The Beautiful Philosophy of Nothing: Patrick McDonnell

patrick mcdonnell photo by dana sheridanThis fall, Abrams ComicArts released The Art of Nothing: 25 Years of Mutts and the Art of Patrick McDonnell. And while this is a wonderful opportunity to enjoy 25 years of the much-loved comic, what truly radiates from this book is the philosophy of Mutts and its creator, Patrick McDonnell.

the art of nothing by patrick mcdonnellGranted, “philosophy” is an unusual word to use to describe a daily comic. But longtime fans will immediately nod their heads and smile. As Patrick himself writes in the preface, “Since I try to see the world through the eyes of animals, most Mutts themes are quite basic: dogs, cats, snow, rain, the moon, the ocean, and what all animals (including us) want: food, naps, and love. And, because all art is personal, other themes explore the language of comics, the high art/low art discourse, the human-animal bond, the environment, animal rights, and spirituality.”

In short, Mutts is a beautiful philosophy of simplicity, compassion, and consideration.

At its very essence, Mutts is an assortment of souls who care for one another, play together, and advocate for others. The characters are often drawn on minimalist backgrounds, which enhances the purity of their interactions. Love and laughter. Inspiration and gratitude. The Art of Nothing both reaffirms and elevates these concepts. The book prominently features our beloved Mutts friends, but it also includes Patrick’s free-style art, his creative nods to artists who inspired him, his dedication to animal rights advocacy, and his growth into other areas of creativity, including his Caldecott Honor book, Me…Jane.

Recently, I was both delighted and honored to interview Patrick in his home studio. Artists’ work spaces are always interesting windows into their processes – Patrick’s studio was exactly like stepping into one of his Mutts panels. Minimal, comfortable, and with a distinct feeling of positive intent in the air. Oh, and there was an energetic terrier running around the house with a squeaky toy, as well as a glorious tabby cat lolling under a chair.

patrick mcdinnell studio desk


The title of your new book, The Art of Nothing is both a play on your first Mutts picture book and the process of a daily cartoonist. In the end, it’s about giving yourself, fully. On that note, can you tell us about the final pages of the book, the illustrated correspondence with cartoonist Lynda Barry?

I’m a big fan of Lynda and her work and had the pleasure of meeting her several times over the years. She was very close friends with my first editor at King Features comic strip syndicate. Charlie Kockman, my editor at Abrams, thought we needed an interview for the front of the book, and he suggested Lynda. But she had a really interesting idea…she didn’t want to do a conventional interview. She proposed that we be pen pals and do an interview via letter writing.

So over the course of three months she would write to me and I’d write back. She’s a teacher, so she gave me assignments. I felt like I was in high school again. I thought, and hoped, when she was done it would be a combination of her letters and my letters. But as you see in the book, she ended up putting together a collage of my letters and “homework.” It was a fun, intimate way of communicating. It came out really nice. Lynda’s a genius.

horizontal file drawers in studioYes, it was unusual in that it was non-linear and very open-ended…definitely not an interview format I’ve ever seen before! In fact, the entire format of The Art of Nothing really surprised me. A daily comic is very fixed…certain panels, certain rules, certain deadlines. This book unwinds those restrictions and let’s everything flow together – the comics, your original artwork, your thoughts, your collaborations…

Thank you. You know, when I look at the book, I feel like I’m like looking at not only the last 25 years of my creative life, but also inside the part of my brain that makes Mutts.

Charles Schultz, creator of Peanuts, is often cited as inspiring your cartooning career, and your new book is filled with your personal artistic tributes to N.C, Wyeth, Vermeer, Jasper John, Chester Gould, Jack Kirby and so many others…can you tell us the most recent artist you encountered who changed the way you look at your own art?

I recently visited the James Thurber House Museum in Columbus, Ohio. Afterwards, I started looking at his work again. I’m drawn to artists who give you license to be free, and he definitely does that so elegantly – to not worry about embellishments, to just get to the heart of something. Through his art he gave me additional permission to be even looser with mine.

cups inks and moochOver the years, both Mutts and your own life path have evolved to include animal rights advocacy. Were you ever surprised about where that journey has taken you and your characters?

