Graphic novel The Super Hero’s Journey is a love letter to Marvel comics

Beloved daily strip Mutts, by cartoonist Patrick McDonnell, turned 29 earlier this month. The series, which follows the escapades of dog Earl and cat Mooch, was once called by Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, “one of the best comic strips of all time.” 

McDonnell has always created other work alongside Mutts. He’s also the author of 10 picture books, including the Caldecott Honor-winning Me…Jane, which told the story of anthropologist Jane Goodall. Most recently, he’s been working on a project that immediately caught Newsarama’s attention – a new book titled The Super Hero’s Journey, published through Abrams ComicArts’ MarvelArts imprint.

This lavish, idiosyncratic, and beautiful work is part autobiography, part love letter to iconic creators like Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby and, of course, Stan Lee. The book really is something to behold as it remixes and recontextualises classic Marvel art alongside his own drawings to tell a story that’s very personal to McDonnell, one that we thoroughly enjoyed reading. 

McDonnell took some time out from his busy schedule to talk to us about the new book, how Marvel Comics influenced Mutts and why he believes superheroes are still so popular and vital today.

Art from The Super Hero's Journey

(Image credit: Marvel / Patrick McDonnell / Abrams ComicArts – MarvelArts)

Newsarama: Patrick, perhaps an impossible question with such a unique book, but how would you describe The Super Hero’s Journey to readers? 

Patrick McDonnell: The Super Hero’s Journey is my graphic novel ‘love letter’ to the fun, wonder and energy of the original Marvel superhero comics, the ones I grew up with. The book is a mashup of my art and paintings with classic pages and panels from the work of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Featuring the Fantastic Four, the Avengers and Spider-Man, it tells a new story in a new way. I can confidently say it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen in the Marvel Universe. As Smilin’ Stan would say “Possibly the most daringly dramatic development in the field of contemporary literature.” (I think.)

This is clearly a very personal book for you. What was the first spark of inspiration that led to you making it? 

I was just finishing up Heart To Heart, a book I collaborated on with the Dalai Lama, and wondering what I could possibly do after that. Abrams Comics Arts Editor-in-Chief (and friend) Charles Kochman told me about Alex Ross‘s new line of Marvel Art books. He asked if I would like to do a book with the Marvel superheroes. My immediate answer was “Yes!” ‘Nuff said. This was a boyhood dream come true. Capturing my childhood wonder and devotion to those magical comics would be the underlying theme to The Super Hero’s Journey.

Art from The Super Hero's Journey

(Image credit: Marvel / Patrick McDonnell / Abrams ComicArts – MarvelArts)

How long did the book take to come together in total? 

It all started at the kitchen table drawing my favorite Marvel characters with pencil and crayons when I was about six years old. The final project took a little over a year writing, researching all those early comics for inspiration and appropriate panels, making the art, composing the digital construction with my brother Robert, working with the great designer, Shawn Dahl and the fantastic lettering of Todd Klein. For me it was a total labor of love.

Readers might not immediately associate your work on Mutts with superheroes, but it’s clear that Marvel comics had a deep impact on you. Do you see any superhero DNA still in your current work? 

I find inspiration in the Marvel creators’ incredible imagination, stamina and pursuit of excellence. Jack Kirby‘s immense body of work is phenomenal. Throughout his entire career he always gave each endeavor 100%. It’s there on every page he drew. I think of his superheroism when approaching the demands of producing a daily comic strip for nearly 30 years. In 2019 I had the honor of having the legend Joe Sinnott ink two of my Sunday pages. So there’s some true Marvel DNA in Mutts.

Art from The Super Hero's Journey

(Image credit: Marvel / Patrick McDonnell / Abrams ComicArts – MarvelArts)

Did creating this book give you a greater appreciation for creators like Ditko and Kirby? 

Those early Marvel comics were so much fun. They were full of life. As with any new art form, you can feel the joyful excitement, artistic playfulness and personal surprise that these artists experienced while producing the work. I appreciate more than ever their imagination and innocence. 

The book moves through genres, touching on Marvel’s romance comics and others – how much did they play a part in your life, or were you strictly into the capes? 

As a kid I never read any of the romance comics but was aware that they were part of the Lee/Kirby Marvel Universe. For The Super Hero’s Journey I thought it would be fun to have Mister Fantastic visit that parallel world. I loved comic books in general, mostly Marvel but some DC (their quirkier books like Metal Men, Doom Patrol and the Inferior Five). Some of the humor comics too and, of course, Mad Magazine.

Art from The Super Hero's Journey

(Image credit: Marvel / Patrick McDonnell / Abrams ComicArts – MarvelArts)

How has it been dealing with Marvel while making this book? 

Marvel has been great. Considering how strange my book is, I was happily surprised that they agreed to publish it. They have been totally supportive. It makes me excited to see what’s next for the innovative Abrams MarvelArts imprint. 

Superheroes are more ubiquitous now than ever before. Why do you think that is? Why are they so relevant to our times and this particular moment? 

In these crazy times, we’re all looking for someone to save us. Superheroes speak to that dream. They connect us to the longing we have, to be the best we can be. We are more than we appear. One of my favorite lines in the book is, “Can you save the world before saving yourself?” We’re all trying to find that super being deep inside us.

Is there one specific Marvel character that you’d love to write or draw? 

The original X-Men were always my favorites, and I would love to play with them someday. The Super Hero’s Journey took on a life of its own and basically wrote itself. I never thought Mister Fantastic and The Watcher would be the lead characters in a Marvel story that I would write but it’s a journey I’m glad I took.

The Super Hero’s Journey is published in hardcover by Abrams ComicArts – MarvelArts on September 26.

One of the other most popular comic strips of all time, The Far Side, almost got a live-action movie – and there are pictures.

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