SALE BENEFITS INTERNATIONAL MEDICAL CORPS’ WAR RELIEF EFFORTS
By Robert Wilonsky
Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury has been around long enough to outlast many newspapers that once carried the Pulitzer Prize-winning strip – 52 years and counting, its run now limited to the Sunday strips that still arrive like weekly Christmas gifts. And during that half-century, the strip has served myriad functions: as intimate narrative, sharp satire, unsparing political commentary, wry cultural chronicle.
“It’s like opening a Russian novel, right?” says Trudeau of the strip he began while still in college and for which he has created 73 characters over that celebrated half-century.
Renowned graphic designer Chip Kidd would undoubtedly concur with its creator’s assessment. In 2010 Kidd wrote in Rolling Stone that Doonesbury, “when viewed as a single, uninterrupted work of historical fiction … reads less like 14,000-plus reasons to chuckle over your morning coffee and more like this era’s War and Peace.”
In November 2020, Trudeau attempted the seemingly impossible: whittling down that mountain of strips to a mere handful that “proved defining and enduringly meaningful to him,” as The Washington Post noted upon its publication of Trudeau’s top 10. Among their estimable lot: strips about Watergate, women’s rights, onerous laws in Florida and Texas, AIDS, the war in Iraq, love and sex and death – and how all of this impacted the lives of those beloved characters of Trudeau’s creation.
Now Trudeau has partnered with Heritage Auctions to offer those 10 strips, along with an extensive character map and portraits (including the strip’s first two stars, B.D. and Mike) also done to celebrate the strip’s 50th anniversary, as NFTs, for the July 14 Doonesbury NFT Charity Showcase Auction. The sale of these NFTs, each with a print signed and numbered by Trudeau, will benefit the International Medical Corps’ work helping internally displaced persons and refugees affected by the war in Ukraine.
Trudeau, Heritage Auctions and Doonesbury publisher Andrews McMeel Universal are donating 100 percent of the proceeds from this 17-lot auction to the IMC.
Trudeau was initially reluctant to mint these works as NFTs until discovering the “eco-friendly” Polygon network. As Digiconomist recently noted, Polygon “uses proof of stake, which can tremendously reduce the amount of energy required to run the underlying blockchain.”
Long story short, says Trudeau, “They’ve made a very strong public commitment to going carbon-neutral sometime this year … and I think that has permitted many artists like myself to proceed cautiously. And I have a fairly long relationship with Heritage Auctions, both as a buyer and seller, creating an environment of mutual trust. We didn’t want to get into this unless we could proceed responsibly, and that’s what I believe we’re doing.”
Doonesbury is no stranger to the digital realm: In 1995, to coincide with the strip’s 25th anniversary, Trudeau released the strip on three CD-ROMs – “the eight-tracks of the digital world,” he says now. The Doonesbury website followed at the beginning of 1996, and the searchable anthology called The Bundled Doonesbury: A Pre-Millennial Anthology followed in 1998. By the time 2020 rolled around, a half-century’s worth of strips was included with Dbury@50: The Complete Digital Doonesbury, including some of the portraits in this auction.
Trudeau says it was serendipitous this new eco-friendly NFT-minting technology came along just as he was looking for ways to support the International Medical Corps, which “desperately needs the assistance” as it helps refugees in Ukraine and those who have fled to neighboring countries.
“I think the timing was perfect to proceed with this experiment,” he says. “And I say ‘experiment’ because we don’t know yet whether legacy comic-strip characters have the same appeal as legacy cartoon and comic book superheroes. In a marketplace of young collectors who didn’t grow up with newspapers, that’s the unknown.”
This much is certain: Doonesbury began as a college student’s crudely drawn homage to Yale’s then-quarterback Brian Dowling, only to quickly evolve into one of modern American literature’s most crucial works. In 1970 comic strips were populated by cute kids, long-running adventure yarns, saccharine soap operas and stale punchlines. They served as distractions, escapes, asides.
Doonesbury might have started as the story of cocksure Mike Doonesbury and his football-playing roommate B.D., but quickly turned its attention to the war in Vietnam, the Watergate hearings, gonzo journalism, sex, drugs and all the pain and pleasure, anger and anguish experienced by its readers in The Real World. Trudeau annoyed newspaper editors who occasionally censored his work (including two of the strips being offered here), made friends and enemies of political figures (Henry Kissinger once said the only thing worse than being in Doonesbury was not being in Doonesbury), won the Pulitzer in 1975 and often impacted the national narrative from the funny pages.
“I never went into cartooning to effect social change, and I’d never really perceived myself as a social justice warrior,” Trudeau says. “I was mostly just reporting – initially reporting on my friends and this very small collegiate bubble that I lived in because I started right out of college and then expanded beyond that as I made my way out into the world. I immediately started writing about the things that concerned me as a college student in the late ’60s: sex, drugs, rock and roll, politics, all that. All that good stuff. I thought, well, there’s no reason why I can’t bring that to the comics page.”
A pause. A laugh.
“Well, there was a good reason, or at least there was a very big reason, which was it violated a lot of traditions that the comics were, you know, considered a safe place for children. And, of course, the argument I always made to editors was that, trust me, children aren’t reading Doonesbury. They don’t understand it. It’s not funny to them. They think it’s dumb. And when I talk to lifelong readers, they say, ‘Oh, yeah, I started around 11 or 12, 13, about that age,’ when you kind of want your kids talking to you about the subjects that were being raised in the strip.”
Rick Akers, Consignment Director in Heritage Auctions’ Comics & Comic Art category, says working with Trudeau to bring these milestone strips and beloved characters to the NFT digital art collecting community has been a highlight in his career at Heritage.
“The greatest pleasure was discussing how to bring these to market with Garry and finding his commitment to environmental, political and social ethics to be everything you would expect and more,” he says. “When he relayed his cause, the ownership at Heritage Auctions was anxious to jump on board and join in the opportunity to support it 100%.”
ROBERT WILONSKY is a staff writer at Intelligent Collector.