Frequently political in nature, Doonesbury features characters professing a range of affiliations, but the cartoon’s editorial slant is noted for a liberal outlook. The name "Doonesbury" is a combination of the word doone (1960s prep school slang for "someone unafraid to appear foolish") and the surname of Charles Pillsbury, Trudeau's roommate at Yale University.
Doonesbury began as a continuation of Bull Tales, which appeared in the Yale University student newspaper, the Yale Daily News, beginning September, 1968. It focused on local campus events at Yale. The executive editor of the paper in the late 1960s, Reed Hundt, who later served as the chairman of the FCC, noted that the Daily News had a flexible policy about publishing cartoons: “We publish[ed] pretty much anything.”
As Doonesbury, the strip debuted as a daily strip in about two dozen newspapers on October 26, 1970 -- the first strip from Universal Press Syndicate. A Sunday strip began on March 21, 1971. Many of the early strips were reprints of the Bull Tales cartoons, with some changes to the drawings and plots. BD’s helmet changed from having a “Y” (for Yale) to a star (for the fictional Walden College). Mike and BD started Doonesbury as roommates; they were not roommates in the original.
Doonesbury became well known for its social and political commentary, always timely, and peppered with wry and ironic humor. It is presently syndicated in approximately 1,400 newspapers worldwide. The decision, on September 12, 2005 to drop Doonesbury from The Guardian (United Kingdom) was reversed less than 24 hours later, after the strip’s followers voiced strong discontent.
Like Li‘l Abner and Pogo before it, Doonesbury blurred the distinction between editorial cartoon and the funny pages. In May 1975, the strip won Trudeau a Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning, the first strip cartoon to be so honored. That month, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, the publishers of collections of Doonesbury until the mid-1980s took out an ad in the New York Times Book Review, marking the occasion by saying: It’s nice for Trudeau and Doonesbury to be so honored, “but it’s quite another thing when the Establishment clutches all of Walden Commune to its bosom.” That same year, then-U.S. President Gerald Ford acknowledged the stature of the comic strip, telling the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association at their annual dinner, “There are only three major vehicles to keep us informed as to what is going on in Washington: the electronic media, the print media, and Doonesbury—not necessarily in that order.”
In 1977, Trudeau wrote a script for a twenty-six-minute animated “special.” A Doonesbury Special was produced and directed by Trudeau, along with John Hubley (who died during the storyboarding stage) and Faith Hubley. The Special was first broadcast by NBC on November 27, 1977. It won a Special Jury Award at the Cannes International Film Festival for best short film, and received an Academy Award nomination (for best animated short film), both in 1978. Voice actors for the special included Barbara Harris, William Sloane Coffin, Jr., Jack Gilford and Will Jordan. Also included were two songs “sung” by the character of Jimmy Thudpucker (actually actor/singer/songwriter/producer James Allen "Jimmy" Brewer), entitled “Stop in the Middle” and “I Do Believe,” also part of the "Special." The compositions and performances were credited to “Jimmy Thudpucker,” but were in fact co-written and sung by Brewer, who also co-wrote and provided the vocals for "Ginny's Song," a 1976 single on the Warner Bros. Label, and "Jimmy Thudpucker's Greatest Hits, an LP released by Windsong Records, John Denver's subsidiary of RCA Records)
The strip underwent a significant change after Trudeau returned to it from a 22 month hiatus (from January 1983 to October 1984). Before the break in the strip, the characters were eternal college students, living in a commune together near “Walden College,” which was modelled after Trudeau’s alma mater. During the break, Trudeau helped create a Broadway musical of the strip, showing the graduation of the main characters. The Broadway adaptation opened at the Biltmore Theatre on November 21, 1983, and played 104 performances. Elizabeth Swados composed the music for Trudeau’s book and lyrics.
The strip resumed some time after the events in the musical, with further changes having taken place after the end of the musical’s plot. While Mike, Mark, Zonker, BD and Boopsie were all now graduates, BD and Boopsie were living in Malibu, where BD was a third-string quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams, and Boopsie was making a living from walk-on and cameo roles. Mark was living in Washington, DC, working for National Public Radio. Michael and JJ had gotten married, and Mike had dropped out of business school to start work in an advertising agency in New York City. Zonker, still not ready for the “real world,” was living with Mike and JJ until he was accepted as a medical student at his Uncle Duke’s “Baby Doc College” in Haiti.
