November 04, 2021


Mutts Moments. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

     The latest collection of Patrick McDonnell’s superb Mutts comic strip restores and reaffirms the magical qualities that have made it so special for a quarter of a century (the book includes a single-panel cartoon marking the strip’s 25th year). McDonnell remains one of the most talented of all cartoonists, and one of the most aware of the field’s rich history and its capacity for communicating viscerally in ways that words alone cannot. Over the years, though, he has sometimes lapsed into stridency because of his very strong, heartfelt commitment to environmental issues and other deeply felt causes. That depth of commitment is still very much present in Mutts Moments, but it is leavened by less-insistent material whose sense of history and/or sheer joy in the comic-strip medium can make readers much more receptive to the “cause” strips when they appear.

     McDonnell is an expert at variations on a theme. This would not be a Mutts collection without sequences of “Shelter Stories,” his adoption-advocacy strips, and of course those are here and are as heartwarming as always. But McDonnell rings a change on the strips by having one series named not for the animals living in hope of adoption but for the people who eventually adopt them – a warm and clever way to emphasize the joys of adopting and being adopted by a loving companion from an animal shelter. Other sequences here are satisfyingly more of the same, such as a Valentine’s Day series – each one, this time, using a different quotation from Shakespeare – and strips in which Mooch the cat becomes the “all-knowing Shphinx.”

     Still, in a few cases here, McDonnell does come on so strongly in advocacy mode that he may get a bit beyond even the best-intentioned readers – as when, during a series about how many species “are on the verge of extinction thanks to human interference,” he has the little cat Shtinky Puddin’ ruminate, “Hmmm…it seems like there might be one species too many.” That may be off-putting to readers, as may a Sunday strip on the same topic – in which Shtinky Puddin’ makes an “endangered list” that includes “empathy, compassion, kindness, sympathy, decency, sensitivity,” and 20 more characteristics of the same kind.

     Elsewhere, though, McDonnell’s cartooning ability and knowledge of the medium are a marvel. Or, as the case may be, a Marvel: two collaborative comics here were inked by a well-known Marvel Comics artist; one series features Mooch in the guise of various Marvel characters; and a delightful Sunday strip has Mooch and Earl identifying possible Marvel superheroes in everyday creatures (ant, wasp, etc.), leading Earl to comment that “the world’s a marvel.” And this is just one set of subtle “tribute” strips in Mutts Moments. There is also a delightful sequence in which Mooch sits atop a doghouse, in the recognizable style of Snoopy from Peanuts, and tries to get the structure to fly as Snoopy did. There are also two McDonnell references to George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, which (like Peanuts) is one of the greatest comic strips of all time – although far less known than Peanuts to readers today. One Sunday Mutts strip literally revolves around Herriman’s basic notion of “mouse throws brick at cat and cat thinks it is a token of love” – literally, because the center of McDonnell’s strip is an actual Herriman panel of Ignatz and Krazy, which provokes comments and reactions from Earl and Mooch. There is also a Sunday strip in which Mooch climbs out of the first panel to see the title Mutts, declares himself not to be a “mutt” and to want a better title, and ends up facing a billboard (in Herriman-style lettering and decoration) saying “Krazy Kat,” with Earl commenting, “That works.”

     The “meta” panels in Mutts Moments, such as the climbing-outside-the-box one, are few but uniformly delightful: also here is a full-week series (that is, six three-panel weekday strips) in which Earl and Mooch discuss readers, punchlines and panel arrangements. Yet many of McDonnell’s most magical creations are ones in which he simply shows off his own tremendous writing-and-drawing skill. One amazing entry for an icy winter Sunday shows Earl, Mooch and Shtinky Puddin’ as pinwheels, a superb illustration of slipping and sliding that must have been a huge (and presumably welcome) challenge to draw. Another very large single panel, also for a Sunday, shows Earl and Mooch in their usual form and colors but everything else – the vast majority of the art – in shades of gray, with Mooch observing, “I love gray days.” And speaking of Mooch’s form, one of his characteristics is a bright red nose, which McDonnell uses perfectly in still another Sunday strip to mark “Red Nose Day,” a campaign against child poverty: in this strip, everything is gray except the characters’ noses, all of which (not just Mooch’s) are red. That is a wonderfully effective bit of messaging and a truly impressive use of the comic-strip medium for spot-on communication. Mutts Moments, taken as a whole, is no less than a 208-page helping of Mutts marvelousness.

No comments:

Post a Comment