Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Doonesbury: The Original Yale Cartoons

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Doonesbury: The Original Yale Cartoons (Sheed and Ward, 1973).

I've been telling myself for years that I should track down the little reprint of Bull Tales, the comic which preceded Doonesbury, and found it surprisingly easy to find once I put my mind to it. Garry Trudeau started the strip when he was an undergraduate at Yale, and it appeared in the student paper there. After a few years, he felt ready for the big time, and reworked almost all of the comics into what became the first 18 months of the daily Doonesbury; material which later appeared in the 1972 collection Still a Few Bugs in the System.

If this isn't a unique experience in comics, it's certainly a darn rare one. I'm ready to stand corrected, but I can't think of another example of getting to see a cartoonist's "rough drafts," as you might call them, available so extensively as these were. Comparing the two is completely fascinating and fun for amateur archaeologists like me, and I could spend all day telling you about odd little differences between what the Yale students got to enjoy while waiting in classrooms for their profs to show up, and what those first dozen or so subscribing papers bought from the syndicate a couple of years later.

Most striking, in a broad sense, is that there are Mike-n-Mark strips, and there are B.D. football strips. The characters never meet, at least in the sequences reprinted here. One disagreeable flaw in Sheed & Ward's collection is that it is never clear whether this is a complete reprint of all the original comics, or perhaps it's an omnibus of the two small albums that Yale University Press had previously released, so it's possible that Trudeau did have the characters interact in strips we cannot see today.

The awkward roommate strips of Doonesbury's earliest days, with Mike and B.D. failing to get along, take on a completely different tone in Bull Tales, because it's a girl named Cathy Dillworthy who gets Mike as her dormmate, and that's what the original phrase "still a few bugs in the system" referenced. You can almost picture the meetings with the syndicate, can't you? I can imagine they were excited to try and sell something so daring, from such a strong new talent, but still realistic enough to know that middle America in 1970 was not ready to confront the possibility of cohabitation between co-eds over their Corn Flakes and coffee. So out went Cathy and in came the "odd couple" pairing of a jock and a turkey.

Plenty more was ditched for fear of offending the general public's sensibilities, including profanity and an amazingly tasteless rape reference, and if the 1971 Doonesbury sequence where a dean of admissions at then-unnamed Walden instantly admits a blonde wearing a little black dress seemed outre, consider that his Yale antecedent admitted the same blonde, not wearing anything.

Compared to the comics you can find on the web today, there's nothing shocking about Bull Tales, but I can see how this became such a big event at Yale forty years ago. This may not be an essential recommendation, but if you like Doonesbury or are interested in the evolution of newspaper comics, you should certainly hunt for a copy of this, and shouldn't find it too difficult to locate.

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