September 29, 2022


Mutts: Walking Home. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

     The love between dogs and humans, and the very different but related love between cats and humans, are pearls of great price – so great that they cannot be valued in financial terms. Whether people find strays (or the strays find them), or seek out costly special-breed companions, there is simply no way to place a financial value on what “fur babies” (the currently fashionable term) bring to the lives of those whose homes they share. One of the best things about Patrick McDonnell’s ever-lovely, ever-loving Mutts comic strip is the subtlety with which he constantly reinforces this point: that human-canine and human-feline relationships must be valued in currency far beyond what can be spent in more-mundane transactions.

     Even the cover of the latest Mutts collection, Walking Home, makes this point. It simply shows Earl the dog running along a woodland path in autumn – he is eager, with all four legs off the ground – as his human, Ozzie, meanders behind him, hands in pockets. Earl’s tail is very visibly wagging, and the connection between him and Ozzie is made all the stronger by the absence of any sort of leash or lead. The back cover expands the scene to include Mooch the cat, but the point of connection is made with the front cover alone: this sentimental scene is what these relationships, and this comic strip, are all about.

     Of course, as always, the cast of characters within the book extends beyond Earl, Mooch and Ozzie; McDonnell does not need to make exactly the same point repeatedly, although he does return to it again and again. He also returns to recurring themes that have, over the years (ever since Mutts started in 1994), become integral elements of McDonnell’s whole animal/human world. There is Mooch as “the mighty shphinx,” filled with bad advice and malapropisms. There are the Valentine’s Day poems reflecting various characters’ personalities. There is Mooch’s preoccupied play time with his “little pink sock.” There is the “Mutts Book Club,” in which Mooch talks about books (or at least their titles) with other characters, most often the squirrels, Bip and Bop: “Today’s book is ‘Thinner,’” says Mooch. The response: “It must’ve had its appendix removed.”

     And then there are the strips that reach out philosophically, such as the single-panel one featuring this quotation from Jules Verne: “I believe cats to be spirits come to earth. A cat, I am sure, could walk on a cloud without coming through.” And McDonnell simply shows Mooch strolling along a cloud top. In Walking Home, the philosophical element of the strip becomes exceptionally significant, since there is a remarkable sequence in which the longstanding “Fatty Snax Deli” is transformed into an entirely-plant-based food shop after owner Butch stares into the eyes of the animals at a farm sanctuary. The very extended sequence, which shades into the animal advocacy for which Mutts is well-known (and which, admittedly, McDonnell does sometimes overdo), ends with a quotation from Albert Einstein: “Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” Yes, this is very preachy, and yes, it is a bit much, and yes, it removes one of the few sources of conflict in the strip – Earl and Mooch have been longstanding would-be customers who have always gotten on Butch’s nerves, but now everyone is on the same page. Yet when it comes to animal advocacy, the usual conflicts inherent in comic strips – heck, even the unusual ones – take a back seat to McDonnell’s firm beliefs and his determination to use Mutts to further them. Of course that means Walking Home contains “Shelter Stories,” advocating adoption, as well as an extended cartoon tribute to Jane Goodall, whom McDonnell reveres and often mentions. Also present in the book are numerous instances in which McDonnell shows his familiarity with long-ago comic strips (Popeye and Olive Oyl feature prominently in one sequence) and his knowledge of fine art (Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” for example).

     So Mutts is a richly textured strip, and one whose value is determinable, at least in terms of the price of book collections such as Walking Home. Its underlying themes, however, really cannot be valued in any financial sense. Indeed, a single-panel offering in the latest collection, containing a mere four words, sums up what the entire strip is about, and encapsulates its foundational non-monetary value. The panel shows Ozzie and Earl side by side on a beach as the sun sets over calm water, and the caption simply states, “Dogs make people human.”

No comments:

Post a Comment