Outstripping the News

G. B. Trudeau
A Doonesbury strip showing one of G.B. Trudeau’s recurring characters, the progressive Republican congresswoman Lacey Davenport, speaking to her gay constituency, September 11, 1982

The year 1968 was one of heartbreak and division, marked by assassinations, war, and war protests. Campuses were riven with contending passions. But at two schools there were oases of agreement, uniting students, faculty, and alumni. Harvard and Yale had stellar unbeaten football teams. Yale’s was the more glamorous, with quarterback Brian Dowling, who had not lost a game since the seventh grade. His team-mates called him “God,” and soon the whole campus was doing it. The team’s black running back, Calvin Hill, was hardly less celebrated—he would go on to a famous professional career.

There were some hints of a world outside of football. The Harvard tackle, Tommy Lee Jones, had as his roommate Al Gore. The Yale tackle, Ted Livingston, had George W. Bush as his roommate. But on the field, all was comity and pride. When the two teams finally met at the season’s climax, they both remained unbeaten. At the end of the game, Harvard was down eight points with three seconds to go. It scored from the eight-yard line, in an upset tie celebrated ever after by both sides.

Observing from the sidelines was a quiet undergraduate who drew a comic strip for the Yale Daily News. In the strip, called “Bull Tales,” he impishly mocked the great football heroes, turning Brian Dowling into the thick-headed B.D. and showing Dowling and Hill with their jersey numbers. He gave B.D. a feckless roommate, the pencil-nosed Mike Doonesbury. (Doone was a nickname at Trudeau’s prep school for a doofus, and Trudeau confesses there is a touch of autobiography here.) He also took sly shots at Yale’s non-football heroes, making the president, Kingman Brewster, into President King and the school chaplain, William Sloane Coffin, into Reverend Scot Sloan. The strips were crudely drawn, but Trudeau already showed his amazing ear for the way people talk. B.D. did not look like Brian Dowling (or much like a human being at all, with his clumsy box nose) but he spoke the way their classmates did. Still, only an extraordinary talent scout would have suspected that this entirely parochial school spoof had the makings of a great national comic strip.

That talent scout was Jim Andrews. He and his Notre Dame classmate John McMeel had just started their newspaper syndicate, Universal Press, in a basement. Without big names to begin with, Andrews scouted college papers for good writing on politics, or culture, or religion. In the process, he came across “Bull Tales,” met Trudeau, and persuaded him to become their first comic strip. Trudeau started drawing for Universal Press while doing graduate work in graphic arts at the Yale Art School. In the process he learned to draw. His master’s thesis, with the…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.