The Crass Menagerie: A “Pearls Before Swine” Treasury. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.
“Mutts” Shelter Stories: Love. Guaranteed. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.
For anyone out there who wonders why it might make sense to buy a “Treasury” volume of comic strips that have previously been published in book form, Stephan Pastis provides the answer underneath one of the strips in The Crass Menagerie: “That’s my rendering of our very own fax machine in that last panel. Again, it’s inside knowledge like this that makes these treasuries worth the extra money.” And speaking of being crass, Pastis makes a similar point almost 100 pages later, under a different strip: “I eat a lot of uncooked broccoli. I like broccoli. That’s the sort of commentary that makes the purchase of this book worthwhile.” But wait! There’s more here than merely shilling for the publisher! There’s also Pastis shilling for himself – thereby proving that he did learn something from his pre-cartooning work as a lawyer. Again and again, Pastis draws attention to contradictions or unexplained elements in his Pearls Before Swine universe, then explains them away by saying that a better cartoonist would know how to handle them. And he repeatedly says how much easier cartooning would be if it didn’t involve drawing, which he finds difficult – although he also likes to remind readers to pay attention to certain fine artistic elements in his strips: “That hubcap in the last panel took me half an hour to draw. Please take a moment to appreciate it.” If the combination of slightly strained (if not altogether false) modesty with a somewhat inflated sense of self-importance isn’t enough to endear The Crass Menagerie to you, simply spend some time gazing at the wonderful front cover, on which most of Pastis’ characters are busily trashing his office while the intellectual among them, Goat, sits reading Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater – whose subtitle (not shown by Pastis) is…you guessed it…“Pearls Before Swine.” Then look at the back cover, which shows the office after it has been trashed and everyone has left – the most prominent thing here is “Pastis Is a Loser” spray-painted on the wall. Or turn to the inside front and back covers, which between them show 40 photos of Pastis with various pained expressions (complementing the 41st, which is on the front of the book). Or simply thumb through the book itself, whose strips were originally published in Da Brudderhood of Zeeba Zeeba Eata and The Sopratos, and read the commentary that Pastis has added to most of his drawings – sometimes sillier than the comics, sometimes more informative, but never more biting. Pastis is quite a guy. But don’t invite him to spend too much time in your mind – he’ll trash it.
Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts strip is as gentle and self-effacing as Pearls Before Swine is dark and cynical. McDonnell is an advocacy cartoonist, and Shelter Stories is his strongest book of advocacy yet. Shelter Stories is a sort of featurette within Mutts, in which adorable animals are seen at shelters being thoroughly endearing and asking gently but pleadingly for someone to adopt them. The animals McDonnell draws are not real, of course, but if you think them impossibly cute, take a look at some of the living animals whose photos make up a big part of this new book. McDonnell’s strips and the real-animal photos get equal play here, and each real-animal picture comes with a brief commentary from the person who adopted that particular dog or cat (or, for that matter, rabbit or ferret). The whole point of the book is to show people just how much not-yet-requited love is available, at modest cost, from their local animal shelter. All of this is quite wonderful and could help reduce the number of unadopted animals that are put to death every year because no one chooses them and there are always new animals coming in. Yet it has to be said that McDonnell comes on a trifle too strongly here – even for people who already favor and practice animal adoption. In one strip, Mooch the cat decides to “inspire” people to adopt pets by walking up to a man, kicking him in the rear, and shouting, “DO IT!” That’s funny in a comic but not in real life; and there is some of that heavy-handedness (or heavy-footedness) about Shelter Stories, which is why it gets a (+++) rating. The extended introduction by Humane Society of the United States President Wayne Pacelle does not help: Pacelle uses it to attack pet stores that sell animals, and generally comes across as holier-than-thou. The facts back Pacelle up (many pet-store puppies come from “puppy mills” that treat animals poorly); and they back McDonnell up as well (adoption is a wonderful and insufficiently used method of bringing animals and humans together). But there is a whiff of “hard sell” throughout Shelter Stories that renders it less effective than it could be.