October 19, 2006


Everyday Mutts. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $16.95.

Lions and Tigers and Crocs, Oh My! A “Pearls Before Swine” Treasury. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $16.95.

America Gone Wild! By Ted Rall. Andrews McMeel. $12.95.

     From the gentle to the insidious to the pointed and nasty, comics and their cartoonists have been taking the medium far beyond the frequent tame wasteland in which it has long languished.  Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts is the closest current strip to the spirit of warmth and tenderness that many comics readers fondly (if rather inaccurately) remember.  McDonnell himself is a connoisseur both of comics and of art in general, often presenting amusing parodies of this work or that at the start of his Sunday strips.  Everyday Mutts, the latest oversize “Treasury” collection of McDonnell’s work, is unusually generous to the artist, with only two (instead of three) weekday strips per page, lovely full-color and full-page Sundays, plus a few of McDonnell’s sketchbook pages and specialty drawings.  Earl the dog and Mooch the cat remain at the center of this thoroughly lovable strip – the kids’-book picture of them as big-eyed babies topped with whipped-cream hats is priceless – but the large supporting cast is marvelous, too.  Among the highlights are the “Mutts Summer Book Club,” some wonderful Sunday tributes to the old Popeye strip, and of course McDonnell’s trademark sentimental elements, from Guard Dog’s yearning to be unchained to the heart-tugging “Shelter Stories” promoting adoption.  One extra-special color Sunday page features Frank, owner of Mooch (to the extent that one ever owns a cat), relaxing while reading a book of classic comics, whose characters appear in black-and-white scattered through the large central panel – including Ignatz of Krazy Kat tossing his traditional brick at none other than Mooch himself.  Just lovely.

     Stephan Pastis has neither the artistic skill nor the warmth of McDonnell – hey, Pastis started out as a lawyer, after all – but he does have a delightfully skewed sense of humor that makes Pearls Before Swine a consistently entertaining bit of bizarrerie (look it up).  Lions and Tigers and Crocs, Oh My! is mostly made up, as “Treasury” books usually are, of previously published strips, but this second Pearls in “Treasury” form is enlivened by occasional commentary from Pastis (a technique he picked up from Scott Adams of Dilbert, who first brought Pearls to widespread attention).  A back-of-the-book section called “The Good, the Banned, and the Ugly” presents some previously unpublished strips in unedited form, but in truth, they are not much stranger than the ones that made it into newspapers.  Who but Pastis would send his character, Pig, on a date with a girl who works for an Internet service provider and whose face periodically turns into a pop-up ad promoting, among other things, Viagra and nude girls?  Some Pastis puns still confuse readers, but at least he takes the blame and explains what he meant.  Readers really should forgive him: no one else would have Rat place an eBay order and accidentally receive the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh.

     Pastis’ occasional frays into politics are nothing compared with the work of Ted Rall, for whom vehemence and political intensity are a daily diet.  Rall is one of the most controversial cartoonists working today, because of his take-no-prisoners style of satire.  He is as cuttingly personal when taking on politicians as Thomas Nast was when attacking Boss Tweed.  Rall, in keeping with our times, is far less erudite and far more willing to flail about to make a point, and his art often looks like the sort of thing you would see spray-painted on a wall.  But that’s the point: Rall wants to shock, to inflame, to make people pay attention to things they would just as soon ignore.  For the first 40-odd pages (some very odd) of the 168-page America Gone Wild! Rall discusses some of his more controversial strips and the reactions to them – one of the more printable ones being, “You are so ugly and mean spirited I hope someone puts a bullet in the back of your head.”  Rall refuses to see Pat Tillman, the NFL pro killed in Iraq, as a pure patriot.  He attacks widows who exploited their husbands’ deaths on September 11, 2001, as “terror whores.”  After news comes out that a 20th hijacker missed one of the planes, Rall does a strip called “Jihad Slacker.”  He shows Ronald Reagan in Hell, which Reagan is told is actually “Heaven…after your budget cuts and privatization.”  Rall even shows how “the logic of preemption allows one to justify the invasion of the least threatening place on earth, Greenland.”  Rall is a cartoonist you turn to for outrage – although, interestingly, some of his most effective work is slightly more soft-pedaled.  One of the best cartoons here, “Freak-Show Politics,” shows the media focusing on flag burning, abortion and cloning while America’s real problems – represented by a man saying he has lost his job – are ignored.  Rall is, if nothing else, very, very hard to ignore.

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