Comics review: Mutts – Hot Dogs, Hot Cats by Patrick McDonnell

(cover image courtesy Andrews McMeel Publishing)

Reading Mutts, by cartoonist, playwright and author Patrick McDonnell, is never not a joy.

To co-opt a phrase popularised by Snoopy from Peanuts by the legendary Charles M. Schulz – this is okay you would surmise since Schulz called Mutts “one of the best comic strips of all time” – happiness is falling into 200 pages of Mutts comics and not emerging until you have luxuriated in each and every one of McDonnell’s artistic creations.

The 200 pages in question belong to Hot Dogs, Hot Cats, the latest treasury released for the comic strip, which premiered on the 5th September 1994, which brings together many of the 2018 instalments along along with delightful artwork.

Actually there is little about Mutts that doesn’t feel like a charming, huggable work of art.

McDonnell is one of those comic strip artists who invest as much beauty and artistry as he does humour and charm into his comic creation, and it is evident one every page of this wonderful collection.

There is something wonderful about having all of a year’s comic strips in one place; while getting them daily via email, or in a newspaper if you’re lucky to go old school, is sublime daily pleasure, having the ability to read them all, one after the other, to pick up on flavours and themes, is a rare and special thing.

You notice for instance, though you could hardly miss it, how much humanity McDonnell pours into Mutts.

It’s cute sure – how could you not love cat Mooch and dog Earl who are snuggly cuteas any animal can be? – but it is far more than that because McDonnell goes to a tremendous amount of evident effort to invest each and every panel with a huge amount of meaning.

A committed vegan and owner of at least one cat and one dog, the artist is a dedicated animal rights campaigner who doesn’t pitch his philosophy in some haranguingly ugly way but rather couching every entreaty, every charmingly clad entreaty, in a heartwarming and thoughtful appeal to our (hopefully) shared humanity.

This is some mawkish twee appeal either; cute as a button and sweetly funny as each and every strip may be, they are rooted in a sense that we should treat animals and the world around us as we would like to be treated.

In other words, if you desire good, kind and respectful things to be done to you, then you should do the same, not simply to other people but to the other beings with which we share the planet.

Patrick NcDonnell (image via Wikipedia)

It’s a motivating and grounded philosophy that feeds into any number of the prevailing themes that McDonnell runs with in a given year of strips, all of which are on gloriously good display in Hot Dogs, Hot Cats.

Take the recurring “Shelter Stories” series which simply and movingly tell stories about all the animals needing adoption or fostering in shelter homes everywhere.

And it’s not just cats and dogs in the spotlight here – think ferrets and any other living thing in need of a good, loving and forever home; the need for these animals to find somewhere safe to belong never goes away, and McDonnell is an ardent campaigner for these animals who otherwise might not find a place to call home.

But Mutts goes wider and bigger than this even, calling on to consider the planet as a place we should treat with honour and respect.

This is not New Age-y, wishy-washy theme either – McDonnell puts substance and robust thought behind these appeals to our collective sense of responsibility to keep the environment safe and clean for all of us, and you walk away from strips, such as Thanksgiving series which features all kinds of animals giving thanks for wildlife conservation groups, vegans and vegetarians, and if you’re a chimpanzee, Jane Goodall, buoyed by the idea that something, something concrete can be done.

You don’t have to agree with the specific targets of thanks but you can’t help but feel like the message in Mutts is actionable and livable in a way that many similar entreaties to love the world around us simply aren’t.

Mutts may have delightful, sweet and lovely moments, and very silly humour that captures the weirdness and wonder of cats and dogs in particular and pets in general, and that is part of its joyful, evergreen appeal, but it is also muscular in its messaging and practical in what it asks you to do.

It is, as Hot Dogs, Hot Cats shows again and again, whimsically delightful too.

Mooch, for instance, spends many of the winter days when he isn’t trying to hibernate and convince Earl to join him under the most snuggable, doona(duvet)-covered beds imaginable, leading a pun-heavy book club with the wisecracking birds of the neighbourhood.

It’s silly and daffy but it is so much fun, as are the panels where the two pals play with the conventions of comic strips and muse about various techniques they could employ to make Mutts fun, especially on the days where they (and naturally this means McDonnell) have no idea what to say or do.

These strips are existential nuggets of delight, ostensibly about nothing but really about everything – about friendship, companionship, silliness and seriousness, about a profound sense of belonging that comes from a shared sense of experience but also the goofy pleasures of just mucking around and being a gentle, benignly silly fool because when isn’t that hugely enjoyable?

Never is the answer and this and a thousand other good and wonderful things are distilled in Mutts in general and Hot Dogs, Hot Cats in particular, a collection of strips that is infused with the warmth and spirit and thoughtfulness of a comic strip that is delightful, heartwarming and always a balm for the weary soul who wonders if there is any good left in the world.

There is, and it’s name is Mutts and it is, as ever, the most delightful of delights and the perfect antidote to all the COVID-19 bleakness assailing us at the moment.

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