I watched a flock of geese soaring overhead in V-formation the other day. Practice runs. It’s too soon for the birds to flutter off to wherever they go in the the winter. Calgary? Hard to say, but bird or human, in a northern city, September is autumn. Early September still looks like summer, but late September, when the cool air has moved in and the branches that aren’t entirely bare hang on to the last few curled leaves, summer seems months ago. And by the first week of October, people look out their windows, in full expectation of the first fat flake.

In Patrick McDonnell’s South, a little bird wakes up from a nap to discover his peeps have moved on without him. It’s autumn, and he is alone. Well, not quite alone. His friend Mooch (the cat, from the cartoon strip Mutts) offers his paw to the weeping bird, and they set off in search of his flock. In a similar situation, I’m not sure my cat Molly would do the same thing, but I like to think she possesses one or two ‘better angels’, buried somewhere deep in those 22 pounds of furry flesh.

Do you hear something?

South is a small, wordless wonder. Like all of McDonnell’s work, especially the picture books, it is storytelling in it’s most distilled, beautiful form. The paintings are simple lines and washes on autumn-beige paper, like Japanese watercolours, without the ever present Mount Fuji. As mentioned in a previous post from last March, Guardian of My Being, Patrick McDonnell is by trade, a cartoonist, and a very fine one at that, but in recent years he has expanded his repertoire to include illustrated picture books, all of which (in my opinion) explore one central theme: kindness. Mooch walks paw in wing with the bird, through fields, forests, cities, all kinds of weather, to help his troubled little friend find his family. No heavy-handed message, just an unlikely pair on a quest, with illustrations as light and gentle as a leaf descending from a tree.

As much as I love heavily saturated, finely detailed paintings in picture books, I am just as much of an admirer of the simple. If you’ve ever watched an early episode of the Simpson’s, it’s quite off-putting how unrealized the characters are…how overdrawn, and crude. It took a lot of skill and time to chisel away the extraneous elements to reveal the true Homer. Or, in McDonnell’s case, Mooch, and the bird, or even just a leaf. The art in South appears simple, but only the hand of an experienced and thoughtful artist could produce such lovely and true imagery with so few lines.

Take my paw

Each of the illustrations in South are little masterpieces, and it’s hard to pick a favourite, nor is it necessary. However, the illustration of Mooch’s paw reaching out to the astonished bird is where the story takes off. It’s the heart. I will help you. Yup, it makes me tear up every time. Roger Ebert once said it’s not sadness that makes him cry in films, it’s kindness. I agree. Snuffle. There are other illustrations that are equally charming, including one where the bird is riding on Mooch’s shoulders as they make their way through a beautiful watercolour birch forest.

A long way to go…

Or, a scene in a city, amongst all the loosely sketched humans, the birds wing held safely in Mooch’s paw. Eventually, they find the little birds family, singing on a wire, apparently oblivious to the severe trauma they’ve caused. Mooch gives his little friend a hug, waves goodbye, and whistles a tune as they fly away. The last illustration shows Mooch curled up in a warm blankie by the fire. If they’re lucky, this is where all cats migrate to in the winter. My cat decamps to her $25 dollar Ikea cat-tent, stuffed with several blankies and entire skeins of cat hair, resting up against a warm register. Not a roaring fire, per se, but the idea is the same, and she seems happy in her winter home.

As mentioned in a previous post, Patrick McDonnell is my personal hero. I don’t say this lightly. I consider kindness to animals the best of human qualities, and cruelty the lowest.

Patrick and his posse

The fact that he is a brilliant artist, humourist, cartoonist, and writer is just more evidence that this guy is deserving of my bordering on fanatical admiration. Born in 1956, Mr McDonnell has written and illustrated a pawful of picture books, and many collections of his cartoon strip Mutts, the newest of which Earl and Mooch, will be published this month by Andrews McMeel. He sits on the board of the American Humane Society, and lives with his wife, dog and cat in New Jersey. He is without a shred of doubt, an animals best friend, unless you’re a little lost bird, in which case, a cat named Mooch is your best friend.

South by Patrick McDonnell, published by Little, Brown and Company, 2008  ISBN: 0136005096

Earl and Mooch by Patrick McDonnell, to be published by Andrews McMeel, 2010. ISBN: 978-0740797682

Guardians of Being, words by Eckhart Tolle and art by Patrick McDonnell, New World Library 2009  ISBN: 978-1577316718

I would recommend all of Patrick’s Mutts collections, in fact I insist that you buy them, but for at taste of all things McDonnell, I HIGHLY recommend: Mutts: The Comic Art of Patrick McDonnell (Abrams 2003),

Also, check out his website at www.mutts.com the place to really get to know Mooch and his pals.