Staff Pick: Mutts

(Harry N. Abrams)
by Patrick McDonnell

Charles Schultz, creator of Peanuts, considered it "one of the best comic strips of all time." Simpsons guru Matt Groening calls it "smart and funny, brilliantly drawn and full of heart." Cartoonist Jules Feiffer says it evokes "an effervescent bliss, drawn from a century-old tradition . . . that, in an instant, turns words and pictures into poetic-play."

Since 1994, these and other artists have praised a newspaper comic strip by New Jersey artist Patrick McDonnell called, simply, Mutts, which chronicles the daily adventures of dogs, cats, birds, fish, squirrels, crabs (yes, crabs!), and the humans who share the planet with them.

"Mutts is filled with personalities loosely based on beings that I know," says McDonnell. "My dog, my cat, my family and friends, not to mention myself. I treat each character with respect. I have to. I live with them."

When Mutts first started running in The Commercial Appeal in 2005, I thought it was yet another cartoon with talking animals. Ho hum. But one Sunday strip, featuring the antics of the ever-playful cat Mooch, caught my eye. The first panel showed Mooch clawing the furniture to shreds. The next had him knocking an expensive vase off a shelf. In the third, he hacked up a hairball. And in the fourth, he leapt onto the bed of his ever-patient owners, Frank and Millie, and woke them by yowling "MEOW! MEOW!" in their faces. The last panel had him trotting down the sidewalk, blithely explaining his very catlike actions to his dog-pal, Earl, by saying, "Just in case they were thinking about getting another CAT."

As the longtime owner of dogs and cats, I thought this was brilliant, and so I began to pay more attention to the antics of the creatures — both two- and four-legged — in Mutts. Not only did McDonnell strike me as a keen observer of the human/animal bond, but for the first time I noticed the effort behind his deceptively simple drawings. He explains, "I love the rhythm of a line," and I studied how he conveyed a hand — or a paw — with just a few strokes of a pen. He makes it sound easy: "I dip a fountain pen into a bottle of India ink. I make marks on Bristol paper. I watch them come alive."

And the colors! No comic strip today is crafted as beautifully as Mutts. It leaps off the newspaper pages with its brilliant hues, and attention is paid to every detail. McDonnell even creates a completely different title panel each Sunday, sometimes mimicking the style of Van Gogh, Picasso, a crossword puzzle, another comic strip — whatever strikes his fancy. In short, Mutts is the most artistic comic being produced today, and McDonnell's efforts have not gone unnoticed by his peers. In 1999, he received the Reuben Award for Cartoonist of the Year from the National Cartoonists Society.

So far, McDonnell has produced more than a dozen compilations of his daily strips, along with four books that feature the longer Sunday comics. Mutts: The Comic Art of Patrick McDonnell, shows the strip's beginnings, his influences, and techniques, along with a nice selection of his favorite images.

It's not a complicated cartoon, and McDonnell sums it up nicely: "Mutts is rooted in my love for the art of the comic strip and also my love for all animals. It celebrates the simple. It remembers the familiar, friendly faces we see for maybe a moment every day — the neighbor walking his dog, the bird on the branch, the shopkeeper behind the counter, the cat in the window."

The world of Mutts is an enchanting, magical place. Everyone should take the time to visit it each and every day.

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