A kid calls the FBI's terrorism tip line. "I am very serious," he says. "I know of several Americans who have helped train and finance Osama bin Laden." The feds ask him for the names. "Well, let's see. First one is Reagan. That's R-E-A-G...Hello? Hello?"
That was an October edition of The Boondocks, Aaron McGruder's comic strip about a precocious black radical. The cartoon caused a small furor, with several newspapers refusing to run it. The New York Daily News went further, dropping the strip for a month and a half, while other papers shuttled it to the opinion page.
If that sounds familiar, it's because McGruder is scarcely the first cartoonist to have run into such troubles. Walt Kelly's Pogo -- a much better strip -- paved the way in 1953, when it caricatured Joseph McCarthy as a wildcat named Simple J. Malarkey, prompting papers to move the strip to the opinion page, to threaten to drop it entirely, and, in one case, to alter Malarkey's face to tone down the senatorial resemblance. But the king of the controversial cartoonists was Garry Trudeau, whose Doonesbury first caused an uproar in 1972, a year before Kelly's death.
It was a Sunday strip. Zonker, Trudeau's permanently blissed-out hippie, was asked to entertain a boy at a day care center. He obliged with the tale of a "gentle freak named Douglas" whose kindness to rabbits was rewarded with a weekend in Nirvana. There, the gods gave him "his weight in fine, uncut hashish."
As soon as the episode appeared, complaints poured in. The editor of The Abilene Reporter-News wrote, "I have seldom experienced such an angry reaction on anything in my 20 years as the chief editorial executive of this newspaper."
I found that quote on doonesbury.com, Trudeau's newly revamped Web site, which includes a self-congratulatory archive of "controversial strips." There is a pattern to these ire-inspiring cartoons. The early ones -- the aforementioned tale of rabbits and hash, or the 1973 strip declaring that Watergate conspirator John Mitchell was "Guilty, guilty, guilty!!" -- are famous, at least to those of us who follow the funny papers. These episodes made Trudeau's reputation and built his audience; for every editor who refused to run them, another two picked up the strip. Sometimes the figure being satirized even issued an angry public rebuttal. The original George Bush, in his vice presidential days, declared that "the American people are going to be speaking out, and we'll see whether they side with Doonesbury or the Reagan-Bush message."
The controversies kept coming, through the '70s and early '80s: A law student reveals he's gay; a woman goes to bed with a man not her husband; a reporter takes a tour of Reagan's brain. When Frank Sinatra was awarded the Medal of Freedom, Trudeau ran a series on the singer's mob ties. In 1985 the Universal Press Syndicate, which distributes Doonesbury, implored Trudeau to withdraw a series mocking the anti-abortion film Silent Scream. He published it instead in The New Republic.
If there was brilliant satire here, there was also brilliant marketing: Doonesbury was now branded as a strip for smart people. Trudeau had already won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, an award never before given to a comic strip (and rarely given to someone who is actually funny). Now he was being published in The New Republic, which in those days stood at the commanding heights of the Washington pundit class. When Trudeau won his Pulitzer in 1975, the Editorial Cartoonists' Society passed a resolution condemning the decision.
No cabal of thinkocrats issued a similar dictat 10 years later.
With influence came power. While newspapers steadily reduced the sizes of the strips in their funny pages, Trudeau alone was able to insist that his cartoon stay unshrunk. Not that it always mattered what went on in the comics section: Like Pogo before it, Doonesbury was often printed on the opinion page, away from all the cartoon rabble. Papers originally shifted the strip to the op-ed page to ward off children's eyes and reader anger, but its new residence soon became a mark not just of danger, but of seriousness.
But for a humorist, the wrong kind of seriousness can be fatal. Keep reading that archive of controversial strips, or examine the Web site's even more extensive timeline of Doonesbury's history. Gradually, two things happen: The controversies become less familiar, and the strips become less funny. The two phenomena were conjoined in 1990, when some papers refused to run a bland series mocking Dan Quayle's notorious purchase of "Pedro, the anatomically explicit gag doll." When the Pine Bluff Commercial blocked the strips, its editors wrote, "Those of us in the newspaper business are obliged to cover the tasteless, but we see no reason to publish material on this page that is both tasteless and boring." The site quotes the Commercial's complaint. It fails to note that the paper had a point.
By 2001, while McGruder was stirring up trouble with The Boondocks, Trudeau was quietly withdrawing the cartoons originally slated to run the week after September 11. The strips had questioned the president's intelligence, you see, and now just wasn't the time for that sort of thing. A handful of papers accidentally printed the withdrawn strips, and Trudeau received some angry e-mails. One appears on the Doonesbury site: "How can you possibly be so insensitive and out of touch with the national sentiment? I am shocked and dismayed that your September 17 strip would attack the president in a time of national crisis."
The scathing reply: "In response to the 9-11 attacks Trudeau withdrew a week-long series of daily strips critical of Bush -- already mailed to client newspapers -- replacing them with 'Flashback' strips. Unfortunately a handful of papers, including the one you read, did not follow these instructions for the first few days of the week of 9-17."
Not that Trudeau gave up on satire. In a November strip -- a good one, to give the cartoonist his due -- Karl Rove informs the president that "it turned out that the missile defense program, and corporate tax cuts, and subsidies for the power industry, and oil drilling in Alaska...in fact, most of the items on our political agenda...are all justified by the war against terrorism!"
"Wow...what a coincidence... thanks, evildoers!" replies Bush.