The very idea of a comic strip like Doonesbury is in the best spirit of what comic strips have been capable of doing. Doonesbury, which launched October 26, 1970, lived up to its ambitious goals. Now, there’s been a seismic shift in reading habits, and comic strips are evolving and adapting to the new cultural landscape. In 2014, the siren song of Amazon compelled Garry Trudeau to shift his focus to writing a sitcom. On March 3, 2014, the “Classic Doonesbury” series began, featuring approximately four weeks of daily strips from each year of the strip’s run. Trudeau continues to produce new strips for Sundays. The times, they keep a changin’. That said, in the #MeToo era, with a focus on Brett Kavanaugh and rape culture, something can be learned from taking a look back at the early efforts of Garry Trudeau in his Yale college newspaper, specifically, the infamous “rape joke.”
And what exactly transpires within this particular comic strip? Our main character, arguably Trudeau’s alter ego, is annoyed by a female student and contemplates raping her. He wants to dance with her and she obliges but only after insulting him. He makes a self-deprecating observation in relation to the idea of raping her.
What made that joke possible? What made young Garry think that was funny and okay? It’s a joke that left me disappointed when I read it. I had purchased a collection of Trudeau’s Yale comic strips many years ago. In fact, I was a teenager, with ambitions related to comics, when I bought the collection of Yale comic strips. It has been said (and this could be internet trolling) that Trudeau admits to cringing whenever he sees the “rape joke” or hears of it and has even had it removed from later editions of this collection of his Yale strips.
What bothered me way back in the early ’80s, when I first read this comic strip was that I immediately knew it was wrong and yet there it was. Trudeau knew it was wrong too. It’s possible to imagine Trudeau, a Baby Boomer with a pre-internet mindset, mistakenly thinking that he could keep that comic strip under wraps. In all fairness to him, I can’t seem to find any response directly from him about the “rape joke.” There’s this recent Trudeau piece, no mention of the infamous joke, from Comic Riffs at The Washington Post.
He should talk about the “rape joke” now, all these years later. I know, not very likely. It is the stuff of legend how Trudeau has avoided the press. I always found that ironic given how outspoken he has been in his celebrated comic strip satirizing society, politics, and the media.
Is it too much to ask of Garry Trudeau to speak about that “rape joke” within the context of our current state? It’s a fair, even intriguing, question for him and it might just inspire Mr. Trudeau on what lies ahead for him. In fact, if he really wants an invigorating project, why not dissect that “rape joke” and come up with some answers. It could be a graphic novel. I’m not kidding.
Garry Trudeau will be in Washington DC on Oct. 1 to speak in support of his latest collection of comics strips, #SAD!: Doonesbury in the Time of Trump, at Politics & Prose.