January 03, 2019
(++++) AS WILD AS USUAL
You Have Those Wild Eyes Again, Mooch: A “Mutts” Treasury. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.
One of the most subtly erudite, yet compellingly sweet, comic strips of all time, Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts has an enduring underlying simplicity that meshes amazingly well with McDonnell’s in-depth knowledge of earlier strips and his interest in art in general. Again and again, the Mutts collections show McDonnell trotting out foundational themes of the strip – concern for the planet’s ecology, “Shelter Stories” emphasizing the importance of adopting animal companions – with recurring patterns: single-panel horizontal strips in which a scene enacts or responds to a quotation; “Mutts Book Club” sequences, in which Mooch the cat presents book titles to Bip and Bop, the acorn-hurling squirrels, who respond wryly, amusingly or sarcastically; strips in which an animal character is cast as a classroom teacher; ones showing Mooch as “The Mighty Shphinx,” responding to the comments of other characters with something less than wisdom; and more. Yet McDonnell keeps Mutts ever-new within its elements of familiarity through sheer force of will, prodigious talent, and the willingness to tweak the strip constantly to prevent it from becoming formulaic.
Thus, the latest Mutts “Treasury” volume pays occasional homage to other strips’ treatment of animal companions, and to the way cats and dogs behave in real life, as when Mooch meows loudly in the early morning, waking up the people he lives with, and is told, “It’s too early. Wait for the alarm” – leading Mooch to observe, “I thought I was the alarm.” Exactly right! This “Treasury” also refers several times to a McDonnell-illustrated poetry volume from 2017, Daniel Ladinsky’s Darling, I Love You, even showing that book’s cover in one Sunday strip. And You Have Those Wild Eyes Again, Mooch plays more games than usual with some of its regular elements, such as the “News” panels featuring Sourpuss the cat reading from behind a desk: he barely starts reading at one point when the shout “FAKE NEWS!” emerges loudly from outside the panel – leading to the remark, “What do you expect!? I’m in the comics section!”
McDonnell is always well aware of being in “the comics section” and of the place of Mutts within the long history of comic strips. One full week of six strips contains the same quotation every day from Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame: “A cartoonist is someone who has to draw the same thing day after day without repeating himself.” In marvelously self-referential style, that is exactly what McDonnell does in all six strips, using Mooch and his best friend, Earl the dog, slightly but significantly differently each time. This is a real tour de force that perhaps only McDonnell’s fellow lovers of the comic-strip medium will fully appreciate, but that even casual readers are sure to enjoy.
The cleverness of McDonnell’s handling of the comic-strip medium is hard to overstate. In one three-panel Sunday strip, Mooch is “the cat wizard,” casting a spell for Earl. The first panel is right-side-up. The second is upside down, but with the word “oops” right-side-up. The third, with the punchline, must be turned over to be read – and the punchline is, “My book was upside down.” (This strip also contains a very rare McDonnell error. Mooch calls himself “Prosphero,” which is not quite how his usual speech pattern goes. On the next page, a daily strip on the same “cat wizard” theme has it right: “Proshpero.”) The “cat wizard” sequence proves to be a wonderful encapsulation of McDonnell’s skill and several of his themes. In one three-panel strip, Mooch tells Earl he can see the future and then peeks around the side of the second panel to a blank third panel, telling Earl the future is “empty for now.” In another, Mooch brings himself and Earl “into the future” – that is, to the third panel, which is certainly the future because, Mooch explains, “the copyright don’t lie” (pointing with his wand to the copyright notice at the bottom). Yet the sequence ends with one of McDonnell’s homey and deeply felt themes, one that explains the wonderfulness of animals and what they bring to humans’ lives: Earl tells Mooch that “you can’t live in the past or the future. You can only live in the now.” And Mooch agrees: “Yesh. That’s the real magic.”
One other special feature of this very special “Treasury” bears noting. One strip in the “cat wizard” sequence takes Mooch and Earl back in time, “back to when we were pencil sketches,” with a third and last panel showing the two friends barely formed, made up of just a few basic shapes. This is very funny in itself. But anyone who wonders at the expressive detail pervading Mutts will find the panel almost too simple – and will therefore be doubly amazed at the last 10 pages of You Have Those Wild Eyes Again, Mooch, which include actual early versions of many sequences in the book. Lo and behold, McDonnell really does start with simple, basic shapes, just like other cartoonists – and lo and behold, he refines those shapes with such delicacy and skill that he consistently produces wonderfully individualized and emotionally communicative characters of all sorts (including humans, despite their distinctly subsidiary role in Mutts). McDonnell is something of a marvel, which explains why You Have Those Wild Eyes Again, Mooch, is something marvelous.