Patrick McDonnell on "Mutts", Childrens Books & More

"Mutts" is one of the most acclaimed and successful comic strips running today. Available in more than 700 newspapers in more than twenty countries, McDonnell has received The Reuben Award, the highest award from the National Cartoonists Society, five Harvey Awards for best comic strip, not to mention acclaim from fans like Jules Feiffer, Matt Groening, Art Spiegelman and the late Charles Schulz, who said that "Mutts" was "one of the best comic strips of all time."

Since 2005, McDonnell has been writing a series of bestselling children's books including "South," "Just Like Heaven," and "The Gift of Nothing," which is being released this year in a new edition. McDonnell's picture books often feel like extensions of his comic strip, using the characters Earl and Mooch, and while the stories are explicitly for children, one of the joys of "Mutts" is the almost Zen-like simplicity that McDonnell brings to it. Additionally, McDonnell plays with form and structure in the books in ways that make them a joy to read for fans of comics, "Mutts," and even those deeply cynical.

This fall sees the release of McDonnell's sixth picture book "Wag!" starring Earl, Mooch and Jules from "Mutts." McDonnell has also collaborated on the book "Guardians of Being" with Eckhart Tolle, the bestseller author of "The Power of Now." More information about "Mutts" and McDonnell's books can found online at patrickmcdonnell-books.com and muttscomics.com.

CBR: What is your typical day like? 

PATRICK MCDONNELL: I start my day around 5:30am when my cat MeeMow wakes me.  We go downstairs and she has breakfast. I do a little reading - usually spiritual stuff:  Eckhart Tolle, Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, George Herriman.... I make something to eat and start working.  Basically, other than taking care of my dog and cat, and maybe riding my bike or playing drums, I work.

What is it that transforms an idea into a picture book as opposed to an something you can tell in the comics? 

For me, it's the ability to create a longer form from the idea. For example, "The Gift of Nothing" started out in the comic strip, and I had a lot of fun playing off the word "nothing."  Each day's strip had to stand alone as a joke. This was also true of "South" and "Just Like Heaven."  But when I decided to create children's books on these themes, it was because I could take the one idea and build on it. 

Your new book "Wag!" is very different from your other picture books. The others are narratives which could have worked in the comics and often started there, but "Wag!" is very much a story intended to be a picture book. In what ways was creating this book different from how you worked on the others? 

"Wag!" started out as a question: "What makes Earl's tail wag?"  It was fun to have Mooch attempt to answer it for the reader.  That part of the book was inspired by my book tours in schools and the wonderful, crazy participation you get from the kids.

Obviously in a picture book the art is reproduced at a much larger scale than in a comic strip. Even though the books are very clearly done in the same style, does knowing that it will appear larger influence how you work or the amount of detail you put in? 

The size definitely affects the overall way I use words and pictures in the children's books. The book format also gives me an opportunity to play with my 'style.'  It allows me to use different mediums (watercolor, pastels).  "South," for example, was done in Chinese brush. 

Do you enjoy the freedom of picture books to tell stories in different ways. "Hug Time" rhymed and "South" was silent. You really seemed to enjoy the freedom to do that and the space to do it that you don't necessarily have in the strip. 

Each book seems to ask for its own way of being told.  I can't say why, but "Hug Time" begged to be written in rhyme. There were very few words in it when I first wrote "South," so I decided to see if I could take what words were there and reduce them to zero.  I really do enjoy the freedom I have in creating children's books; it's probably the most fun of all my projects.

You've written about the comics that inspired you. You co-wrote a whole book about George Herriman's Krazy Kat, but as far as the picture books are concerned, is there anyone who stands out for you that you read as a child or people you enjoy looking at now? 

A. A. Milne's and Ernest Shepard's "Winnie the Pooh" is a big influence.  That's perfection. I also love the work of W.W. Denslow, Ludwig Bemelmans, Cecil Aldin and Dr. Seuss.

When you're working on a picture book, do you write and draw it quickly, or do you do it over a long period of time in between working on the strip? 

I try to write the picture books in a single block of time.  When the inspiration comes, I act. 

How is composing a panel from a Sunday strip different from composing a page from a picture book? 

A picture book page is a much bigger open canvas.  A panel is confined by - and linked to - the overall strip layout. 

One of the aspects of the strip I love is the title panels on Sundays, which some people may not know about because their paper may drop it. How and why did you come up with the idea of playing with the style and the look like that? 

I was inspired by "Krazy Kat" to create a new title panel for each Sunday page.  I began using my own images, but then did a take-off on a painting by the artist Jean Michel Basquiat.  It was fun to do and I liked the way it turned out. So that started my "tribute" panels.  

I'm curious about how much, if at all, Buddhist thought has influenced your life and your work? 

Spirituality is integral to both my life and work.  While I don't subscribe to any single religion or philosophy, I am a student of many.  I recently collaborated with spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle on "Guardians of Being," which I feel is perhaps the most important work I've been a part of.

Mutts may have started as a strip about a dog and a cat and their world but as the strip has continued and the cast of characters has grown, it's really taken on a very different feel, even though the visual tone has remained the same. It feels that the strip became about the natural world with a dog and cat at its center. 

Doing a strip about animals reminds me that all life on this planet is fragile.  More and more I became an environmentalist, and it was natural that I would create Mutts themes centered on the same.   We all need to be more responsible when it comes to our environment and the animals we share it with.

Last question, you're on a desert island and you can take the collected works of three cartoonists. Who do you pick and why? 

  1. George Herriman's "Krazy Kat" - the greatest strip ever.  It looks new to me everytime I see it.
  2. Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" - I find a lot of joy and comfort there.
  3. E.C. Segar's "Popeye" - It makes me laugh, plus Popeye has spent some time on a desert island. I might pick up a few tips.

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