STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" gang blurred the line between comics and the editorial pages.
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
INSKEEP: 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.
MONTAGNE: 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.
MONTAGNE: 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.
MONTAGNE: 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.?
MONTAGNE: 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.
MONTAGNE: Mark Slackmeyer.
MONTAGNE: Campus radical.
MONTAGNE: 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?
MONTAGNE: 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.
MONTAGNE: 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.
MONTAGNE: 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.
MONTAGNE: 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: And she ended up being very real in the real world. Tell us about how she got to law school.
MONTAGNE: 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)
MONTAGNE: And you went and spoke. I mean, it was Joanie Caucus.
MONTAGNE: 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.
MONTAGNE: And it was kind of an exciting idea.
MONTAGNE: 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.
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