November 19, 2015


The “Mutts” Winter Diaries. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Snoopy: Contact! A “Peanuts” Collection. By Charles Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

The Octopuppy. By Martin McKenna. Scholastic. $16.99.

8: An Animal Alphabet. By Elisha Cooper. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.

     Patrick McDonnell’s super-sweet Mutts comic strip is a delight in any season and for any reason – the reason behind The “Mutts” Winter Diaries, which is in Andrews McMeel’s AMP! Comics for Kids series, being to acquaint young readers with the strip if they are not yet familiar with it. These cold-weather adventures of Earl the dog and Mooch the cat, extracted from strips drawn in various winters, contain the strip’s trademarked (well, it should be trademarked) homespun humor, attentive concern for all animals (domestic and otherwise), and – important for this particular collection – warmth. Certain themes recur throughout the book, and it is wonderful to see the subtle ways in which McDonnell plays with them. For instance, the fact that Earl needs to be walked even in cold, snowy, windy weather leads Mooch to repeated assertions of feline superiority: “You owe me,” Mooch comments at one point to sort-of-co-owner Frank (who ever really owns a cat?). The notion of hibernation to escape the cold gets worked and reworked here, with Earl and Mooch doing a much better job of bulking up for a long sleep than actually sleeping. Bip and Bop, the squirrels preoccupied with beaning other characters with nuts, stay true to form in winter: they drop nuts onto both Earl and Mooch at one point as white flakes drift down, leading Earl to comment, “A heavy snow.”  (“Yesh,” Mooch agrees.) But there is more than humor in this collection and in Mutts generally. One delightful sequence (originally run on a Sunday) has snowflakes explaining, as they fall toward the ground: “We’re little snowflakes…from heaven…we are all unique…just like you…we’re here on Earth…to become one” – at which point McDonnell shows an unbroken blanket of snow. And then, in the final panel, Earl and Mooch comment: “It’s deep.” “Yesh.” Mutts invites, even insists on this sort of thoughtfulness about the world around us and our place in it. In a sequence in which Earl and Mooch watch a deer that is behind the house, Mooch asks, “What is the deer ‘problem’?” Earl explains, “What else? Overpopulation – there’s just too many and not enough space.” Mooch responds, “Yesh. Shometimes they can be a nuisance.” And in the final panel, dog and cat together say, “People.” That turns the well-known issue of deer overpopulation in certain areas into something much broader – the sort of thing at which McDonnell is particularly adept. But although Mutts sometimes becomes rather preachy, it does not stay that way for long, and McDonnell’s wonderful art rescues the strip from treacle again and again. So does his occasional foray into a purely visual and very funny idea, such as a Sunday strip tilted at an angle and showing only pieces of panels – just enough to see that the topic is slipping on the ice and falling, which the strip’s layout mimics beautifully; and another Sunday offering, a wordless three-long-panel strip showing a snowman and snowdog indoors, near a fireplace, and then the snow starting to melt, and then at last the revelation that the two are Earl and his owner, Ozzie. Mutts is a winter wonderland in itself, and a marvelous contemporary version of old-fashioned dog-and-other-animal strips.

     There was a mutual admiration society between Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and McDonnell, and no wonder: their two strips share some sensibilities and approaches, Schulz’s clearly influenced McDonnell’s, and the multifaceted Snoopy is an ancestor of sorts of Earl. However many times Earl and Mooch try new and different things, though, and however far they wander from home or imagine they wander – as in a strip in which Earl and Ozzie feel as if they have walked to the South Pole (or North Pole: they see both penguins and a polar bear) – they do not approach Snoopy for sheer audacity of make-believe. Much of the new AMP! Comics for Kids collection called Contact! focuses on Snoopy’s imaginary (but sometimes eerily almost-real) adventures as a World War I Flying Ace, always in search of the notorious Red Baron and generally coming out on the short end of things when the two have their encounters. The first few strips collected here show a close relationship  with Mutts, as Snoopy makes things difficult for Charlie Brown’s snowman building because Snoopy is having a little too much fun, and then Snoopy gets rolled right into a huge snowball that Charlie Brown is creating. But matters soon get odder, and stay that way. Snoopy, atop his doghouse, goes after the Red Baron and quickly finds his craft (the doghouse) spewing smoke; another time, he is forced to bail out after being attacked by the Red Baron, and land s in his supper dish; at yet another time, he challenges the enemy by saying “Nyahh, nyahh, nyahh! You can’t hit me!” (and then admits that “tough flying aces” do not really say that). In this collection, Snoopy dons other personae as well: he becomes a member of the Foreign Legion, marching across the desert; a swimmer practicing dives into a backyard kiddie pool, using Charlie Brown with a plan held over his head as a diving board; the Masked Marvel, a champion arm wrestler; a piranha; a “Cheshire Beagle,” Alice in Wonderland style, who disappears from view leaving only his smile behind; even a vulture perched in a tree and objecting to being called “sweetie.” Of all the Peanuts characters, Snoopy is the most multifaceted, and that may be have been part of Schulz’s message in creating him: people are people (even when they are small people – that is, children), but dogs are what people want them to be, and who really knows what dogs themselves want to be? Peanuts remains a wonderful example of a comic strip that can be read purely for amusement but that has a “wheels within wheels” flavor to it for those who choose to look a bit more deeply at the things that change and the ones that remain the same in it over time.

