Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Garry Trudeau speaks at Ohio Theater on "Doonesbury in a Time of War"

Last night, "Doonesbury" creator Garry Trudeau, one of the greatest political cartoonists and comic-strip creators of our time, made a rare appearance at the Ohio Theater in Playhouse Square.

Trudeau started reminiscing about the extraordinary story of his arrival in comics as a college-age prodigy -- then shifted away from himself to a bigger subject, "Doonesbury in a Time of War": how he has depicted American soldiers' wartime experiences throughout his 40 years in cartooning.

As a thinker of his generation, Trudeau is first-rate: He can still make the amazing but oft-told story of the baby boomers' intellectual revolt fresh again. He started off with vivid memories of what it was like to live in the early '60s -- "the last moment in the history of Western culture when being young was viewed as a burden," as he put it, paraphrasing novelist Ian McEwan.

"My friends and I grew up yearning to join the adult world at the earliest possible moment," Trudeau said. He even sent away for adult plays for his youth theater groups to perform. Then he reached Yale at a time of chaotic upending, when he and his peers wanted to undo all convention. He took notes, created a fresh and irreverent and daring college-paper comic strip, and was hired right out of college to represent youth on the nation's funny pages.

Even today, baby boomers revere their own youth, Trudeau noted: A poll of boomers defined "old age" as age 80 -- "two full years past life expectancy!" he observed. "The new 'old' is death!"

After 13 minutes on youth and age, he segued into his talk's true subject with images of his early-'70s cartoons of Vietnam. In the most memorable storyline, infantryman and main character B.D. (based on St. Ignatius/Yale football star Brian Dowling) met friendly Viet Cong terrorist Phred. Mixing pride in his peace-activist past with admirable self-scrutiny, Trudeau called his B.D.-Phred strips a "hippie fantasia," in which B.D. learns how much he has in common with the bad guy, and the enemies develop a mutual dependency -- even though, "in our entire time in Vietnam, nothing remotely like this had ever once happened."

He spoke for an hour about his treatment of the soldier's experience in the strip, from the 1980s invasion of Grenada and bombing of Libya to the two Gulf wars. In 1991, a military officer who was a fan of his work secreted him through Saudi Arabia into Kuwait, where he interviewed soldiers about their battlefield experiences.

This decade, after Trudeau had B.D. lose a leg in Iraq, the Pentagon gave him open access to the Walter Reed medical center, where he's spoken at length to wounded soldiers. He's used those conversations and other encounters with vets to depict B.D.'s struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and to create two other Iraq war vet characters: Melissa, who is recovering from military sexual trauma, and Toggle, who is coping with traumatic brain injury.

Trudeau is known for giving few interviews and making few public appearances, yet he came off as very poised, intelligent, and affecting. He is now on a tour of sorts -- appearing in North Carolina tonight as I write this -- and an art exhibit, also entitled "Doonesbury in a Time of War," is on tour as well.

Trudeau referred so often to his interactions with the "military treatment community" (disabled vets and those who care for them) that I wondered if his interactions with them have drawn him farther out in the public eye -- if when he set out to research his strip, he soon found himself explaining his motives and his art, first informally, and now to his audience.

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