Monday, December 28, 2020

The Art of Nothing: 25 Years of Mutts and the Art of Patrick McDonnell

Reviewed by Jeanne

I’m a long-time fan of the Mutts strip.  It’s funny, sweet, endearing, and I am fascinated by the artwork.  I own several of the books, both the collections of strips and the picture books. I also own the predecessor to this volume, Mutts:  The Comic Art of Patrick McDonnell. 

For those new to Mutts, it is a long running comic strip featuring Earl, a happy dog, and Mooch, a bewildering cat.  Earl loves his human Ozzie devotedly, and Mooch is fond of his humans, Millie and Frank.  There’s also a whole cast of characters, from Guard Dog to Shtinky to Crabby and the Fatty Snax deli man.  Along the way, the strip has evolved from a simple three panels with a gag to a sensitive, thoughtful strip that espouses kindness to all living things without being didactic. I’ll admit I have teared up at some. 

And if you are indeed new to Mutts, I would suggest you start with a collection of the strips, just to familiarize yourself with McDonnell’s style to be able to appreciate The Art of Nothing.  While strips are included, the book is more of a “behind the scenes” look at McDonnell, his influences, and how he works.  It includes sketches for strips and goes through the process of how these are turned into the strips we see in newspapers, early versions of some strips, and the artist’s commentary.  I have always particularly enjoyed the Sunday title panels, the single panel which has the strip’s name; sometimes these are dropped by an individual paper so they can’t be an integral part of that week’s strip.  Many strips just use the same panel week after week, but McDonnell uses it as a sort of tip of the hat to other artists.  Sometimes one just won’t be familiar to me.  There are a number of the panels shown in this book, explaining the attributions from N.C. Wyeth’s The Giant to Andy Warhol to a Frank Zappa album cover to The Big Lebowski. Of course, some of my favorites pay homage to classic children’s books such as The Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Interspersed with the art are comments from McDonnell himself, talking about his life, his influences, and the real life inspiration for some of his characters.  It’s no surprise to learn that Charles Schultz is one of his heroes, but it’s nice to know that the two had a very cordial relationship.  One of the early pieces in the book is a photo of a sheet from a newspaper with the first printed Mutts strip and the notation, “Good start, Sparky.”  McDonnell’s taste is art is expansive, covering a lot of eras, style, and cultures.

This is a real treat for fans and a fascinating look at the artistic process for anyone interested in comic art.

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