Saturday, February 16, 2013

Trudeau V. Davis

Here's a Doonesbury strip from 1973...
That the dialogue comes from the White House implies that one of the speakers is the U.S. President, at the time Richard Nixon. The other speaker is the President's counsel with the name "Leonard" pointing specifically to Leonard Garment.

Cartoonist Gary Trudeau regularly makes political commentary in his cartoons, but has long avoided drawing specific depictions of politicians. (With an exception of sorts in Ronald Reagan and Sarah Palin, interestingly two people who started their careers AWAY from politics.) I've never seen a reason given why he opts not to draw them; I'd always assumed he found it difficult to capture likenesses that worked within the context of the cartooning style of his strip. Or perhaps he simply wasn't confident in his abilities as a caricaturist. Regardless, he managed to devise ways to show politicians without actually showing them. In the case of the President, it was easy (mentally speaking, at least) to just show the outside of the White House with dialogue coming from somewhere inside.

I didn't really start reading Doonesbury until the mid-1980s, when I was old enough to understand at least the basics of Trudeau's jokes, even if I didn't grasp the full context. I think by that point, Trudeau had begun using the Ron Headrest character, and readers rarely got a strip that consisted of four panels of the White House front lawn. I must have remarked on it to my father because I have a recollection of his talking about a number of complaints that had been lodged against Trudeau regarding his White House strips. How it was a cop-out and that he just used one drawing that he photocopied over and over. I don't think I saw any of those complaints myself, and a cursory search online now doesn't turn up any overt references to such complaints, so I'm not sure who was making them or where. But I do know that around that time, I saw Trudeau start changing the angles he showed of the White House. Here's a strip from 2005 to show the difference...
It's still just four shots of a building exterior, but it's at least four different shots. No one can accuse him of copying one panel several times here.

I bring this up as an obvious example of Trudeau trying to improve his craft. If you look at his old strips, particularly his college ones, he was not a very good artist. In the decades since then, though, he's actively worked on improving his abilities and there's a clear progression over time. His brushwork became cleaner, he would experiment with different layouts and angles, he began adding more graphic elements... Regardless of what you think of his humor, his art has improved and how he depicts the White House is a pretty obvious example.

Now maybe this is just me, but this is how artists SHOULD change, I think. They should always be looking for ways to make their art better. Maybe some experiments fail and wind up looking worse in places, but there should be a broad evolution visible when examined as a whole.

You know, I hadn't really thought of the allegations of Trudeau's photocopying in years since he's been so active in his artistic efforts. I'm only reminded of it now because, as I noted last week, Les McClaine has been grading the new Garfield strips. Even after only a week, he's complaining, "I am running out of ways to say 'static art, lackluster joke.'" And it really is amazing to me how static Garfield has become. You have to go back to January to find a strip that doesn't look like every panel is a copy of the one before. Or where there's any panels that are not flat, straight-on shots. Or where there's a background of any sort. And even those are distinct aberrations.

I know that a daily comic strip is hard work, especially after decades of doing it. Not every day is going to be a winner. But, wow, it's amazing to see the artistic trajectory of Jim Davis when you compare it against Gary Trudeau.

3 comments:

Dean said...

Aren't both 'artists' known for using others to actually do their work on these strips these days? I don't know how much input Trudeau and Davis really give for the drawing, layout and text in their respective strips. If this is to the extent that I have heard, it is possible that someone else is trying to add variety to Doonesbury, not necessarily Trudeau himself - but I really don't know.

Unknown said...

Trudeau tightly pencils all the Doonesbury strips. See Brian Walker's book.
The only interest I have in the Garfield strip any more is to see the Sunday title panels. The only creative instance left in the strip anymore. The strip art, though lackluster, is supremely slick.

D.D.Degg

Unknown said...

Trudeau tightly pencils all the Doonesbury strips. See Brian Walker's book.
The only interest I have in the Garfield strip any more is to see the Sunday title panels. The only creative instance left in the strip anymore. The strip art, though lackluster, is supremely slick.

D.D.Degg