STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It was 40 years ago this morning that Mike Doonesbury met his roommate at Walden College, and the funny papers have never been the same.
Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" gang blurred the line between comics and the editorial pages.
RENEE MONTAGNE: host,
It also produced some of the most memorable characters ever sketched. To mark four decades of the strip, Garry Trudeau is out with a hefty new collection called "40: A Doonesbury Retrospective."
In the beginning there was the everyman, Mike Doonesbury; the stoner, Zonker; and that roommate, the not quite sharp as a pencil quarterback, B.D.
Mr. GARRY TRUDEAU: (Cartoonist): He was the foundational character. The strip was really developed around him when I was a college student. And B.D. is a true knucklehead. He feels that his players are mediocre and unserious. Meanwhile they're trying to play with his head most of the time. In fact, Zonker's only on-field goal is, in fact, to mess with him.
And the first strips were about that. It was basically a sports strip.
MONTAGNE: You were offered a syndication deal while you were still a student at Yale, quite soon after the strip got going.
Mr. TRUDEAU: Oh, very unexpected. It came out of the blue six weeks after I'd been doing it. It's a ridiculous story, and it nauseates my children that I would find my life's work six weeks into it.
But it was not an instant hit. We started with 26 papers or so. But I think that its early success probably was owed to the fact that it was an utter novelty. Nobody had seen anything quite like it. I think the way we framed it was these are dispatches from the front lines.
MONTAGNE: Of youth.
Mr. TRUDEAU: Of youth. You know, that the creator is on the bus and he's sending us reports from the countercultural movement.
MONTAGNE: How did it happen that Mike Doonesbury took the place of your original central character, B.D.?
Mr. TRUDEAU: We didn't really so much take his place, as he shared it. There were three foundational characters - Mark, Mike, and B.D., and I think...
MONTAGNE: Mark Slackmeyer.
Mr. TRUDEAU: Mark Slackmeyer.
MONTAGNE: Campus radical.
Mr. TRUDEAU: Campus radical. And they were the tent pole characters, and the idea was that they represented the left, the right and the center, and that they would create a kind of creative tension that I could play off of.
And so I had to go out and think hard about how I was going to sustain that. Comic strips are like a public utility. They're supposed to be there 365 days a year, and you're supposed to be able to hit the mark day after day. And I had no idea whether I could do that.
MONTAGNE: There's a strip from 1971 between B.D. and Mike Doonesbury with B.D. sitting there with a sigh over his head. On the opposite side of the desk is his roommate, Mike Doonesbury, and he said, How is your biology paper coming? Doonesbury is like, Okay, fine, whatever. And he goes, What are you writing on?
Mr. TRUDEAU: And Mike replies, Juxta-branchial organ secretions in the higher mollusk, what's yours on? And B.D. replies sheepishly, Our friend the beaver.
MONTAGNE: There's so much you're able to say in these early cartoons which are very simple, with just a stroke. In fact, Doonesbury doesn't even have a mouth here.
Mr. TRUDEAU: I'm not sure what that was about. I think it was probably - I was trying to find the way to depict the character so that he remained as deadpan as possible.
MONTAGNE: How much do characters dictate to you how you draw them? Like B.D.'s helmet would be sort of a perfect example.
Mr. TRUDEAU: That's really its own category. It took on a kind of metaphoric significance that was wholly unintentional. The helmet at first was, of course, the headgear that he wore during the games. The idea that he might not remove it came to me when I was thinking of sending him to a mixer.
And I thought, well, he needs to be able to telegraph to all these attractive young women who he is. They might not recognize him out of uniform. So he would wear his uniform and his helmet to mixers.
But then it kind of took on some more meaning as he moved through life and I replaced the helmet with other helmets. He changed teams, he became a National Guardsman, he became a California highway patrolman, and finally he became a soldier in both Iraq wars.
And when B.D. becomes wounded, and he loses a leg in battle, the reveal on that was twofold. First, as the camera, if you will, pulls back above the wounded soldier, you see a missing leg, but you also see the helmet is off for the first time.
And for many readers that had a kind of real significance. Many found it moving to see his graying, matted, sweaty hair revealed for the first time.
MONTAGNE: (Unintelligible) 34 years of the character.
Mr. TRUDEAU: Because it conveyed a kind of vulnerability. It sent the message that for him life would never be quite the same, that he had to struggle to move into the life of a wounded warrior and find out what that new normal looked like.
MONTAGNE: So I want to get back to this maybe at the very end, but I do want to touch on some of your other characters. I mean, Joanie Caucus, another very well-known and long-standing character, she was a feminist back in the '70s, when being a feminist really meant something.
And she ended up being very real in the real world. Tell us about how she got to law school.
Mr. TRUDEAU: Well, I picked up the idea of - it was time to move Joanie into the future. So I had her apply to a number of different schools. I didn't actually send in the applications, but after the names appeared in the strip, the applications started coming to me.
Of the ones that accepted her, I chose Boalt Hall at Berkeley, for no particular reason. Well, it turned out Boalt Hall was unusually friendly to women law students, and particularly women who were returning after raising families. So there were a number of women her age at Boalt Hall at the time.
So I sent her there, and again, everyone continued to treat her as if she were an actual student. I got all the mailings and student ID, and had to fill out all the forms. And when she graduated, her class invited me to come speak. And they put a mortarboard on her chair in the front row.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. TRUDEAU: And...
MONTAGNE: And you went and spoke. I mean, it was Joanie Caucus.
Mr. TRUDEAU: And I went and gave the speech as if she in fact were not imaginary and were graduating with the class.
MONTAGNE: You know, I think people following the strip would say that the character who's gone through the truest transformation is B.D. You know, he ended up in Vietnam in '72 because he wanted to get out of a term paper.
Mr. TRUDEAU: Right.
MONTAGNE: And it was kind of an exciting idea.
Mr. TRUDEAU: Yes. His catastrophic wound has shaken him out of the life of settled complacency that he had been living for many, many years. And I think the nature of the narrative decision that I made to separate him from a leg was that I had to look at the consequences in more detail than I normally do.
Normally I, you know, I don't shoot any higher than verisimilitude. If it sort or seems like it might be accurate or it seems - that's usually good enough for me to clear the bar. But in this case I really had to sweat the details. So I had to more closely observe what B.D. might be going through psychologically. And as a result, the strip kind of took a more naturalistic turn. It's not as surrealistic as it used to be, but it's been an astonishing journey for me.
MONTAGNE: Garry Trudeau's retrospective of 40 years of Doonesbury is out today.
INSKEEP: And that's MORNING EDITION'S Renee Montagne. You can relive four decades of memorable Doonesbury moments at NPR.org. This is NPR News.