The Best of “Mutts.” By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $24.95.
Aside from a few specialty publishers, no one seems to take comic strips seriously – except Andrews McMeel, the book-publishing arm of Universal Press Syndicate. This is the publisher that delivered a highly praised (and highly priced) three-volume hardcover set of the complete Calvin and Hobbes cartoons. And now Andrews McMeel has gone hardcover again, for another of the best strips available anywhere: Patrick McDonnell’s warm, beautifully imagined and lovingly drawn Mutts. The Best of “Mutts” covers the strip’s first 10 years, from 1994 through 2004, and thus puts McDonnell in the same “retrospective” class as one of the predecessor cartoonists he most admires: Walt Kelly, whose Ten Ever-Lovin’ Blue-Eyed Years with Pogo commemorated that strip’s first decade.
McDonnell’s strip is quite different from Kelly’s – and from those of George Herriman, Chester Gould and other great cartoonists to whose work McDonnell occasionally pays tribute in the opening panels of his Sunday strips. McDonnell is a “cause” cartoonist, whose first cause was simply the celebration of the wonderful relationships between humans and companion animals (from the animals’ points of view) and whose causes now encompass spaying and neutering programs, adoption, vegetarianism, preservation of endangered species, and more. This new hardcover, whose strips are McDonnell’s personal favorites, shows the strip’s naïve and charming beginnings and the greater complexity and focus that it developed over its first decade.
So here, on a year-by-year basis (with each year given an introduction in text by McDonnell), we have the first strip in which Earl the dog and Mooch the cat meet; the gradual introduction of other regulars, such as Guard Dog – who was originally intended as a villain, but quickly became one of the strip’s most poignant characters, perpetually chained outdoors while wishing to come inside and be loved; and a variety of strips that deserve to be called classics, such as the summer-Sunday one in which ice cream topped with a cherry melts into what looks like Earl’s shape, causing Mooch to wail and cry and eventually…take a little taste. If there is one thing that Mutts has and most other strips lack, it is poignancy: for example, a wild bird falls in love with a caged one, is able to help her get the cage open, but then learns that her wings are clipped, so she cannot fly away with him; or, for another example, Shtinky Puddin’, the little cat who first turns up lost and in a trash can, tells Earl and Mooch about the “angels” who found him when he was alone, hungry, scared and lost, who fed and cuddled him and fixed his broken leg – and, in the final panel, arrives at an animal shelter.
In one superb three-panel Sunday strip, the first panel shows a lineup of magnificent endangered animals (gorilla, tiger, elephant and more); the second shows them becoming transparent; the third shows only the background and bears the four words, with ellipses, “…right before our eyes…” Indeed, this Sunday offering shows everything that is right and special about Mutts – but also points to a weakness that has become more pronounced in the years after this book’s 2004 cutoff. As McDonnell has become more and more committed to his various causes, the strip has spent more and more time on them and less and less time exploring everyday human-animal contacts. To McDonnell, this is clearly progress; but he risks turning away readers who are now less likely to find simple delights in the strip and more likely to find repeated reminders of complex (and not always uncontroversial) issues. Still, the first ten years of Mutts were wonderful, and whatever may happen to the strip in the future, this treasury of its initial decade is, and is likely to remain, a real treasure.