May 03, 2007


Houston, You Have a Problem: A “FoxTrot” Collection. By Bill Amend. Andrews McMeel. $8.95.

Animal Friendly: A “Mutts” Treasury. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $16.95.

      If you follow comics in your daily newspaper or at your favorite Web site, you know that FoxTrot is no more, at least in the form in which readers have long been accustomed to it. Bill Amend has semi-retired after 19 years, turning FoxTrot into a Sunday-only strip. Unfortunately, this robs the strip of its day-to-day reflections of somewhat weird family life, forcing readers to see only quick snapshots once a week and undermining one of the best character-driven comedy strips around. The Sunday-only format is a pale replacement for Amend’s seven-day-a-week one, and it’s hard to imagine that it will be successful for long. So readers of Houston, You Have a Problem will want to hang onto as much of Amend as possible for as long as possible – although this book also shows, literally graphically, how much is already gone. Amend always worked best in snippets – his Sunday strips were never really the equal of his dailies – and this collection shows his skewed-family humor at its best. There’s Jason with his iguana, Quincy, atop his head, claiming to be patriot “Quincy John Adams,” fighting the redcoats – specifically including sister Paige’s good jacket. Jason also becomes “World of Warquest” buddies with Eileen Jacobson, his real-world nemesis (because she happens to be a girl…whom he sorts kinda likes in a pre-puberty way). Andy, the mother of the family, becomes addicted to Nintendogs in one sequence; Paige practices cheerleading for football while watching baseball; feckless father Roger continues his quest for competence with computers and in chess; and Peter, the thin-as-a-rail oldest kid in the family, continues finding ways to stuff even more in, such as pre-stretching his clothing before Thanksgiving. These brief portraits of suburbia, Amend style, show why FoxTrot will be missed – and why, despite its new Sunday-only format, it already is.

      Patrick McDonnell shows no signs of slowing down or of changing the format of Mutts, and that’s a good thing, since McDonnell is one of the most elegant cartoonists around, and his characters are among the most endearing. It’s easy enough to argue that Mutts sometimes spends too much time on a soapbox – arguing for adoption and spaying-and-neutering, for example. But by and large, McDonnell simply chronicles the everyday lives of Earl the dog, Mooch the cat, and a large cast of supporting players, with wit and caring and sometimes more than a touch of wisdom. Animal Friendly, which features both black-and-white and color daily strips plus color Sundays, includes the opening Sunday panels that newspapers sometimes drop for space reasons – and they are gems. There’s homage to Dick Tracy, one of the old strips McDonnell admires most; to Jackson Pollock and to Japanese style; to famous children’s books and to fine art. There are parodies of popular culture, such as an “Animal Idol” sequence. There are strips ostensibly created by characters within the strip – a hilarious bit of self-reference. There’s a multi-character beach vacation and a “Mooch’s Dear Diary” section. Everything is funny in a gentle, even old-fashioned way (despite the contemporary references), and everything is beautifully drawn and written with real style and an economy of words. Here’s hoping that Mutts will be around for many years to come.

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