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The Cat Lover Behind Mutts

By: Cal Orey

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Patrick McDonnell, the creator of "Mutts" the popular cartoon strip, is not just a dog person. A native of New Jersey, this genuine cat lover fondly recalls that when he was 5-years-old a neighborhood stray sauntered into his childhood. His mom let the male red tabby, Mr. Kitty stay. And this was the first cat that tickled McDonnell's mind, body and spirit.

Later, at age 9, Mrs. Kitty, another small, homeless cat followed McDonnell and his sister home from school one day and nudged her way into the kids' hearts. "She was just the greatest cat. She lived for almost 20 years," the 45-year-old "Mutts" cartoonist told me. "I talked to the cat all the time. She was a very affectionate cat." These unforgettable cat connections ignited McDonnell's cat fancy, which I often find in the "Mutts" comic strip.

"Mutts" has a man-and-his-dog premise which emphasizes the human-canine bond between Earl, a Jack Russell terrier and his owner also known as "his Ozzie." However, the strip also includes Earl's cat pal, Mooch (the next-door neighbor's cat) and a garden-variety of other critters. And this original idea of dog meets cat and they become chums is the real soul of the strip.

The Dog and Cat Duo

McDonnell was a big fan of "Peanuts" when he was growing up. At 5 or 6 years of age he recalls writing a letter to dog lover Charles Schulz in which he advised him to add a cat to the strip. "It would be fun to see Snoopy have a cat friend," he wrote. Eventually, the cartoonist's cat wish came true in his own comic strip.

When he was first designing the strip it was just the dog. "The idea of the strip was that Earl was going to walk around and meet other characters and animals and have dialogues with them," explains McDonnell, who adds that the animals talk to each other, but they don't talk to the owners. "In the designing of it I soon thought it was obvious that he should meet a cat – that was Mooch. Mooch was based not only on Mrs. Kitty and Mr. Kitty, but also a neighbor Siamese cat named Chan. Chan was the smartest, funniest cat." It's McDonnell's past cat companions, like these, that paved the way for comic cat Mooch's entrance into "Mutts."

"The dog-meets-cat occurrence happened fast," says McDonnell. After all, Mooch lives next door. The two just started sizing each other up through each others' windows. "Then, eventually Mooch came into Earl's backyard. At first, they weren't really good friends, they were just trying to figure each other out. And then it slowly graduated to a friendship," explains McDonnell.

Meet Mooch

McDonnell admits that his love for cats helps him feel comfortable doing the Mooch character. While McDonnell was catless during the first 2 1/2 years of "Mutts," Mooch's role was still credible. The feline is owned by the next door neighbors, Frank and Millie, an older couple based on McDonnell's mom and dad. "Millie is totally in love with Mooch," he says, "and Frank has to learn to love cats."

Mooch, a lovable black-and-white comic cat is friendly, fun-loving, endearing, entertaining, curious, smart and funny. What's more, Mooch has his own trademark – a distinct way of speaking. Or as McDonnell says, "He shooshs a lot. I thought that Mooch was such a funny character that if he had a funny way of talking it would make him more individual and a little unique."
        
Getting a Real-Life Kitty                

Adding a cat (the calico MeeMow) to his household was another good idea for the cat lover behind "Mutts." It happened finally – thanks to his wife Karen who has had firsthand experience with animal adoptions.

As the story goes, while at work she saved two feral kittens. "It was a group of kittens that lived in her parking garage. She was feeding them so she could get closer to them. And she was able to rescue two of them. She gave one to a friend, and she brought home a calico MeeMow for us," recalls McDonnell. And while he was happy with the tiny female calico, he says real-life Earl, a little white dog with brown ears (now 12) was "fascinated."

"While MeeMow and Earl tolerate one another they are not exactly as close as Mooch and Earl in "Mutts," says McDonnell who quickly adds that the progress has been amazing. "I've discovered them on the couch together asleep. I never thought that was going to happen. They do have their moments."

But MeeMow is not a perfect cat angel, admits McDonnell. "Her tail has actually ruined two drawings. I use pen and ink, so the ink was still wet. I saw her tail go whoosh and I watched the drawing become one big smear," he laughs. But he adds that he's willing to work around occasional cat-astrophies. "Her inspiration is too valuable to refuse her to sleep on the desk."
        
The cat-loving cartoonist also includes other felines in "Mutts." These cats include Shtinky (a little wanderlust feline who Mooch named), Noodles (a feral cat) and Sourpuss (it was time to have a character who represents cats on the grumpy side). But "If you read the strip," concludes McDonnell, "even though it's called 'Mutts' I sort of think Mooch is the star of the strip." And no doubt, plenty of cat lovers, like me, believe imperfect Mooch makes "Mutts" extraordinary and tickles the funny bone to the art of perfection.

MORSELS ABOUT "MUTTS"' CREATOR

  • Patrick McDonnell is a 45-year-old Pisces, born on March 17, 1956. He was born in Elizabeth and raised in Edison, New Jersey.

  • Since age 4 McDonnell dreamed of becoming a cartoonist.

  • McDonnell graduated from the School of Visual Arts in New York City and previously worked as a magazine illustrator creating the cartoon characters you see in "Mutts."

  • King Features, a unit of the Hearst Corporation, bought his idea for a comic strip. "Mutts" debuted in 1994.

  • The first strip he did featured sheltered animals who were all hoping to be adopted including a cat named Tom-Tom who was unsuccessful in finding a home. In one a little girl falls in love with the cat and the strip ends in the little girl taking the happy cat home.

  • McDonnell and his "Mutts" are winners of the National Cartoonists Society's Best Comic Strip of the Year Award – The prestigious "Max and Moritz" Best International Comic Strip Cartoonist Award. He also received two Genesis Awards from The Ark Trust, a nonprofit animal rights advocacy group.

  • "Mutts" currently appears in more than 450 newspapers and is published in more than 20 countries.

    For more information, log onto www.kingfeatures.com

    COMIC CATS...Take the Quiz

    1. What is the name of the pudgy orange cat who is both cat-like and human and a very self-serving feline with attitude?

    2. Who created Felix, the black cat, which was known as the fearless feline?

    3. What is the name of the comic strip, crated by Bill Watterson, which included a six-year-old boy, and his stuffed Tiger who talks and becomes only real to him?

    4. George Herriman, the creator of the prototype of all cat strips, created what newsprint cat character?

    5. What is the name of the cartoon strip, created by Nicole Hollander, who has two boy cats, Buddy and Izzy who keep her sassy character company?

    Answers: 1. Garfield 2. Otto Messmer 3. Calvin and Hobbes 4. Krazy Kat 5. Sylvia

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