Political caricature has deep roots in European society. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all employed grotesque or distorted figures to mock pretense. In the 20th century, the emergence of mass media fostered a broader audience for satirical visual commentary.
For nearly a half-century after World War II, Yale graduate Robert Osborn’s simple, ironic drawings not only amused Americans, they also challenged them to assess his caustic view of political leaders who he believed abused their authority. In 1946, after serving in the navy during the war, Osborn published War Is No Damn Good!, a book whose spirit and message anticipate fellow veteran Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. The book’s skull-like depiction of an atomic mushroom cloud was drawn two weeks after the destruction of Hiroshima.
Osborn’s sketch of Richard Nixon’s signature, two-handed V for Victory salute realistically captured Nixon’s bunched suit coat (perhaps echoing Shakespeare’s description of the hunched-back Richard III) while surrealistically drenching Nixon’s hands and arms in red, evoking Macbeth’s bloody hands, hands so defiled that should he wash them in the ocean, he would “make the green sea red” before he cleansed them. For Americans of the Vietnam War era, the sketch required no caption. Depending on their views of Nixon, they could love it or hate it; few could ignore it.
Garry Trudeau’s Bull Tales premiered in the September 30, 1968, issue of the Yale Daily News. On October 28, 1970, the first Doonesbury strip appeared in 28 newspapers. With the exception of a twenty month sabbatical from 1982 to 1984, the strip has provided daily commentary on American politics – electoral and cultural – and has been a barometer of evolving American opinions on race and gender as well as war, personal character, and aging – gracefully or not.
Trudeau’s notebooks suggest that despite the strip’s distinctive visual identity, its genius lies in Trudeau’s ear as much as his eye. The notebooks demonstrate the time and effort he puts into developing the dialogue and punch lines for each strip. Often “ripped from the headlines” (or the nightly news), he tweaks the testimony of a Watergate conspirator or a federal official until he finds just the right phrase to build a week’s storyline. Much like Walt Kelly in Pogo, Trudeau uses his figures to express his voice.