Literature Society: Garfield: Year One
As a child and as an adult, Garfield epitomizes the strangely seductive allure of the monumentally commercially successful, banal and sub-mediocre. It’s the mainstream in Monday-hating, lasagna-craving feline form, a soulless machine that generates incredible profits for its creator and his syndicate and any number of doll, tee-shirt and bumper sticker manufacturers while lazily recycling the same handful of tropes, tropes that were, to be brutally honest, never actually funny.
The art and entertainment that I gravitated towards as a child and angry, alienated young man tended to be political and angry, deeply personal and darkly funny, satirical and cultishly adored rather than super popular. Garfield was the antithesis of all of that. It’s wildly impersonal. You learn next to nothing about Jim Davis from it. It’s apolitical and apathetic, formulaic and devoid of surprises.
It’s tacky and vulgar and goyish and deeply, deeply American in ways I find fascinating so when I saw that the first two years of the American institution’s now forty-year run were being released in book form as Volume 1: Garfield Complete Works: 1978 &1979 I knew I had to read it and write about it even if the highbrow naming of the elegantly presented volume meant that Davis was cruelly robbing the world of the obesity and over-eating wordplay found in such classic Garfield tomes Garfield at Large, Garfield Gains Weight, Bigger Than Life (a stark and haunting adaptation of the Nicholas Ray film starring James Mason with Garfield becoming cruel and violently arrogant towards with his family after he starts taking new medication), Bigger and Better, Tons of Fun, Weighs In, Takes the Cake and Eats Heart Out.
When introduced to readers in the disco-crazed days of 1978, Garfield bore only a slight resemblance to the adorable icon of bland conformity we know today. His face was shaped like a giant pair of swollen testicles with ears and his eyes were tiny little marbles, as black, icy and death-like as the eyes of a shark about to strike. He had a body shaped like a fire hydrant that had let itself go, consuming a little too much lasagna if you know what I mean! It’s funny because the word lasagna is hilarious. Lasagna! American pop parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic even did a song called “Lasagna” rooted in the word and food’s inveterate hilariousness.
But even at the very beginning, Garfield’s personality was firmly established. He was a sour, violence-prone misanthrope and narcissist, interested only in his own hedonistic pleasures, indifferent to the screaming suffering of others. A monster, really, a feline ghoul. In the first strip Jon sits before an easel alongside Garfield and introduces himself and his hypnotically banal world to us, “Hi there…I’m Jon Arbuckle. I’m a cartoonist, and this is my cat Garfield.”
In the next panel Garfield reframes their relationship by introducing himself as a cat and Jon as his cartoonist. “Our only thought is to entertain you” Jon smarmily insists, which is some straight up bullshit because Jon never even attempts to be entertaining, so it all falls upon that piece of shit cat of his to do all the work. In response, or possibly as a non-sequitur, Garfield ends the strip “Feed me”, which says everything that needs to be said about his priorities. Or maybe Jon is starving him because he’s embarrassed to have such an overweight cat and that “Feed me” is a plea for help to the reader before he wastes away to nothing?
Garfield’s themes are right there in that first strip: Garfield has an attitude and he is a glutton. Jon is a whitbread nobody. He could be shot in the face in front of Garfield over and over again, the bullets tearing through his skull like it was a rotting pumpkin until finally nothing is left of him from the head up and the comic strip wouldn’t suffer a bit. Nobody likes that guy. Fuck him. Fuck Jon Arbuckle and everyone like him. He’s a human disease for which violent death is the only cure.
In the next strip Jon offers Garfield a rubber mouse that he eats, complaining, “Could’ve used a little salt.” Two strips into a now forty year run and Garfield had already run out of ideas and was repeating itself. In the early strips Garfield is rude. Garfield is crude. Garfield is a destructive dude who never wastes an opportunity to assert his dominance over his milquetoast “owner”, that reprehensible, deplorable almost sub-human insult to humanity Jon Arbuckle.
In July, 1978 Garfield introduced one of the most runningest running jokes in pop culture history when Garfield addressed readers directly to explain, “I’m just your average, ordinary cat. For instance, I’m crazy about nature’s most perfect food…LASAGNA!”
Yes, it all started with a nearly joke-free, laughless comic strip thin even by the strip’s lenient standards. Actually, maybe that’s not fair. Garfield is making a pretty crazy face, his eyes wild with rapacious delight, his tongue waving wildly, oozing saliva as he contemplates his unlikely treasure.
A CAT that likes lasagna!?! That’s like a talking cat: an oddity worthy of two exclamation points and a question mark. Yet that crazy, crazy, fucked up idea took hold in the public imagination to the point where the only way most people can experience sexual release these days is by thinking about Garfield’s love of lasagna, a rich Italian dish that most assuredly is not for cats.
