Censored Doonesbury Comics of 1976: Revealed (Again)

Comic Strips, Flashbacks, Reporting

Get ready for hot, sexy comic strip action: 1976-style!

Just kidding. What you’re about to see is, by today’s standards, quite tame.

But in November, 1976, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (and about 20 other newspapers around the country) made an editorial decision to withhold publication of a 5-day run of the Doonesbury™ comic strip, and replace it with reruns.

At the time, I was a 21-year-old feature columnist for The Current, the student-run newspaper at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. I was also a crazed comics fan. Realizing I could fill a column, provide a “public service,” and see the blacked-out strips myself (not easy, pre-internet), I pitched then-editor Tom Wolf: “Let me ask Universal Press Syndicate if they’ll let us run ’em. For free.”

Tom and the syndicate said, “Do it.” We printed the strips with my article, which you can read below. 

First, of course, you want to see the strips.

Here they are, as printed in the December 2, 1976, edition of The UMSL Current.

Warning: they are very safe for work.

Doonesbury™ by Garry Trudeau

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The Doonesburys You Didn’t See

By Walt Jaschek

Most St. Louisans will never know how good Joanie Caucus is at breakfast.

There were were, Tuesday, Nov. 11, breathlessly watching as Joanie makes her final moves on Rick Redfern. Eating dinner in his apartment, Rick compliments Joanie on the meal she had made. “Thank you, Rick,” she says. “I’m pretty good at breakfast, too.” Rick’s face contorts. Joanie thinks to herself: “As the kid goes for broke.”

The next day, we were intrigued further, as Virginia Slade — having just withdrawn from the Senate race — dials Joanie’s apartment in the morning… and gets no answer!

The day after that, we were suddenly and mysteriously back on the familiar football field with Captain B.D., no mention made of Joanie’s romantic adventure.

It was enough to drive Doonesbury fans zonkers, so to speak. Local fans of the terse, explosive, provocative comic strip realized The St. Louis Post Dispatch had substituted alternate episodes rather than finishing the Joanie and Rick sequence.

We called Joan Dames, features editor at the Post, and she was quick to clarify this comic strip tease, AKA the Doonesbury dilemma.

“The editorial board of the Post decided to take out the sequence that showed Joanie Caucus and Rick Redfern in bed,” said Dames. “We thought it inappropriate for a family page.”

But the Post wasn’t alone in blacking out the strip.

Lee Salem, a representative of Universal Press Syndicate (which distributes Doonesbury to 450 newspapers) said about 20 papers dropped the sequence. But those papers, including the New York Daily News, make up a large chunk of circulation.  Most of them just dropped the Nov. 13 strip.

Riding out this controversy, as he’s done before more than once, is Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, the most electrifying force on the contemporary comic art scene.

As an undergraduate in 1968, Trudeau started drawing a strip for the Yale Daily News called “Bull Tales.” It introduced a cast of rich, mimetic characters like Mark Slackmeyer, Zonker Harris and Mike Doonesbury. When Universal Press offered to syndicate the strip nationally, it was dubbed after the persona presumably closest to that of Trudeau.

In its short history, the strip’s virtual world has developed and diversified, the characters shuffling, the concepts sharpening. Trudeau’s insights, pacing and crisp characterizations have enthralled legions of readers, while giving them some of the gutsiest comic strip humor since Walt Kelly’s Pogo.

The Joanie and Rick affair is just the latest of Doonesbury’s envelope-pushing concepts. While their sex life may be casual, the establishment of it — and the reaction to it — wasn’t.

“We only got about 20 letters and about as many calls, but some are very angry,” said Post features editor Dames.

“Most kids don’t read Doonesbury. But parents do get upset when this type of material appears on the comics page. We thought it wasn’t appropriate,” she said.

With a smile in her voice, Dames added: “Listen, we live in Sex City, U.S.A. We’ve got Masters and Johnson here, and even they say that sex  without commitment isn’t that exciting.”

“Trudeau said that he did this because he wanted everyone to take a stand on pre-marital sex,” said Dames. “So I guess the Post took a stand. But we’re really not bluenose about this. Just today (Nov. 18, 1976), we ran a story contraceptives. Take a look at it.”

At Universal Press, Lee Salem emphasized that his syndicate carefully reviewed the strips.

“With Garry, as well as with all the creative people we do business with, the material is gone over carefully,” he said. “With this particular piece, we had a long session over the phone with Garry, and we thought, considering Joanie’s character and that of Rick Redfern, the sequence is justified.”

The sequence was certainly justified to those readers who have shared Joanie Caucus’ long and winding road to happiness. 

Joanie worked hard in Slade’s campaign, but times turned bleak when Virginia decided to throw in the towel so that a third candidate could successfully beat the incumbent. The only light in the darkness  for Joanie — who only weeks before had been hurt by a guy who was gay — was political reporter Rick Redfern.

That’s where we came in, remember?

Trudeau has said it is the challenge of the cartoonist to, among other things, “invite the reader to involve himself in a new reality set up as a sustained metaphor for his own; to let the small meanness and foolishness of life face each other in distortion … and to seek out the vignette that speaks to the lives of many.”

Joanie got to make her “good breakfast.” That is her small pleasure.

We got permission to print the blacked-out strips.

That is ours.

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Walt Jaschek hopes you have enjoyed this frisky flashback to the sexy 70s. 

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