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A daily dose of brilliance

Mutts: The Comic Art of Patrick McDonnell; Patrick McDonnell; Harry N. Abrams: 216 pp., $45

October 26, 2003|Glen David Gold | Glen David Gold is the author of the novel "Carter Beats the Devil."

"Americans assume that which is serious and pretentious is by nature high art and that which is simple and cheap cannot possibly have any artistic value." So wrote Gilbert Seldes in his 1923 notes for an essay that would become "The 7 Lively Arts," the first book-length evaluation of such popular arts as the comic strip. Though other critics eventually responded to his invitation to celebrate musical comedy, dance and the movies, as of now, 80 years later, the critics' party boat for the comic strip remains in dry dock.

What is it about words and pictures? Separately, they are beyond reproach, but the moment they mate, their offspring is branded an underachiever. Occasionally an essay argues that the graphic novel medium is worthy of praise, citing the illustrated novels "Maus" by Art Spiegelman or "Jimmy Corrigan" by Chris Ware. But people still suspect this argument reeks of camp, in the same vein as pleas for a reevaluation of the drive-in movie theater. The works discussed are rare, the result of extremely personal vision and issued every few years between hard covers. No one argues that the daily comic strip -- a far more disposable, popular and thus suspect form -- is overrun with artistic brilliance.

In part, the fault lies with the strips themselves. Though adventure strips ("Flash Gordon," "Prince Valiant," "Tarzan") have had their share of successors to N.C. Wyeth, illustrator of such works as "Treasure Island," in the world of the humor strip and the gag-a-day, the roll call of geniuses is short. Two in particular stride from one end of the 20th century to the other: George Herriman, who died in 1944, and Charles M. Schulz, who just made it to the millennium. Their work couldn't have been more different. Herriman's "Krazy Kat" was a chaotic blend of Joycean language and bizarre landscapes. Its few fans (by the end it appeared in fewer than 30 papers) had to fight through layers of murk and misunderstanding to eventually tease out what the strip's meaning -- and sometimes it meant nothing at all. At its aesthetic polar opposite stands "Peanuts." What Schulz drew, and how he drew it, was so simple it looked like anyone could do it, which was his brilliance. The huge circular heads with scribbles for hair hid in plain sight a subversive question: What if children could voice their inner conflicts with the vocabulary of adults?

In the post-Schulz world, artists have copied his style without understanding that simplicity doesn't mean simple-mindedness. Even when the writing is excellent, the comic pages today mostly carry crudely drawn strips, talking heads drawn as vehicles for the verbal gag. We might read strips for the characters, the viewpoint, the laugh, but the art? Not anymore.

Thank goodness for "Mutts" by Patrick McDonnell. Heavyweight art-publishing house Harry N. Abrams, recognizing a gem, has released a monograph devoted to a contemporary comic strip for the first time in its history. The result is a delight, especially for those of us who read the strip one day at a time in the Los Angeles Times or the more than 500 other papers that publish it; the accumulation of work proves that there is even more here than meets the eye, which was plenty to start with. It is a strip with a philosophy as deep and as tranquil as a Zen Buddhist's, drawn by an artist fully aware of all that has come before him.

The strip's setup is indistinguishable from many ersatz-Garfield comics: cat (Mooch) and dog (Earl) talk to their animal friends or interact a little more realistically with their human companions. It could be doomed to the "isn't-that-cute, isn't-that-true" school of humor. But "Mutts" is saved by a worldview that is profoundly sweet, weighted toward the profound: In subtle ways, it explores the relationship of man and animal, the place of pride and dominion. There are small moments, as when Mooch's owners silently fall asleep next to their cat, that aren't exactly jokes but gentle recognitions that defy cliche. Plenty of the episodes are just plain funny, running from the absurd (cat and dog eat until they explode into bits) to the picaresque (the crab explains his visit with disco pirates). At their best, Mooch and Earl play on human emotion as Charlie Chaplin did, from slapstick to high-wire sentimentalism. One Sunday strip features a pack of African animals facing the domesticated pair, with a lion saying, quietly, "We're scared." It's drawn without an ounce of pathos or cuteness; the resulting impact is as disturbing as hearing a distant rifle shot.

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