     However, not even Snoopy takes on as many roles as Martin McKenna’s Octopuppy, an absolutely hilarious picture book about straitlaced, dog-focused Edgar and the pet he actually gets as a gift: Jarvis, an octopus. There is no explanation whatsoever of why this happens, and it matters not a whit, because the book offers one hilarity after another about Jarvis’ capabilities and Edgar’s frustrations, and there is simply no time for readers to do anything but laugh like crazy at the various antics. Actually, readers get a foretaste and aftertaste of the wonders of Jarvis on the inside front and back covers, where he is shown costumed as a superhero, a little girl, a Viking, a paint-splattered artist, a lion tamer (snail tamer, actually), a spaceman, a Shakespearean actor, a wizard, Count Dracula, and more – every idea that McKenna comes up with is more outlandish than the previous one. Within the actual story, matters progress from a scene in which Jarvis is wearing a variety of shoes and gloves to one in which he is dressed in a tuxedo and doing Fred Astaire-style dance moves. Edgar’s problem is that he really, really wants a dog, so he decides to train Jarvis to do doggy things. But Jarvis fails miserably, being far too clever and inventive to act on simple commands. Told to play dead, for example, he emerges from a sarcophagus-like armoire swathed in bandages and making horror-movie-mummy-like moans. Edgar’s determination to make Jarvis doglike leads to a disastrous time at a big dog show, where Jarvis simultaneously dances ballet, plays piano, does card tricks, juggles flaming torches, and plays a drum set, all while wearing a bow tie and a Carmen Miranda-style hat. Humiliated, Edgar takes Jarvis home, and Jarvis leaves Edgar a note apologizing for being a bad dog – then flushes himself down the toilet. Soon, though, Edgar realizes how special Jarvis is, but now Jarvis is gone – and the rest of the book is Edgar’s search for the octopuppy, including an absolutely hilarious two-page illustration (with echoes of Dr. Seuss) in which Edgar calls down into the toilet for Jarvis to come home and the message is passed from animal to animal through a network of underground pipes that snake their way around a convict digging a tunnel with a spoon, a pirate’s treasure chest, some dinosaur bones, and more. The eventual reuniting of boy and octopuppy is inevitable and suitably celebratory, and of course the two are now bound to live happily ever after. With any luck, McKenna will create a sequel to Octopuppy showing some of what “happily ever after” entails. He could call it Octodog.

     There is an octopus in Elisha Cooper’s alphabet book, and there is a dog, too, but even more interestingly, there is the number eight – not because an octopus has eight arms, but because Cooper comes up with a book about letters that is also about numbers, or at least one particular number. What he does in 8: An Animal Alphabet is to present an assortment of animals for each letter of the alphabet, and then include drawings of eight of one particular creature per letter. Thus, there are eight ants under A, eight dolphins (no, not dogs) under D, eight koalas under K, eight urchins (sea urchins, that is) under U, right on to eight zebra finches under Z (but only one zebra dove). There is no particular significance to the number eight, except that Cooper says it is his favorite number – but it gives this animal-alphabet book an intriguing structure and gives young readers something to do beyond looking at the pictures. At the bottom of each page, Cooper lists the animals that appear on that page, and at the end of the book, he provides very brief but highly intriguing information on each of them – yes, all 184 of them. This is not traditional information, such as where the creatures are found or how long they live. Instead, Cooper offers facts such as: “Most ants are female.” “Dogs can sniff seven times a second.” “When excited, guinea pigs hop.” “Lizards smell with their tongues.” “Octopuses have three hearts.” “Ticks only eat three times in their lives.” The combination of an unusual thematic connection through the number eight, a fine selection of animals to illustrate every letter of the alphabet, and fascinating bits of information on every creature, make 8: An Animal Alphabet an unusually interesting book of its kind. As for the difficult letters: Cooper finds three animals for Q (quail, quetzal and quoll, two birds and an Australian marsupial) and one for X (xerus, an African ground squirrel). For more-common letters, he really packs the pages: there are 14 animals on the C page and 18 for S. There are also some number games in addition to the one in the title – Cooper tells what they are at the end of the book (26 animals on the title page, for example). Cooper’s solid research and offbeat approach combine to make 8: An Animal Alphabet an A-to-Z winner.

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