Is it possible to convey the love and happiness we get from animals? Patrick McDonnell thinks so, and in fact, his comic strip, MUTTS, does just that. Featured in over 700 newspapers in 20 countries, MUTTS is a beloved mainstay of the comics page, and has been moving and delighting readers for over two decades. In addition to winning countless awards, including Cartoonist of the Year from the National Cartoonists Society and five Harvey Awards for Best Comic Strip, McDonnell has taken home awards from the Humane Society of the United States, PETA, and the Sierra Club for the strip’s animal and environmental advocacy. We recently spoke with McDonnell to learn more about the vision behind MUTTS and the passion that keeps it going.
TAILS: What was your inspiration for starting MUTTS?
McDonnell: Charles Schulz was the main reason I wanted to be a cartoonist. I always felt if I could capture some of the joy and comfort that I got from Peanuts I could return that to the world.
What do you think it is about MUTTS that resonates so much with readers?
Cats and dogs are so funny and have so much personality. I wanted to capture that and have people relate to Earl and Mooch the way they relate to their own pets. The inspiration was my own Jack Russell Terrier [Earl], and I knew if I could capture his excitement for life that it would be a good comic.
What made you decide to incorporate more serious topics?
In 2000 I was honored to become a board member of the Humane Society of the United States and learn more about how tough a lot of animals have it on the planet. I felt like since I was trying to speak for the animals I should tackle some of the tougher topics. I try to do it in an entertaining way, hopefully not too preachy.
You have a unique opportunity to reach all sorts of people with these important messages.
People come visit MUTTS every day. It’s almost like the characters are part of your family or a friend. And just like with family and friends you tend to bring up topics to discuss. It’s really just presenting issues in the friendliest way possible, and I think people are open to it because they know the characters and they like the strip.
Which of your characters do you resonate with the most?
Earl is always going to be my favorite—it’s hard for me not to see my own Earl in the cartoon Earl. And Mooch I love because he writes himself. If I’m looking for a joke I just put Mooch into the situation and he says something silly.
It’s like the original Earl lives on through the comic strip.
He does. I think about him when I draw. I have a new Jack Russell, Amelie, and some of her habits and funny ways are now part of Earl’s role. He’s slowly becoming a little bit like Amelie.
Does Amelie herself appear in the strip?
She was in a daily shelter story, but it’s more her little traits. She is totally ball crazy, and every once in awhile I’ll do jokes about Earl going nuts every time a bouncing ball goes by. That’s definitely an Amelie trait.
Do you have any other pets in your life?
We have a new cat. Right now his name is Willy, but I’m not sure how long it’s going to stick. He’s such a great cat and no name sounds good enough yet. He has a lot of personality so I’m sure some of his antics are going to show up in Mooch.
What is your favorite part about being a pet parent?
When you’re tuned into your pet you’re not thinking about your troubles, your brain goes still. They just bring you back to reality. They’re little guardians that help us get back to nature.
Any exciting projects coming up?
I did a book called MUTTS Shelter Stories: Love. Guaranteed. and this March it’s coming out again as a paperback. I also just collaborated with a poet named Daniel Ladinsky on a book called Darling, I Love You. It’s his poems and my artwork about dogs and cats. It’s just a long love poem to them. And Twentieth Century Fox is working on a MUTTS animated movie.
Patrick McDonnell is featured in “Shelter Me: Hearts & Paws,” the sixth episode of the inspiring national PBS series that celebrates shelter pets with positive and uplifting stories. Patrick visits the New York City shelter and incorporates that experience into his comic strip. You can catch this episode and the entire series for free at: ShelterMe.tv.
For more on McDonnell and MUTTS, visit MUTTS.com.