Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #47 by Drew Barth

Live from Miami, Part 1–Patrick McDonnell

Every day for as long as I can remember, it has been difficult to go through a newspaper every morning and not see Earl or Mooch looking back from the three-panel joy of Mutts. Beginning twenty-five years ago, Mutts is the daily comic strip from Patrick McDonnell that we have all come to know and love each morning. But comic strips themselves aren’t enough to do McDonnell’s art full justice. From his more experimental works to his picture books to his work with animal shelters across the country, to encompass McDonnell’s expansive work, there needed to be more than comic strips. Enter The Art of Nothing: 25 Years of Mutts and the Art of Patrick McDonnellThe Art of Nothing is a marvelous work of both compilation and celebration—from the beginning phases of a strip of Muttsall the way to some of McDonnell’s latest work with the Jane Goodall institute—everything is here to showcase some of the best illustrative work of the century. 

Recently at Miami Book Fair, I had a chance to sit down and talk with Patrick McDonnell about The Art of Nothing as well as the quiet wonder of Mutts

Drew Barth: First off, congratulations on this: The Art of Nothing: 25 Years of Mutts and the Art of Patrick McDonnell. This is honestly one of the cooler books I’ve ever seen in terms of a retrospective of a newspaper strip comic. I have some Peanutsbooks at home, but I don’t remember them going as in-depth as this one does. 

Patrick McDonnell: Thanks, that was something I was shooting for. I wanted it to be more of an artbook than just a comic strip collection. 

DB: So how did the concept for this first come out because it’s the 25thanniversary of Muttsand it could have just been a greatest hits of strips, but this goes into a full retrospective of everything: the picture books, the work with Jane Goodall, all of that. So how did this concept come about?

PM: This is with Abrams Books and I did a book with them on the art of Muttsin 1982. And Charlie Kochman, the editor at Abrams, approached me and thought maybe we should do a twenty-fifth anniversary edition of that 2004 book. And we were thinking originally that we would just add thirty more pages to that book. And since that book there were so many things that happened with Muttsincluding the picture books that the thirty pages became more and more and so we thought “let’s just make a new book.” The twenty-fifth anniversary became its own art book. 

DB: It became its own art book with a ton of content, especially with some of your original sketches and a lot of the work-in-progress pieces.

PM: I really wanted to show the process, you know. I mean, twenty-five years of doing a strip, I really wanted that to be part of the book, so we included a lot of my sketchbooks and even the dummies I did for the picture books. I’m totally mesmerized by artists’ sketches, I always like the immediate, you know, right from the heart to the hand, I love looking at that. I thought it might be fun to include my stuff.

DB: I always love looking at that for any kind of nice artbook. Like where did it begin? We have this wonderful finished piece, but what were the sketches and the bare bones that you’re working with. And the fact that they’re here just shows off that nice beginning to end point in your process. And I was reading through the book and you mentioned that when you were selecting different strips that this was almost like going through a family phot album. Was it difficult to figure out which pieces to include?

PM: Twenty-five years is a lot of strips, that’s a lot of ink under the bridge. You have your favorites and they are like children almost to you. Even though it’s a large book with two hundred something pages, with twenty-five years there’s a lot to choose from, so it really was trying to select. I mean when it came down to me was just intuitively which ones put a smile on my face, or I felt were important to the different themes I used. It was a combination of trying to show all the different characters, but then, like I said, different themes too. The shelter story strips I do, the more spiritual strips, the more arty strips where I enjoyed playing with the medium of comic strips. I included a lot of the strips that talk about comics. 

DB: To me, those were some of the stand out ones. Especially the ones where there’s stark black panels with the little interlays of light or Mooch peaking the head in, that’s still one of my favorites. I think I remember reading that when I was much younger and then years later reading Krazy Kat and thinking “man, I can’t believe Mutts has been going on this long.”

PM: I can’t either. The daily comics strips is a strange artform. I mean, people live with it every day. When I think of Peanutsand strips I grew up with and love, they become a part of your family. It’s like a family conversation first thing in the morning. You meet your old friends and you spend some time with them. 

DB: It’s that comfort level—like a nice, warm hug with the newspaper every morning.

PM: Like family and friends. 

DB: For me every morning it was MuttsPeanuts, and Foxtrot.

PM: I call that the business section of the newspaper, for me. 

DB: You mentioned themes before and we do see those variations on different themes throughout the years and how certain strips have that certain repetition, like the shelter strips or those similar stylistic choices of the vase. There’s also that need to experiment we see with those stark contrast  strips. So what drove you to keep wanting to experiment and break out of the typical Sunday strip of three-panel funnies? 

PM: I’m a big fan of the classic comics, I love Krazy Kat and Peanutsand I compare doing a comic strip a lot to being a jazz saxophone player. I mean you play the same songs every night, which would be the themes, but then you get to solo and every night the solo is different. So with the comic strip I have certain themes—the little pink sock, the shelter stories—it’s a dog and cat strip so I do a lot about the weather, autumn when the leaves change, and then it’s like riffing on those themes in the way a saxophone player would riff on a melody. 

DB: And I love your riffs too with those large Sunday panels where it’s showing off the artists that you love as well. 

PM: Yeah, those are called the title panels. They’re also called the throwaway panels because most newspapers don’t show them because they don’t have space for them. But way back, almost from the very beginning, I though it would be fun to do little homages to different artists and illustrators that I like. It was a dangerous thing to do because they take a lot of time and time is of the essence when you draw a daily comic script. 

