Reigning Cat and Dog: An Interview with MUTTS Creator Patrick McDonnell
By the time most successful comic strips have turned 20 years old, their creators are reaping the rewards of success: a creative staff, an improved golf score and, in general, less of the quotidian demands of being a cartoonist. Patrick McDonnell, on the other hand, continues to devise new outlets for his restless creativity. His first children’s book, A Gift of Nothing (a gentle, soulful parable based on Earl and Mooch from Mutts), has led to successive books that set up increasingly ambitious narratives and presentations (his recent A Perfectly Messed Up Story is a marvel of self-awareness and breaking the fourth wall). Moving beyond print, he began working in animation (via a series of animated shorts) to heighten awareness of the animal-rights issues for which he is a passionate advocate. He has also been instrumental in adapting Mutts to the stage (at the Kennedy Center), and, coming soon to a theater near you, the big screen in a full-length animated feature.
But even as other media increasingly beckon for his time and attention, McDonnell, 59, has a deep, personal investment in his work and wants it to emanate from his own brush and pen and Bristol board. In this sense, his philosophical kinship with his cartooning role model Charles Schulz is evident. (He only recently—and reluctantly—made the concession to using a digital replica of his idiosyncratic lettering in his strip.) His devotion to a traditional approach to his craft has resonated with audiences in decidedly modern ways, and McDonnell’s work is proof that the comic strip, in the right hands and with a genuine vision, can still engage the mainstream and step out of the comics page and into the mainstream of the popular culture.
Hogan’s Alley editor Tom Heintjes recently spoke with McDonnell about the learning curve that accompanies venturing into new creative frontiers, the challenges of adapting an established property into new media and remaining personally invested in his work after more than two decades.
Tom Heintjes: You’re primarily known today as a comic strip creator, but you also produce other types of work. Your picture books and children’s books are such a departure from what we typically associate with your work. Let me start out by asking you what initially attracted you to doing stories in book form.
Patrick McDonnell: I love telling stories with words and pictures. Picture books are so similar to comic strips. Growing up I was a big fan of comics. I loved Pogo and Peanuts, and also Dr. Seuss, and Winnie the Pooh with Ernest Shepard’s drawings, and Denslow’s art for the Wizard of Oz…all incredible. Whether it was in comics or whether it was in picture books, it was just something that attracted me. My first love was comic strips, so that’s what I pursued first, but even when I was initially doing MUTTS, I always thought if I could find the time, I would love to do a picture book. And eventually, I worked on my MUTTS’ schedule to where I could find some time. Actually, my first children’s book starred Earl and Mooch. It was called The Gift of Nothing. It was almost an extension of the strip itself. I love the whole book process. With the comic strip, it’s the same format all the time—it’s always black and white, it’s always the same size. But with the picture books, it’s totally playful. I get to be arty [laughter].
Heintjes: Actually, I wanted to ask you about your process in the books. You can tell a story on a much more expansive canvas, 32 pages as opposed to three panels. As a storyteller, what were your biggest adjustments to that larger canvas?
McDonnell: Even in MUTTS, especially earlier on—I don’t do it as much now— I used to do continued stories. I did a story once that went on for four weeks. I love Little Orphan Annie and Dick Tracy, so I’ve been a fan of the continued stories in comic strips. It’s something I played around with from time to time. And actually, The Gift of Nothing is based on a two week long story about Mooch looking for the perfect gift for Earl. What do you get him? What do you get someone who has everything? And he decides to get him nothing. So telling longer stories was in MUTTS’ repertoire. It’s different when you have to tell it in three panels over couple of weeks. But with children’s books, it’s nice to have the space and time to tell the longer story, all in one place.
Heintjes: So narratively, you didn’t have any sort of adjustment period? You just got into the larger canvas of the picture book?
McDonnell: I’m a fan of comic strips and I’m a fan of old children’s books. So I think that format was just in my head, and it was just fun to play with that.
Heintjes: My wife works for a children’s books publisher, so I’ve seen the process unfold. The creator will turn in sketches, and they get batted back and forth to get refined. Is that sort of the process you go through with your editors at the book houses? How does that work?
