My favorite Doonesbury character is Mr. Butts, the cheerful, chubby-cheeked, tobacco-hawking talking cigarette—not because he was the strip’s best character, which he wasn’t, but because of something else that he wasn’t: the beginning of the end.
Most comic strips have a short creative arc. The cartoonist runs out of original ideas pretty early and begins to repeat himself until the strip becomes formulaic. The tipping point often is an obvious pratfall: an improbable plot development arising from creative desperation. In movies, this is called “jumping the shark.” In comics, let’s call it “marrying Irving,” after the disastrous cave-in that so clearly presaged the end of Cathy.
The phenomenon often involves a tip toward the surreal. Even before there was an Irving, Dick Tracy shamefully married him in the early 1960s when Chester Gould sent his detective to … the moon. There, Tracy met a race of moonlings. The strip never recovered its dignity.
Mr. Butts arose in 1989 as a bad dream—the sellout nightmare of self-loathing rookie ad man Michael Doonesbury. So far, so good. (See the dream strip here.) But when Mr. Butts began to interact with other characters, I thought “uh oh.”
Garry Trudeau had dabbled before in fantasy: Early on, Zonker talked to his plants, and they talked back. Weird roommate Bernie did science experiments that briefly turned him into a werewolf. Later, newsman Roland Hedley reported from amid the fizzling synapses of Ronald Reagan’s brain. But Mr. Butts was different. He was the first inanimate object to come alive, a la Pinocchio, and become a regular character. Mr. Butts perjured himself before Congress. (See that perjury here.) He went to Iraq with B.D. He had “Irving” written all over him, I thought.
I should have known better. To marry Irving, you have to be out of ideas; That has never happened to Trudeau and likely never will. Like all great satirists, he stays fresh by feeding off the culture he lampoons.
No, Mr. Butts didn’t bring down the strip. Trudeau has used him sparingly to deftly savage the duplicitous marriage between the tobacco and advertising industries. As always, Trudeau remained firmly in control, Doonesbury stayed as blindingly brilliant as ever, and Irving’s still waiting at the altar.