Prior to the hiatus, the strip’s characters had aged at the tectonically slow rate that is standard for comic strips. But when Trudeau returned to “Doonesbury,” the characters began to age in something close to real time, as in “Gasoline Alley” and “For Better or for Worse.” Since then, the main characters’ age and career development has tracked that of standard media portrayals of baby boomers, with jobs in advertising, law enforcement, and the dot-com boom. Current events are mirrored through the original characters, their offspring (the “second generation”), and occasional new characters.
Post-hiatus, Trudeau developed a more sophisticated look for the strip, often varying his angles from frame to frame. The result was more graphically dynamic without sacrificing the deadpan quality that made the punchlines land.
The unnamed college attended by the main characters was later given the name “Walden College,” revealed to be in Connecticut (the same state as Yale), and depicted as devolving into a third-rate institution under the weight of grade inflation, slipping academic standards, and the end of tenure—issues that Trudeau has consistently revisited since the original characters graduated. Many of the second generation of Doonesbury characters are attending Walden, a venue Trudeau uses to advance his concerns about academic standards in America.
With the exception of Walden College, Trudeau has frequently used real-life settings, based on real scenarios, but with fictional results. Due to deadlines, some real-world events have rendered some of Trudeau’s comics unusable, such as a 1973 series featuring John Ehrlichman, a 1989 series set in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, a 1993 series involving Zoë Baird, and a 2005 series involving Harriet Miers. Trudeau has also delighted and intrigued readers by displaying fluency in various forms of jargon, including that of real estate agents, flight attendants, computer scientists, journalists, presidential aides, and soldiers in Iraq.
Even though Doonesbury frequently features major real-life US politicians, they are rarely depicted with their real face. Originally, strips featuring the President of the US would show an external view of the White House, with dialogue emerging from inside. During the Gerald Ford administration, characters would be shown speaking to Ford at press conferences, and fictional dialogue supposedly spoken by Ford would be written as coming “off-panel.” Similarly, while having several characters as students in a class taught by Henry Kissinger, the dialogue made up for Kissinger would also come from “off-panel.” Sometimes hands, or in rare cases, the back of heads would also be seen.
More recently, personal symbols reflecting some aspect of their character are used. For example, during the 1980s, character 'Ron Headrest' served as a doppelganger for Ronald Reagan and was depicted as a computer-generated artificial-intelligence, an image based on the television character Max Headroom. Members of the Bush family have been depicted as invisible. During his term as Vice President, George H.W. Bush was first depicted as completely invisible, his words emanating from a little “spark” (or a "point of light") in the air. This was originally a reference to the man’s perceived low profile and his denials of knowledge of the Iran-Contra Affair. (In one strip, published March 20, 1988, the vice president almost materialized, but only made it to an outline before reverting to invisibility.) George W. Bush was later symbolized by a Stetson hat atop the same invisible point, because he was Governor of Texas prior to his presidency (Trudeau accused him of being “all hat and no cattle”, reiterating the characterization of Bush by columnist Molly Ivins). The point became a giant asterisk (a la Roger Maris) and following the 2000 presidential elections and the controversy over vote-counting. Later, President Bush’s hat was changed to a Roman military helmet (again, atop an asterisk) representing imperialism. Towards the end of his first term, the helmet became battered, with the gilt work starting to come off and with clumps of bristles missing from the top. (By now, the helmet has been dented almost beyond recognition.) On September 2, 2006, he fantasized about himself wearing a crown.
Other notable symbols include a waffle for the indecisive Bill Clinton (chosen by popular vote—the other possibility had been a “flipping coin”), an unexploded (but sometimes lit) bomb for the hot-tempered Newt Gingrich, a feather for the “lightweight” Dan Quayle and a giant groping hand for Arnold Schwarzenegger (who is addressed by other characters as “Herr Gruppenführer,” a reference to accusations of sexual assault against Schwarzenegger). Many minor politicians have also been represented as icons over the years, like a swastika for David Duke, but only for the purposes of a gag strip or two. Trudeau has made his use of icons something of an in joke to readers, where the first appearance of a new one is often a punchline in itself.