McDonnell: I do a little dummy of the book. And it’s pretty complete when I send it. It’s pretty much the book. But then, of course, my editor and I go through it and we might change a sentence here and there, or move things around a little bit. But when I hand in the dummy, it’s pretty close to what ends up being the final book.
Heintjes: When you begin producing children’s books, is there any consultation about what age groups comprehend certain topics? How do you approach plotting or vocabulary or anything cognitive? Or do you just use your instincts for what works with the message you’re trying to convey?
McDonnell: It’s mostly instinctive, intuitive. Kids are very sophisticated, and they’ll understand. I really go into it just trying to come up with a beautiful book. I believe in simplicity. So even if I was aiming for adults, I would still try to keep it simple. One of the lessons to learn with comics is less is more, and you learn to get to the point fast when you have only three panels. But that’s just how I tell stories. I do tell stories simply. So when I started children’s books, I tried to entertain myself and come up with something that was fun and heartwarming.
With comics, I always think about all the joy Sparky’s Peanuts gave me, and all that Winnie the Pooh gave me. So it’s just trying to stand on those shoulders and add something. My wish is to give something of meaning to the world.
Heintjes: You mentioned some of the children’s books creators that you admired, such as Winnie the Pooh and Dr. Seuss’ books. What was in those creator’s works that you particularly admire that spoke to you? Was it narrative quality or just the way that words with pictures combined?
McDonnell: It’s the spirituality that’s underneath all those books. There’s a kindness. They come from the heart. That’s the most important thing. And then, artwork-wise, I feel it’s the magic of cartoon illustration, that you could make these little abstract characters just seem so alive on the page. When I look at Ernest Shepard’s work in Winnie the Pooh, people know those characters. They’re alive. The same with Krazy Kat and all the great comic strips. They’re pen-and-ink drawings that are just alive on the page. I was always fascinated with that. Some of my first memories when I was a little kid—and I’m talking about being two years old—were looking at my mom’s collections of Kelly’s Pogo and Jules Feiffer’s books. It’s just the magic that brings little dogs and cats or whatever alive. That’s called the magic of cartooning and what I enjoyed doing. I don’t even know what the secret is. Why do some things look alive on the page and some don’t? I don’t even know. It has nothing to do with how realistic you draw, that’s for sure [laughter].
McDonnell: I also loved Ludwig Bemelmans’ work, the artist who did Madeline. His work is abstract and primitive, but boy—I just saw a show of his in New York City. The New York Historical Museum has a show of his work, and the energy just comes off the walls. His drawings work, whatever that quality is. The drawing has energy and that character really seems like he’s there. So it’s words and pictures. I love telling little stories, and I really love to draw and watch those little characters come alive on the page, right in front of me.
Heintjes: For a strip cartoonist, which you’ve been for quite some time now, there’s a relatively immediate gratification: you create a strip, and six weeks later it’s out there and the world is enjoying it. Behind the books, the process is much more protracted. What sort of adjustment was it to that much more drawn-out process?
McDonnell: It’s really frustrating. I’m still not used to it. Just like you said: with a comic strip, you draw it and a couple of weeks later you see it in the paper, and you’re doing the next one, and it’s just a constant. It’s every day. By the time a picture book comes out, I’m already done with the next one.
I have a book coming out in October called A Perfectly Messed Up Story, and actually it goes to what I was talking about. In this book, the character literally is alive on the page. He’s in the book. It’s a kid’s picture book, and he sees that the reader put peanut butter and jelly stains in his book, and the character is going crazy that his book is getting messed up. The character is alive in the book and is talking to the kid reading the book. That book comes out in September, but I did that book way back last year and right now I’m working on the next book that’s going to come out the following year. So by the time the books come out, they’re ancient history. It’s like, “When did I do that?” [laughter]
Heintjes: A Perfectly Messed Up Story sounds like a different narrative structure for you. There’s a sort of self-awareness.
McDonnell: Of all the picture books I’ve done so far, it’s definitely the funniest and just totally different than anything else I’ve done before. It was a lot of fun—we actually used photographs of jelly and photographs of all the messes, so it looks like the book is really a wreck. It was fun [laughter].
Heintjes: You once told me about a book that you put together over a weekend to make a catalogue deadline. What book was that?
