The world may have never known Doonesbury if it weren’t for Jim Andrews and John McMeel. The founders of Andrews McMeel Universal (then called Universal Press Syndicate) were headquartered in a rented house in Leawood when they discovered a young cartoonist named Garry Trudeau.
Forty years, 14,000 strips, and one Pulitzer later, Trudeau and AMU are still going strong.
On October 25, Trudeau visits the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Public Library to present his brand-new book, 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective. We caught up with John McMeel and CEO Hugh Andrews of AMU to discuss the iconic Doonesbury from a publisher’s perspective.
What’s so special about Kansas City that has kept AMU rooted here all these decades?
John McMeel, Chairman: We love being in Kansas City. The people here have been integral to AMU’s success. We started here when Jim Andrews, Hugh’s father, was based in Kansas City as editor of the National Catholic Reporter, and I moved here in 1975 to help our growing syndicate. I had planned to stay for five years. That “five year plan” has now stretched to 35, and we are certain that it was the right decision. We think being in the Midwest is an asset, and gives us an advantage to either coast.
Hugh Andrews, President and CEO: Pioneering products and services are key to AMU’s success. We have a tremendous group of associates with creative ideas and a strong work ethic. We have additional offices elsewhere (Denver, the UK, Australia), but we’re delighted Kansas City is our headquarters, and think it’s definitely an asset.
KC Unbound: How did Universal Press Syndicate come to discover Garry Trudeau?
McMeel: Jim [Andrews], an extremely talented editor, was following a column in the Yale Daily News in the late 1960s. Another feature, Bull Tales, kept diverting his attention. We contacted the creator, a student by the name of Garry Trudeau, to see if he’d be interested in national syndication (even though Universal Press Syndicate had yet to be incorporated). Jim worked with Garry to develop the strip, and we launched Doonesbury in 26 newspapers about 18 months later, on October 26, 1970.
What did your company see in Trudeau’s work that was so compelling?
McMeel: It was an exciting time – the 1970s – and Garry was doing something unconventional, even considered outrageous at the time. Our goal was to be outstanding in our field and innovative in our features, and Doonesbury provided the foundation for us to build upon that premise.
What were Universal Press Syndicate’s expectations for Trudeau – did they have an inkling that he’d be so successful and influential?
McMeel: Delivering exceptional content by remarkable talent was our primary concern, and although we didn’t really know what to expect from Trudeau, we knew that he had the quality of content and caliber of talent and that we wanted to represent. We were confident in his potential, but we could not have imagined that Doonesbury would prove to be so remarkably compelling and consistent for four decades, as timely and effective as ever.
How did winning a 1975 Pulitzer Prize affect Doonesbury, your company, and the comics business in general?
McMeel: The fact that Garry Trudeau remains the first and only cartoonist working today to win the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning hopefully speaks for itself. Universal Press was indeed fortunate that the first two features it introduced: Seymour Hersh’s Mai Lai Massacre (a multi-part series), and Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury, were Pulitzer Prize winners. It certainly put us in a good position going forward, and provided credibility that cannot be underestimated.
What went into the process of putting together 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective? (How did you narrow 14,000 total strips to 1,800 for the book? Did you focus on any particular themes?)
Andrews: Garry assembled 40 notebooks organized by year to determine which strips to include. The characters were keys to Doonesbury’s enduring relevance and success, so he selected strips and stories that reflected their development, and as a result, to give a sense of what it would be like to live through the last four decades.
One can’t help but be struck by his outstanding orchestration of the Doonesbury world as he weaves the lives of his characters—venerable old familiars and an ever-refreshing stream of newcomers—into the fabric of contemporary life. As it spans the last 40 years, it is a remarkable retrospective of our cultural, political, and social landscape.
What special features does this book have?
Andrews: An in-depth introductory essay, 18 original character essays, nearly 2,000 daily and Sunday strips, all beautifully designed and lavishly produced in a collectible, slip-cased volume. (And it is 10+ pounds!)
How would you characterize the relationship between Trudeau and AMU over the years? How is it different from the relationship between most artists and their publishers?
McMeel: I hope we would characterize it as very good! We pride ourselves in our relationships with our creators, and the fact that the majority of our creators have been with us for their entire careers – or that a number of creators have joined us when they were able – speaks well for the work we are doing.
Building and maintaining relationships is the name of the game in this business. We don’t treat ours creators as products, but as inspired and creative commentators of the times and environment in which we live.
And, not to pat ourselves on the back too much, but Garry’s warm Acknowledgements in the book to the people he has worked with these past 40 years suggests that we are doing something right, or at least that we are on the right track.
What can the audience on Monday expect from Garry Trudeau in person?
Andrews: An exceptional talent. Warm, gracious, intelligent – and funny.
Has Garry Trudeau ever made a public appearance in Kansas City?
Andrews: No. We are delighted that he is here to share the anniversary with us.
Who is your favorite Doonesbury character or favorite sequence from the strip’s past?
McMeel: I would have to say Uncle Duke. There is almost nothing too outrageous or extreme for him. As far as favorite sequences, there are so many memorable sequences I would be hard pressed to select one.
Is there anything else about the book, author, AMU or event you’d like to mention?
McMeel:We feel incredibly fortunate to represent someone who has been referred to as a “national treasure,” and couldn’t be more pleased to share his talents with the people of Kansas City.
I only wish that Jim Andrews was on the scene 40 years later to participate in the celebration of Doonesbury and Garry Trudeau, whose talent he originally recognized, and to see how his discovery helped set the tone for the company and what it was destined to become.