Tuesday, January 08, 2008

These are not graphic novels: Patrick McDonnell's children's books (Pt. 2)

It’s been a few weeks since we took a look at a few of Mutts cartoonist Patrick McDonnell’s children’s books, but I’ve since managed to track down the other half of his growing bibliography—his very first picture book, and his very latest one.

His first book was The Gift of Nothing (Little, Brown; 2005), which, like Just Like Heaven, was a Mutts picture book in the sense that the strip’s stars Mooch and Earl are front and center throughout.

The format of the book, the layout of McDonnell’s pictures, and the relationship between the words and art are also pretty much identical to those in Just Like Heaven.

Visually, the biggest distinguishing factor between the two is that Gift seems to be much rougher, with a hastier, scribblier line than even in McDonnell’s daily strips.

The art is black and white save for dashes of very light reds, which look like red water color added to the details in brush and ink drawings. I don’t know if that’s what the bits of red are, mind you, that’s just what they look like to me.

As for the story, it’s quite similar to Just Like Heaven in that it is at once completely straightforward, but with a gently pushed moral to be experienced.

“It was a special day” we learn on the first page, and Mooch wants to get a gift for his best friend Earl. McDonnell’s coy about what special day it is—perhaps too coy for a cynical adult like myself who has heard a few rants too many about secular society’s war on Christmas—but the snowy setting and the number of shoppers Mooch encounters in the stores suggests Christmas to me. That, or perhaps Earl’s birthday just falls during December.

Anyway, Mooch is fairly stymied as to what to get Earl, since Earl already has a bowl,a bed, a chewy toy, a master and a house.

“What do you get someone who has everything?” the text asks, above a picture of Mooch emanating a cloud of 25 question marks.

He comes to a very different conclusion than Mongul, Wonder Woman and Batman:

Thus the middle of the book deals with Mooch searching for nothing in all of the places he suspects it might be, only to find inevitably find something there instead.

Finally, he gets a big box, puts nothing in it, and gives it to Earl.

McDonnell overreaches a bit rhetorically to get a happy ending, when Mooch has to add “but me and you” to the end of the “nothing” Earl finds in the box, but it’s a nice thought and it’s the thought, in pictures books as much as gift-giving, that counts.

There’s a charming quality to the story and semantic jokes, but, as with his other books and the strips of his I’ve read, the thing I enjoy most in this is McDonnell’s line work.

Well, that, and the way he perfectly conveys the behavior of pets in a way that is perfectly familiar to anyone who’s ever had one.

Like, Earl’s very dog-like expression of excitement while engaging in the human activity of opening a present:

Or Earl and Mooch’s enjoyment of the box and string:

Finally, this fall McDonnell released his latest picture boo, Hug Time (Little, Brown; 2007):

This is probably his best looking of the four books. The format and layout are identical to the other Mutts picture books, but the art is much less spare, and more brightly colored, in what appears to be water colors. McDonnell’s art here looks extremely warm, which is appropriate, given the subject matter. You know, hugs.

The mutt that stars here is the little tiger cat from the strip who talks about endangered species. I’ve seen him called Shtinky Puddin in the strip, but here he goes by Jules. Little girl Doozy appears on a few pages, and Earl, Mooch and the fat tiger cat Noodles all appear on one page.

The story, in summary, sounds darling. And it was, in fact, a Publisher’s Weekly summary of the book as the tale of a cat who wants to travel the entire world and hug every single endangered animal by the artist of Mutts is what originally sparked my interest in McDonnell’s non-comics work last month.

It’s a neat premise, although the book itself is a little less steam-lined. Operating on child-like logic that hugs make everything better, Jules wants to hug the whole world, which means traveling every inch of it and hugging everybody and thing in it.

“So he made (and checked twice) a Hug To-Do List,” hugged his owner and friends and then sets off to hug the animals of Africa, a blue whale, the elusive tiger, “a gnu, a panda, a peacock, a petite pudu. A wallaby, wombat and a humuhumu fish (number three hundred six on his Hug To-Do List).”

Oh yeah, it’s told in rhyme. And not particularly good rhyme. McDonnell’s rough couplets lead to some awkward construction in his narration, but its sing-song enough to pass muster in a kids book.

While I groaned at the words quite often (remaining aware that I am not exactly the target audience here), I enjoyed the over all arc of the story and the point it was getting at. And then, as always, there’s that great artwork.

It was actually quite a treat to see McDonnell working on animals so far out of his normal oeuvre. I’d love to see him do more work in wombats, for example.

Here’s Jules trying to hug a butterfly, which looks an awful lot like trying to catch a butterfly, doesn’t it?

Here he is in the park, hugging a bird:

I love the expressions on the birds’ faces, all identical to the hugged bird’s. Apparently, they’re all as confused as him. This is a perfect image to demonstrate what I like most about McDonnell’s work.

The birds have no mouths or eyebrows, their faces consist simply off two little dots above a beak, and yet the dots are so perfectly placed and drawn that, in the context of the image, the birds all seem to have the same stunned, blank expression.

As do the birds on the next page,

looking over at the weird little cat in the sweater hugging that little blue bird.

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