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'Doonesbury' goes to battle

Fighting for realism, cartoonist Garry Trudeau challenges newspapers to run a strip featuring strong language prompted by a character's injury in Iraq.

SCOTT BARANCIK
Published April 20, 2004

Thirty-six years after Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau inked him to life, the football helmet-wearing character B.D. has suffered a serious battlefield injury in Iraq.

But it's not the grim war scenes that have some newspaper editors threatening to pull one of this week's strips.

It's the naughty words B.D. screams in agony while being treated at a military hospital: "Son of a bitch!"

"The subject matter of Doonesbury for the week of April 19, in large part prompted by the nearly 4,000 wounded troops in Iraq, is a serious one," Universal Press Syndicate editor Lee Salem said in a letter to the comic's 1,400 subscribing newspapers. "With that in mind, we think the language in the Friday (April 23) release is warranted. We understand if you choose to not run it, but neither a substitute nor a change will be provided."

Many newspapers are debating whether to print what the industry generally considers a linguistic taboo. Editors at the San Jose Mercury News and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel initially said they would pull the strip, only to change their minds, Salem said. The Orlando Sentinel hadn't made up its mind as of Monday afternoon. A Tallahassee Democrat editor said in an online discussion group that the paper would not publish the strip; attempts to reach Democrat editors for confirmation Monday were unsuccessful.

"This is not a word that we'd publish lightly," said St. Petersburg Times newsfeatures editor Mike Wilson. The Times plans to run the strip.

Wilson and other editors praised Trudeau for taking on difficult subject matter and said the battlefield context made an otherwise vulgar phrase seem appropriate.

"If you look down and suddenly part of your leg's been blown away, you're certainly not going to say, "Goodness gracious!' " said Tampa Tribune editor and vice president Frank Denton. "In fact, "Son of a bitch!' is fairly mild compared to what I'd say."

"Whether we like it or not, it's pretty common currency," Wilson said.

The Doonesbury conundrum felt familiar for Geoff Brown, an assistant managing editor for features at the Chicago Tribune.

Last year, Brown helped persuade the distributor of the comic strip Zits to let the Tribune substitute "stinks" for a slang version of the verb "suck." But when a Doonesbury strip featured the same word a month later, Trudeau wouldn't budge, so Brown ran it unchanged.

Brown consulted several senior editors about the latest Trudeau strip and said its approval was hardly automatic. "Just because somebody said it doesn't mean they can say it in our paper," he said.

Few comic strips get the leeway Doonesbury does, said Universal Press Syndicate's Salem. What's appropriate for Doonesbury may not be so for Garfield.

Jake Morrissey, managing editor of competitor United Media, said he too would have okayed Trudeau's Friday strip because people expect Doonesbury to push the edge.

"When I was far too young, there was a comic strip about (Doonesbury characters) Rick Redfern and Joanie Caucus just being in bed together, which I remember being a huge deal," he said. "These are real characters that are experiencing real life in real time, and sometimes it's not pretty in terms of language."

The phrase B.D. screams in Doonesbury has a long history.

William Shakespeare employed a modified version in his 1605 play King Lear, when Kent calls Oswald a "son and heir of a mongrel bitch."

The insult was common in America as early as the 1780s, historian Stuart Berg Flexner writes in I Hear America Talking. American soldiers in World War I used the phrase so often, Flexner said, "that Frenchmen called them "les sommobiches.' "

Only a couple of newspapers had called to express concern about the gritty substance of this week's Doonesbury strips. One, the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, wondered how its military-skewed readership would react, Salem said. Denton, of the Tampa Tribune, said readers have learned to expect more than just gags and one-liners from the comics. "Comics, in the last 10 years, perhaps, have really gotten more current, topical and serious," he said. "They've dealt with AIDS, gay issues and cancer. . . . I think it adds to the appeal, and has a journalistic impact in that it causes people to think."

By coincidence, the comic strip Get Fuzzy also deals with a battlefield injury in Iraq this week. But few newspaper editors are aware of it.

The strongest word in that strip is "hell."

-- Times staff researcher Julie Lichtenwalner contributed to this report. Scott Barancik can be reached at barancik@sptimes.com or 727 893-8751.

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