Nuts for Mutts

Nuts for Mutts
Patrick McDonnell's comic canines speak the truth of the animal soul

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Certain great artists have the ability to touch the human heart by speaking the truth of the human soul. Van Gogh is one that instantly comes to mind; DaVinci is another. But while most people would hesitate to include a comic strip artist in such a pantheon, fans of the internationally beloved Mutts comic could put forward a good argument for the inclusion of the strip's creator, Patrick McDonnell, whose work succeeds in touching the human heart by speaking the truth of the animal soul.

Wildly popular since its inception in 1994, Mutts is now published in 20 countries, a testament to its nearly universal appeal. The strip is rich with memorable, delightful, and often touching characters, but the stars of the show are undoubtedly Earl, a belly-rub-obsessed little dog, and his best friend, Mooch, an amiably self-centered cat who likes to answer questions with a resounding "Yesh!" Their antics and their relationships with their human caregivers form the core of the strip, but even the less frequently seen characters are imbued with tremendous individuality and charm.

McDonnell's draws in a timeless style that hearkens back to the classic comics like Krazy Kat, Popeye, and Peanuts that ignited his dreams to become a cartoonist. "I always wanted to be a cartoonist," McDonnell explains, "and I've been doodling as long as I can remember." Raised by parents who encouraged his artistic endeavours, McDonnell won a scholarship to the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where he studied painting, video, sculpture, and illustration.

"When I graduated," he recalls, " I brought my school portfolio around and became successful as a freelance illustrator for The New York Times Magazine, Forbes, Time, etc., and I drew a comic strip for Parents magazine called Bad Baby. After about ten years, I decided to try what I really wanted to do, and submitted an idea for a comic strip to several syndicates. King Features accepted the strip, and Mutts was born."

McDonnell grew up longing for a dog in a household run by a cat-preferring mom, and it wasn't until he was an adult that he finally achieved his dream of dog guardianship with a dog named Earl. The special bond the two quickly developed was one of the driving forces that inspired him to create Mutts, but it is difficult to say whether the real Earl's entrance into his life was a case of life imitating art, or the other way around.

"When I was illustrating, I was fortunate to have a weekly job doing the Russel Baker column for the New York Times for ten years, until Baker retired," McDonnell explains. "For that column, I used a funny mustached character (now Ozzie) and his little dog (now Earl). Since I had always wanted a dog, I eventually left NYC for the suburbs, where there was space for a dog to play. I was looking for a little dog that looked like the dog from my illustrations. When I found him, he was a Jack Russell Terrier named Earl."

Earl has now been McDonnell's cherished companion for 16 years and McDonnell has nothing but praise for the lively little fellow. "He is everything I ever dreamed a dog would be," McDonnell says. "I couldn't ask for a better best friend." McDonnell adds that most of the strips involving Earl and his devoted human, Ozzie, are in fact autobiographical, which has given the world a chance to share in the joy and love McDonnell has found in his canine soulmate.

Love and laughter are certainly found in abundance within the world of Mutts, yet there is a serious side to the strip, as well. Many of the characters and stories express McDonnell's deep concerns with animal welfare and environmental issues, his deft but gentle presentation making a real difference in the lives of many. One way he has done this is with the week of "Shelter Stories" he creates each November to promote animal adoption.

"I had been toying with the idea of trying to help out animals who are homeless," says McDonnell, "to give them a voice in the strip. Coincidentally, the HSUS [Humane Society of the United States] contacted me to let me know that there was a National Animal Shelter Awareness Week in November. It seemed a perfect opportunity to use my concept and to get the message out. Nothing makes me happier than when I get a letter from someone saying that Mutts inspired them to adopt an animal from the shelter."

Some of the strip's regular characters also serve to convey McDonnell's message of concern for all life. A poignant example is Guard Dog, who must endure the suffering of being tied on a chain all day. "I use Guard Dog to motivate people to see life through his eyes and to hopefully unchain their own dogs or to have a discussion with their neighbours who may have a dog that is chained, to create a public discussion to end this insanity," says McDonnell. "My belief in the sacredness of all life and my attitude towards the environment permeates and sets the tone for Mutts."

With such sentiments readily evident in his art, it is not surprising to learn that McDonnell is a vegetarian working towards a completely vegan lifestyle. "My wife, Karen, and I consciously and slowly became vegetarian about 15 years ago," he explains. "I started by eating meat only once a day and before I knew it, I had stopped altogether. It was one of the best decisions I ever made for all the reasons: health, animals, the environment. Becoming vegan is much more challenging, especially when eating in restaurants and going to parties."

The McDonnells also practice Ahimsa, which is a Sanskrit word that means abstinence from causing pain or harm, and also implies love, forgiveness, and sacrifice. "For me, Ahimsa means respect for all life. It translates into being vegetarian and trying to help anyone in need, including animals and the environment. It means not taking more than you need, for example, turning off the electricity when you leave a room. It's about being conscious."

To this end, McDonnell and his wife have left much of their suburban New Jersey property in as natural a state as possible, creating an environment that is attractive and beneficial to wildlife. Asked if this has put him at odds with any of his neighbours, McDonnell replies, "Not really. No one has complained yet that I leave my trees growing, lots of space for wildlife on my property, and put up birdhouses and bat houses. I do have a bit of a lawn, but use no pesticides or herbicides on it. Somehow it still manages to look fine. Earl is now 16 and a half and quite healthy, and I believe it's partially due to the fact that I don't let him walk on any lawns with those little ‘lawn treated' flags."

The McDonnells are also careful consumers who look for organic, locally grown produce; home and personal care products that are both animal- and environmentally friendly; and they take the conditions of workers involved with the products they buy very seriously. Even the products sold on the official Mutts website, www.muttscomics.com, are designed with Ahimsa in mind. "Right now we sell only organic t-shirts. My books are always printed on recycled paper, and for every print we sell, a tree is planted." Both McDonnell and his wife sit on numerous boards of organizations that benefit animals, and they generously donate Mutts art to raise funds for a variety of causes.

In addition, whenever McDonnell does a book signing, he requests the participation of a local animal group, asking that they hand out information, collect donations, or bring in homeless pets in need of adoption. Many animals will no doubt benefit from such book signings in the coming months, as McDonnell has just brought out his first children's book, The Gift of Nothing, published by Little, Brown.

"The Gift of Nothing is my first ‘picture book'," says McDonnell. "It stars Earl and Mooch and answers the question ‘What do you give someone who has everything?' I'm really pleased with how it turned out."

As to why the characters in Mutts are adored by so many, McDonnell suggests, "Because I keep them true to their animal spirit, people can relate to the special bond they have with their own companion animals."

Though he never expected that Mutts would become the worldwide sensation it is, McDonnell is grateful to have the opportunity to be a voice for animals on such a broad scale. Speaking the truth of the animal soul has allowed that doodling kid who wished for a dog to prove that dreams can come true...Yesh! ■

Susan Kauffmann is a freelance writer living in Langley, British Columbia. She has laughed out loud and been moved to tears by Mutts, her favourite comic strip of all time.

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