Yesh, "Mutts" Cartoonist Patrick McDonnell Makes Every Day Earth Day
Photo credit: Patrick McDonnell/King Features Syndicate
The state of our planet isn't funny business, but dozens of King Features' cartoonists will be inking the change they wish to see in the world for the comics syndicate's second annual Earth Day event on April 22.
Among them is Patrick McDonnell, the creator of the popular comic strip Mutts, which appears in more than 700 newspapers and 20 countries and was hailed by Peanuts creator Charles Schulz as "one of the best comic strips of all time." Starring a dog and a cat named Earl and Mooch and a madcap menagerie of supporting characters, Mutts also serves as a platform for the award-winning and New York Times-bestselling author's environmental and animal-rights advocacy work. We recently spoke to McDonnell—who has been lauded by the Humane Society of the United States, the Ark Trust, PETA, and the Sierra Club—about the lessons comics can teach us, how he feels about the First Puppy, and why he's still a hippie at heart. TreeHugger: What role do you think that comics, which are intended to entertain, can play in advocacy?
Patrick McDonnell: I think in my own strip, the main goal is to entertain, but there are opportunities to talk about a lot of issues that are around. I think comics are great...I see them as any other entertainment vehicle like TV or movies, that even though they're fun there are opportunities for us to touch on different emotions and topics. What's great about comics is that people read them every day so they sort of become like family, so it's more like a family discussion over a kitchen table; you're more open to accept ideas from cartoons sometimes, because they're not as fanatical about it.
Photo credit: Patrick McDonnell/King Features SyndicateTH: For last year's Earth Day strip, you kept it simple with a single-panel illustration of Earl and Mooch perched on a heart-shape globe and a quote by Robinson Jeffers. What inspired this image?
PM: I've played with that image for a while; I like the idea of the Earth shaped as a heart. In comics you have so little room, so it's sort of like poetry, you're always trying to get things down to the basics. I was just trying to think how to show that we should love our climate...it was a pretty simple image, I thought.
Last year I did a whole week's worth of [Earth Day-themed strips]. Every day I did a different quote that related to the environment. And then this year, I did a week's worth asking different characters why they love Mother Nature, so I had a bee talking about how Mother Nature always grows such great flowers. I had a squirrel who says how little acorns make him happy. I wanted to convey how much we tend to take the beauty of nature for granted all the time, but it's also where we live; it's also our home.
TH:Did you get a lot of positive response for your Earth Day strip?
PM: Yes, they always get a good response and I think with the idea of a lot of cartoonists doing [Earth Day-themed comics], we got quite a lot of publicity for it. I think Earth Day doesn't get as much [prominence] as the major holidays, but it's getting more and more [traction] and anything I can do to help, I'm happy to do it.
Photo credit: Patrick McDonnell/King Features SyndicateTH: You're also well-known for your animal- and environmental-advocacy work, especially with shelter animals. How did they become passions of yours?
I've always loved animals and when you do a strip about animals, you try to see the world through their eyes. And you know, Earl and Mooch have loving guardians, but I think of cats and dogs and rabbits and other animals in the shelters waiting for their home. So I thought it'd be interesting to put it in the strip to remind people that they can have a little Earl or Mooch in their house real easy by just going to the local shelter. And I got hooked up with the Humane Society of the United States...actually they asked me to be on their board of directors and I've been on that board since 2000, so I'm learning more and more about how tough it is for animals on this planet, so I do my best, through my strip, to help.
TH: And what sparked your interest in the environment? I know that your T-shirt merchandise is always made with organic cotton and your books are always printed in the United States on recycled paper.
PM: I guess it goes back to my hippie days. (Laughs.) But, you know, it's just common sense; it's your own home. And again, with the animals, one of the main problems they face is pollution, so they remind me how important it is to keep our planet clean.
TH: Do you see caring for animals and protecting the environment as related causes?
PM: Yes, it's all one...it all connects.
TH: Are you disappointed that the First Puppy isn't a shelter mutt?
PM: (Laughs.) Yes, I must admit I am.
PM: Oh yes, especially with Hug Time, which is a book about endangered animals, to remind people how fragile life is on the planet.
TH: But your stories also have a very hopeful message. We're constantly bombarded with disheartening news about global warming, deforestation, and species loss...is it important for you to remain positive?
PM: Oh without a doubt, I think that's the answer. I think we have to raise our consciousness and head towards the light. In all my books, I talk about the problem, but the main purpose is to get people to raise their consciousness and think positive. My next book that's coming out this fall is [Guardians of Being] with Eckhart Tolle, the author of The Power of Now. That book is all about the nature of animals and how they can help us get back in touch with our spiritual side.
TH: So what's next on the planet-saving agenda for you, Earl, and Mooch?
PM: Planet-saving agenda? (Laughs.) To tell you the truth, in a couple of hours I'll be taking the train to D.C. to go to my Humane Society of the United States board meeting and that's a wonderful group of people who are trying their best to help the planet and help the animals on the planet. So that's the next thing I'm going to do.
All of King Features' Earth Day-themed strips will be available online at www.comicskingdom.com on April 22, 2009. The comics will be continuously updated each day and will remain accessible via a 30-day archive.