Chances are you've been stuck in traffic behind some of Patrick McDonnell's work.

McDonnell, the artist and writer of "Mutts," is the guy who draws Earl the dog and Mooch the cat, who appear on New Jersey's Animal Friendly license plates.

The better place to appreciate these characters, of course, is in McDonnell's comic strip, which appears daily and Sunday in The Press and in 700 newspapers in 20 countries. Launched in 1994, "Mutts" has received six Harvey Awards for best comic strip from the National Cartoonists Society. McDonnell, 58, won the society's 1999 Reuben Award for Cartoonist of the Year. Reprints of the strip have been collected in 22 books.

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"Mutts" follows the adventures of Earl, Mooch and a menagerie of other animals and people. Mooch and Earl are connoisseurs of life's simple pleasures: the long winter nap, the sights and smells of a delicatessen, the joy of playing with a little pink sock and the value of friendship. "Mutts" is a celebration of the everyday, wrapped in a daily gag.

It is also a celebration of earlier comic strips and popular art. This year marks the 120th anniversary of the first newspaper comic strip, and you can see a lot of that history in McDonnell's work. Long before he was one of the world's most popular cartoonists, he was a fan.

Before he could read, McDonnell used to page through books his mother owned that collected Walt Kelly's comic strip, "Pogo," and he knew from an early age that he wanted to be a cartoonist.

"I've been thinking about this since I was 4 or 5 years old," he said recently from his home and studio in central New Jersey.

"The strip that got me going was Charles Schulz's 'Peanuts.'" he said. "I found that joy in 'Peanuts' and the strips I loved, so I always felt my job was to put some of that joy back into the world."

As a teen, McDonnell got hold of a collection of George Herriman's offbeat "Krazy Kat," which made the comics seem like "such an exciting medium to tell stories," he said. "That sealed it for me."

McDonnell began to collect old newspaper comic sections that contained Herriman's strip. Eventually he and his wife, Karen O'Connell, collaborated on the 1986 book, "Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman."

At the time, McDonnell was building a successful career as an illustrator, with a style that echoed elements of early comics and the underground comix scene. "The really older comic strips just had such a looseness, and the pen line was really alive," McDonnell said.

That style permeates "Mutts," which makes frequent references to popular art of the past.

McDonnell especially likes to play with the title panels of his Sunday strips. Depending on the configuration used to print their comics, these panels might not even appear in some newspapers. (The syndicates call them "throwaway panels.") But for McDonnell, they're another chance to connect with his audience. Mooch and Earl might appear in the style of a 1950s children's book, a Japanese woodcut, a cereal box or a comic book-cover tribute to one of his heroes, Jack Kirby.

"We're so visual," McDonnell said. "All that stuff is in our heads. We're bombarded with images. You could do it forever."

Another early comics tradition that pops up in "Mutts" is the use of funny dialects. When Mooch says "yesh" instead of "yes," there's a line that goes all the way back to the first comic strip, Richard F. Outcalt's "The Yellow Kid." The Kid spoke in the dialect of a New York slum, although his words appeared on his yellow nightshirt, rather than in a word balloon.

"One hundred years ago he was commenting with his T-shirt," McDonnell said. "He was way ahead of his time."

Most of the action in "Mutts" takes place in a single neighborhood, but every summer McDonnell's characters go on a beach vacation. Although it's never specified where that beach is, McDonnell always has the Jersey shore in mind.

"They don't go to the shore, they go down the shore," McDonnell said. "In my head it's New Jersey, the New Jersey of my youth.

"New Jersey gets a bad rap, but it's really a great place with a lot of pretty places."

McDonnell also has taken on some serious issues in his strip, especially ones involving the treatment of animals. Because the strip is told from the animals' point of view, McDonnell, a vegetarian, has spent a lot of time thinking about how animals suffer at the hands of people.

One of his characters is a chained and neglected guard dog, and the strip often comments on the treatment of farm animals and the potential loss of endangered species. McDonnell serves on the board of the Humane Society of the United States.

A continuing series within the strip, called "Shelter Stories," relates small narratives of animals at shelters waiting to be adopted. It served as the basis of a series of animated television public service announcements for the Shelter Pet Project.

McDonnell has also published 12 children's books, including the Caldecott Honor book "Me ... Jane," which tells the story of a young Jane Goodall and her toy chimpanzee.

One of his picture books, "The Gift of Nothing," was turned into a musical at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., last holiday season.

There's also a "Mutts" movie in the works. Blue Sky Studios and 20th Century Fox Animation, the folks that produced this month's "The Peanuts Movie," want to bring the same 3-D style to the "Mutts" characters.

And what about the future of comic strips? McDonnell thinks it's bright.

"People will always enjoy stories told with words and pictures. Thankfully American newspapers seem to be stabilizing, and maybe growing, and finding new ways to reach their audiences. And the Internet and social media are the perfect vehicles for this 'short attention span' art form," he said.

"Comic strips will continue to live and prosper."

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