Patrick McDonnell, the creative force behind the daily strip "Mutts" is more than just one of the great cartoonists of his generation. As a picture book author, McDonnell has written and drawn many books, receiving a Caldecott Honor for “Me...Jane,” a book about the life of Jane Goodall. He’s also merged his love of prose and cartooning as the co-author of the acclaimed “Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman.”
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McDonnell's latest collection -- "Mutts," “Year of Yesh” -- was recently released, along with the collection “Mutts: Autumn Diaries” and a new children’s book “Tek: The Modern Cave Boy.” 2017 is going to be busy as well; early next year, he has three more books on the way, including a poetry collection by Daniel Ladinsky that McDonnell illustrated, a new children’s book McDonnell wrote, and a paperback edition of “Shelter Stories.” Despite his busy school, McDonnell took some time to talk about the strip and his many other projects with CBR, ambitious plans which include an upcoming musical and an animated “Mutts” movie.
CBR: "Year of Yesh" just came out -- this is your... 22nd annual "Mutts" book?
Patrick McDonnell: I’d have to count, but that sounds about right. [Laughs]
As a fan and student of comic strips before I did "Mutts," I was always amazed how strips evolve and have different periods. With Krazy Kat, Herriman’s early stuff doesn’t look anything like his later stuff. That always fascinated me. Now that I’ve actually been doing it for twenty-two years, my new stuff doesn’t look like my old stuff. [Laughs] And I have no idea why. It’s not like I was trying to draw them differently. You do art every day it just grows with you. I guess as I’ve changed the strip changed, but with no plan to have it change. This is true of most strips that last a long time, but it’s interesting how the characters get not heavier, but more solid-looking. My early stuff seemed a little quirkier and now it seems a little more solid. For better or worse, I have no idea.
I kept thinking from reading a number of books that you’ve really built this supporting cast and it’s given a different feel to the strip. At the beginning, they were pets who interacted with each other and people, whereas now it feels like it’s them interacting with the natural world, of which people are a part.
That sounds like it could true, but it wasn’t a planned idea.
Philosophically, though, does some of that reflect your thinking and how it’s changed over the years?
When I started the strip, I wanted it to be that you’re seeing the world through the eyes of animals. The more I thought about animals, and from being on the Board of the Humane Society of the United States, the more I saw how it’s tough on animals. Trying to empathize with the plight of animals became a bigger part of the strip. Whether I did it on purpose or whether it’s just who I am at this point, I don’t know. What you’re thinking about ends up on the page somehow. But my main job is trying to write jokes and draw funny pictures.
I suppose that’s what is unique about the comic strip because a lot of artists will make something every day but they won’t necessarily make something new every day to show people.
That’s the high and low of doing a comic strip. It’s a unique art form to have an example of your craft published every day. You’re almost like a reporter. You’re not allowed writers block, that’s for sure! [Laughs] You get pretty quick, which has helped me in my children’s book career. I can find time to do the children’s books because I’m fairly fast at drawing and coming up with ideas. I’ve exercised that muscle for twenty-two years.
The comic strip has a certain poetry to it. It’s like a haiku where there’s a certain structure.
That’s funny you should say that, because I illustrated a poet’s haiku book. The name of the poet is Daniel Ladinsky, who is just amazing. He’s famous for translating Rumi and Hafiz. I love his work because there’s a sense of humor and animal themes in his work.. I took the liberty of illustrating a few of his poems and sent them to him. He was kind to write back. So, come January 16, there’s going to be a new book called “Darling, I Love You” of illustrated poems. In my introduction to it, I do talk about how I believe that comics and poetry are similar, and haiku poetry in particular. Less is more. You have this really tight structure, and you need to get to the point very quickly.
A lot of cartoonists are great scholars and historians of the comic strip. You co-wrote a book about Krazy Kat, and in the new collection you have tributes to Herriman and Soglow and you have various comic strip characters appear.