The long career of the series and continual use of real-life political figures, analysts note, have led to some uncanny cases of the cartoon foreshadowing a national shift in the politicians’ political fortunes. Tina Gianoulis in St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture observes: “In 1971, well before the conservative Reagan years, a forward-looking BD called Ronald Reagan his ‘hero.’ In 1984, almost ten years before Congressman Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House, another character worried that he would ‘wake up someday in a country run by Newt Gingrich.’ ” In its 2003 series “John Kerry: A Candidate in the Making” on the 2004 presidential race, the Boston Globe reprinted and discussed 1971 Doonesbury cartoons of the young Kerry’s Vietnam War protest speeches.
The main characters of the strip are a group who attended the fictional Walden College during the strip’s first twelve years. In April 1972, a sub-group of these characters started their own commune, and moved in together. The original “Walden Commune” residents were: Mike Doonesbury, Zonker Harris, Mark Slackmeyer, Nicole, Bernie and DiDi. Zonker was soon given “Walden Puddle” to reflect in, and the residents of Walden Commune changed over time. In September 1972, Joanie Caucus joined the comic, meeting Mike and Mark in Colorado, and eventually moved into the commune. They were later joined by BD and his girlfriend (later wife) Boopsie. Nicole, DiDi, and Bernie were phased out, both as characters and as residents of the commune. The spouses of this group became important following this group’s graduation; they are JJ Caucus (Mike’s now-ex-wife) and Rick Redfern (Joanie’s husband). Mike remarried, to Kim Rosenthal, a Vietnamese refugee who had been adopted by a Jewish-American family just after the fall of Saigon and whose first words as an infant in the strip had been “Big Mac.” Uncle Duke and Roland Hedley have also appeared often, frequently in unconnected, more topical settings. In more recent years, a second generation of characters has taken prominence as it has grown up to college age; this group consists of Jeff Redfern (Rick and Joanie’s son), Zipper Harris (Zonker’s nephew), and Alex Doonesbury (Mike and JJ’s daughter).
Doonesbury delved into a number of political and social issues, causing controversies, and breaking new ground on the comics pages. Among the milestones:
Some conservatives have intensely criticized Doonesbury. Several examples are cited in the Milestones section. The strip has also met criticism from its readers almost since it began syndicated publication. For example, when Lacey Davenport’s husband Dick, in the last moments before his death, calls on God, several conservative pundits called the strip blasphemous. The sequence of Dick Davenport’s final bird-watching and fatal heart attack was run in November 1986.
Doonesbury has angered, irritated, or been rebuked by many of the political figures that have appeared or been referred to in the strip over the years. Outspoken critics have included members of every US Presidential administration since Richard Nixon’s. A 1984 series of strips showing then Vice President George H.W. Bush placing his manhood in a blind trust—in parody of Bush’s using that financial instrument to fend off concerns that his governmental decisions would be influenced by his investment holdings—brought the politician to complain, “Doonesbury’s carrying water for the opposition. Trudeau is coming out of deep left field.” There have also been other politicians who did not view the way that Doonesbury portrayed them very favorably, including former U.S. House Speaker Thomas Tip O’Neill and former California Governor Jerry Brown.
The strip has also met controversy over every military conflict it has dealt with, including Vietnam, Grenada, Panama and both Gulf Wars. When Doonesbury ran the names of soldiers who had died in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, conservative commentators accused Trudeau of using the American dead to make a profit for himself, and again demanded that the strip be removed from newspapers.
After many letter writing campaigns demanding the removal of the strip were unsuccessful, conservatives changed their tactics, and instead of writing to newspaper editors, they began writing to one of the printers who prints the color Sunday comics. In 2005, Continental Features gave in to their demands, and refused to continue printing the Sunday Doonesbury, causing it to disappear from the 38 Sunday papers that Continental Features printed. Of the 38, only one newspaper The Anniston Star in Anniston, Alabama, continued to carry the Sunday Doonesbury, though of necessity in black and white.
Some newspapers have dealt with the criticism by moving the strip from the comics page to the editorial page, because many people believe that a politically based comic strip like Doonesbury does not belong in a traditionally child-friendly comics section. The Lincoln Journal started the trend in 1973. In some papers (such as the Tulsa World) Doonesbury appears on the opinions page alongside Mallard Fillmore, a politically conservative comic strip.