McDonnell: That was the first book, The Gift of Nothing. When I finally decided to do children’s books, I did a dummy of The Gift of Nothing and sold it to Little Brown. They had already put next year’s books to bed, so they said, “We’re going to buy it, but it won’t come out for two years from now.” But I couldn’t imagine waiting that long. So I said, “Is there any way we can get it out next year?” Which seemed long enough to me.
McDonnell: They said, “Those books are going out. If you can do it by next week, we can make it.” So I literally did that book over a long weekend.
Heintjes: Time to put on the coffee.
McDonnell: [laughter] Yeah. That whole book was done in like three or four days.
Heintjes: So were they astonished? What was the reaction when you turned in the work?
McDonnell: Oh, they were happy [laughter], they were pleased. But The Gift of Nothing is fairly simple. It’s pretty much black and white, with just a little salmon-pink color, so it wasn’t a very elaborate book. One thing about doing a daily cartoon strip, you definitely get fast [laughter]. You definitely get your chops.
Heintjes: I guess you told them not to get used to that, huh?
McDonnell: Yeah [laughter]. Compared to most illustrators, I do my books fairly fast. I have to get a little ahead with MUTTS, and I only have a little window of opportunity where I actually can do a book, so I pretty much do all my books pretty quickly.
McDonnell: The genesis, believe it or not, was again the MUTTS comic strip. I did a weeklong story about the little tabby cat Shtinky, who’s sort of the animal advocate in the strip. He was talking to Noodles, another cat, about how he was getting compassion fatigue, which people who work in the shelters can get. When you work with that kind of intensity all the time, you can get burned out. So Noodles asked Shtinky, “How do you deal with that?” And his answer was, “This autographed picture of Jane Goodall helps.” After that appeared in the newspapers, the Jane Goodall Institute got in touch with me, and wanted to run it on their website. I told them, of course, they could do anything they want with it. And then I said, “Well, if you don’t mind, I’d like to send you the original drawing to give to Jane.” And they said, “Well, Jane’s going to be in New York next week—but why don’t you give it to her yourself?” Of course I said, “OK.” [laughter]
Heintjes: Wow! They twisted your arm.
McDonnell: Yeah. So I met Jane in New York and we talked for a while, and I was brazen enough to say, “Jane, maybe someday we could do a picture book together.” She was in the middle of writing one of her books, so she was kind of busy, but she said, “Yeah, we should definitely talk about that when I finish the book I’m working on.” I went home all excited and reread her autobiography, Reason for Hope. In that autobiography, the first photograph is a picture of Jane as, I think, a two-year-old, with a stuffed chimpanzee that her dad gave her. And I looked at that picture and I said, “That’s the book.”
McDonnell: So I made a little dummy based on Jane’s childhood. I showed it to my editor and she liked it. Then Jane came back to New York about six months later. I showed her the dummy and she liked it. That’s how Me…Jane happened.
Heintjes: Was she familiar with your work?
McDonnell: She was because she had seen the MUTTS drawing, and I had done some charity work. So she was familiar with my work, yeah.
Heintjes: That had to be gratifying.
McDonnell: Yeah, Jane is a living saint. She’s the real thing.
Heintjes: I knew she was a hero of yours.
McDonnell: Do you know the company Weston Woods?
McDonnell: Weston Woods is a company that has been around for 20 years, or maybe even longer than that. They do short animations of picture books. Their animations are pretty much sold to libraries and schools, and we’re just finishing up a little seven-minute Me…Jane animation, which is really, really wonderful. I did it with an animator whom I love, Paul Fierlinger. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen his work, but we did some public service announcements for Shelter Animals together. And now we did a seven-minute version of Me…Jane, and that’s going to be out in the fall.
Heintjes: I think I saw those animations when I saw you at the Decatur Book Festival, and you played some of those.
McDonnell: Yeah, the Shelter Story PSAs.
Heintjes: They were very nice.
McDonnell: And the seven-minute Me…Jane animation is just really, really special.
Heintjes: Throughout Me…Jane, you use engraved drawings in the background that are almost watermarks, and they are very distinct departure from your own work. Why did you choose to wed those two types of approaches?
