“Heart to Heart”
“MUTTS” Creator Patrick McDonnell’s Collaboration with the Dalai Lama — and Other Pet Projects
By Donald H. Sanborn III
Patrick McDonnell is a versatile author and illustrator with varied projects to his credit. He draws the comic strip MUTTS — which appears daily in newspapers worldwide — and he has created or co-created children’s books, a retrospective of cartoonist George Herriman, and a MUTTS-themed New Jersey license plate. His collaborators include Eckhart Tolle and Jane Goodall.
McDonnell’s work has been adapted for stage shows and animation. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the PETA Humanitarian Award, the National Cartoonists Society’s Reuben Award for Cartoonist of the Year, and several Harvey Awards for Best Comic Strip.
A longtime advocate for animals and the environment, McDonnell is a board member of the Fund For Animals, the Charles M. Schulz Museum, and the D&R Greenway Land Trust. He resides in Princeton with his wife (and business manager) Karen O’Connell, along with their rescue dog and formerly feral cat.
McDonnell’s upcoming book, Heart to Heart, is scheduled for publication in January 2023. Created in collaboration with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the book discusses the environment, animals, and compassion. Of Heart to Heart, the Dalai Lama says, “It is my hope that this book will open the eyes, minds, and hearts of all people.“
“MUTTS” environmental and animal activism.
“MUTTS” and Animal Activism
On September 5, 1994, MUTTS debuted in newspapers, distributed by King Features Syndicate.
“I was a freelance illustrator, going from magazine to magazine, taking jobs as they came,” the cartoonist writes in The Art of Nothing: 25 Years of MUTTS and the Art of Patrick McDonnell. “But ever since I was a child, I dreamed of being a daily cartoonist. So after years of procrastination, I finally created … a comic strip based on my love for the medium and my love for all animals.”
One of the main characters is a dog named Earl, based on the cartoonist’s own canine companion.
“My first job out of college was to illustrate the Russell Baker column in The New York Times’ Sunday magazine,” McDonnell tells this writer. “I used to draw what I thought was a generic little white dog, with a circle around his eye. Then an art director told me that I was drawing a Jack Russell terrier … I got myself a Jack Russell terrier — named Earl — and he inspired me to do MUTTS.
Peanuts is one of McDonnell’s foremost influences, so he treasures the friendship of the late Charles M. Schulz. Initially, McDonnell was unsure what to name the star of his new comic strip. “Schulz told me, ‘Why don’t you name him after your own dog?’ I thought he might know what he was talking about, so I took his advice!”
Schulz and McDonnell incorporated each other’s work into their own strips. The latter gratefully recalls that Schulz “presented me with the original of a strip, where the Peanuts gang was in a museum, looking at a drawing of Earl! I have that artwork right next to my drawing table, and I look at it every day.”
Soon the tuxedo cat Mooch joined the cast. “I thought that he would be good for a week’s worth of jokes. But like most cats, Mooch came into the strip and took over,” McDonnell remembers. “That’s how I’ve gotten all of my cats. Our previous cat passed away, and I thought we would wait a little while before we got another cat, because I was going on a book tour. But in our backyard in Princeton, a little feral cat family showed up. We found homes for everybody — and kept one!”
MUTTS provides an outlet for McDonnell’s animal and environmental activism. A series within the strip, “Hard Math,” depicts endangered species. Another recent arc tells a true story: through the efforts of Greater Good Charities, rescue dogs were transported from Louisiana to St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in Madison, New Jersey. McDonnell explains that this aspect of the strip is directly connected with his attempts to write it from the animals’ viewpoints, leading to the realization that the lives of many animals have been “pretty tough.”
“It began with “Shelter Stories,” McDonnell says. “I was thinking about the cats and dogs who weren’t as lucky as Earl and Mooch, who have homes. So I started adding some stories about shelter animals, to try to encourage people to adopt.”
McDonnell has been on the board of the Humane Society of the United States, which greatly increased his awareness of animal rights issues.
