I have, from time to time, mentioned Patrick McDonnell’s utterly brilliant newspaper strip, Mutts, a basic, simple, charming, and brilliantly hilarious strip about a cat and a dog who live next door to each other. McDonnell has been writing and drawing Mutts for over twenty years now, taking early advantage of the terrible gap in the market caused by Bill Watterson’s decision to end the magnificent Calvin & Hobbes.
The two strips are in no way comparable, save in that they combine wonderfully apt miniaturist drawing with oodles of charm.
McDonnell has been in particularly good form of late. I receive the strip by e-mail subscription, and raucous laughter has been the way of things for much of the last three months. But I don’t just laugh and pass on, I take note of the simplicity and precision of McDonnell’s humour.
Unlike a lot of very successful strip writer/artists, McDonnell is a true cartoonist. A lot of strip humour is verbal, sharp dialogue that provokes the laugh, but the panels are merely a framework, a box for the gag. It can be very effective: Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury has prospered on this approach for years, making his occasional visual flourish all the more notable for it. But McDonnell, whose influences stretch back to George Harriman’s classic Krazy Kat, knows and understands how to use the pictures to stage the gag and be funny in themselves: the strip is more than twice as funny because he knows how to make the two components a unity.
Like today’s strip:
It’s a very simple strip. Three panels with an unchanging ‘camera’ position. Mooch and Earl meet a bear, there’s one line of dialogue, four words, in the first panel, the other two panels visualising the gag that would be incomprehensible without that simple line. What makes it work?
Look at how the first panel is staged. Mooch and Earl are in the bottom corner, panel left, immediately under the line. Their images are side by side, Mooch first, not because he is the speaker, but because his colouring is mainly black, whereas Earl’s is mainly white. In a black and white panel, and set against a white, snowy background, the eye is drawn to Mooch ahead of Earl. We’d be reading left to right anyway: McDonnell has staged the pair so as not to disrupt that automatic process.
Placing Mooch to the left also creates a visual sense of balance, because otherwise the panel is dominated by the bear: another primarily black figure, taking up the full height of the panel, dominating the eye. Note that there are subconscious lines in the image, creating a triangle around panel centre. The tail of the unballooned dialogue points down to Mooch and Earl, their alert position with heads raised to look up at the bear moves the eye to the bear’s head, looking back into the panel, on a par with the dialogue.
The bear is visually out of place, a near solid block of black against a minimalistic, white background, underlining the fact that he shouldn’t be there at all, he should be hibernating.
The second panel is identical, except that the bear has turned his head to look out of the panel at us. Mooch and Earl haven’t changed their position. The bear’s pupils are tiny, his mouth is pulled to one side, yes, he should be hibernating. It’s an absurd situation, a bear that’s forgotten to hibernate, a black bear in the snow, suddenly coming to the realisation that he should be elsewhere. And there’s no dialogue to slow us down as we immediately flip to the last panel, and he’s suddenly gone!
We’ve even aware of that from the start: the visually dominant element at panel right, pulling our eyes across the image to it, has already impressed us by its absence at the furthest end of the complete image (remember that there are no gutters between the panels, the image is continuous). The bear’s disappearance, to go back here he should be, is abrupt, is the visual sting, and note how McDonnell quietly emphasises it by the subtle shift in Mooch and Earl’s heads: their stance is unchanged, but their eyeline has dropped a fraction, still looking at the bear but at a bear who is now off-panel, and whom we subsconsciously recognise has gone a long way off, with great rapidity, because he is far enough away that their focused gaze on him is down to their own eyeline.
It’s simple, but it’s masterful. You may think I’ve over-elaborated what is a simple gag, but when you go back and look at those three panels,what you’re seeing is the work of someone who has laid out his pictures and his words in a way that emphasises the nature of the joke without once throwing any overt technique in your face to diminish from the gag. You laugh, instinctively: I did.
But sometimes it’s worth thinking about why and how so simple a gag is so laugh out loud funny.