Formalistic Analysis: Mutts 12-4-16 – by Tyler Crissman
Normally, I’m not partial to Mutts (not that it’s a terrible comic or anything), nor am I impressed by the most obvious “Hey, look, I’m in a comic and I’m aware that it’s a comic” kind of self-reflexivity. Although this strip satisfies arguably both of those conditions above to make it not my cup of tea, when I saw it in the paper I was interested in it from a formalistic (and almost abstract) standpoint. The first thing that stands out is the sparse quality of the strip. Half of the panels are empty, and the ones that aren’t are barely occupied. None of them have any color. That sparseness commands a certain amount of attention, and it gives Mooch (the cat) great command of attention when he does appear. Up until the last panel, which has a speech balloon, the strip is silent. Of course, comics is a silent medium, but speech, onomatopoeia, action, and visual effects can all evoke sound. Somehow, at least subjectively, the mostly monochromatic, stark panels turn the lack of sound into a tangible silence.
Sequentially, the strip has a distinct rhythm: empty panel, inhabited panel, repeated four times. Even though the rhythm is steady and predictable, in such a short format as a strip, it doesn’t tire. In fact, the rhythm is rather satisfying, especially because it is shaken up a little bit by the various positions Mooch takes within the panel when he appears. His first appearance is low and center, his second popping out diagonally from the lower left, his third in the lower right almost mirroring the previous one but a bit higher and farther out for some variety, and his last again low and center but a bit higher than the first. The way that Mooch’s appearances are almost mirrored like a palindrome but are imperfect simultaneously creates a sense of balance and a sense of lively movement. There is a speed and vivacity to the imprecision of the mirroring that makes the strip, I think, more interesting. This visual arrangement also is appealing when viewing the comic as a single image. It isn’t a balanced image, what with its inhabited panels being more to the right and its leftmost column being totally empty (unless you consider a panel in itself not to be empty, but that’s another discussion).
So far, I haven’t addressed the introductory panel you’ve probably been thinking about. That’s because when I saw the strip in the paper, it ran without it. Here’s what it looked like:
So, in this format, everything I’ve said holds up—except that the “empty” panels really aren’t empty. Sure, in theory they are, but the faded lines of the flip-side’s Doonesbury and the ghost of a crossword imprinted by the opposing page add to the comic. They add accidental acknowledgements of the newspaper itself, as well as bonus art. The crossword even makes its own abstract found comic within the comic, boxes for letters unwittingly mimicking panels.
Of course, the digital version with the intro panel changes the composition of the strip in its own way, adding more white space and some text. It also plays on the expectation of the intro panel. Normally, a comic’s intro panel has a nice logo and/or some characters who appear in the strip. You know the deal. But here, that panel is desolate. Like the rest of the comic, it could be a commentary on the decline (at least in some cases) of comic strips that goes hand in hand with the decline of newspapers. I somehow doubt that the strip comes from a more dark and existential place, but I like that such an interpretation is totally valid.
Maybe I’m looking into this strip more than Patrick McDonnell intended. Maybe I’m full of rubbish (among other things), and full of myself because I’ve read a few things about formalism and abstract comics. But regardless, I love learning about comics and thinking about them in new and various ways, and finding interest in places I wouldn’t expect. Hopefully this was interesting to you, too—yep, that’s you I’m talking about, reader. Keep reading comics!