Of all the characters in the last forty years of Doonesbury, my personal favorite is Mr. Butts—and not just because he appeared on the cover of The Nation (January 1, 1996). Garry Trudeau has had lots of more compelling characters, but Mr. Butts in his own way was perfect: the smiling cigarette-man who was unfailingly cheerful about how cool it was for kids to smoke.
Mr. Butts crossed over from the comics to real life in 1994, when University of California tobacco researcher Dr. Stanton Glantz received a big Fedex box with the return address "Mr. Butts." The box, as I reported in The Nation, contained 4,000 pages of documents that one of world’s largest cigarette makers—Brown & Williamson (B&W)—later claimed were stolen from its files. B&W, the nation’s third-largest tobacco company, makes Kool, Pall Mall, and Lucky Strike, among other brands. The documents, which made a pile four feet high, represented a smoking gun in the debate over the effect of tobacco on health: they showed that "thirty years ago the tobacco industry knew that nicotine was an addictive substance," Glantz said, "and that it caused cancer. And it showed that they withheld this information from the public."
The Nation featured the story "Inside the Butts Box" with a cover drawn by Garry Trudeau that featured Mr. Butts himself delivering a Fedex box and saying, "Hello? Anyone home?"
Meanwhile, back on the comics pages, Mr. Butts went on to testify before Congress, and even went to Iraq, where he was B.D.’s best friend—before B.D. lost a leg in a rocket-grenade attack near Fallujah.
A lot of people (myself included) think Garry Trudeau’s recent work on injured vets from the Iraq and Afghan wars is the best he’s ever done. Garry Wills writes in a wonderful piece in the current New York Review of Books that, with the stories of disabled vets in rehab, Trudeau passed "the supreme test for a comic strip artist: How do you laugh and cry at the same time?"
Gene Weingarten, the Washington Post reporter who followed Trudeau around VA hospitals in 2006, saw him with "men with burns, men with gouges, men missing an arm, men missing a leg, men missing an arm and a leg, men missing an arm and both legs, men missing parts of their faces"—and wrote about how good Trudeau was at talking with them: "It’s partly compassionate support for people he has a genuine regard for, and it’s part journalism—the damnedest sort of reporting, for a professional cartoonist."
The injured vets B.D., his rehab counselor Elias and now Toggle, the heavy metal kid who lost an eye in the war, are the best. But Mr. Butts was special—the face of the tobacco industry, always smiling, always lying. The first forty years of Doonesbury have been glorious; I hope Garry Trudeau never stops.