Mutts: A Brief Study in Brilliant Cartooning

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:

17-01-07It’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.

Amazon huh?

Yesterday, I received an e-mail notification from Amazon that a book I pre-ordered in April 2016 (Year of Yesh, the 22nd annual collection of Patrick McDonnell’s charmingly funny Mutts: the Mutts treasury has been a Xmas tradition for nearly twenty years now) had been despatched to me and was expected to be delivered today.

At 10.16am, today, I received a second e-mail from Amazon about this book, detailing my pre-order profit: I had ordered the book at the advance price of £14.99 but it had been published at £14.97, and thus I had saved 2p.

Exactly 65 minutes later, I received a second e-mail from Amazon about this book. It apologised for delaying the delivery of my book, confirmed Amazon would refund my delivery charges and basically confessed that Amazon had no idea whatsoever when the book would be available.

Complicating things further, when I checked my Amazon Orders, there was no sign of Year of Yesh as either a fulfilled or Open Order.

So I have reordered the book, for the reduced price of £11.60, inclusive of postage and delivery (though even as I was writing this very line, a fourth e-mail arrived, confirming refund of £2.99 delivery charges but still suggesting that my now-vanished original order will be delivered. Sometime.)

I wouldn’t normally mention this except that Year of Yesh was not the only book I have on pre-order from several months ago. Another such was Rick Geary’s latest Casebook of Twentieth Century Murder, The Black Dahlia. For months this has been set for publication in late November 2016 but, with that date almost on us, Amazon e-mailed me to say that they haven’t had the book supplied. Even up to today, Amazon had no idea when it might be shipped to me.

The fact that it’s been available via eBay for at least three weeks already has nothing to do with this.

So, exasperatedly, I have cancelled that order, and bought the book through eBay with free postage, which will cost me £1.80 less overall, though instead of getting the book for Xmas, as was the original idea, I won’t get it until mid-January.

Amazon, huh?

Postscript: 40 minutes after this post, the original order arrives, bang on time. I have immediately requested cancellation of the duplicate. I wish I knew what’s going on.

You’re a Mutt, Charlie Brown

As I’ve mentioned before, I have Patrick McDonnell’s lovely daily cartoon strip, Mutts, e-mailed to me on a daily basis.

The strip’s primarily about Earl and Mooch, little dog and little cat respectively, who live next door to one another with their owners, but its cast includes a range of animals, each with their own shtick. In many ways, Mutts is a throwback to the early years of strip cartoon humour, in which the skill lay in constantly finding new ways to enliven, refresh and constantly renew the strip’s stock situations.

The best model is George Herriman’s legendary Krazy Kat, a thing of surreal beauty and wit, that found infinite variety in a twisted but touching scenario played out between cat, mouse and dog.

McDonnell’s a big fan of Herriman, and co-author of a superb, profusely illustrated and wonderfully informative book about the cartoonist and the Kat, and this shows in this week’s set of strips. These feature McDonnell’s pair of squirrels, Bip and Bop, whose reason for existence is to throw nuts down onto the heads of unsuspecting passers-by beneath their tree, and with some force too.

Not for the first time, the unfortunate bonkees have all been comic book and cartoon characters, drawn with a delightful fidelity to their originals. We’ve had Robin the Boy Wonder, Dennis the Menace (the American one), Richie Rich and Little Dot so far,, and today’s strip features Charlie Brown, whose creator, Charles Schultz, once praised McDonnell by calling Earl ‘a perfect cartoon dog’.

It’s a laugh, like all the others have been. But it’s also a touching thought. Which is why I wanted you to see it as well.

You can find the strip at


Mutts – a Touching Tribute

I don’t know how many of you are aware of the US daily cartoon strip, Mutts, written and drawn by Patrick McDonnell?
On the surface, it’s a simple cat and dog strip, centred upon Earl (a dog) and Mooch (a cat) living next door to each other: Earl with Ozzie, Mooch with Millie and Frank. The strip is animal oriented, with more animal supporting characters than human, and McDonnell is a passionate believer in animal welfare and environmentalism who uses his strip to advocate these themes.
Mutts has been around for the best part of twenty years. It had the great fortune to make its debut just as Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes was withdrawing: the two strips are radically different in style and theme, but Mutts was perfect for those readers who wanted a strip possessing a unique, offbeat humour, beautifully stylised minimalist art and an almost impossible amount of charm.
The first Mutts collection, gathering the first year of the strip, had a foreword by none other than Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts, who praised McDonnell for Earl, calling him ‘an absolutely perfect little cartoon dog’. From the creator of Snoopy, those are high words.
I don’t know if Mutts is reprinted in the UK anywhere: I get my daily dose by e-mail, sent free from the Mutts website every day. This week’s strips have had a magical undertheme, in the run-up to Hallowe’en. Mooch, in his guise as the Great Proshpero, performs a magic trick, causing not just himself and Earl but the entire last panel on Tuesday to disappear!
The following day was a beautiful example of using the comic strip format: two entirely black panels, the third a balloon with the single word ‘Oops.’ On Thursday, the still invisible Earl asks Mooch to use his cat magic to bring them back: Mooch is happy to do so but asks ‘Can you see mu magic wand.’
So to today, which is Hallowe’en. For years, decades in fact, Charles Schulz would use this time of year to gentily satirise his own religion. Each Hallowe’en would find Linus van Pelt in the pumpkin patch, faithfully yet hopelessly waiting for the ‘Great Pumpkin’ to rise. And Mooch’s cat magic brings back one startled cat and dog in today’s final panel – in the pumpkin patch, with a perfectly Schulz Linus, still waiting all these years after Schulz passed on.
It was hilarious and touching: McDonnell is a daily treasure.