DOONESBURY: Drawing and Quartering for Fun and Profit

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Some of the most pointed political commentary nowadays takes place on a stage that measures only about 20 square inches. A crowd of young editorial cartoonists have begun to dignify what Oldtimer Don Hesse of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat calls "the ungentlemanly art."

The dean of the new—and largely liberal—school is the Washington Star's Patrick Oliphant, 40, an Australian who came to the U.S. in 1964 and brought with him the wry wit and clear, single line of British illustration that many younger cartoonists imitate. Tony Auth, 33, graduated from the UCLA student paper to the Philadelphia Inquirer, where his strongly liberal cartoons have sometimes been at odds with the paper's editorial policy. The Dayton Daily News's Mike Peters, 33, is such a comically gifted draftsman that many of his cartoons could stand without their captions. The Miami News's Don Wright, virtually an old codger at 42, nonetheless has a sprightly style that lassoed Richard Nixon more effectively than perhaps any of Wright's colleagues. The Richmond News-Leader's Jeff MacNelly, 28, is one of the few cartoonists who can turn out hilarious conservative commentary. Paul Szep, 33, a Canadian who joined the Boston Globe a decade ago, won the Pulitzer Prize for his Watergate cartoons, particularly the one in which John Mitchell, paddling away from a sinking ship in a rubber raft, says to Nixon: "I've decided not to tell you about the alleged ship-wreck."

Of this recent generation, only Garry Trudeau manages to combine editorial-page gravity and funny-paper levity. Unlike his colleagues who customarily work in one panel, Trudeau employs the sequential boxcar format of the comics. As any pop-culture devotee knows, Doonesbury is not the first strip to make funnies a political forum. A generation ago, Al Capp's Li'l Abner was peopled with Senators, robber barons and other oversized targets. Walt Kelly's Pogo once made Lyndon Johnson a longhorn steer and Spiro Agnew a hyena. Charles Schulz's Peanuts has long twitted such current topics as alienation and sexism. But over the years Li'l Abner began spouting right-wing boilerplate, and Dogpatch has degenerated into a flaccid strip of fools. Kelly died in 1973; his widow Selby, who struggled admirably to keep Pogo going, shut shop last year. As for Peanuts, Schulz's kids are still too wrapped up in security blankets and warm puppies to say much about the pressure of events.

Perhaps because of these strengths and shortcomings, Trudeau's fellow artists are quick to acknowledge their younger colleague's unique role. Al Capp grudgingly admits that he is "awed" by Trudeau: "Anybody who can draw bad pictures of the White House four times in a row and succeed knows something I don't. His style defies all measurement." Says Peanuts' Charles Schulz: "I think all the cartoonists admire Garry's originality. He's gone into areas that haven't been touched before."

Doonesbury 's author acknowledges his predecessors with equal alacrity. He has been known to sneak a caricature of Snoopy into his early works, and Li'I Abner's creator says Trudeau once ran up to him and gushed, "I've just been introduced as the young Al Capp. Gee, that was the greatest compliment I ever had."

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