This interview is part of a series about the 50 greatest fictional deaths of all time. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Slate: What kind of research did you do for the series about Andy’s final weeks? Had you visited AIDS patients in hospice, or did you talk to caregivers about their experiences?
Garry Trudeau: I didn’t do any directed research beyond simply following the AIDS story in the popular press and reading Randy Shilts’ epic And the Band Played On. My interest only grew after the Andy arc, though, and I later did a deep dive on the epidemiology, talking to researchers for a screenplay about the CDC.
Andy declares himself not ready to die until he hears Pet Sounds on CD. It’s a really specific choice that becomes quite beautiful at the end. Do you recall how that notion worked its way into the strip?
During the ’80s, many music geeks, including me, waited impatiently for beloved classic albums to be reissued in digital format. Pet Sounds was the consummate studio album, and I was counting the days until its release.
After the strips appeared, I heard from Eugene Landy, Brian Wilson’s notorious therapist, who told me Brian had enjoyed the strips. I mentioned that I was about to have a show of the originals at a gallery in San Francisco to benefit the AIDS quilt project, and Brian offered to co-sign the drawings and the poster. And to show up at the opening. And to perform a living room concert for donors. My head exploded.
When you first wrote about Andy’s AIDS diagnosis in 1989, the run was widely acclaimed, but you did come in for some criticism from Gay Men’s Health Crisis about the irreverence with which Andy and his doctor treated his illness. But you maintained that irreverence right up to Andy’s end—and beyond, with his prerecorded video tribute at the funeral. Why was it important to you to keep up the stream of punchlines even in so seemingly serious a plotline?
I wasn’t as worried about the strips appearing irreverent as I was about coming across as cynical or opportunistic. After all, I had created the only openly gay character in comics only to kill him off with AIDS. For some reason, I never got that particular blowback. The rest I could handle—everyone’s entitled to approach their own death in a way that works for them. It’s not trivializing to face your mortality with good cheer and gratitude for the life that preceded it. And his serenity was a gift to those who loved him.
A few days later, Joanie and Lacey visited Andy’s square on the AIDS quilt. That square was actually created as a memento, right? What does it say?
It says what Andy wanted it to say—a completely made-up bio full of honor and glory. Another joke at death’s expense.