The Mutts Diaries. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances. By “The Oatmeal” (Matthew Inman). Andrews McMeel. $16.99.
Cartooning is sometimes aimed at one particular age group, but manages to cross over for the enjoyment of others. Patrick McDonnell’s marvelous strip, Mutts, is an excellent example. Always intended for adults, with its focus on pet adoption and ecological awareness, the strip has now been packaged in Andrews McMeel’s “AMP! Comics for Kids” line for young readers – where it fits perfectly. It is worth remembering that many classic strips seem childish or at least childlike on the surface but are, in fact, dealing with more-mature issues than casual readers may realize (Peanuts comes immediately to mind). In the case of The Mutts Diaries, McDonnell makes no assumptions of familiarity: he introduces Earl the dog and Mooch the cat at the very beginning, then embarks on a series of “diaries” by series regulars – including the two principals; the cat aptly named Sourpuss; ever-hopeful twin kittens Chickpea and Chickpea’s Brother, who get happily adopted together; Crabby, the always-cussing seaside denizen who seems to have a good heart somewhere in his shell; Guard Dog, always chained but still hoping for love, and finding it; Bip and Bop, squirrels preoccupied with beaning other characters with acorns or whatever else is handy; and Shtinky Puddin’, a save-the-endearing-animals type who just happens to be an endearing animal himself. Within the pages of The Mutts Diaries, the characters do not have the sorts of ongoing adventures seen in other collections of McDonnell’s strip, although there are a few sequential entries here and there. Instead, the book goes for the equivalent of one-liners – that is, single-day strips that work well in isolation, even if they were originally part of the multi-day sequences that McDonnell generally favors. So we have Mooch dashing down the stairs in one panel, back up in the second, and down again in the third while saying “I don’t know why I do this either.” Earl leaps toward the door with happiness when his human companion, Ozzie, comes home, covers Ozzie’s face with licks, then pulls back suspiciously to ask, “Who had pizza without me?” Sourpuss, who always complains about Mondays, is asked by Earl how he even knows what day it is, and replies that “someone gave me one of those darn cat calendars.” Crabby, after being seen in a number of strips issuing his trademark cusses, finds a little pink sock that Mooch has accidentally left at the beach and is seen playing happily with the “@&#$! pink sock.” The humor here is invariably gentle and sweet, fitting for younger and older readers alike, with the result that this intended-for-kids collection makes just as good an introduction to Mutts for children or adults.
The books by Matthew Inman, who dons the persona of “The Oatmeal” for his Web-based cartooning, are, on the other hand, not for children – unless parents are comfortable with lots of swear words that are written out, not turned into pretend cusses. Besides, the themes that Inman pursues are decidedly adult, and his drawings tend to be intentionally grotesque. But there is something different about The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances, a book-length discussion of the few but large pluses and many but smaller minuses (in Inman’s view) of long-distance running. Foul-mouthed the narration may be, but for older kids who have heard plenty of four-letter words already, and who cannot imagine anything remotely “cool,” much less pleasant, about long-distance running, this book can be as worthwhile as for their sedentary parents. Inman, you see, makes it abundantly clear that there is not anything remotely cool, much less pleasant, about what he does, but he does it anyway, for reasons that it takes him a book to explain. Some of those reasons involve “The Blerch,” who is “a fat little cherub who follows me when I run” and “tells me to slow down, to walk, to quit.” The Blerch appears throughout The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances, but is scarcely the only bizarre character in it. “I grew up a fat kid, and in a way The Blerch is my former self. I run because I’m terrified of becoming that kid again.” Too much self-revelation, especially when accompanied by artfully ugly drawings of Inman’s cartoon self? But wait! There’s more! “I run long distances to feel good, not to look good,” Inman explains, showing himself mid-run as so horrendously ugly that women run screaming away from him. And “I run very fast because I desperately want to stand very still.” Too philosophical? In that case, consider Inman’s advice that when running a marathon, “DO NOT remind yourself that you paid good money for this,” because a marathon is defined as “a popular form of overpriced torture where participants wake up at ass-o-clock in the morning and stand in the freezing cold until it’s time to run, at which point they miserably trot for a god-awful amount of time that could be better spent sleeping in and/or consuming large quantities of beer and cupcakes.” Inman is always on the knife-edge of deciding never to run again, it seems, but always seems to, ahem, cut himself away from despair because, even though running is always difficult and always hurts and “you’ll never run out of reasons to take it easy,” there is something about running that makes it worthwhile – eventually. “If you’ve never run farther than a mile in your entire life, I’m willing to bet you hate running – and understandably so, [since] you’ve only experienced the crappy part.” Inman tells readers, through words like these and illustrations that range from bizarre to stranger-than-bizarre, that even though “running sucks in the beginning,” it eventually leads to something worthwhile, and that is why he runs. Will his explanation and occasional self-immolation convince non-runners to go out for marathons? Probably not – but its plainspokenness may make any sedentary person, adult or child, a touch more likely to consider some form of exercise than all the pedantic do-gooder health-focused arguments thrown out with incessant dullness by highly responsible and respectable authorities. Not bad for someone who says that “a marathon is the collective release of thousands of hours of solitary tedium taking the form of a massive crowd of strangers all choosing to hurt themselves in exactly the same way” – and makes the illustration of that comment hilarious.
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