Friday, March 16, 2012

Trudeau: The Cartoon Scarlet Letter

Image: G.B. Trudeau

Once again, G.B. Trudeau's "Doonesbury" strip is being taken to task for the tackling of taboo topics over the course of this particular week. While this speedbump in syndication is being pretty well covered by many mainstream media venues, there are a few questions that arise from the laughable treatment of his feature that merit special mention.

One is, regardless of the subject matter (in this instance, abortion re: state mandated rape sonigrams), when the hell did cartoons become a no-fly zone for any potentially controversial content? You want to see firsthand the (self)imposed constraints that have effectively neutered the comic medium's particular effectiveness and supposed maturity, look no farther than the sad, slow waltz between corporate editors and their partners in the syndication industry, as they both spiral around the drain of social relevance.

Two, this is another case in point of the comparative failure of the art world in general to address said issues. Unfortunately, much like the average newspaper reader who feels violated by opening up "the funnies" and being confronted with any whiff of reality in the form of satire instead - the rarefied "fine" arts are also supposed to provide stale fodder for socially detached, masturbatory and boringly safe aestheticism. Compounding insult to injury, while cartoons should, or would (mistakenly) be viewed as perhaps a particularly powerful avenue of addressing controversial topics, but as is proven again and again, they more often than not aren't ever invited to the club.

But even if they were admitted, by virtue of pulling the rug out from under their own goofy feet (as per point #1), they share the same cultural impotence as Garfield critiquing a Kinkade. Whether in a gallery or the Sunday paper, the pearl-clutchers will be set aflutter by any transgression of the uncouth barbarians into their monotonous and utterly predictable buffer zone of art.

One classic example of the overlook as to the impact cartooning has upon the art world besides pop economics, is to look in vain for any serious mention on how the most volatile and provocative imagery being produced and having an impact of society originates from the pens of cartoonists. This is seen most recently by the international scale of the Mohammed controversies, best exemplified by an American cartoonist going into hiding as a result of threats. Not too many painters, potters of printmakers ever have to deal with such fallout from their work.

Trudeau occupies a weird netherworld in the print industry, neither wholly a strip nor editorial comic, and yet by virtue of the feature's presence in the media, has the potential to cross boundaries and impact a larger audience than might otherwise be reached were it restricted to an isolated echo-chamber. Relegating it to a back page at best, or at worst, censoring it from the press entirely is in some ways as bad as the legislation it parodies.


  1. Trudeau has been censored before. A newspaper is a business. Editors have to decide how much they dare to support controversial political speech. As long as journalism is supported by advertising the free press does not really exist. All media is beholden to someone.

  2. Editorial cartoonists who position themselves clearly as such can get away with a little more pointed material. The underground comix of the 1960s and '70s provided the forum for really aggressive points of view.

  3. Yes, that "transgression" of overlapping content is what prompts so much controversy over Doonesbury. People don't like the waters getting muddied.
    Good point about the "underground" scene too: the recent outrage over Archie Comics incorporating inclusive social demographics has really upset predictable readerships. Even with the industry's abandonment of the Comics Code Authority there is still little to none of anything remotely unsafe in the established corporate media. One ironic distinction being the portrayal of good ol' American sex & violence - I recently watched the highly recommended documentary "This Film is Not Yet Rated" and have been juxtaposing the odd state of affairs in film as applied to comics.