It’s been an interesting journey. When I started Mutts, it was important to me that I kept my characters animal-like. The inspiration for Mutts was not only my love for comics, but my love for all animals. In particular my love for my first dog, Earl. I had wanted a dog ever since I was a kid, probably because I was in love with Snoopy from Peanuts. It took 30-something years, but I finally adopted my dog, a Jack Russell named Earl. He was everything I dreamed a dog could be. He was the inspiration for the comic. I felt if I could capture his joy of life and his spirit, I was doing my job.

Anyone who has a pet knows they’re funny. They don’t have to act like humans. They have their own personalities. I was trying my best to see the world through their eyes, and the more I looked, the more I started thinking how tough it is on this planet for other animals. In particular, I was thinking about the dogs and cats that are in shelters waiting to have Earl’s and Mooch’s lives in a forever home.

So I started playing in sketchbooks with ideas of shelter stories that I could tell in my strip. And around that same time the Humane Society of the United States got in touch with me about Animal Shelter Appreciation Week. I thought it was a perfect opportunity to share the shelter stories I was creating. That started the Shelter Stories part of the strip.

mutts bookendsThat led me to think more and more about the world and animals. When I joined the Humane Society’s board of directors, I learned so much more about how tough it is for animals on the planet. And that became integrated into the strip. Mooch and Earl helping farm animals, Mooch dreaming about Africa, and Shtinky the tabby, who became my animal advocate and took on the mission of trying to save tigers from extinction. Shtinky is able to help me introduce bigger issues related to animals.

So yeah, when I started this strip, I didn’t think it was going to evolve this way, but I’m really happy it did. Animals need someone to speak up for them. And it’s become a big part of my life and a big part of this strip. And I feel that any little help I can do is probably the reason I’m here.

orange chair and original artPlease explain the derivation of Mooch’s “little pink sock.”

You know what’s funny about that theme? I get lots of pictures of people’s cats with little pink socks. I didn’t realize that was something cats love, but I learned it is. It began as a  story line for one week. But it just fit so well with Mooch’s personality it became one of the themes I go back to regularly. Cartoonists have different devices we use – the little pink sock is one of them for Mutts. It seemed perfect that Mooch would be obsessed with a little pink sock – just the way real life cats do I’ve learned.

You’ve written 12 picture books, including Me…Jane which was a Caldecott Honor winner, as well as co-written two musicals and a screenplay for a feature-length Mutts animated movie. How, if at all, did these endeavors challenge your creativity?

I’ve enjoyed all of it. The comic strip – not that it’s a grind, but it stays pretty much the same artistically. Not the storytelling and the jokes, but the process. And it’s also just me, every day, just me with my dog sitting right here next to me. That’s about it.

But I love doing the plays. To collaborate with Aaron Posner, who’s a great director and playwright, and Andy Mitton, who wrote the music…it’s so nice to have a new family for a length of time. And creating something together, and to see it come alive on the stage was just so much fun. And theater is very similar to comic strips…

Really? How so?

They’re dialogue-driven, and they kind of stay in the same place. When you think about most comic strips, the setting is basically just a few defined areas. Comic books are great for movies because comic books are big stories with dramatic visuals. But comic strips are very quiet and kind of personal. And that’s like theater. The scenery stays largely the same…and it’s mainly dialogue and character driven. I love the theater. I had the chance to do The Gift of Nothing and then Me…Jane at the Kennedy Center and we’re hoping to do another musical someday soon.

The only unsettling thing with Me…Jane was that Jane Goodall was there on opening night. I have utmost respect for her and her mission and wanted her to love it, of course. I sat next to her at the performance. As the play was unfolding, I looked every once in a while to make sure she had a smile on her face. She was pleased with it, which was thrilling for me. But believe me. It was also very nerve-wracking.

paints in cabinetWhat’s your guiding philosophy for the next 25 years of Mutts?

My, hero Charles Schulz, did it for 50 years. Based on that, I’m only halfway done. That’s a scary thought.

