Hunter S. Thompson Hated Getting Caricatured as “Uncle Duke” in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury: ‘If I Ever Catch That Little Bastard, I’ll Tear His Lungs Out’

Gar­ry Trudeau’s Doones­bury is hard­ly the cul­tur­al touch­stone it once was, but then again, nei­ther are com­ic strips in gen­er­al, and polit­i­cal strips in par­tic­u­lar. No amount of urbane wit­ti­cism and sequen­tial nar­ra­tive humor can com­pete with the crazed jum­ble of arcane memes in the 21st cen­tu­ry. Hunter S. Thomp­son may have writ­ten about the late-20th cen­tu­ry polit­i­cal scene as a hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry night­mare, but per­haps even he would be sur­prised at how close real­i­ty has come to his hyper­bole.

In its hey­day, Trudeau’s top­i­cal, lib­er­al-lean­ing satire of politi­cians, polit­i­cal jour­nal­ists, clue­less hip­pies, and cyn­i­cal cor­po­rate and aca­d­e­m­ic elites hit the tar­get more often than it missed. For many fans, one of Trudeau’s most beloved char­ac­ters, Uncle Duke—a car­i­ca­ture of Thomp­son intro­duced in 1974—was a per­fect bulls­eye. Writer Wal­ter Isaac­son paid tongue-in-cheek trib­ute to the char­ac­ter as his “hero” on the strip’s 40th anniver­sary. Duke even made an ani­mat­ed appear­ance on Lar­ry King Live in 2000 (below), announc­ing his can­di­da­cy for pres­i­dent after serv­ing as Gov­er­nor of Amer­i­can Samoa and Ambas­sador to Chi­na.

It would be a tremen­dous under­state­ment to say that Thomp­son him­self was not flat­tered by the por­tray­al. The amoral Duke—a “self-obsessed, utter­ly unscrupu­lous epit­o­me of evil who has sent a chill down read­ers’ spines,” writes The Guardian’s Ed Pilk­ing­ton, sent Thomp­son into a parox­ysm of rage. The gonzo writer saw the char­ac­ter “as a form of copy­right infringe­ment.” He “sent an enve­lope of used toi­let paper to Trudeau and once mem­o­rably said: ‘If I ever catch that lit­tle bas­tard, I’ll tear his lungs out.’” The threats got even more spe­cif­ic and grue­some.

“Hunter despised Trudeau,” writes Thomp­son biog­ra­ph­er William McK­een in his book Out­law Jour­nal­ist. “’He’s going to be sur­prised some­day,’ Hunter said. ‘I’m going to set him on fire first, then crush every one of his ribs, one by one, start­ing from the bot­tom.’” He had been turned into a joke. Jan Wen­ner, “when he couldn’t get Hunter to write for him… put him on the cov­er of Rolling Stone any­way, as Uncle Duke in a Trudeau-drawn cov­er.” Thomp­son pon­dered a $20 mil­lion libel suit. “All over Amer­i­ca,” he rant­ed, “kids grow up want­i­ng to be fire­men and cops, pres­i­dents and lawyers, but nobody wants to grow up to be a car­toon char­ac­ter.”

The mock­ery began imme­di­ate­ly after Uncle Duke first appeared in the strip in 1974. In a High Times inter­view, Thomp­son describes the day he first learned of the char­ac­ter:

It was a hot, near­ly blaz­ing day in Wash­ing­ton, and I was com­ing down the steps of the Supreme Court look­ing for some­body, Carl Wag­n­er or some­body like that. I’d been inside the press sec­tion, and then all of a sud­den I saw a crowd of peo­ple and I heard them say­ing, “Uncle Duke,” I heard the words Duke, Uncle; it didn’t seem to make any sense. I looked around, and I rec­og­nized peo­ple who were total strangers point­ing at me and laugh­ing. I had no idea what the fuck they were talk­ing about. I had got­ten out of the habit of read­ing fun­nies when I start­ed read­ing the Times. I had no idea what this out­burst meant…It was a weird expe­ri­ence, and as it hap­pened I was sort of by myself up there on the stairs, and I thought: “What in the fuck mad­ness is going on? Why am I being mocked by a gang of strangers and friends on the steps of the Supreme Court? Then I must have asked some­one, and they told me that Uncle Duke had appeared in the Post that morn­ing.

While Trudeau seems to have tak­en the phys­i­cal threats seri­ous­ly, he didn’t back down from his relent­less satir­i­cal take­downs of Thompson’s vio­lent ten­den­cies, para­noia, and com­i­cal­ly exag­ger­at­ed sub­stance abuse. As Dan­ger­ous Minds describes, in 1992, Trudeau pub­lished a book called Action Fig­ure!: The Life and Times of Doonesbury’s Uncle Duke “that chron­i­cled the mis­ad­ven­tures of Uncle Duke.” It also “came with a five-inch action fig­ure of the dear Uncle Duke along with a mar­ti­ni glass, an Uzi, cig­a­rette hold­er, a bot­tle of booze, and a chain­saw.”

See the Uncle Duke action fig­ure at the top—one of a half-dozen images Dan­ger­ous Minds pulled from eBay (his t‑shirt reads “Death Before Uncon­scious­ness.”) As much as Thomp­son despised Uncle Duke, and Trudeau for cre­at­ing him, he him­self helped feed the caricature—with his alter ego Raoul Duke and his chron­i­cles of his own bizarre behav­ior. Trudeau’s admi­ra­tion, of a sort, for Thompson’s excess­es was a con­tin­u­ing dri­ver of the writer’s fame, for good or ill. “Uncle Duke was who fans craved,” writes Sharon Eber­son at the Pitts­burgh Post-Gazette, “and Thomp­son often felt oblig­ed” to live up to his car­toon image.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hunter S. Thompson’s Deca­dent Dai­ly Break­fast: The “Psy­chic Anchor” of His Fre­net­ic Cre­ative Life

How Hunter S. Thomp­son Gave Birth to Gonzo Jour­nal­ism: Short Film Revis­its Thompson’s Sem­i­nal 1970 Piece on the Ken­tucky Der­by

Read 11 Free Arti­cles by Hunter S. Thomp­son That Span His Gonzo Jour­nal­ist Career (1965–2005)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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