Bob Dylan may have written the soundtrack to my generation's youth, but Garry Trudeau has had more staying power. He's been writing the story of our lives.
Trudeau, a master storyteller, satirist, and the creator of the comic strip "Doonesbury," made a rare appearance before a packed house in White River Junction, Vt., on Monday night. It was a benefit for the three-year-old Center for Cartoon Studies.
In person, Trudeau turned out to not only be frighteningly intelligent and handsome in the best kind of geeky way, but he's as good a standup comedian as Jerry Seinfeld. His hero, he said, is Mark Twain.
"Doonesbury" is the first comic I read every day, and I wouldn't trust a paper that doesn't run it. Luckily, it's in about 1,500 newspapers nationally - although every now and then an editor gets queasy and runs it on the editorial page instead of in the comic section, or tries to subdue it's influence by running a right-wing cartoon like the boring "Mallard Fillmore" next to it.
You might say Trudeau has a liberal perspective, but when you hear him speak, he comes off as a true Capra-esque American. "Americans have always maintained we could do better, that we could reinvent ourselves for the common good," he said. And, "Real leaders have always stepped up in our darkest hours." Like Capra, his deep genius - and his heart - is rooted in hope and optimism.
Still, Trudeau is anything but goody-goody kind and saccharine sweet. "My client list," he points out, "rose on the tears of widows and children."
Satire "is a black art that mostly plays offense," he said, and he's always been an equal opportunity skewerer - Bill Clinton was, famously, represented by a waffle, and George W. Bush's icon went from a cowboy hat - all hat and no cattle - to a Roman legionnaire's helmut that is growing progressively shabbier as the war does.
Before "Doonsebury," there were comic strips that dabbled in politics - think about the polar opposites of "L'il Abner" and "Pogo." But they were usually entertainment for the whole family. Then Trudeau came along in 1970 and gave us a strip that was contemporary. He didn't write safe, "Garfield"-like gags. He wrote from the news and from the perspective of a set cast of characters that we've come to think of as family.
These characters that have been around so long that B.D.'s been in three wars, Mike's had two wives, Joanie's slacker son works for the CIA and Mark's come out, been C.U.'d and gotten divorced. Of course, Duke remains Duke and Zonker's always being Zonker. But other beloved characters die of AIDS or old age and new ones are born or come in.
We've been watching these characters - not quite in real time - grow older, change, learn and react to everything from Richard Nixon to George Bush. And Trudeau is nothing if not reliable - he's there every day of the week - "Like a public utility," he joked. Trudeau's cartoons have been collected in almost 60 books which have sold more than 7 million copies. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 - the first comic strip cartoonist so honored. And he's been a finalist three more times.
Over the past few years, Trudeau's been cartooning his visceral reaction to the Iraq war through his admiration of the soldiers who are fighting it. At the invitation of the Pentagon, he's spent time among the wounded at Walter Reed Hospital.
He told about meeting a female sergeant whose hand and forearm were blown off in a rooftop attack. After she was brought down and her wounds were stabilized, some members of her platoon went back up to the roof, searched for her lost hand, removed her engagement ring and brought it back to her.
"I know I could buy another ring, but it meant the world to me that my guys would do that for me," she told Trudeau.
"Soldier love - it's fierce," he said. "It can bring you to your knees."
Deeply affected, he drew the now-famous strip where B.D. loses his leg to an IED. He called it "a radical experiment in naturalism." Personally, I kept that strip pasted to my computer until it frayed, just to remind myself that as much as I hate the war, my heart will be in my mouth until all the soldiers come safely home.
Most of the cartoonists Trudeau admires - Bill Watterson of "Calvin and Hobbes" and Gary Larson of "The Far Side" - have already burnt out and stopped working. And where is Aaron McGruder's brilliant strip, "The Boondocks," now?
But Trudeau, who was one of the first cartoonists to have a blog, is today deeply involved in computer-generated animation. He's finding ways through the Internet to reach out to young people who have never seen "Doonesbury" in a newspaper.
Trudeau is not just a cartoonist but a researcher, a reporter, and a scriptwriter. His body of work has been an emotional touchstone for generations of newspaper readers. Dylan confronted his artistic legacy, freaked out and start covering songs from the '20s and '30s. But Trudeau has remained true to the work, to his characters, and to his respect for his readers.
He joked that late night television is the reward we get for enduring the hypocrisy of our times, but his work digs deeper and gives better value. "From the beginning, there have always been storytellers around the fire," he said. "And if they can make you laugh, all the better."
He is truly the Mark Twain of our times.