McDonnell: I definitely knew I was going to have text on one page and my art on the other, but I wanted the text page to have a design and have a look to it. And what’s amazing about Jane Goodall is that, unlike most people, she has both the right and left brain 100 percent in gear. She has that scientific brain, but she really has that poetic, artistic, empathetic brain at the same time. To me, what that represents is, on the right side, you have my arty, cartoony look. Then I thought, “We should also represent the other side of Jane, the more scientific type of thinking.” So I thought having engravings of the real animals would be a nice yin-yang to who she is.
Heintjes: Very interesting. I wanted to move on from Me…Jane and talk about South, which was a story you told without words, just using Mooch. What was behind the decision to make that a pantomime book?
McDonnell: Again, with cartooning and the “less is more” school—you only have so much space in the cartoons. You always try to get it down to the least amount of words. I remember Sparky telling me that some of the Peanuts he was most proud of were when he figured out a strip that didn’t have any words. It was the ultimate in cartooning. And with South, it’s funny—the book didn’t start out that way. I had text throughout the whole book. And the more I played with it, I started saying, “I don’t really need that dialogue,” and I got rid of some text here and I got rid of some dialogue there. Then I just kept on doing that until there were only a few words throughout the whole book. At this point, my editor already had the version with words, but I looked at it and I said, “Son of a gun, I don’t need any text in this book,” so I just got rid of all of it. It was a funny phone call when I called my editor and told her I had some text changes. She asked what they were, and I said, “There’s no text.” [laughter]
Heintjes: But on the bright side, copyediting is going to be really easy.
McDonnell: I left in a sob and a tweet—two sound effects, and that was it. But that whittling was fun, whittling away at something until it just disappeared. When I see it, it looks like it was meant to be. But it started out like many of my other books—with words and pictures.
McDonnell: At that point, I had done picture books with MUTTS characters, which was fun. Obviously, I love Earl and Mooch and all the MUTTS characters, but now that I was doing picture books, I really wanted to come up with something new and get outside the MUTTS world. I doodled some sketches, and one was a little kid just making messes and doing art. The idea evolved from that. I guess, of all my books, it’s probably the most biographical. I’ve been drawing since I can remember, and it was always what I wanted to do, so I thought of a book about a little kid who loved to draw. And at the end, his mom has his drawings on the refrigerator. I always feel like I was really lucky because I had other friends who liked drawing, but my mom and dad met at Cooper Union Art School in New York, so I was really encouraged. It wasn’t a silly pursuit to think about being an artist. It’s so important for kids to be encouraged, so that what’s the book is about.
Heintjes: I assume you do school visits from time to time?
Heintjes: Does Art get an especially strong response from kids? Do they respond more strongly to one type of project than another?
McDonnell: Yeah, it’s fun when you do picture books. When you do a comic strip, everybody knows it. But there’s always a group of people who think Art is the best thing I’ve ever done. That’s what they know me for. I guess you never know what nerves you’re going to hit and what people are going to respond to. But Art definitely has its own little fan base.
Heintjes: It’s one of your more autobiographical works, so I guess people can tell there’s a genuine sensibility behind it. Switching gears, Patrick, I wanted to ask you about the MUTTS movie. In 2011, news came out about the animated MUTTS movie. What brought about that deal?
McDonnell: There’s an executive at Fox named Ralph Millero, who also brought the Peanuts movie to Fox. He was really interested in doing Mutts, and we met a few times. It was something I had thought about for a long time. It’s being animated by Blue Sky animation. They did Horton Hears a Who, and I thought, as far as CGI goes, they did a great job of having the Dr. Seuss feel. I knew that they could do a good job animating MUTTS, so I was excited by that. It took a long time, but I worked out a deal where I could write the script. I’ve just handed in the final draft. Now we’re embarking on working on art. Boy—when you talk about deadlines, it’s one thing to wait a year for a book, but a feature-length film? Even if we started today it’s still three years away. It’s a deadline I cannot wrap my head around.
Heintjes: [Laughter] Well, you know, of all the cartooning forms—and considering animation as one of the cartooning forms, of course—animation is the most collaborative, It takes a small army of people to make it happen, unless you’re Winsor McCay, of course.
Heintjes: But strip cartoonists are largely lone wolves. How have you found the process of collaboration and working with a lot of other people? How has that been for you as a creator?
