20th Century and Contemporary, American History, Graphic Fiction, Publishing

The Doonesbury Debate

Although Garry Trudeau has been creating the Doonesbury comic strip for over four decades, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize twice and won it once, he has stated that his “scrawlings made the cartoon industry safe for bad art.” Others agree in reference to his earliest work. “He was a really, really bad drawer—horrible,” his college newspaper editor said once of his comics published in the Yale Daily News. Critics of Trudeau’s comics in other newspapers would continue to agree that he was “challenged artistically” but a gifted writer. Trudeau was unprepared when the series picked up for syndication soon after he graduated from Yale—he admitted later he was not even sure what syndication meant at the time. The strip was not intended for a broad audience, and the newbie’s subject matter surprised veteran cartoonists. To some, he seemed more like a political cartoonist fit for the Opinion pages, not the Funnies. They were not entirely wrong—many newspapers eventually made the switch.

He returned to Yale for graduate school in 1971 and soon realized that he would not be able to make the syndicate’s deadlines as well as complete his academic work. His solution was freelance artist Don Carlton. After Trudeau finished both the text and the drawings in pencil, Carlton would ink over the pencil lines to prepare them for printing. Although Carlton plays an important role in the publication of the strip, he is not a ghostwriter or “ghost artist” in the sense that he determines the content. That’s why both he and Trudeau were shocked when in 1991, a reporter for Entertainment Weekly claimed that Carlton was the Doonesbury cartoonist’s ghost. Soon, the Wall Street Journal stated that Trudeau only wrote the text and did not draw his cartoons at all. Comics editor Lee Salem demanded a retraction, while journalist Jonathan Alter confirmed there was no need for a co-byline. Long after the incident, Brian Walker notes that he “had always felt that [Trudeau] had not received adequate recognition for his talents as an artist and graphic designer.” His Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau restores the cartoonist’s reputation as a master of all aspects of his craft.

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