April 15, 2021


Mutts Go Green: Earth-Friendly Tips and Comic Strips. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

     It is almost impossible not to want to like Mutts Go Green. It is a book for young readers, designed to increase their environmental/ecological awareness, provide specific suggestions for things they can do to help the planet, and amuse them at the same time by featuring some of the many marvelous strips in which Patrick McDonnell espouses the cause of environmentalism. The book opens with four admonitions, each of which then becomes its own section: “Keep it KIND, Keep it CLEAN, Keep it WILD, Keep it GREEN.” A “How to” page of bullet points specific to each section follows each “Keep It” urging, and then there are illustrative Mutts strips of all sorts on display until the start of the next section.

     It is all done with care and concern and genuineness – a hallmark not only of this aspect of Mutts but also of other elements of the long-running strip, such as its “Shelter Stories” (which have also been made into a standalone book), in which McDonnell strongly argues the case for animal adoption. But Mutts Go Green comes across as a bit too argumentative, a bit too smug, a bit too self-satisfied to be fully satisfactory – at least for the adults to whom young readers will likely turn for further information and for help in implementing whichever McDonnell suggestions they find appealing.

     For example, one thing McDonnell urges is, “Go vegetarian or go vegan.” Well, maybe: there are health issues associated with doing so (which McDonnell never mentions), and there may be cost issues as well for many families (again, not mentioned); and it is an unspoken irony of the strip and of this book in particular that cats (such as central character Mooch) cannot survive on a vegetarian/vegan diet, while dogs (such as central character Earl) can do so only in limited circumstances and with costly supervision. McDonnell’s recommendation to “make kind food choices, and go meatless at least one day a week,” is far more reasonable.

     Similarly, there are issues with simplistically saying, “Avoid using pesticides. Bugs pollinate plants.” True, some bugs do. But others destroy plants, including plants that well-meaning humans may be trying to use to grow some of their own food. “Avoid using pesticides” is extremely simplistic in the absence of any recommendation about how to fend off harmful infestations; and while, of course, being simplistic is understandable in a book for young readers, an admonition that says simply to stop something – without explaining the consequences or providing any alternative – is a recipe for disappointment. A strip showing Mooch lifting a gigantic pumpkin and proudly showing it to Earl, stating, “It’s organic,” adds to the potentially disappointing result of Mutts Go Green on this topic, since many organically grown fruits and vegetables come out far smaller and far less evenly shaped than those grown using non-organic methods – and, in addition, cost substantially more. McDonnell misses an opportunity here: he could have drawn a comic showing a small, unevenly shaped pumpkin being admired by his characters because of being organic, instead of implying that organic produce is going to be bigger and more beautiful than examples that are non-organically grown.

     Some of the strips in Mutts Go Green do, however, make their point extremely effectively. Two single-panel ones on facing pages both show Mooch and Earl in a small boat, with Mooch saying, “It’s just you and me, pal.” In the first strip, McDonnell shows the huge variety of unseen water dwellers just beneath the boat, bringing home the message that those of us who live in the air are all too often unaware of the tremendous richness of life beneath water – which we neglect at our peril. The second strip then shows the below-water area without a single living organism – filled instead with humanity’s discards and waste products. The two strips together clearly show how the mistaken “just us” belief has led to unthinking pollution that humanity has a moral obligation to stop (besides which, reducing pollution is in people’s own best interests). Also reproduced here is one of the now-classic Mutts strips, a single panel divided into three thin ones stacked upon each other, the first showing an impressive collection of African animals, the second showing the same animals in outline (as if fading), and the third showing the scene with all the animals gone – above the ellipsis-led caption, “…right before our eyes.” That drawing has the power to engage, enrage and motivate, and if it is something of an overstatement, that is fine: McDonnell often uses Mutts as a bully pulpit, and pulpits are, after all, where preaching is done.

     The problem with Mutts Go Green is that it is too simplistic, even for its intended young readership, to have the kind of effect that the best Mutts advocacy strips have on their own, within the context of a comic strip that entertains as well as educates. In one strip in this book, the little cat formally named Jules but usually referred to as Shtinky Puddin’ proclaims, in his determination to save the tigers, “I’m a BIG believer in positive thinking.” Obviously, so is McDonnell. But positive thinking is scarcely enough to promote environmental activism, as McDonnell wants to do; and there are a few too many cases in Mutts Go Green in which the uplifting intent of McDonnell’s message is undermined by the rather heavy-handed way in which the message is delivered.

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