MOOCH: “Earl, can you tell me a shtory?”
EARL: “Okay. Once upon a time …”
MOOCH: “Uh … I’ve heard that one.”
So shhh-stop me if you’ve heard this one …
A mostly non-anthropomorphic cat and dog (they can talk but largely act like animals), let’s call them Mooch and Earl shall we, spend their quietly happy days in the company of their human companions Millie & Frank, and Ozzie respectively, trying to coax treats from the local butcher, get pelted with acorns by mischievous squirrels, spend summer at the beach with a feisty crab named Crabby, and glory in the simple, every day things of life, which is exactly how Mutts creator, Patrick McDonnell, wanted it to be:
“Mutt celebrates the simple. It remembers the familiar, friendly faces we see for maybe just a moment every day – the neighbour walking his dog, the bird on a branch, the shopkeeper behind the counter, the cat in the window.” (taken from Mutts: The Comic Art of Patrick McDonnell)
The amusing twosome, friends through thick and thin, innocent observers and interpreters of life, and wise, insightful philosophers alike, along with a rich and varied cast of humans and animals, have been doing their “Little Pink Sock” loving thing, to the delight of comic fans everywhere, since September 5, 1994.
Inspired by McDonnell’s then beloved terrier friend Earl, who lived to the ripe old age of 19, passing away only in 2008, Mutts, which was feted by none other than the late, great Charles Schulz (Peanuts) as “One of the best comic strips of all time”, celebrates the special bond we share with animals whether they’re our pets, local wildlife, domestic livestock (McDonnell and his wife are both committed vegetarians), or the exotic natural denizens of Africa and Asia.
It is also the celebration of the art of the comic, which is undervalued all too often as disposable and throwaway, simply because for most people comic strips last only a day and are gone (those of us in the know appreciate this is not even close to the truth, able to quite comic strips we saw years ago with fondness), with both elements beautifully combined in the stirring, inspiring, amusing, breathtakingly joyous wonder of Mutts:
“Mutts is rooted in my love for the art of the comic strip and also my love for animals. When I started the strip, I decided that my characters Earl and Mooch should remain true to their animal origins. I try to keep the anthropomorphism to a minimum, as best I can, considering the fact that they can talk. I want people to identify with them and feel that special bond that we share with our companion animals … Comics are both art and commerce. I believe in the former and live with the latter.” (taken from Mutts: The Comic Art of Patrick McDonnell)
The great joy of Mutts is that in each and every strip, McDonnell stays true to this aim, investing each panel with an artistic sensibility – strips are often done in the style of comic strips the artist grew up reading such as Popeye, Krazy Kat, Dick Tracy and The Flash, and are soaked on a day to day basis in a delightful retro style – and a clear affinity for the animals of our world, invoking wry amusement, warmhearted recognition, and laugh out loud joy that someone could capture what it is we love about cats and dogs particularly, and all animals in general, in the space of three or four exquisitely-rendered panels.
McDonnell always go to great pains to render Earl as the doggiest of dogs – “Like all dogs, Earl constantly celebrates life.He is very easy going,can often be seen walking around with a ball in his mouth, has a daily mailman dance ritual, like spaghetti, barks at squirrels, howls when left alone, sleeps at the head of the bed, and snores” – and Mooch as the cattiest of cats – “Like any cat worth his or her salt, Mooch is an enigma: curious yet relaxed, independent yet needy, out of control and yet totally cool” – and in that respect it is a celebration of every cat and dog, and indeed pet, any of us have ever spent precious time with.
It also beautifully distills the endless love and affection, and yes the amused befuddlement, that pet owners – surely there is a better term since I have often felt my pets own me, a relationship I happily embrace without complaint – experience on a daily basis as their loving animal companions behave in ways that confound our often over-thought, and over-anxious, view of the world at large.
But beyond this deeply affectionate, and lovingly catalogued recounting of the deep bonds that humans and their animal friends share, it is a call to treat all animals far better than we do, something that Spot Magazine noted in their 2012 profile of Mutts and Patrick McDonnell:
“MUTTS is more than a daily serving of levity in the funny papers. The adventures of Earl and Mooch, Ozzie and Millie, Shtinky Puddin’, Crabby and others are a meditation, a respite, and a reminder to stand witness to not only the beauty of the natural world, but also to the four-legged, winged, finned and other creatures with whom we share the planet.”
To that end, McDonnell, who has been a board member of The Humane Society of the United States since 2000, devotes entire weeks of Mutts to educating readers about the number of animals in shelters across the country (and indeed the world) looking for “forever homes” with people canny enough to realise they will gain just as much, if not more, from bringing these animals into their lives as the animals will gain in return (the video above comes via Mutts YouTube channel).
Each strip recounts heartfelt tales of animals who, though tended with great love and affection by their shelter carers, long to be living the life of Riley out in the homes, gardens and Crabby-filled beaches of the big, wide world.
He also takes time to promote wider conservation issues, mostly through the adorable presence of Shtinky Puddin’ aka Jules, who is the avowed animal advocate of the strip, with a particular affection, naturally enough for saving the beleaguered tigers of our planets who face multiple threats, including loss of habit and hunting.
It’s an essential part of Mutts identity, and an indispensable part of its narrative, something McDonnell notes has grown stronger since he became directly involved with The Humane Society, highlighted again in his profile in Spot Magazine:
“Looking through the eyes of his characters also allows McDonnell to take on more formidable issues animals face, including concerns about the growing number of endangered species, the use of animals for entertainment or food, and, of course, homeless pets/shelter animals.
‘In trying to see the world through their eyes I think I just got more and more educated about how tough it is for a lot of animals on this planet; and as I got educated, that crept into the MUTTS narrative … It became a stronger part of me and a bigger part of the strip.'”
All of these various, gloriously-realised elements come together in Mutts, a comic strip like no other, that has spent twenty infinitely wonderful years reminding us that animals are a vitally important part of our world, and that we should be doing more to love them, care for them and reward them for enriching our lives beyond measure.
Thank you Patrick McDonnell for your artfully-executed, affectionately-written, deeply insightful musings on these important fellow creatures on our planet, for the company of Mooch and Earl, Millie and Frank, Ozzie, Butchie, Shtinky Puddin’ and Crabby, among many others, and for the joy of being reminded that even in this anxious, busy, frantic modern world that there is a simple joy in just being, most especially with the ones, human and animal, that we love.