DB: I still think my favorite one in the book was the Big Brother and Holding Company Robert Crumb tribute. The structure was amazing especially for the more narrow space than the twelve inch record. 

PM: Crumb was a big inspiration for me. He came out when I was a teenager and I always wanted to be a cartoonist since I was a little kid and then when I was a teenager I though maybe being a cartoonist isn’t that hip. But then Bob Crumb came out and maybe cartooning can be hip.  And the fact that he did that old style that I just love. So he was a big inspiration, so being able to do the Big Brother and Holding Company as a MuttsSunday page was fun to do. 

DB: You mentioned that it’s almost like being a jazz saxophonist where you do the themes, but then you get that chance to solo, so when I see things like the picture books and the collaborative poetry it’s like that need to do those solos. 

PM: Yeah, to expand. I was doing Mutts for about ten years and I loved comics as a kid, but obviously I loved picture books too, I’m a big fan of Denslowand Winnie the Pooh, so I always wanted to do that too and I finally found a little time. I was getting a little faster with Mutts after ten years so I did The Gift of Nothingwhich was my first picture book. And I loved doing the picture books. It’s mainly to solo but in a different space. The comic strip, to a certain extent, is a routine, I mean it’s the same size, always the same medium, three panels most of the time. It becomes kind of standard, but with the picture books, I could do watercolors, oil painting, I could do anything I want, any size, I get thirty-two pages. I really get to flex the art muscle with those things. 

DB: Getting to break out of the mold, especially with those bamboo brush drawings. 

PM: I had gone to a great show at the New York Public Library of Japanese art books and that just inspired me to try to draw with those brushes and that ink. And the books I thought would be a good place to play with that. 

DB: There’s this constant theme of compassion throughout The Art of Nothingthroughout the entire work, with animals and people and how they treat their animals, especially the Guard Dog chained up all the time. And those were some of the most beautiful panels that I had seen. And you mentioned how one of your biggest influences was Charles Schulz and I always think of Peanuts as a very compassionate comic. Do you feel that Mutts was a continuation of that?

PM:Peanuts and Charles Schulz was the reason I became a cartoonist. I got so much joy and comfort from those Peanuts books as a kid that with MuttsI was just trying to give back some of that comfort and joy. Underneath all of that, Peanuts was just this kindness, and the way he drew it there was just so much love in the way he drew. So with Muttsthat was kind of the main goal. And the other thing with Mutts was that, when I started it, I really wanted the dog and cat to stay—even though they talk—I wanted to keep them as animal-like as possible because anyone who has a dog and cat know how much fun they are and how much personality they have. Most animal strips, they’re animals but mostly they’re people in animal costumes, so I really wanted them to stay that way. So my goal was to try to see through the eyes of the animals and when I started seeing how tough it is for so many animals on this planet, compassion and empathy became a big part of the strip. To talk about dogs and cats in shelters waiting for homes, it kept on growing and then I started talking about farm animals and endangered species, so compassion and empathy is a main focus of what I do. 

DB: I think one of the most powerful moments I saw in The Art of Nothingwas that strip of all the animals on the savanna just slowly fading away and there’s an impact there that hits really hard, especially when you couple it with the shelter scripts as well. So what was the main impetus to push you to start integrating that deeper animal compassion?

PM: The more I learned about animals and really trying to see through their eyes, the more empathetic I’ve gotten. And also, the planet’s in a dangerous place. Things are getting tougher. We really can’t avoid that truth anymore, I don’t think. Again, what’s nice about a comic strip, because people do see them as family—those are pretty big, strong issues—but I think with Muttsand comics I think you can kind of slip those in and people have their guard down. And like I said, because they feel like they’re family—and I try to do it entertaining, I don’t want to be too preachy with them—but I think I can reach some people. 

DB: Reading through those shelter strips did make me tear up, it was one of the more heart-wrenching things. But seeing your work and trying to raise that awareness I think is one of the best things in a daily newspaper comic. 

PM: Nothing makes me happier than when I get a letter or an email from someone saying that they were inspired to get a new best friend. And also I’m very optimistic. When I started Muttstwenty-five years ago, shelters back then were seen as scary places, people didn’t really want to go to them and that’s totally changed in twenty-five years. Now people are proud to talk about their shelter pet and there’s been a lot of progress. I’m a vegan and that’s getting so much easier all the time. The world is changing. So hopefully we all end up in the right direction. 

DB: With this book, you have the Mutts website, you have all the different picture books, collaborative work, working with Jane Goodall, where are you seeing Mutts in the future right now?

PM: There’s still the daily strip, which, amazingly even though it’s been twenty-five years, sometimes I feel like I just started and there’s plenty more to do. I’m still going to be doing picture books. There might be, there sounds like there’s a good chance, I’ve been working on a Mutts movie for a long time. I was originally with Fox Animation and then things kind of got on hold for a year because Disney bought Fox, so now Disney has Muttsand it looks like there’s a good chance they’re going to do something with that. So I’ll keep you posted, but I might be busy with a Mutts animation. And also there’s a chance, there’s a wonderful animation company called Cartoon Saloon and they’re going to try to sell Me, Janeas a TV show, the Jane Goodall collaboration I did. Hopefully it’s going to happen soon. They’re the perfect company to work on Jane Goodall. They have the sensibilities down, they really respect Jane and they love nature, so I think it’s really going to show in the cartoon. 

DB: Patrick, thank you so much for your time.

PM: Thank you so much. 

Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.