MARTHA THOMASES: Doonesbury, Courage, and Limbaugh
This week, the nation’s pundits have focused on a controversy on the comics page. Garry Trudeau’s long-running strip, Doonesbury, has a storyline about a woman in Texas seeking an abortion after the passage of the state’s invasive and insulting new laws. A number of newspapers have declined to run the strip because of the subject matter and the language. A number of others decided to run the strip on their op-ed page rather than the comics pages.
You can find a decent sampling of editorial responses to the controversy here.
Since he started the strip for his college paper in the late 1960s, Trudeau has followed a group of characters, students at Walden College, their extended families and their friends. By 1970, it was a sensation, syndicated in newspapers around the country. From the beginning, it reveled in political arguments, whether among Trudeau’s characters or real political figures, including then-president Richard Nixon.
The Watergate scandal was the first political firestorm I remember being covered in the strips. They were fabulous. So fabulous, in fact, that he won a Pulitzer prize for them in 1974.
Over the years, a number of newspapers decided to move Doonesbury to their editorial pages. I’ve always thought it was a cowardly move, but then, I think most newspaper strips have some political content. It may not be as overt as Trudeau’s, but it’s there. Beetle Bailey? Political. Cathy? Political (which is why so many men hated it so much). Prince Valiant? More political now than at any time I can remember.
Still, there is a long tradition of editorial cartooning in this country, much of it exuberantly partisan and foul-mouthed. Most of them are single gag panels, with only a few extending to three or more. None of them include recurring fictional characters, nor do they have anything approaching a storyline. Doonesbury doesn’t really fit in that environment.
I was especially struck by the waffling tone of the Star-Telegram, a Fort Worth newspaper. To me, the key quote is this: “On Wednesday we published an editorial taking to task radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh for his crass language about Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student who testified before Congress about health insurance coverage for contraceptives. Trudeau’s language, accompanied by graphic images, is equally crude.”
Except Trudeau was using the language of Limbaugh, and the Texas legislature. He was commenting on a discussion that was already in the marketplace of ideas. He didn’t make up new words to enflame the situation; he commented. And although it’s only Tuesday as I write this, I have seen no particularly graphic images in the strip.
I suppose there’s an argument to be made that children might see these strips on the comics page and ask their parents about abortion. I’d be more persuaded if one could find any actual children reading any actual newspapers.
Meanwhile, I look forward to Trudeau’s strips about this proposed law, which I hope passes with as much ease as those that apply to women.
SATURDAY: Marc Alan Fishman