What’s interesting about doing a comic strip – it’s one-day-at-a-time. It’s not like writing a novel, where you have to plan everything and figure out how it’s going to end and what the plot twists are. Doing a daily-comic strip is more like life…you just take it as it comes one day at a time. So other than continuing that process, I’m hoping the Disney animated movie might happen. That’d be a new world to explore with the characters.

I’m still planning to write more picture books, and I have dreams of doing a graphic novel. I might try that next year. The limiting factor is time. Doing a daily comic strip takes up so much of it. I wanted to be a cartoonist because of Peanuts since I was four years-old. That was my dream job. But I never thought of the reality of the job. I never thought, Oh, that’s every day for the next 25 years. It didn’t really hit me until I started doing it. Then I realized. It’s like a term paper that never ends!

patrick mcdonnell prizesAlso, you know, it sounds corny, but the characters, to a certain extent, do write themselves. You live with them so long, and you know their personalities. I think visually. When I think of new ideas, I’m literally just sketching funny pictures that make me laugh. So I think, where can I put them where they haven’t been in a while? If I draw Mooch somewhere new, I know how he would react and what he would say. That helps.

With a daily comic strip you’re not allowed to have writer’s block. Somehow, you have to have a lot of faith that it will get done. And so far, it has.

patrick mcdonnell in studio photo by dana sheridan

We’re giving away a signed copy of The Art of Nothing to a lucky blog reader! Just e-mail us with your name, and the name of your favorite Mutts character. And…the winner has been selected! Thank you everyone who entered, from Idaho to Puerto Rico!


Many thanks to Patrick and his wife Karen for graciously inviting me into their home, and thank you for 25 years of Mutts…the love, the laughter, and the little pink socks.

The Adventures of Tintin

the adventures of tintin

The blue sweater. The white dog. The hair swoosh. This could only be Tintin, one of the most iconic European comic book characters of the 20th century. We celebrated his globe-trotting adventures with the Princeton Garden Theatre, our local non-profit movie house extraordinaire. In 2016, we collaborated with the Garden on another book-to-film event, How to Train Your Dragon. It was so much fun, we decided to head back for another round!

princeton garden theaterFamilies entering the theater were greeted by a table covered with postcards (I found a pack of 92 vintage postcards at the thrift store for for $4 woot!) and a big world map.

postcard table and mapKids were invited to select a postcard and write their name and address on it. Then, they put the postcard in the red mailbox for a chance to win a stuffed animal of Snowy, Tintin’s faithful canine companion. Katie modeled the mailbox after the ones she saw in Brussels (birthplace of Tintin!). Isn’t it awesome? It has pom-pom feet!

brussels mailbox

The stuffed Snowy drawing happened at the event. But after the event, those same postcards were mailed to the kids with a special message from Tintin (and a paw stamp from Snowy).

postcard from tintinNext to the postcard table was a big map (50″ x 32″) mounted on foam board:

tintin location mapKatie selected some cool Tintin location images from the various volumes and attached them to the map. A line and a flag showed the actual location on the map.

tintin in peruDuring the event, kids were invited to add pushpin flags on locations they had traveled to. As it turns out, our crowd was pretty well traveled! Iceland, Australia, India, Thailand, Costa Rica, China, Hawaii, South Korea, Europe…

pushpin locations Around the corner from the postcard and map table were 2 additional activities: A Tintin head band with the iconic hair flip, and a pull-along box Snowy. The box Snowy was a 2″ x 4″ x 4″ craft box with a Snowy template taped to both sides. Add a clear elastic beading cord pull string and the Snowy followed you around the theater!

The headband was very simple…orange paper with a pre-cut hair flip to added to the front. Here’s an excited trio with the heads bands and a Snowy!

trio at eventNotice the little Captain Haddock key chains they’re holding up? Those were part of a trivia contest we were running. Our Tintin expert had a couple key chains on hand to give to kids who correctly guessed Snowy’s original name in the comics (which were first published in French).

tintin triviaIn honor of Snowy, we also had a very, very special performance. A live dog show provided by William Berloni Theatrical Animals, an amazing organization that trains rescue animals for movies, television, and theater!

