Doonesbury Marks 35th Anniversary

His characters are well into middle age, but Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" is still picking fights 35 years after exploding onto the newspaper scene.

Last fall, 20 newspapers objected to a strip that had Vice President Dick Cheney using a profanity as he remotely coached President Bush through a press conference. The strip married two real-life controversies - a similar profanity Cheney said to Sen. Patrick Leahy on the Senate floor and rumors denied by the White House that a mysterious bulge under the president's suit jacket was an audio receiver, designed to help him through a debate.

For the past year, "Doonesbury" - published by Kansas City, Mo.-based Universal Press Syndicate - has followed the progress of character B.D., who lost a leg to an improvised explosive device while on patrol in Iraq. The story has been praised by groups that work with injured soldiers and derided by others like Fox's Bill O'Reilly, who compared Trudeau to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.

It's the latest in a long career of giving politicians and newspaper editors heartburn as Trudeau and his cast of Baby Boomers, reformed hippies, blogging teenagers and one Hunter S. Thompson-esque mercenary named Uncle Duke debate the issues of the day on the funny pages of almost 1,500 newspapers around the world. Wednesday marks the strip's 35-year anniversary.

"Well, it's a humor strip, so my first responsibility has always been to entertain the reader," Trudeau said in response to e-mailed questions from The Associated Press. "But if, in addition, I can help move readers to thought and judgment about issues that concern me, so much the better."

These days, that focus has been fixed on the war in Iraq, which the 57-year-old Trudeau readily agrees he doesn't support. That ire has extended to the Bush Administration, furthering a feud the strip has had with the Bush family since its beginnings in a Yale college newspaper when George W. Bush and Trudeau were classmates.

Reason magazine associate editor Jesse Walker said the strip has occasional breakthroughs, but has become more Democrat polemic than satire and Trudeau's best work is decades behind him.

"Ultimately what happened to Trudeau was he got older, no longer had his finger on the pulse and started writing as an outsider," Walker said.

Republicans tend to agree, with many of his targets over the years claiming he's unfair and over the top.

In 1984, a week of Doonesbury strips depicting Vice President Bush placing his "manhood in a blind trust" led to this Bush retort: "Doonesbury's carrying water for the opposition. Trudeau is coming out of deep left field."

Some of his attacks have led newspaper editors to pull the strip. During the 2000 presidential election, at least two papers pulled Doonesbury after character Duke accused the younger Bush of being a cocaine user.

Trudeau refutes his far-left, anti-Republican label, saying he's supported "moderate" Republicans over the years and not "mindless ideologues like the ones who who've had a stranglehold on power the past five years."

Some observers say the war has given "Doonesbury" a new energy, one that they say was largely absent during the 1990s, when American politics and culture didn't deliver the high-stakes issues that experts say satire needs to thrive.

"I think 'Doonesbury' was really of the Vietnam generation and became a voice of the Vietnam generation, and what's interesting to me is that decades later (Trudeau) tapped into that exact same thing with the Iraq war," said Matt Davies, a political cartoonist for The Journal News in Westchester, N.Y., who beat Trudeau for a Pulitzer Prize last year. "Because of his reputation and perhaps his infamy, he rose to the challenge with the Iraq war and was back throwing barbs on the comics page. He's still got it. He's still an angry young man."

Of course, "Doonesbury" is no longer the oddity it once was. During its heyday in the 1970s - Trudeau in 1975 became the first cartoonist to win a Pulitzer - the idea of using humor to skewer the political and social issues of the day was still rare in popular culture.

"Those were very self-serious times," Trudeau said. "The end of the Vietnam War changed all that. The nation exhaled, 'Saturday Night Live' hit big, and satire really took off."

Now, "Doonesbury" has been joined by politically minded strips ranging from the racially charged "The Boondocks" to conservative-leaning "Mallard Fillmore" and "Prickly City."

Internet blogs broadcast a wide range of perspectives and television viewers can tune in nightly to the late show monologues or Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."

Is "Doonesbury" still relevant?

"That's for the readers to adjudge, but I will say that in general public commentators have nowhere near the clout that we enjoyed 35 years ago, the age of four TV channels and no Internet," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, it's all good. You can't have too many voices in a democracy. Talented people will find their audiences."

Others say Trudeau is too modest.

Christopher Lamb, an associate professor of communication at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, dedicated a chapter to "Doonesbury" in his book "Drawn to Extremes: The Use and Abuse of Political Cartoons."

"Satire is ephemeral. It doesn't last. For Trudeau to do it for so long is just incredible," Lamb said. "He may be competing with satirists like Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce and H.L. Mencken. He rides the cultural, political and social waves. He's a heck of an observer."

Walker, while disagreeing with Trudeau's recent work, said his legacy is the stamp he has left on political cartoonists of today.

One of those is Scott Stantis, a Birmingham, Ala.-based cartoonist who writes "Prickly City" for 75 papers. Stantis disagrees with Trudeau's politics, but he said he learned character development by studying "Doonesbury" and thinks his latest war-related work has been "genius."

"The stuff on B.D. losing his leg, while not comic writing, is great writing," Stantis said. "After the Iraq war broke out, he got re-energized."