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

Funnies Farrago presents a review of “The Art of Nothing: 25 Years of Mutts and the Art of Patrick McDonnell.”

This book is a treat (all 240 9×12-inch landscape pages, b/w and color; 2019 Abrams Comic Arts hardcover, $40). The Art of Nothing will warm your heart to wander through it. Part of it is reprint tome. But while many daily and Sunday strips are floated by in this book, it isn’t just a reprint volume, although there are lots of Mutts strips in it.

Art of NothingAnd the strips do not appear as weekly or monthly swatches as we are accustomed to finding in a reprint volume: here’s Monday through Saturday followed by a Sunday and then another Monday through Saturday. 

Instead, the book’s emphasis is on “the Art” of Patrick McDonnell — his scribblings and doodles about his strip’s characters and the passing scene sometimes. “The art of nothing” turns out to be about the mind of the cartoonist at play — examples, in other words, of the search for something to put on paper 365 days a year. And the search, as it unfolds herein, is as entertaining as the final result. And there are also, as I said, lots of final results, many taken from the original art.

As befitting a commemorative tome like this, it includes the first Mutts strip, published September 5, 1994. And it also includes some Zero-Zero strips, the predecessor in McDonnell’s mind before it took shape as Mutts. Otherwise, I found no other “historic” strips. Instead, we have McDonnell’s favorite strips.

Early on, McDonnell explains that he uses the Sunday strip title, or “throwaway,” panel to imitate famous paintings or drawings by others. Not all newspapers print the opening panel (hence the “throwaway” name), and those that don’t are depriving their readers of one of the sheer delights of Mutts.

Art of Nothing Art of NothingMcDonnell shows us the progression of some Sunday strips from pencil to pen to printed. The book includes lots of rough drawings and sketchbook pictures (“thinkings” I’d call them). We can see paste-overs: when some part of a drawing hasn’t suited him, he does it again, cuts it out and pastes it on the artwork in the appropriate place. There is much truth observed herein.

We see such extracurricular art as posters, book covers and the like.

McDonnell’s explanation of his book is better than mine: “Since I try to see the world through the eyes of animals, most Mutts themes are quite basic: dogs, cats, snow, rain, the moon, the ocean, and what all animals (including us) want: food, naps, and love. And, because all art is personal, other themes explore the language of comics, the high art/low art discourse, the human-animal bond, the environment, animals rights, and spirituality.

“Sprinkled through the book are examples of the search: sketchbook pages and the finished strips they inspired. Sketches seem so alive to me, quickly capturing a moment by putting what’s in our heads and hearts on paper without any filters.”

Mooch the neighbor’s cat pretty soon joined the dog Earl in the strip: he “snuck in on little cat feet” McDonnell says, quoting Carl Sandburg’s “Fog.”

His Sunday strips tell short stories, warm stories because they are humanity’s heart — something sweet but not cloying. Anecdotes from his life as a cartoonist are similarly touching.

He tells of a big, gruff-looking biker who stood in line to get his Mutts book signed. “While handing me the book to sign, he pulled up his short sleeve to show me, among the colorful skulls and demons on his skin, a tattoo of Earl and Mooch. He had discovered them reading Mutts book collections in the waiting room of the doctor who helped cure him of his addictions. Earl and Mooch never looked so good.”

Funnies FarragoOn another page, McDonnell says “comic strips and poetry (especially haiku) are kindred spirits. They both aim to say a lot with a little.”

McDonnell has done a lot in the 25 years of Mutts. He’s written and drawn 12 children’s books (four of them New York Times bestsellers, one a Caldecott Honor winner), co-written two musicals (“The Gift of Nothing” and “Me … Jane”), created six Public Service Announcement tv spots for the Shelter Pet Project; designed a Mutts New Jersey Animals Friendly license plate; co-written the screenplay for a feature-length animated Mutts movie with his brother Robert and, of course, more.

He worked with poet Daniel Ladinsky to produce a book of poems illustrated with Mutts art. Ladinsky wrote some poems based upon the Mutts gang. The book opens with this poem:

love is respecting
the beings who can’t speak
and treating them
as if they

I just paged through the book, reading a bit here and there but not everything. And already, I feel better. Near here are a few of what made me feel better.

R.C. Harvey