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An Interview With Kerry Soper About Garry Trudeau: Doonesbury and the Aesthetics of Satire

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Doonesbury is one of my three favorite comic strips of all time (the other two being The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes).

I think Garry Trudeau is a genius, both as a satirist and as a man full of compassion, as evidenced by his recent work on behalf of veterans. A friend, Rob Ballew, wrote here about the Sandbox book Trudeau organized and published that is a collection of dispatches and blogs from Iraq and Afghanistan War vets.

Kerry Soper has written a dense, fascinating book about Trudeau as a satirist. I saw this book at a bookstore and immediately begged Soper for an interview. This is the second part of the interview.

The first part was here. It includes an introduction to Soper. In this part I ask about some of the characters in the Doonesbury books.

Who is your favorite character and why? Who is your least favorite character and why?

Zonker is my favorite character.  Although he would probably be a flaky and annoying friend in real life, as a fictional character it's easy to admire and envy his anxiety-free, childlike approach to life.

Do you think most readers understand that Duke was based on Hunter S. Thompson or does that even matter at this point?

I think only serious fans are aware of that connection, and it doesn't really matter at this point.  I'm not sure if it even mattered that much at the start of the strip. Duke quickly became something more complex than that caricature — an embodiment of banal evil and bureaucratic opportunism.

What will be the legacy of Trudeau?

Trudeau will stand out as perhaps the most significant satirist of the last fifty years.  His work may not have the flashy appeal of satire in other media such as television and film, but because of his ability to control every aspect of his work — with an auteur like independence — there is an exceptional complexity, consistency, integrity, and longevity to Doonesbury.  As a result, it will hold together better as a distinctive and consistent body of art/social criticism than other flash in the pan works of satire.  Hopefully that legacy will include a new generation of cartoonists who are willing to expand the potential of the medium in similar ways — mixing comic strips with satire, investigative reporting, and the chronicling of the cultural zeitgeist.

What is the biggest misconception of Trudeau and/or Doonesbury?

I think many people who are only familiar with Doonesbury from a distance believe that it is partisan in its politics and strident in its satire. A closer familiarity reveals that he's an equal opportunity offender and attacks folly at all points along the political spectrum.  One also discovers that the satire in the strip is rarely heavy handed and strident.  There's a playfulness to Trudeau's comedy that makes it fun to read simply as a funny (albeit verbally complex) comic strip.

And what most surprised you when you were doing the research and writing of this book?

I was most surprised at how sensitive and shy Trudeau seems to be as an every day individual.  He can be very combative in the political and satiric arenas, but he seems especially thoughtful, formal, and tuned into people's feelings when it comes to dealing with individuals outside of his strip.

What are you working on now?

I'm currently working on a book project about Walt Kelly and his comic strip Pogo.  It will cover Kelly's entire career (including the Pre-Pogo work), and a strong emphasis placed on how Kelly successfully channeled folk forms and ethnic voices into his resonant comic strip satire.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.