Saying he’s ready to take an extended break, Garry Trudeau is putting production of his daily “Doonesbury” comic strip on long-term hiatus beginning Feb. 24, the cartoonist announced Tuesday. Instead, he plans to focus on “Alpha House,” an original web series that he’s helped create for Amazon. Trudeau will continue producing his Sunday strip, his syndicate Universal Uclick confirmed Tuesday.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity, but as I discovered last year, the demands of producing the show are considerable,” Trudeau said in a statement, “and my efforts to return to the daily strip while we were still in production had to be abandoned.”
Trudeau put his daily strips on hold for several months last year while concentrating on “Alpha House.” Beginning March 3, the syndicate will offer older strips, in chronological order, that revisit key periods in “Doonesbury”’s evolution.
“This time, the Sunday releases will continue,” Trudeau noted, “and we’ll be making Flashbacks available on a daily basis. With 43 years of material to draw from, there are still some 13,000 strips that haven’t been seen since they were originally published.”
“There’s no way of knowing how many seasons of ‘Alpha House’ lie ahead,” the 65-year old cartoonist added. “I could be back drawing ‘Doonesbury’ full-time in the fall. In the meantime, I’m grateful for the forbearance and past support of our longtime newspaper clients, and hope that I’ll still be welcome in their pages when I return.”
The comic strip currently appears in approximately 1,400 newspapers worldwide.
“Alpha House,” distributed via Amazon Instant Video, is a political comedy that casts a satirical eye on Beltway politicians, specifically those of the conservative stripe. Co-starring John Goodman and Bill Murray, it follows the fortunes of four Republican congressmen who share living quarters near Capitol Hill. Its premise is based on a quartet of congressmen, including then-US Rep. William Delahunt, who lived together as D.C. roommates.
Since its launch last November, 11 episodes of “Alpha House” have been produced. Amazon recently announced it was picking up the series for a second season.
A cultural force for decades, and the first daily comic strip to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize, “Doonesbury” and its antiestablishment brand of social and political humor have kept readers amused, moved, and sometimes outraged over its 43 years.
Trudeau began the strip while attending Yale University in the late 1960s, where “Bull Tales,” as it was then known, ran in the Yale Daily News. Renamed “Doonesbury,” it began its syndication run in 1970, with the Sunday strip debuting in 1971.
Publication has continued more or less uninterrupted ever since, with the notable exception of a 22-month sabbatical Trudeau took in 1983-’84 to work on a Broadway musical based on the strip. He also wrote “Tanner ’88,” a mock political documentary directed by Robert Altman that aired on HBO during the 1988 presidential campaign. It was rebroadcast, with updates, in 2004 on the Sundance Channel.
Admired for staying on top of the zeitgeist, from Beltway politics and D.C. sex scandals to AIDS, same-sex marriage, disabled military vets, and pot growing, Trudeau has often courted controversy with “Doonesbury” and its sprawling cast of characters, some real, many more invented. Some newspapers have opted to move the strip from the comics page to the editorial page. Others have dropped it altogether, at least temporarily, owing to what editors deemed objectionable material. Readers often disagreed, and vociferously so.
Comics historian Brian Walker, author of “Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau” and a longtime friend of the cartoonist, says the decision to suspend the daily strip was a difficult one for Trudeau. At the same time, “Alpha House” has become so all-consuming a project, it’s difficult for Trudeau to remain fully involved in both simultaneously, according to Walker.
“A syndicated strip is the ultimate ball-and-chain experience, and Garry worked extremely close to deadline,” Walker said by phone from Connecticut, where he’d recently dined with Trudeau. “It’s what he does, it defines him. But he really wants to do the TV show, too. At least with Sunday he’s still have his hand in it. I’m happy for him, but [this news] is still a little bittersweet.”
Walker predicted the older strips will likely focus on character development—cast members have aged, married, divorced, even died over the past four decades—and less so on topical events like the Watergate scandal or Iraq war. However, not too many readers will be unfamiliar with historical reference points, he noted.
“Most ‘Doonesbury’ readers today are baby boomers anyway,” Walker said. The strip itself, he added “is still just as fresh and poignant and engaging as it’s ever been. Garry has never gotten stale, or stuck in a rut. For someone like me who’s followed it from day one, it’s the chronicle of my generation.”
To Tina Gianoulis, author of “The St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture,” the enduring legacy of Trudeau and “Doonesbury” has been opening up the comics page to mature topics, not merely ones ripe for satire.
“A lot of good, politically savvy strips have come along since,” she said Tuesday, “but his was really the first. The comics page is not just for kids anymore, and ‘Doonesbury’ really made that happen.”
By limiting himself to a Sunday strip, Trudeau may also free himself to be more creative, even daring, she suggested. “Taking on a subject like rape in the military—you usually don’t see that on the comics page,” she said. “It’ll be really interesting to see what he does with the Sunday strips.”Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.