Patrick McDonnell’s studio is, quite possibly, the cleanest artist’s space in New Jersey. Located on a suburban street in Middlesex County, the sparsely furnished room is airy and spacious, with a big window overlooking a large backyard. “I like to keep it clean so I can think,” McDonnell says. Lined up in a row beneath the window are his drafting table, an electronic drum set, and a doggie bed, where Earl, his Jack Russell terrier, often snoozes. McDonnell spends eight hours a day here creating Mutts, his comic strip featuring Earl the dog and Mooch the cat that’s syndicated in 600 newspapers in 20 countries.
“My parents wouldn’t let me get a dog growing up. We had cats,” McDonnell says. “That’s probably where Mutts comes from, my obsession with owning a dog.” Long before he got Earl in a small town near the Delaware Water Gap, McDonnell used to draw a little cartoon dog from his imagination. Before someone recognized the breed from McDonnell’s drawings, he’d never even seen a Jack Russell terrier. “Earl was the one I was drawing in all my illustrations, and then my cartoon dog became my real dog,” says McDonnell, 50. (Earl’s companion is the well-loved cat MeeMow, a stray rescued from Jersey City, who, being a typical cat, avoids houseguests.)
McDonnell was born in Elizabeth and grew up in Edison. “It was great. We were close to the Shore, to the Great Swamp, to Manhattan. We would skip school, take the train to New York, and play pinball. I put all of that in the strip. I had an uncle who owned a motel in Seaside Heights. The characters go down the Shore on vacation every summer,” McDonnell says.
Rick Stromoski, president of the National Cartoonists Society and creator of the comic strip Soup to Nuts, remembers McDonnell fondly from high school. “He was a few years older than me and I was totally in awe of his success because he had already had things published,” Stromoski says. “He was one of my heroes.” After graduating from New York’s School of Visual Arts in the early 1980s, McDonnell moved to Hoboken, where there was a community of underground cartoonists. “It was fun because we could all get together—Peter Bagge [best known for his comic Hate] and Kaz [Underworld, SpongeBob SquarePants] lived there, I guess because it was a lot cheaper than New York. There were great Italian delis and pizzerias, and the place still had that On the Waterfront feel back then,” McDonnell remembers. “When Earl and Mooch go into town, you can see the influence of Hoboken in things like the Fatty Snax deli.”
It was also around that time that McDonnell was drawing Jerseyana, a monthly cartoon for this magazine about the unique experience of living in the state. “I love New Jersey. People are so funny and have such a nice view of life. When you’re out of state and you meet someone from here, you just know,” McDonnell says.
Karen O’Connell, his wife of 23 years and a former iyengar yoga instructor, is also a Jersey native. “When I met Patrick, I knew right away that he would be a success,” says O’Connell. “After doing illustrations for ten years, he decided to switch careers and start the Mutts comic strip. It was harder work, but he was doing something he truly loved.”
McDonnell and O’Connell met while they were in a punk band called the Steel Tips. “We played CBGB in New York with the Ramones. It feels like a lifetime ago. Now I get up at 5 am to meditate,” McDonnell says. The meditation helps him stay focused and creative despite a grueling schedule that requires working weeks in advance to produce one strip for each weekday and a large, full-color Sunday edition. McDonnell created Mutts eleven years ago, and he’s won many honors for his work, including six Harvey Awards for best comic strip and the National Cartoonists Society’s Reuben Award for outstanding cartoonist of the year and best comic strip. His first children’s book, The Gift of Nothing (Little, Brown and Company, 2005), a simple story of friendship, came out in October and has gone into its third printing. And Art (Little, Brown and Company, 2006), his most recent children’s book, due out this month, is about art and creativity.
“He is a phenomenal cartoonist and one of the most beloved members of the society,” says Stromoski. “I would say he is the heir apparent to Charles Schulz.” Schulz, whom McDonnell sites as a major influence, wrote the forward for the first Mutts anthology (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 1996). “He keeps coming up with ideas I wish I had thought of myself,” wrote Schulz. “To me, Mutts is exactly what a comic strip should be.”
Besides meditating, promoting animal welfare is clearly a priority for him. McDonnell designed a New Jersey state license plate, whose sales benefit the state’s Animal Population Control Fund’s spay-neuter program, and he serves on the boards of the Humane Society of the United States and the Fund for Animals. A percentage of profits from the sale of merchandise on www.muttscomics.com, such as fair-trade, organic-cotton T-shirts and recycled-paper books, is donated to the Wildlife Land Trust. He and O’Connell are committed vegetarians (“I’m working toward being a vegan, but the Italian side of me finds it really difficult to give up mozzarella cheese,” he says) who feed their animals holistic pet food and refuse to use pesticides on their lawn. In contrast to many of their neighbors, who are building bloated McMansions that stretch to the very edge of property lines and leave little room for nature of any description, the couple keep much of their land, which includes a small stream, as natural as possible to create a sanctuary for local animals like deer, birds, and bats. “We do all we can to try and educate people and help eliminate the causes of animal suffering,” O’Connell says.
Being a cartoonist is a solitary career. “Most of the time I’m home alone, just me, the dog, and the cat,” he says. Which allows him ample opportunity to study them for inspiration and really get into their heads. “A lot of cartoon animals are people in disguise. I want to keep my animals as animal-like as possible. Body language is a tool that I use. You can say so much through little habits that come out in the strip.”
McDonnell has always felt a connection to older comic strips like Pogo and Krazy Kat, and their influence is clear in the way his characters look and speak. “A lot of the old cartoons really played with language, like Popeye. Everyone had a funny way of speaking, and that got lost over time,” McDonnell says. His inspiration came from a friend of a friend who used to say “yesh,” the way Mooch does. While most people really respond to his distinctive style, a reader once wrote to McDonnell insisting that her cat would never slur his s’s. McDonnell wrote her back to say, “Shorry.”
Annmarie Conte is a Jersey City resident and associate editor at Jane magazine.