March 26, 2020
(++++) RELIABLY RELATABLE
Hot Dogs, Hot Cats: A “Mutts” Treasury. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.
The slow death of the newspaper business is troubling on many levels, including often-discussed ones relating to oversight of government and coverage of local issues – and less-often-noted ones, such as the sad decrease in venues for that most American of art forms, the comic strip. Yes, comics can move online and even be created there in the first place – and that works in a number of cases. But the highest-quality comics, the ones with the most artistic value, simply do not have the impact online that they have in print: they may have survived the miniaturization to which comics were subjected in newspapers in recent decades, but they are just not as effective on screens, much less the small screens of smartphones, as on newsprint.
The cartoonists who are most aware of comic-strip history (and art history in general) suffer the most in current circumstances, which makes books of their strips – showing sequences not only on paper but also in a reasonable size – all the more valuable. Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts seems particularly to cry out for presentation in book form: one item in Hot Dogs, Hot Cats, for example, is McDonnell’s hilarious-yet-touching version of Henri Rousseau’s famous 1897 painting, “The Sleeping Gypsy,” and there is no possible way to convey the effectiveness of McDonnell’s work except on paper, where Millie takes the gypsy’s place, Mooch the cat assumes the role of Rousseau’s lion, and McDonnell’s moon looks gently and very humanly down on the scene.
McDonnell is well aware of the stresses to which comic strips have been and continue to be subjected: his characters often interact with readers or discuss their own ink-on-paper lives among themselves – as in a strip in which a squirrel tells Mooch and Earl (the dog) that he has an idea for a strip that, unfortunately, may not work, because (as the squirrel explains in the third and final panel), “It needs four panels.” But McDonnell does not overdo the self-referential material, instead using recurring themes to keep Mutts readily identifiable and, at the same time, always new. There is, for example, “Mutts Book Club,” in which (in panel 1) Mooch welcomes squirrels Bip and Bop, tells them (in panel 2) what book will be discussed, and gets a snarky response (in panel 3). One sequence has Mooch promising that he will “be reviewing ‘The Idiot,’” a comment leading to the remark, “I love autobiographies.” Another recurring series, “Shelter Stories,” warmly examines the imagined thoughts of unadopted animals and their joy at eventually joining a human family. For instance, a dog named “Sweetie” has severe separation anxiety but is finally adopted by people who “are committed to helping and keeping me!” In the final panel of one strip in this series, Sweetie wears an expression of gratitude and delight: “No wonder I love people so much.” It takes a heart of stone to remain unmoved at some of what McDonnell does with the “Shelter Stories” idea.
It is true that McDonnell sometimes overdoes the “cause” elements of Mutts, forgetting that straightforward advocacy is not something that comic strips, even excellent ones, do particularly well. For example, in Hot Dogs, Hot Cats, one series featuring very long single panels (instead of multiple short ones) is called “Thanks Giving.” The first of these has a number of the regular Mutts characters bowing their heads, while seated at a human table, to bless “shelter workers, rescue groups, foster programs, adopters.” So far, so good. But the next series entry has a sheep, chicken, duck, pig and cow at the table to bless “farm animal sanctuaries” – a bit of a stretch. And a couple of panels later there is one to bless “vegetarians and vegans” – which is really a little too much. Still, if McDonnell occasionally overdoes things, his outright advocacy is balanced by strips that are entirely for fun and exceptionally funny, such as a Halloween sequence in which Mooch dares a witch to turn Earl into a frog, and then, when she appears to oblige, exclaims, “HA! That’s a toad.” (Yes, Earl becomes a dog again – through the time-honored “it was only a dream” plot twist.) Elsewhere, in a beautifully colored Sunday strip set at the beach, Earl asks if Mooch would like to go in the water, and Mooch turns into a gigantic Moochian lightning bolt of exclamatory (but wordless) hysteria before quietly saying, “No.” And then there is the attempt by Earl and Mooch to get in on the popular “big head dog pictures” craze by expanding their own heads to enormous size and looking thoroughly ridiculous. There is a lot of well-modulated ridiculousness in Mutts.
This particular collection’s title has an interesting provenance: the book includes a two-panel color page featuring art by “Ruby Wetzel, our editor Lucas’s seven-year-old daughter,” featuring “Hot Dogs” (drawn fairly realistically) on the left and “Hot Cats” (not drawn realistically at all) on the right. Perhaps Ruby is a McDonnell-in-the-making. Unfortunately, by the time she can refine her skills enough to bring them anywhere close to McDonnell’s, there may be no venue where she can practice the cartooning craft – at least no venue with the effectiveness of the old-fashioned newspaper. Presumably Ruby and her readers will adapt, as so many creators and enjoyers of comic strips have already adapted to a world gone so thoroughly online. But something has surely been lost in the transition away from printed comic strips – and books such as Hot Dogs, Hot Cats show just how significant the loss is. Hopefully books themselves – real, ink-on-paper books – will not go completely out of fashion, and will continue to provide a resting place for comic art whose quality is on the level of what McDonnell offers, consistently and often brilliantly, in Mutts.