McDonnell: I know there are a lot of horror stores as about movie-making, but it’s been a really pleasant experience for me. I’m writing the movie with my brother, Robert, who went to NYU Film School and worked in video. I had never written screenplay in my life, but he knows what he’s doing. He’s helping me put it together.
Heintjes: When you’re writing a screenplay you have to think about things a strip cartoonist doesn’t have to think about: a B-plot, having a third act, and all those structural concerns. So your brother’s experience came in handy.
McDonnell: Yeah, I wasn’t aware of any of those things, so he’s been very helpful, and together we’re doing it. But I think I’ve learned more on this project than any other because it’s so different than writing three panels. A movie is a different beast for sure. A 90-minute movie is a real project. I can see why these take so much time. But it’s been a really great experience. We would do these drafts and then have meetings with the Fox people. Almost all the suggestions that they made, I have pretty much taken to heart, and the movie just keeps getting tighter and better. So I’m hopeful we’ll stay headed in that direction. But it’s been a really fun project.
Heintjes: I assume this will be a CGI movie and not 2D animation?
McDonnell: Yeah, it’s CGI, the Blue Sky people, the Ice Age look. I know some people will say, “Oh no, it’s not going to look like your stuff.” But I am all for it. I’m amazed what they can do. The movie that I’m writing is a nice balance of having MUTTS’ sensibilities but also being a fun adventure movie. I’m looking forward to that look. I think it’s going to make the movie bigger and more fun and more exciting, so yeah—I like the fact that it’s not going to look exactly like my work, that it’s going to be MUTTS but its own thing at the same time. I know it’s going to look close enough. But I’m also looking forward to letting it be what it is, which is a MUTTS CGI movie.
Heintjes: I was ready to ask you about the struggle with the loss of control when it comes to a larger production, but obviously that has not been a problem for you.
McDonnell: No. They took a gamble having a cartoonist and not a screenwriter write the script. Before I sold the movie, I sold it with a finished script, and they really liked that finished script. But it was totally different from what I’m writing now. It had both live action and animation, a little more on the arty side. But they loved it and they thought I could write. They didn’t want to do live action and animation. They just wanted it to be an animation feature, which I totally understood. But seeing that script, they had confidence that I could do a script. And I did that script with my brother.
Heintjes: Will it feature the strip’s usual supporting characters like Sid, Crabby, Shtinky, Butchie, Bip and Bop and all those guys? Will we see the familiar cast?
McDonnell: We didn’t get every single character into the script, but we probably have like 90 percent of the main cast.
Heintjes: All right, I’ll be curious to hear how Crabby’s language comes across.
Heintjes: It’s going to be G-rated [laughter].
McDonnell: We’re just starting to talk about voices, but that’s really interesting for me because, in my head I just hear my own voice. But actually pinpointing what actor could play which character has been really interesting. It really makes you think about what the right voice is for each character. You know there’s going to be someone out there who’s not going to be happy with whatever voice you pick. It’s definitely a challenging part of the process.
Heintjes: That’s why they have voice casting directors and all those people. But all this extra work—the books and the movie and everything—must have led you to develop techniques for conserving time and streamlining how you do things. You’ve always been known as a low-tech kind of guy [laughter]. Have all these irons in the fire changed the way you work? I recall mentioning to you couple of years ago that I noticed you’re using computerized version of your own hand lettering from time to time. Was that a nod to the demands on your time?
McDonnell: Being a fan of the old cartoonists who didn’t do that, I felt guilty about it. But about a year ago I started using a MUTTS font. But not for everything, just on occasion. I still hand-letter some of the strips. I still hand-letter most of the Sundays. But lettering was my least favorite thing to do, and just to find some extra time because, yeah, this has been an extremely crazy year. We haven’t even talked about the musical of the Gift of Nothing for the Kennedy Center. So yeah, this has been a busy, busy year.
Heintjes: How did the play come about?
McDonnell: For the holiday season, the Kennedy Center puts on a children’s play. A lot of times, they may adapt books into children’s theater. They did Mo Willems’ Knuffle Bunny, and they did his Elephant and Piggy. I’m lucky to be working with the director and playwright Aaron Posner. He and the Kennedy Center approached me about doing The Gift of Nothing, Earl and Mooch’s first picture book. And it’s a musical, so we got the talented Andy Mitton to compose the music. We just cast it, and it’s going to be at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC from late November to the end of December. It’s amazing to see the characters come alive in this way.
