April 13, 2017


“Mutts” Shelter Stories: Love. Guaranteed. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

Big Mushy Happy Lump: A “Sarah’s Scribbles” Collection. By Sarah Andersen. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

I Feel Bad. Every Day. About Everything. By Orli Auslander. Blue Rider Press. $20.

     The notion that comics are only for children was the result of the emasculation that comic books suffered in the 1950s, the McCarthy era, in a wave of hysteria drummed up largely by Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (1954) and skillfully manipulated by moral crusaders of the time for purposes of their own. In more-recent years, comics have been slowly but surely reestablishing themselves as a highly effective form of visual-plus-verbal communication not only for children but also for adults – with adult themes ranging from sex and violence (underground comics in the United States, hentai cartoons in Japan) to equally adult but less flashy matters such as becoming a grown-up, entering the workplace, developing relationships, handling student debt, and more. There are, however, very, very few cartoonists who can create strips that appeal both to adults and to children. One of that elite group is Patrick McDonnell. His Mutts strips are done in an outwardly simple drawing style that is in fact very difficult to manage (much as was the case for Charles Schulz’ Peanuts). Many of the strips are simple, child-friendly adventures in home, school and yard, with interesting anthropomorphic animals talking to each other and interacting with the humans who show up from time to time. But there is always an undercurrent of seriousness in McDonnell’s work, never more clearly than in his excellent Shelter Stories – a kind of strip-with-a-strip in which he presents lovable, love-desiring adoptable animals (usually but not always dogs and cats) and imagines what they would say to people if they could talk. By literally giving shelter animals a voice, McDonnell makes a very strong case for adoption rather than purchase of a pet – a case that, while it can sometimes be overdone and become strident, is most of the time delivered with exceptional artistic skill and emotional punch. A hardcover collection of Shelter Stories, with comics interspersed with photos of actual adopted animals and comments by the people who gave them homes, was published in 2008 and is now available in paperback – and it is more than worth a second look. The material here, both McDonnell’s and that taken from the real world, is enough to bring tears to a reader’s eyes. McDonnell’s endearing portraits of caged, rescued animals are amazingly sensitive, and his occasional use of his enormous talent for incorporating famous fine art into his strip – a touch of Matisse here, a bit of Raphael there – makes this book very special indeed. In fact, it is every bit as special as the many, many wonderful adoptable animals whose lives McDonnell, a strong advocate for animals, has been responsible for saving. The inclusion at the end of information on how to go about adopting a pet makes the heart-tugging plight portrayed in the book easy to diminish, and – as the photos and stories of real-world pets show – enormously satisfying.

     Adult matters of a different sort are explored by Sarah Andersen in her Sarah’s Scribbles cartoons, the second collection of which, Big Mushy Happy Lump, offers more of the wry and amusing (but, beneath it all, rather serious) observation found in the first, Adulthood Is a Myth. In the new book, Sarah’s big-eyed cartoon alter ego has everyday adventures to which adults of any age (not just millennials) should be able to relate. In one sequence, she looks around her messy home and thinks of how much she has to do – after which a stick figure labeled “Motivation” leaps away from her, out the window, and runs away, leaving Sarah as, well, a big mushy happy (and unmotivated) lump. Elsewhere, there is a sequence that every cat owner will recognize: the cat tries to decide where to nap, considering all the comfortable spots around the house (cat bed, human bed, couch) before deciding to flop on the computer keyboard while cartoon Sarah is trying to work. Then there are “Costumes to Scare Millennials,” one of which is “gluten” (a bread-slice costume) and another of which is “cell phone bill” (a Dracula-like figure saying, “I have come to drain your finances”). There is an occasional fashion strip here, such as “Describe Your Style,” in which spring is “casual and pretty,” summer is “light and fun,” fall is “comfy, cozy layers,” and winter is “ball of hatred trying to stay warm” – each description perfectly illustrated. There is a growing-up sequence showing cartoon Sarah being praised for intelligence in elementary school, middle school, and high school, until – in college – another of those stick figures, this one labeled “Reality,” slaps her in the face and says, “You are utterly average.” Toward the end of Big Mushy Happy Lump, Andersen provides some self-evaluative writing and then illustrates it, instead of having her feelings communicated strictly through cartoons. For instance, she writes, “I’m not good at interacting with the world. In fact, I’ve never been good at interacting with the world.” And then she shows various sorts of people in social situations: social butterfly, chameleon, wallflower – and herself as “a social blobfish.” Then, explaining her tendency to overthink and thus over-worry, she imagines “a superhero whose super power is the ability to say, ‘I don’t care.’” And then she draws a stick figure labeled “Over Thinking” worrying about possible social problems, only to be knocked down and defeated by a caped hero who flies in to state, “I don’t care.” Both the adult themes and the ways of coping with them are particularly skillfully handled in these “essay” parts of the book as well as in the part that communicate strictly through cartoon sequences.

     Andersen’s worries seem like nothing, however, compared with those that Orli Auslander explores at extended guilt-ridden length in I Feel Bad. Every Day. About Everything. Just think about that title – it sounds as if this is a book of therapy affirmations (or de-affirmations), not a book of cartoons. In fact, it is both: Auslander started doing these drawings as a form of therapy to cope with her incessant guilt feelings, but soon found that the panels connected with other people and could be a form of artistic expression – “neurotics love company,” Auslander opines. The fact is that while Auslander’s personal circumstances are entirely her own, her way of expressing her concerns, worries and fears does connect her with people who have concerns, worries and fears of their own, although not the same ones. Auslander helpfully numbers her illustrated “I Feel Bad” thoughts from 1 to 100, although the numbers do not in themselves have any particular meaning. Number 4, for instance, has her packing lunch for her son, who asks what he is having, to which Auslander (worried about the health content of just about everything) is shown saying, “The usual, honey. Cancer on whole wheat, fruit wrapped in cancer, and cancer juice.” On the counter is a roll of “Toxic Wrap.” Number 18 is “I buy my kids too many toys,” with an illustration of a huge Target store bearing a gigantic banner on the front, “Welcome Orli.” Number 31 is “my husband’s always the fun one,” showing Orli on one page encircled by comments such as “That’s bad for you,” “Put him down,” and “That’s too loud,” while the opposite page shows her husband, dressed as a smiling clown, surrounded by comments such as “Candy for breakfast?” and “Fireworks in the yard!” Number 68 is “I want to control everything and everyone,” showing small illustrations of Auslander telling an airline, “Too many delays,” telling her son, “Too much sugar,” telling her husband, “Too much spending,” and so on. Other numbered self-imposed guilt trips involve Auslander’s opinion of her body, her sex life, her enjoyment of vodka and marijuana, and more. None of her worries is really the remotest bit funny, but what she communicates so well here is that everybody has his or her own worries, fears, uncertainties, dissatisfactions and small-scale forms of unhappiness. These cartoons make it clear that Auslander’s particular concerns are specific to her – but at the same time touch a universal cord because she, like everyone who reads this book, has the misfortune…or good fortune…to be human.

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