Six reasons you should read and enjoy Patrick McDonnell's "Mutts" comic strip:
- It's delightfully retro. McDonnell's drawing style is unashamedly influenced by the classic Krazy Kat (and Earl himself bears no small resemblance to Snoopy). It's simple, abstract and incredibly expressive. Despite this, he doesn't seem to be limited to any particular environment or perspective -- the characters in "Mutts" can be seen from any angle, conveying any emotion, in any setting, doing any activity. McDonnell isn't just a comic strip artist, and it shows.
- It's full of in-jokes. Every Sunday strip is titled with a semi-related panel which is always a parody of some other work of fine or commercial art featuring the strip's characters. Extraordinarily well-drawn (and colored) variations on Johannes Vermeer paintings, Mad Magazine covers, the USPS logo, Barnum and Bailey posters, Norman Rockwell illustrations, Beatles albums, and even classic Fantastic Four comic book covers can be seen from week to week. The simple fact that McDonnell is educated enough in art to concoct such a parody every week that's still relevant to that day's strip is a marvel in itself.
- It's believable. Aside from the fact that they talk to each other, the dogs in "Mutts" always think and act like dogs, the cats act like cats, the fish like fish, the pigs like pigs, the birds like birds, the people like people, and the kids like kids. Earl (the dog) even refers to his owner as "my Ozzie" while Mooch (the cat) describes his as "the old guy/lady who lives with me." It's hard to laugh at housepets when they stop thinking they're housepets and start thinking they're humans.
- It's subtle. Hundreds of comic strips use a "dumb character" as an easy target for jokes, but Mooch is in a class by himself. Seeing him point to a flock of birds and say, "Hey, I know that guy!" or poke his nose over the side of a boat at a massive whale and ask, "Do shomething" is worth a hundred episodes of Garfield stomping on spiders and pushing Odie off the table. Even strips where Mooch does nothing but stick his head out of the cookie jar and vanish again is enough to make a cat person smile. Meanwhile, Earl ("the smart one") is still not immune to his doggy nature, and his obsession with rides in the car or inability to keep his tail from wagging at the word "dinner" gives Mooch the upper hand when it's his due.
- It's visual. Never forgetting that comic strips are a visual media, McDonnell lets sight gags tell the joke just as often as not. Mooch can elongate to five times his usual length on a hot day or a good stretch. Earl can achieve flight with his tail if it's wagging fast enough. At times McDonnell will even exploit the panels themselves to draw characters running along the top edge, while on other days silent strips like the one featuring a cat jumping into an occupied hammock and turning it into a cloth tornado with a tail sticking out win more laughs than all the rest of the word balloons on the comics page combined.
- It's thoughtful. McDonnell is good at this strip because he loves the animals he illustrates, but with that love comes sympathy. Mutts is and will probably remain the only comic strip that dedicates one week out of every year to the "shelter stories" of homeless housepets (why else do you think it's called "Mutts"?). Occasional series relate -- humorously but sadly -- the lives of the nameless guard dog left chained in his master's yard every day, or the goldfish confined to a bowl barely larger than himself, or the stray cat who wants nothing more than a little shelter and food to make his Christmas complete. With a few well-placed jokes, he opens his readers' eyes to a problem they've probably never thought about before. As Adrian Veidt once said, only the finest comedians accomplish that.
You can read it online at http://www.kingfeatures.com/features/comics/mutts/about.htm