Heintjes: We talked before about lettering briefly. Did anything else change in the way you produced your work, or you just do everything faster?
McDonnell: Yeah, it’s pretty much the same.
Heintjes: Get less sleep and work faster, basically.
McDonnell: [Laughter] Yeah, I spend longer hours sitting at the drawing board, that’s for sure. And the toughest thing is just trying to manage everything: when things are due and what day I can do this and what day do I do that. With the comic strip, I always do it in a batch. At this point, I do three weeks at a time, so usually in about four or five days, I do three weeks. And then that frees me up to do whatever project is asking for some time at that point. But not that I could complain. All the projects are just so interesting and challenging and just fun.
Heintjes: That segues nicely to my next question, actually. Given the range of media and platforms that you’ve worked on now—this is an impossible question, I know, but I’ll ask anyway—which one do you find most satisfying?
Heintjes: We’ll note the silence here [laughter].
McDonnell: You know, they’re all different and interesting. I’ll describe each one, and I don’t know if I have a favorite but…MUTTS is still interesting just because I feel that it’s the base for everything, and I like the characters. There’s some comfort in doing it because I’ve been doing it for so long. I really love doing the picture books because it’s just so fun to tell stories in words and pictures, and I love drawing. I love having more room to play. There’s not that much room in the comic strip. I think that doing picture books is most artistically satisfying to me. With each book I can pick which medium I want to do, what kind of paper to use and how the characters are going to look. There’s really a lot of freedom in picture books. And then the movie…what’s exciting about that is not what I already know. I haven’t started working on any art but when I do work on the art, I’m going to do something as samples only. Other people are going to do the actual art. And even though it’s telling stories, it’s a different way to tell a story. I’m used to quiet, small, three panels, short. And movies are the exact opposite: big and exciting and long and complicated. So that’s fun because it’s totally different.
And I really enjoyed the play. I’m surprised by how much I’m really enjoying the play. I think the reason for that is the play is closer to a comic strip than a movie. A play is still intimate the way a comic strip is, and a play is more about conversation and monologues. It’s not big action scenes and things moving around fast. With Waiting for Godot, nothing could happen and it’s still exciting, which I think is closer to my comic strip. I think that’s why comic books that tell crazy, big stories are perfect for movies. Adapting a comic strip for the movies is a little tricky because it’s not the same storytelling. So it’s been a really fine balancing act, but I think we have it. I think the MUTTS movie is very MUTTS-like but at the same time very movie-like. But the play was more like a comic strip. It was a little more natural for me.
Heintjes: You are really exercising of all your creative muscles these days.
McDonnell: It’s funny. I know I’m busy, but before we began this interview, I took a piece of paper and said, “I’d better jot down things I’m working on.” Then I went, “Oh my God, no wonder I don’t get out of the house too often.” [laughter]
Heintjes: [Laughter] You gave yourself a panic attack.
Heintjes: To bring this full circle, Patrick, you’ve been doing MUTTS for 20 years now. And as you said, in many ways it’s the base of everything that has sprung from it. What keeps it vital for you? What keeps it challenging and fulfilling for you instead of going through the motions each day?
McDonnell: I just love cartooning, and when you do characters for 20 years, they really are like family. To think of something silly for Earl and Mooch to do, it’s just like breathing to a certain extent. Not that it’s easy—not that you don’t still have the deadlines and have to work to think of jokes and gags and stuff—but it’s just very comforting to be with those characters and try to figure out what they’re going to say and do. And I have always been in love with comic strips. When I sit down to draw, I just can’t help but think about all the people that gave me joy. I think of Charles Schulz, George Herriman and E.C. Segar and all those great cartoonists. Just feeling like I’m part of that tradition is always satisfying. I don’t think that feeling will ever go away. Even though in this day and age it’s kind of ridiculous that I’m dipping a pen into a bottle of ink and drawing on paper, it’s a time-honored tradition. It feels right.
Editor’s note: You can purchase a printed copy of Hogan’s Alley #20 (cover at right), where this interview first appeared, for just $9 postpaid. The print version of the interview contains artwork and photography not included here.