bill and bowdieBill Berloni is a Tony-Award winner with decades of experience training animals. In fact, he trained the very first Sandy for the original production of Annie. He and his apprentice, Andy, brought 3 dogs – Marti, who plays Sandy in Annie (and this was the Sandy from the 2014 movie!), Nessa, who plays Toto in The Wizard of Oz, and Bowdie, who plays Winn-Dixie in Because of Winn-Dixie. Above is Bowdie. Below is Marti, waiting with Andy to go on stage:

marti and andyAnd here’s Nessa, the cutest, most enthusiastic Toto ever, racing down the aisle:

bill and nessaBill shared a little of his history, his training techniques, and the rescue stories of each of the dogs. There were plenty of demonstrations too, both on and off the leash. The thing that shone through the most however? How happy the dogs are, how much they love working with Bill, and what a tremendous advocate he is for rescue animals. He’s truly amazing. He’s also an author! After the event, he gave me a copy of his heart-warming book, Broadway Tails: Heartfelt Stories of Rescue Dogs Who Became Showbiz Superstars (Lyons Press, 2008), which has a foreword by Bernadette Peters.

Once the dog show ended, we rolled Steven Spielberg’s 2011 film The Adventures of Tintin, which he did in collaboration with Peter Jackson’s production company. Lots of thrills, chases, and fantastic loading dock crane battle. Yes!

adventures_of_tintin_the_secret_of_the_unicorn_ver5

Original poster image source: Imp Awards

As I was cleaning up after the event, I found a Tintin box a young fan had fashioned from 2 of our craft projects. The likeness is amazing…and it’s so cute…why didn’t I think of that?!?

tintin box

Original image source: Tintin Wiki


Many thanks to the Princeton Garden Theatre for being such awesome hosts, and to William Berloni Theatrical Animals for sharing your amazing canine actors with us!

Worlds at His Fingertips

worlds at his fingertips artwork by keenu haleBoats float on the stars, a scarecrow waltzes with crows, a magic wand transforms a snowman, a box bursts with enthusiastic jazz musicians. These are the images and worlds created by talented local artist, Keenu Hale. Today, I’m going to sing his praises.

artist keenu haleFor several years, Keenu has been a welcome guest at Cotsen Critix, our literary society for kids ages 9-12 (you also might recall hearing about him and his awesome cartooning skills at our How to Train Your Dragon event). A few facts about Keenu: he won his first drawing contest at 18 months; he is an artist with autism; he was featured in a television interview for the AttachAvi Autism Foundation in 2016; he generously gives his time to children’s hospitals, autism fundraisers, and art festivals; he is currently an animation major at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. In short, Keenu totally rocks.

jazz musicians by keenu hale

Keenu’s draws inspiration from Jim Henson and Tim Burton. Jim Henson for his odd, slapstick humor, and Tim Burton for his dark, somewhat creepy worlds. You can see how he blends both perfectly.

class photo with frame artwork by keenu haleheadless horseman artwork by keenu halegoats artwork by keenu halesnowman artwork by keenu haleKeenu has hundreds of original characters and story lines. Take, for example, his debut comic book, Life in the Suburbs. In the story, a human boy named Timmy lives with his non-human scarecrow family. While Burlap and Cotton (his parents), are happy to live on the farm, Timmy wants to live in the suburbs. But as Timmy and his siblings Lacy and Jinko learn, moving in and fitting in are two very different things! The comic is charming, funny, and really nicely paced.

life in the suburbs by keenu haleKeenu also collaborated with his cousin to produce Queen, You Are Beautiful! It follows the life of Queen, a young girl who must deal with bullies and discover her inner beauty.

queen you are beautiful artwork by keenu hale queen image 2 artwork by keenu halequeen image 3 artwork by keenu haleWhen Keenu visits our library, we always start with an interview and a viewing of his vast portfolio. Then he does a drawing exercise with the kids. At the very end of the workshop, Keenu makes custom freehand drawings of whatever characters the kids can think of. He does each drawing in minutes. It’s amazing. Here are just a few from his last visit (including one of his own characters, Rosemary):

quick characters by keenu hale


Many thanks to Keenu for allowing us to share his art! All images courtesy of the artist.