November 11, 2010


Earl & Mooch: A “Mutts” Treasury. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

When Pigs Fly: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     Funny animals have a long and honorable history in comics and cartoons. From Disney’s wholesome Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, to Warner Brothers’ edgier Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, to the underground comics’ Fritz the Cat (by Robert Crumb) and Fat Freddy’s Cat (by Gilbert Shelton), animals have been representatives of, and stand-ins for, all sorts of human attributes, concerns and ideas. They still are, as a glance at any newspaper comics page or online collection of strips will show. But today’s animals are funny in some unusual and highly personal ways, along the lines of Walt Kelly’s Pogo and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. Modern funny animals are not quite as far-out as those in Kelly’s and Herriman’s masterly strips, but a few cartoonists possess a command of the medium at or near the same level. Patrick McDonnell is right at the top of this rarefied group. His Mutts is extraordinarily well drawn and very much in line with comic-strip tradition: for years, McDonnell used the opening panels of his Sunday strips to imitate or gently parody classic comics of the past, drawing them as their original artists did – but with greater refinement. Today, as the latest Mutts “Treasury” volume shows, McDonnell’s art is as heavily influenced by Oriental brushstrokes, poster design and the realism of John James Audubon’s illustrations (McDonnell draws excellent birds) as it is by older comics. And McDonnell continues to push the limits of his medium. In the new collection, one wonderful Sunday strip has Ozzie complaining to Earl that “your muddy paw prints are everywhere” – and so they are, splattered all over the strip, on top of and around all the panels. Another Sunday strip is pure geometry, with a large white zigzag separating colored upper and lower sections in which Earl and Mooch are riding in a toy car (Earl falls out in the middle of the white space, leaving Mooch alone in the car at the lower right, in a triangular colored panel). The daily black-and-white strips, most often in three-panel format, are less elaborate but every bit as lovingly designed. Many are gently surrealistic, such as a week-long sequence in which Mooch the cat repeatedly disappears. Others are gently humorous, such as ones in which Earl the dog gets rubber booties to keep his paws dry during walks in rainy weather, and thinks, “They’re okay. But I resent the odor-eating pads.” Still others offer gently amusing interludes with lesser characters, such as the acorn-throwing squirrels Bip and Bop, always-chained-up Guard Dog, Crabby the crab, and of course the humans with whom the animals interact. “Gentle” is a recurring adjective, because that is the overall impression of Mutts, even when McDonnell creates his numerous “cause” strips for saving endangered animals and promoting adoption. Actually, there are fewer such strips in Earl & Mooch than in some other Mutts collections, and that is a good thing, since McDonnell is at his weakest when he comes across as an advocate of grand causes, however worthy they may be. His “Shelter Stories” about adoptable animals are an exception, though, because they fit so neatly into the domestic-animal focus of the strip. Mutts remains simply a marvelous use of the comic-strip medium, one of the most sensitively written and best-drawn strips of the day.

     One of the worst-drawn strips – whose drawing really doesn’t matter much, its low quality being part of the fun – is also one of the best funny-animal comics around: Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine. Pastis can actually draw pretty well, no matter how often he makes fun of his own alleged lack of talent when he appears as a sloppy, ill-shaven character in his own strip. It was not always thus: When Pigs Fly includes 11 early cartoons in which the art is really pretty awful – although the wit and darkness of the writing were there already, and they are the things that make Pearls special. And weird. This is a strip for the pessimist, cynic and all-around negative thinker who resides in all of us – or at least enough of us so that Pastis’ strip has won the Reuben Award as best newspaper comic strip from the National Cartoonists Society three times, while Mutts has won it only once (although McDonnell has also been honored as Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year). In any case, Pearls Before Swine continues to be one of those love-it-or-hate-it strips. Either you find death funny or you don’t. Either you enjoy animals playing against type (two of the most consistently violent characters are a duck and a kitten) or you don’t. Either you enjoy the ongoing tale of inept crocodiles who consider themselves super-powered as Paper Jam Boy, Doorstoppo and Stapler Head (and who call themselves “The Fantastic Four” even though there are only three of them), or you don’t. Either you enjoy Rat’s elaborate stories about Danny Donkey (who hates everyone and doesn’t think much of the planet Earth, either) and Angry Bob (who dies in a bizarre way in each tale, then un-dies and tries again), or you don’t. Either you enjoy the way characters constantly break comic-strip conventions (as when Rat demands that Pastis-in-the-strip get rid of Pig as a character, then draws his own strip-within-the-strip that does just that), or you don’t. It would be a mistake to call Pearls Before Swine an acquired taste, since it is not the sort of taste you are likely to pick up if you don’t have it already. This isn’t a strip that tends to grow on people who do not take to it immediately. But the strip itself has grown, as When Pigs Fly shows: it remains as occasionally juvenile and ill-focused as always (the Saturday comics are consistently the weakest: Pastis uses that day of the week as a sort of dumping ground), but its sly, sarcastic and often trenchant humor is even more offbeat now than it used to be – and nothing like the humor in any other funny-animals strip out there.

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