“I figured, let me really be a voice for animals, and try to tackle some of those subjects: animals raised on factory farms; endangered species,” he says. “I slowly let some of those issues fall into MUTTS. I try not to be preachy about it — I still want it to be entertaining — but I thought it was a good way to bring some of those subjects to peoples’ breakfast tables.”
Children’s Books and Theatrical Adaptations
In addition to MUTTS and his other cartoon work, McDonnell is an author and illustrator of several children’s books. One of these has a Princeton connection: The Little Red Cat Who Ran Away and Learned His ABC’s (the Hard Way). The book appears on ALA-ALSC Notable Books for Children List 2018, School Library Journal’s Best Picture Books of 2017, and Publisher’s Weekly’s Best Books of 2017 — among numerous plaudits.
“As residents of Princeton, Karen and I are able to audit Princeton University classes,” McDonnell explains. “One of the classes we took was Professor William Gleason’s children’s book history class.”
ABC books were one of the first subjects covered, which inspired McDonnell to attempt one of his own. “The professor said there were only three types of ABC books, which drove me to attempt to come up with a fourth type. After the book came out, I presented it to him with gratitude. That was a really fun book to do, and I never would have done it if it wasn’t for the class at Princeton.”
In 2012 one of McDonnell’s books won a Caldecott Honor for its illustrations. Me … Jane tells the story of a young Jane Goodall and her toy chimpanzee, Jubilee. McDonnell recalls, “In MUTTS I have a character named Jules, a little tabby cat who’s the animal activist in the strip. He talked about how he had ‘compassion fatigue,’ which happens to people who work with animals. But he says he gets over it by staring at his autographed picture of Jane Goodall.”
The Jane Goodall Institute inquired about using that art for a gala invitation. McDonnell was happy to comply and asked if he could mail the original art to Goodall. They told him she would be in New York City the following week, and McDonnell could deliver it himself. At their meeting, McDonnell suggested the collaboration that led to Me … Jane.
McDonnell continues, “Afterwards, I reread Jane’s autobiography, Reason for Hope, which is a wonderful book. One of the first pictures is a picture of Jane as a baby, with her plush toy chimpanzee. I said, ‘That’s the children’s book right there: a book about her childhood.’ She loved the idea and the sketched version I showed to her. That’s how Me … Jane came to be.”
In 2017 a stage adaptation, Me … Jane: The Dreams & Adventures of Young Jane Goodall, opened at the Kennedy Center’s Theater for Young Audiences. McDonnell explains that the Kennedy Center had already succeeded with an adaptation of one of his MUTTS-themed children’s books, The Gift of Nothing (which received the 2015 Helen Hayes Award for Best Adaptation), “so they asked me if I’d create an adaptation of Me … Jane. I had the opportunity to sit next to Jane on opening night!”
Of the process of adapting children’s books into stage shows, McDonnell says, “I have to tell you, it definitely was the most fun project I’ve ever done in my life. Washington D.C.-based playwright and director Aaron Posner thought The Gift of Nothing would make a wonderful children’s theater production; I loved the idea.”
“Being a comic strip artist is a pretty lonely job,” McDonnell points out. “It’s just me at my drawing table. There’s no audience; you just do it. I fell in love with the theater. To work with the director, the composer, and the actors — and to see my cartoon come to life — was a wonderful experience. It was a lot of fun to do.”
McDonnell continues, “At the time, I was also working on a screenplay for a MUTTS movie, which is still hovering around. But theater is really close to comic strips. I think comic books make better movies, because of the action. But comic strips are more like little thoughts that work better in the theater. I had the help of (director) Aaron Posner, and (composer and lyricist) Andy Mitton. But it was an easy transition, because it felt like writing a comic strip.”
Image from “Heart to Heart.”
“Heart to Heart”
Asked about the circumstances that led to collaboration with the Dalai Lama, McDonnell says, “It actually started in Africa.” He explains, “I was on the board of the Humane Society of the United States, and one of its other board members put together a trip.”
