write in to confirm it. They have created in their own mind's eye what Trudeau is saying, and that's fine."

But the stockade fence doesn't really symbolize anything to him or to Trudeau, Canton confides. And he is amused that his antics with the toaster — and some other visual gags — take on such significance for some readers.

Carlton believes strongly that the future is wide open. "It's a shame that the comic strip is a medium that hasn't even been tested yet. It's a field that has been staid because what-has-been-done-in-the past always suffices for editors. There are innovations, statements, communications that can and should be done."

Whatever the future holds, bet on this. The team of Garry Trudeau and Don Carlton will continue to bring the controversy of "Doonesbury" to your morning table. It's food for thought to give us nourishment in the uncertain days ahead.

Author Bio: 

Shirley Koritnik is the associate director of the Center for Communications Ministry. She works out of Kansas City where she also directs EcuMedia, an interfaith presence to local broadcasters.