For more than 20 years, Patrick McDonnell (BFA 1978 Media Arts) has been charming readers with his comic strip, Mutts, which explores the relationship between a big-hearted Jack Russell Terrier named Earl and his best friend, Mooch, a cat, and features a large cast of revolving characters, both human and animal. In an era of dwindling newspaper readership, McDonnell’s creation is a throwback to an earlier age, when daily strips had cultural clout: Mutts is internationally syndicated in some 700 papers, anthologized in best-selling volumes and has even been the subject of a fine-art monograph, published by Abrams in 2003.
The initial idea for Mutts followed a discussion
McDonnell had with Jay Kennedy, a fellow SVA classmate who worked at King Features Syndicate, about McDonnell’s love of comics. McDonnell realized that, through his magazine illustration work, he had already developed a potential cast of characters for a regular strip. “I always drew this guy with a big nose and mustache, and this little white dog with a circle around his eye,” he says. “So when I started Mutts, I knew I wanted that little dog to be the hero.” With his protagonist established, McDonnell set to creating six weeks’ worth of comics to shop around at various syndicates. It was during that time, while sketching out ideas, that he thought it would be fun for Earl to meet a cat. Initially, he thought the premise would be good for a week’s worth of jokes, but the pairing proved to be too good to let go of, and Mooch was promoted to a costarring role.
While Mutts derives most of its plotlines and gags from Earl and Mooch’s friendship, the strip’s emotional resonance comes from its understanding of the special bond between humans and animals—a topic of particular importance to McDonnell. “After doing Mutts for a few years, I thought about all the cats and dogs in shelters that were looking for homes, so I made that a part of the strip,” he says. Every year for two weeks, Mutts highlights the plight of abandoned animals, a tradition that’s become exceedingly popular with McDonnell’s readership, and is one of his favorite parts of the job. "Nothing makes me happier than when someone writes to say I inspired them to get a new best friend, he says. "The comic strip is an interesting art form. It's a part of people's lives every day for years, so it really becomes like family and friends. I try to make it as positive as possible, because it’s basic empathy and kindness that’s the heart of my strip."
“Unlike, say, a novel or symphony, a comic strip has no master plan,” McDonnell continues. “It’s just like life. You have to take it one day at a time.” This fact gives McDonnell the freedom to fill the world of Mutts with interesting supporting characters, from Butchie, the human owner of Earl and Mooch’s favorite hangout, Fatty Snax Deli; to Guard Dog, the tough but likable canine whose confinement to his owner’s yard reminds readers of the heartache endured over a life of imprisonment; to Mussels Marinara, a wisecracking mollusk.
Earl and Mooch are so popular that their daily adventures are being made into a movie that is currently in production at Fox Films and Blue Sky Studios, with McDonnell writing the script. “To write something that’s going to last for 90 minutes was a real challenge,” he says. “My strip is pretty quiet and Zen, and movies are all adventure and excitement. I think it’s going to be a good balance of ‘stop and smell the roses’ moments while telling a really big story at the same time.” But McDonnell has worked outside of the daily strip format before: his children's books include the Caldecott Honor-winning Me . . . Jane (Little, Brown, 2011) and the Earl-and-Mooch-starring The Gift of Nothing (Little, Brown, 2005), which was adapted into a stage musical that debuted at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., last year.
McDonnell and his strip have garnered numerous awards and distinctions over the years, including the National Cartoonists Society’s Reuben Award for Cartoonist of the Year; six Harvey Awards for Best Comic Strip; PETA’s Humanitarian Award; and two Genesis Awards, given for animal-rights advocacy. Mutts has also received high praise from fellow cartoonists: none other than the late Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz called it “one of the best comic strips of all time.”