“Karen and I were in Africa with friends,” he says. “One friend, Pam Cesak, is a board member of the International Campaign for Tibet. She shared her admiration for my collaboration with Eckhart Tolle and I believe it was Karen who said, ‘How about we do a similar book with His Holiness the Dalai Lama?’ Pam loved the idea and brought the project to International Campaign for Tibet. The project was presented to His Holiness and the rest is history. They felt that Heart to Heart was a way to share His Holiness’ message of peace and universal responsibility with a much larger audience.”
The partnership is apt, since the Dalai Lama and the illustrator wanted to cover similar subjects. One of the Dalai Lama’s “priorities nowadays is the environment and climate change,” McDonnell observes. “So we knew the book was going to have that as its theme. Of course, with my background, I also wanted it to be heavily about animals — and he’s written a lot about animals. So the book has a strong environmental message.”
McDonnell appreciatively quotes a line in the book, in which the Dalai Lama calls for a “‘compassionate revolution.’ We need to change minds — but we also need to change hearts. We need to get more empathy, and have more heart for this planet.”
Asked what readers should expect in terms of format, McDonnell says, “It’s an illustrated story using the Dalai Lama’s words. It’s kind of conversational. The Dalai Lama walks through the woods, having a conversation — discussing the state of the planet, and what we need to do to open our eyes and have more compassion for it.”
He adds, “It’s a literary graphic novel. It’s not done in comic book style, with panels. But it tells the story with words and pictures, and each page is a single illustration.”
McDonnell’s contribution generally is limited to illustrations, but he reveals that he did contribute one line of text: “Knock, knock!”
“The book starts with the Dalai Lama in his residence in Dharamshala,” McDonnell explains. “During his meditations … he gets a knock on the door from a visitor, and that starts the book. So I wrote ‘knock knock,’ and I wrote ‘roar’ for one of the animals. Other than that, it’s all the Dalai Lama’s words.”
Asked about the extent to which Heart to Heart is a culmination of all of his work and passions, McDonnell reflects, “I’ve been blessed. I’ve gotten to meet and work with people who are changing the world for the better — Eckhart Tolle, Jane Goodall, and the Dalai Lama. I feel like Heart to Heart is the next step. The Goodall book had the same concerns and passions. Me … Jane is a children’s picture book; I think Heart to Heart is for all ages — maybe not for the very young, but a 10-year-old could read it — but it’s an adult book.”
McDonnell adds, “This project started in 2019. We were all set to go see the Dalai Lama in India — and COVID hit. We’ve had to do everything by email since then. We still have an open invitation to meet him, and I’m hoping things get better soon, so that we can actually go see him — and bring the book with me!”
McDonnell’s painting of “MUTTS” based on Gauguin’s Still Life with Three Puppies.
Other Upcoming Projects
In addition to Heart to Heart, McDonnell is at work on another upcoming project that he is “really excited about,” he says. “Unfortunately, I can’t say anything about it, because the publisher has to determine when they want to announce it. It’s another collaboration, but totally different from the Dalai Lama book. It is a graphic novel — like a comic book. It’s also kind of a spiritual book. Those are the little hints I can give.”
O’Connell reminds him about a project with the Princeton Public Library. Its Children’s Book Festival returns October 8, and McDonnell has drawn the featured artwork, which he created before the pandemic. “They’re going to use that art this year,” he says. “It has Jules (the MUTTS tabby kitten), who loves tigers, pictured with the Princeton tiger.”
Asked what he particularly wants readers to know about his works and activism, McDonnell replies, “Art and comics in general — using words and pictures — is a powerful way to get some strong messages out in the world. I feel like that’s why I’m here.”
“I’m proud of the Jane Goodall collaboration, the Eckhart Tolle collaboration, and Heart to Heart,” he continues. Of the latter, he remarks, “Boy, the timing — I don’t even want to say, ‘It couldn’t be better,’ when it couldn’t be more urgent!”
He adds, hopefully, “I’m excited to help the Dalai Lama change some peoples’ minds, and hearts — and get us on the fast track to helping save this beautiful world.”
Special thanks to Karen O’Connell for facilitating this interview. For more information about Patrick McDonnell’s projects, visit mutts.com.
All art ©2022 Patrick McDonnell.