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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Today's Most Influential Artist

If someone were to ask you to name the most influential artist working today, who might that be?  Hmm...boy, that's a toughie. Asking a dozen artists, you'd probably get a dozen different answers. Ask a hundred people the same question and you'd probably get about 99 blank stares. Think about it. I'm not talking artistically influential, I mean just plain influential, with the power to change the way people look at things. I have a nominee--Garry Trudeau. If you're talking about an artist bearing the traditional hallmarks of greatness, good draftsmanship, outstanding color sense, faultless composition, etc., etc., etc., Trudeau would be the first to admit he's none of these. His drawing skills are "adequate" at best. But let's face it, for thirty years, this man has had editorial political clout most pundits could only dream of and most cartoonist can only gape at in awe. He's first and foremost a first-class writer, humorist, and satirist (and he's got the Pulitzer Prize to prove it) who only incidentally includes pictures and a cast of characters to help illustrate his point of view. He's an unabashed liberal, but one just as likely to poke in the ribs the radicals of one end of the political spectrum as another.  He readily admits that what he does is not "fair." He's even been known to try and influence the outcome of a presidential elections.  In short, he's got gall.

The first Doonesbury strip, Oct 26, 1970
Trudeau stands quite comfortably in the midst of his cartoonist idols, Walt Kelly, Jules Feiffer, and Al Capp. His numbers are impressive as well. Doonesbury is consistently one of the top ten strips amongst English Language newspapers in the entire world. He appears in over 1,400 papers, right up there with Garfield, Cathy, and Hargar the Horrible. But unlike these lightweights, Trudeau makes people uncomfortable. Editors over the years have had a terrible time trying do decide what to do with him.  As many run his satirizing strip on the editorial page as the comic page. Trudeau doesn't much care where they put him so long as they don't cut him, which has happened more often with Doonesbury than with any other strip in history. And his clout within the business is such that he was able to singlehandedly put a stop to the move amongst cost conscious papers to gradually downsize comic strips from the old standard of 7 1/2 inches to a mere six inches. His fellow cartoonist have characterized him as everything from a "demigod" to a "junkyard dog." His political insights sometimes cut like a surgeon's knife, while at other times ripping through meat and bone with all the subtlety of a chain saw.

Garry Trudeau bears more than a passing
 resemblance to Mike Doonesbury, the
main character in his comic strip.
Garry Trudeau comes from solid New England stock. Born in 1950 with the proverbial silver spoon, he counts among his ancestors and relatives, three generations of doctors, a former Canadian Prime Minister, a treasurer of the United States (under Lincoln), and a wealthy financier. He graduated from Yale where many of the Doonesbury characters were born, and where he cut his cartoonist fangs in the campus newspaper. Doonesbury debuted in 1970 amidst such easy targets as the Nixon administration and the Vietnamese War. Like the baby boom generation which loves and hates it, the strip has matured along with Trudeau, the times, and the characters that populate it. Doonesbury is one of the few comic strips (and today virtually the only one) to include living individuals in it's daily panels. Often they are disembodied voices, or drawn symbolically as time bombs, feathers, or waffles, to name just a few. They've included such political figures as Jesse Jackson, Fidel Castro, Pat Buchanan, Dan Quayle, and every president since Nixon. Trudeau also draws his readers in his strip. B.D. is the arch conservative. Zonker, the harebrained liberal, Boopsie the air head blond, Joanie Caucus, the idealistic do-gooder, and good old, lovable, Mike, for whom the strip is named, is something of the befuddled, Charlie Brownish, schlemiel representing the rest of us.

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