I think most cartoonists, at a really early age, just fell in love with comics. It’s been my dream since I was a little kid. It’s a magical art. These little black and white ink drawings seem so alive and you really get to know the characters and the fact that they come into your life every day it’s a singular type of art that has always appealed to me and still does.
You really make a point of marking the seasons, of trying to make timely strips.
It’s a weird combination of timely and eternal. That goes back to the poetry and trying to see the world through the animals’ eyes. What’s important to them: food, weather, sleep. It’s just the poetry of taking time from our crazily busy lives. I see comic strips as a little oasis, a little moment of zen. That was always my feeling reading "Peanuts" as a kid. A way to escape. With "Mutts," the seasons are important the way they’re important to animals. The simplicity of it. We’re so caught up in our lives that we can miss the change of the leaves, or the first snow. As a guy who works at home and looks out his window all day, they’re very important to me, too. So I guess I write what I know. [Laughs]
Along that line of being timely, last year you did a week’s worth of strips which appear in the new collection, marking Pope Francis’ visit to the United States.
I think everybody in the animal protection movement was very excited by Pope Francis. He has made it a part of his mission to talk about the other beings that we share this planet with. He had so many great quotes that I thought it would be nice when he was in the states to do a week highlighting his quotes that were centered on compassion and empathy for animals. I thought that was right up "Mutts’" alley.
With fewer people getting the daily newspaper and reading the comics the way I did when I was a kid, and the way I’m sure you did, the books are in a sense, more important.
That’s nice that you say that. I always felt that way. This goes back to, again, to my youth. "Peanuts" was the thing that got me going. To be honest, it wasn’t necessarily the newspaper, but it was the collections. You saw it in the newspaper, but the books are the things you sat and reread a million times. The collections are important. It’s nice to not just have that little hit in the newspaper, but actually spend time in that world. I remember reading comics collections even more than seeing them in the newspaper.
Especially in these collections, like “Year of Yesh,” where it’s not shrunk down and it’s possible to see them reprinted in this larger size.
I draw pretty small, so the collections are pretty close to actual size. Not the Sundays, but the dailies. The Sundays are obviously larger.
Have you always drawn small?
It’s funny about that. Wanting to be a cartoonist my whole life, as a little kid I was naïve and thought that comics were actually drawn the size they appeared in the newspapers. So I’ve been drawing small my whole life. When I learned that you could draw bigger, it was too late. My characters are fairly small, which has its ups and downs. The work goes faster, and I think for me it’s a little more intimate. It’s almost like handwriting. It also forces me to pare it all down because I don’t have the space to put more into the panel than I do. But I like that sparse look.
You also have another book, “Mutts: Autumn Diaries,” which just came out. Do you have much to do with these collections?
It was Andrews McMeel’s idea to try to find a new audience, to get these strips to a younger audience who aren’t reading the newspapers. To make it a little more kid friendly. It was really smart of them, and it’s been successful. One of the other reasons I like the format is they remind me of the old "Peanuts" books that I read as a kid. I think they have charm. We just talked about the seasons being important, and my idea was to give them a seasonal theme which is fun. I choose the strips and draw new covers for them. I like those books as much as the collections.
I love the larger collections, but the diary books are less expensive, smaller and easier for kids. And they’ve helped find a younger audience?
I just finished a book tour for my latest picture book, and it was fun meeting kids who knew "Mutts" from the diary books. That was their connection to "Mutts."
You also had a picture book come out recently, “Tek: The Modern Caveboy.” What is this book?
It’s about a cave boy that’s addicted to his iPad-like device and stays in his cave. His dinosaur friends try to get him to come out, and he eventually does and rediscovers the real world and the joys of being outside. I guess it’s a cautionary tale. I actually had the idea seven years ago, and my editor wasn’t sure it was the right time. Seven years later, it’s probably a bigger topic with parenting how much screen time a kid gets. Initially, I didn’t have the idea to design the book to look like a device. My publisher did a great job. The book looks and feels like an iPad, which adds to the feeling of the book.
