September 29, 2016
(++++) TOONS FOR THIS TIME
The “Mutts” Autumn Diaries. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Buddy for President. By Hans Wilhelm. Harper. $17.99.
Ah, fall! For places that have pronounced seasonal changes, it is a fast time of transition – quicker than that from winter to spring. Weather seems to alter almost overnight, trees’ leaves change color rapidly and drop to the ground very soon, and the cold that portends winter seems to show up as if it is in a hurry. Things remain at a leisurely pace, however, in the marvelous Mutts universe of Patrick McDonnell. The “Mutts” Autumn Diaries is as much a book about friendship – between animal pals and between animals and humans – as it is one about seasonal change. All the usual characters are here: Earl the dog and Mooch the cat may be the stars, but this is really an ensemble comic strip, and autumn provides just too many irresistible opportunities for nut-throwing squirrels Bip and Bop, who are unusually prominent in this collection. Fall also being American football season, it is inevitable that the characters will interact with football players, drawn by McDonnell to be about four times the size of any other human. They get bopped with nuts, chased by dogs (by three dogs in a row in one panel), and amusingly interfered with: Ozzie, Earl’s human companion, is seen in one panel holding Earl up to a group of scowling players, a football firmly in Earl’s mouth, as Ozzie asks, “Did anyone lose something?” There is no violence here, though, not even the stylized violence of football – the bopping with nuts is about as intense as anything gets. The whole Mutts strip is gentle in approach as well as humor: in a typically sweet strip, the little cat Shtinky Puddin hugs a tree, which promptly sheds leaves, leading Shtinky to say, “I think I broke it.” McDonnell has some themes to which he returns again and again, including the importance of adoption and the great work done by animal shelters. One sequence here has the little girl Doozy visiting a shelter and volunteering “to kiss the kitties,” and also explaining that she is “an experienced belly rubber.” And several strips are post-adoption followups showing how happy once-orphaned animals are in their new homes. The best of these is a tearjerker, originally a Sunday strip, about a greyhound named Flash who always lost in races and “was to be ‘weeded out’” until a rescue group saved him, he was adopted by a loving family, and as Flash says in the final panel, “I finally won.” Along with advocacy strips such as this are some showing McDonnell’s high level of artistic skill: his representation of Jack Frost is, well, picture-perfect. There are also strips focusing on the characters’ personalities, such as an extended sequence in which Mooch dresses as “the great Proshpero” and proves his wizardry by accidentally making the whole comic strip disappear – an even funnier sequence than a separate “disappearance” one in which Mooch and Earl reappear in the pumpkin patch from Peanuts, in which Linus is vainly awaiting the arrival of the Great Pumpkin. “It’s autumn, baby,” says Mooch at the end of one great color sequence in which he turns himself green, then green and yellow, then yellow, then brown, mimicking the seasonal change of the leaves. However chilly autumn gets, Mutts is guaranteed to stay warm.
Comic strips are not the only source of a silly season in autumn: elections, especially presidential ones in the U.S., deserve equal mention. And they get it in Hans Wilhelm’s Buddy for President, a wonderful romp that is as animal-friendly in its way as Mutts is in McDonnell’s. Buddy is a great big, roly-poly dog, seen on the book’s cover sporting traditional political attire (hat and bow tie) in red-white-and-blue patterns. The book is narrated by Hunter Green, Buddy’s boy companion, who has put up signs all over town saying “Vote for Buddy for President.” And it seems like a very good idea to do just that. Hunter explains Buddy’s many qualifications, including happiness, helpfulness, bath-taking, and slobbering on babies. Wilhelm throws in some genuine political information when Hunter says that Buddy is a lover of the outdoors, “like President Theodore Roosevelt,” and a believer in sharing and helping, “like President Franklin D. Roosevelt.” But Wilhelm avoids making the message too heavy by keeping the book’s illustrations very light indeed: the “sharing” one, for example, has Buddy walking on his hind legs, holding a four-scoop ice cream cone in one front paw, and licking the bottom scoops – while carrying Hunter, who is licking the top ones. Some of what Buddy would do as president is played for laughs: “bedtime just for grown-ups and more playtime for kids!” Other proposals have a more-serious sound: “all kids must have a safe place to live with grown-ups and dogs who love them with all their hearts.” Wilhelm maintains a first-rate balancing act between the more-ridiculous and more-somber ideas, and throws in some that are quite apolitical and all the more enjoyable as a result: “Kids will read more! Reading becomes real fun when you have someone to read to. Dogs are the best listeners.” This proposal comes with a two-page scene of what can best be described as organized chaos in a library, where some dogs act like dogs, others read aloud, one wears glasses and is carrying an armful of books, there is a “Reading Doghouse” where kids and dogs can get close, shelves are for dog naps as well as book storage, and so on. Hunter says that when Buddy is seen to do so well as president, other countries will make dogs their leaders, too – the page of pooch slogans in multiple languages is wonderful. And then dogs, dressed in bits of their national costumes, will play ball on the White House lawn, throw Frisbees instead of dropping bombs, and much more. It all sounds absolutely fabulous – except that, it turns out, Buddy does have an opponent, revealed only at the book’s very end, in a thoroughly suitable and highly amusing final illustration. One way or another, though, electioneering of the sort in Buddy for President makes for a much more pleasurable autumn than the political drama that parents – and therefore their children – must endure day after day this fall.