Patrick McDonnell, Creator of Mutts

14 November 2003

   Who would guess that an uncomplicated comic strip about a dog and a cat might help improve the lives of real dogs and cats? The stars of the Mutts comic strip, Earl and Mooch don’t walk on their hind feet or talk to their humans. They play outside, chase other animals and are taunted endlessly by nut-tossing squirrels. Their strong base for humour is that they act just like we expect dogs and cats to behave. It is obvious through his work in Mutts that cartoonist Patrick McDonnell is an animal lover, using his acclaimed strip to promote animal rights and safety.

    Annually since 1998, Patrick McDonnell has included a week-long series of strips in Mutts to promote the Humane Society of the United States’ National Animal Shelter Week. Calling the strips “Shelter Stories,” McDonnell recounts stories about animal shelters, both happy and sad, to attract attention to animal plights and to promote adoptions. He has used characters Earl and Mooch to benefit wellness clinics, Pet Fest and other Humane Society events. McDonnell has also designed a licence plate for New Jersey to help raise funds for the state’s Animal Population Control Fund.

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    Mutts is a deceptively simple, happy comic. With minimal backgrounds to set the stage, Earl the dog, Mooch the cat, assorted animal friends and several humans are illustrated in clear, clean detail, similar in style to Peanuts and McDonnell’s favourite, "Krazy Kat." Each critter has a well-developed personality that draws the reader in to sympathize, understand and laugh.

The cartoonist is no newcomer to techniques of the art form. McDonnell knew he wanted to be a cartoonist by the ripe old age of four. He received much encouragement from his parents, who them-selves met at art school. His mom became a teacher of fashion design and assistant superintendent of schools. His dad, knowing it would be difficult to make a solid living as an artist, became a beer salesman. The McDonnell family also included two more sons and a daughter. *(1)

    Majoring in illustration at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, McDonnell graduated in 1978 with a Bachelor’s degree. He immediately and boldly took his illustration portfolio to two syndicates but faced rejection by both. Instead, he found work illustrating the Russell Baker column in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. He held the post for 10 years. McDonnell’s professional illustration work also appeared in Parents Magazine (the monthly Bad Baby strip), Reader’s Digest, Sports Illustrated, Time and Forbes, just to name a few.

   Mutts grew out of McDonnell’s continuing art work. “The whole time I was doing magazine illustrations, it was like a comic strip in my head. I was using the same characters in a lot of my illustrations, and sometimes I even used word balloons,” he said in an interview with princetoninfo.com. King Features picked up the cartoonist’s submission and launched Mutts into syndication in 1994. “As soon as I tried the strip,” McDonnell added, “I felt I was home.” Mutts now appears in more than 500 newspapers in 20 countries around the world.

    The amusing comic strip immediately attracted the attention of delighted comics fans and animal lovers. McDonnell received the National Cartoonist Society’s “Best Comic Strip of the Year” in 1997 plus the prestigious Reuben award for Cartoonist of the Year in 1999. The Max and Moritz “International Cartoonist of the Year” was given to McDonnell from Germany in 1998 and he earned the Harvey Award for “Best Comic Strip five times – 1997, 1999, 2001, 2002 and 2003. McDonnell has received numerous awards from the HSUS, including two Genesis Awards, in 1997 and 1999, and the PETA Humanitarian Award in 2001. He holds a position as a member of the Board of Directors of the Humane Society of the United States.

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    Since the first book of Mutts strips was published in 1996, there have been seven more collections put out, including “Mutts Sundays” and “Sunday Mornings.” The latest offerings of strips are “What Now?” published in 2001 by Andrews McMeel Publishing, plus the autobiographical "Mutts: The Comic Art of Patrick McDonnell" is due out in November, 2003, by Abrams. Mutts can also be found in calendars, Gibson Greetings cards and in a Japanese lifestyle magazine entitled “Mutts Magazine.” As McDonnell is a comics history buff, he and his wife Karen O’Connell co-wrote the book “Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Harriman,” published by Abrams in 1986. (Karen O’Connell also works in computers and is a yoga instructor.)

    Patrick McDonnell prefers his comic strip to have meaning, to tell stories. “You’re trying to write a little novel. I really enjoy doing those,” McDonnell noted. His Mutts comic strip earned distinguished kudos from high places; it was a favourite of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz. In the foreword of the first Mutts collection Schulz wrote, “To me, 'Mutts' is exactly what a comic strip should be. It is always fun to look at, and the two main characters are wonderfully innocent… I like everything about 'Mutts.” He added his most glowing compliment, “He keeps coming up with ideas I wish I had thought of myself.”

    High praise, helping the animal cause and making readers laugh – it sounds like Patrick McDonnell has reached great success with thoughtfulness and classic cartooning.

*(1) An interview with Patrick McDonnell by Nicole Plett:
http://www.princetoninfo.com/200010/01018p06.html

Mutts home page:
http://muttscomics.com/index.asp

http://www.kingfeatures.com/features/comics/mutts/about.htm

http://www.hsus.org/ace/18503

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© Susanna McLeod 2003
TheCartoonists.ca  
     
(Originally published in The Cartoonists on suite101.com.)