I’m not sure if all comics readers know this, but you’ve had this great career in picture books over the past twelve years, even winning a Caldecott Honor for one book. What has it been like for you? Picture books are very similar but different from comics.
I totally love it. It is similar in the sense that it’s telling stories with words and pictures. What’s nice about the picture books is that, one, I can get to tell a singular long story instead of just three panels a day. The other thing is just creative. A comic strip is the same size, the same format, in black and white every day. But when I start a new kids book, creatively, it’s totally open. The medium, the size, the shape are all completely up in the air. The only real rule is what would work best for that particular story. That freedom is just so much fun. I mean, it’s all play doing a comic strip, but with comic strips, there are really strict deadlines and a format you have to follow. What’s nice about the picture books is the luxury of being creatively open to any possibility, to be able to come up with new characters and new ideas.
The whole process is fun. But I don’t like waiting a year to see the finished product. With a daily comic, a couple weeks later you see it in the paper. It’s always exciting to get the new book but by the time it comes out, it feels ten years old to me because I’ve already worked on the next book and I’m thinking about the book after that.
And I’m sure you’re aware there’s a long line of comic strip people who made children’s books. Dr. Seuss started out doing comic strips. Crockett Johnson. There’s a long history of comic strip artists dabbling in the picture book world–and vice versa.
Next year, you have a picture book coming out that you wrote but didn’t draw.
It’s called “Shine,” and it’s coming out in April. It’s about a starfish. When I present book ideas to my editor I usually have at least two or three ideas to discuss and we decide which one would be the best to do. When I presented “Tek,” another idea I had was about a starfish. I really liked both books, but I knew I couldn’t do both of them. They were surprised I when I suggested that someone else draw it, but I was really enthused to see someone make the story come to life differently than I would.
The artist’s name is Naoko Stoop. What’s interesting about her is she does paintings on wood so you see the wood grain, sort of like Japanese woodcuts. It’s a story that’s pretty much set underwater, and what I thought it would be really interesting is, the wood grain kind of looks like waves, like water. I thought that was an interesting concept. She did a great job, and it was really exciting to see someone else take my story and do their version of it. I’m going to try to do it again. Working with other illustrators is fun.
Next year there’s also a paperback version of “Shelter Stories,” which came out a few years ago. Are you going to make another “Shelter Stories” book one of these years? You continue to make the shelter stories strips in the comic.
I do the shelter story strips two weeks every year, in November and in May. After doing "Mutts" for a while, I thought about all the animals that aren’t as lucky as Earl and Mooch, who are waiting in shelters for the opportunity for forever homes. I thought it was important to get that message out. One of the highlights of doing the comic strip is getting a letter or email from somebody saying I inspired them to go to a shelter and get a new best friend. That’s very rewarding.
I know that you’re also writing a "Mutts" movie.
Yes. I’ve been writing it for a while now. I’m contracted with Fox to make a "Mutts" animated movie with the Blue Sky people who do the “Ice Age” movies. They also did “The Peanuts Movie.” I can’t give you a date yet but we’re moving in the right direction. It’s been a really interesting process:the challenge of turning a small simple strip into a big movie. I think we’ve done it. It has that poetic sense of "Mutts," but at the same time has the dynamic story that you need for an animated movie. I think we’re finding that delicate balance of making it feel like "Mutts" but making it feel big, an exciting enough story that it’s not as quiet as them looking at leaves falling from trees. I don’t know if you could do an hour and a half of that. I would watch it, but I don’t know if anyone else would.
I would watch that.
Someday we’ll do the art film version. [Laughs]
A really interesting and fun project I did two years ago was adapting the children’s book “The Gift of Nothing” into a children’s musical for the Kennedy Center in DC. That was an incredibly interesting process. I discovered that theater is closer to comic strips than movies are because in theater you can have quiet and a more one on one feeling to it. And last week I found out we may be doing “Me...Jane” as a musical next fall so we’re working on that right now, too.