Describe your art background and the path you took to become the creator of the MUTTS comic strip.
Some of my earliest memories are looking at my mom and dad’s collections of art books, in particular Walt Kelly’s “Pogo.” I was just fascinated by how alive those little black and white characters were. That was the start of my love affair with comics. Then, as I got older, Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” was a major inspiration and influence on me. I went to the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Then I became a magazine illustrator. The whole time, I kept on saying, “I really need to try a comic strip.” My wife finally said, “Well, go do a comic strip.” So, I took some time off, and out came “MUTTS.”
What other artists or cartoonists influenced your own cartoon and illustration career?
I’m a big fan of the really early works and old original strips like Walt Kelly’s “Pogo,” “Little Nemo”, and George Herriman’s “Krazy Kat,” which was started in 1910. I actually wrote a book on “Krazy Kat” a few years ago. I’m also a big fan of the original “Popeye.” Even though the strip’s so old, it’s still funny and really current.
Your latest collaboration with Eckhart Tolle is a celebration of nature, animals, and the energy of life. What inspired you to collaborate on this book? Were you familiar with Eckhart’s books before the collaboration?
I was compelled to pick up “The Power of Now” when it first came out in 1999. It just knocked me out and I was taken by its directness, its simplicity, and its deep truth. Over the years, I followed Eckhart. I was thinking off-and-on, “Boy, it might be interesting to do something together with him some day.” What really inspired me was seeing a photograph of Eckhart and his dog, Maya. My wife and I went through all of his CDs, audiotapes, DVDs, and books and started compiling quotes that talked about nature. I put a few of them together with some of my cartoons.
My book agent is also the agent of Elizabeth Lesser, who runs Omega Institute and was one of its founders. She’s had Eckhart there teaching, and she knew him. She was kind enough to give him this little dummy I had done of the book. We were very pleased when Eckhart said he’d be happy to do it. That’s how the book got together. I gave him the quotes and the cartoons. He reworked quotes and added some new ones.
When I started this strip, I really started seeing…how tough it is on this planet for animals. That’s why I started putting “Shelter Stories” in my strip and began writing about animals on the planet. This got me in touch with HSUS. They asked me to be on the Board, and I was surprised and honored. It’s a wonderful organization, especially with Wayne Pacelle as the CEO. Being on the Board, I see so many different problems that animals face: From extinction to factory farming and from puppy mills to dog fighting. There are so many horrors going on in this planet by humans to animals. At the core, the real problem is just our being unconscious. We have to realize we’re all sharing this planet together.
You have an animal and earth-friendly philosophy that you are deeply invested in. What are some of the steps that you take to live this philosophy every day?
I think a big one is going vegetarian; that was one of the smartest things I ever did. Ten billion animals are slaughtered for meat consumption annually just in the United States alone. Just cutting out some of your meat-eating will save millions of animals. We can all be more conscious of what we buy and what we wear and what we eat.
How would you describe your spiritual background? Is there a spiritual practice that you’re involved in that influences your passion for preserving the earth and taking care of its animals?
I start every morning reading a spiritual book, and I read them all. I don’t say I’m any one religion. To tell you the truth, I feel like my spiritual practice is my art. Creating art is sort of a meditation. Sitting at the drawing board is a big form of meditation for me; you’re definitely in the now when you create art. The artist in me really related to Eckhart’s book, “The Power of Now” because I just feel that’s what you do as an artist. You stay in the present moment, let the ego go, let the ideas come, and you try to get in touch with that deeper place. The tough part is trying to continue that practice and be in the now in everyday life. When I’m at the drawing board, I always feel like it’s a very spiritual place.
Author Alice Sebold described your artistry as having a “Zen-like clarity.” All your comic strips and children’s books have illustrations with text that is deceptively simple, but there’s always an important big theme, a spiritual message: to love one another, take care of the earth, and remember there’s joy. What inspires you to choose these themes? Is there a creative process?
After a while, when you do a daily comic strip, a lot of who you are has to come out. For me, one of the things I loved about comic strips is their simplicity and directness--you have so little space to play in. I compare them to Haikus or poetry. You have to get to the essence of something fast. That’s sort of a Zen-like quality, to say as much as you can, with as little as possible. In one of Eckhart’s books, “Stillness Speaks,” he talks about his writings being like sutras. That’s at the heart of comic strips. You really have to get right to the point.
If you weren’t a cartoonist today, what career path do you think you would have taken?
I love music. I’m in awe of people who can compose symphonies. I’d love to compose a symphony.
What spiritual lessons has your comic strip or your dog, Earl, taught you?
Well, that’s funny. I was thinking about this the other day. Cartoonists make everything come to life showing that everything is a spark of the divine in a humorous way. Every rock, tree, and animal has something to teach us, and they’re filled with the life force. My dog, Earl was the total inspiration for my strip. If I could capture any of his joy of life in my comic, that is my real job. Just like Eckhart talks about in [“Guardians of Being”], they are our portals to the present moment. You can’t be thinking all crazy thoughts when your cat’s in your lap purring. You just relax and let it go.
Who’s your role model? Is there one person that you continually look to for advice?
I met and became friends with my hero, Charles Schulz. Not only in his art, but in his life, he was an inspiration. Lately, I’ve had the pleasure and honor to meet Jane Goodall. She’s a powerful presence and a living saint. Whenever I get a little discouraged, I always think of Jane Goodall and how much hope she has.