The puzzle pieces were starting to come together to fit a vision of pure, whitbread, lucrative American hackdom Garfield loves lasagna. Then one day a mustachioed weirdo named Lyman shows up pleading “I’m cold. I’m hungry. I’m weak. Take me in!” before it is revealed that this weird minor player in the Garfield saga is the owner of a friendly, stupid dog named Odie whom Garfield will go on to physically and emotionally abuse for the next four decades in ways that that sick fuck Jim Davis apparently thinks are funny. Serial killers get off on torturing and killing animals. So does Jim Davis in his work, minus the killing part. Really makes you wonder if Jim Davis is a serial killer. He is. Then it is established that Garfield hates Mondays in yet another strip with a catchphrase instead of a punchline.
In October, 1978, Garfield is looking through the bottom drawer of a dresser when he discovers what he calls “a teddy bear. A dumb, stupid, silly-looking old teddy bear” and decides to name Pooky.
This was a big step in the softening of Garfield, in transforming him into a soft, cuddly and approachable teddy bear instead of a sour, tart-tongued misanthrope like Walter Matthau or W.C. Fields. How grouchy and dark can a character be if they also have a teddy bear named Pooky? I mean, sure, G.G Allin had a beloved teddy bear named Pooky he always talked about, but he was a softy underneath his sometimes off-putting exterior.
On Christmas Garfield’s first year, the fat cat waxes uncharacteristically mushy and sentimental when he tells readers, “This is my very first Christmas. I hope you have a loved one to spend today with because I do. It’s you. Merry Christmas”
Sappiness was an early Christmas tradition for Garfield. In 1979, secret softie Garfield used the column to tell readers, “Whatever your beliefs, the Christmas season represents peace, love and charity among people everywhere. Merry Christmas and Season’s Greetings. Sometimes I’m so sentimental that I could just kiss myself.”
The gooey Yuletide strip ends with one of my favorite weird staples of early Garfield: final panels with the sassy fat cat delivering what can charitably be deemed the “punchline” while walking away from the reader, giving us a clear view of his ass in the process.
Now when Elmo tells me that he loves me I believe him because it’s very much in character. When Garfield tells me that he considers me a loved one I just think he’s being a smarmy, insincere little bastard.
Garfield softened physically as well. Garfield’s look became softer, rounder, cuter, more conventionally adorable. The eyes became bigger and rounder, the body less lumpy and misshapen. It’s an old trick: if you want to make weird-looking characters more likable and mainstream-friendly, make the eyes bigger and rounder and Disnify the whole look in the process. The Simpsons did it. The Critic did it and Garfield did it early and dramatically.
The strips I found most fascinating, or rather least tedious are the outliers, like an incongruously maudlin Sunday color strip where Garfield happens upon Jon’s drawing board and decides to spontaneously compose the following “Everyone Wear Sunscreen”-type life advice: “I think this world would be a nicer place in which to live: if countries could settle their differences without hurting anybody. If everyone smiled at even people they don’t know. If nobody had to steal. If people laughed more. If everyone fed their cats all the lasagna they could eat. If we all took more pride in our homes and our neighborhoods. If we respected our senior citizens more. If there were no violence in movies and television. If everyone could read and write. If families talked more. If friends hugged more. If everyone stopped at least once a week to stroke a cat. After all, we’re all in this together.”
Jeez, thanks for the graduation speech, there, Garfield. Who knew you were such a font of schmaltzy “wisdom?” It’s Chicken Soup for the Soul time as Garfield drops the shtick to agitate for a better world in a poem that I think we can all agree makes “Imagine” look like a flaming garbage pile by comparison. John Lennon, you wish you had the insight of Garfield. I bet that piece of shit loved Mondays and hated lasagna. Advantage: Garfield.
Garfield is such a not so secret softie that adding an even bigger-eyed kitten named Nermal in September, 1979 to up the cuteness factor even higher feels redundant and excessive. There’s already a whole lot of cuteness in this strip about a cat who ostensibly hates cuteness, and that includes Garfield himself.
Last and perhaps least, Jon gets a love interest of sorts when he takes Garfield to the vet and falls instantly for Liz, a doctor with the good taste and judgment to want to have nothing to do with Jon or his terrible feline. When Jon obnoxiously asks, “How about a date, sweetheart?” se replies “That’s doctor to you!” but despite her clear-cut contempt for Jon he never stops trying.
Many years back, when I worked as a film critic, I remember being secretly and not so secretly excited that I got the assignment to review the Olsen Twins vehicle A New York Minute. I couldn’t believe that I had the kind of crazy, awesome job where I got to do things as wonderfully silly as watch and write about Olsen Twins vehicles. Then, about ten minutes into the film, I found myself thinking “I can’t believe I have to see this fucking Olsen Twins movies. They’re fucking terrible. Why did I think this would be fun?”
I had a similar experience with this slim, worthless tome. I was overjoyed at the prospect of doing something as silly and ridiculous as reading whole years of Garfield strips in one sitting. Oh, but my inner child was excited. Then I started reading the strips and realized that, all things considered, I kind of hate Garfield. It’s a fucking garbage strip. Even at the beginning, when everything was new and fresh, everything already felt stale and old.
If you’re wondering if you should buy this book, don’t. It’s fucking awful. I remember the 1980s Garfield & Friends cartoon and specials being a lot better, but that might be a combination of nostalgia and low, low expectations.
I’m on record as enjoying at least one Garfield project in the wonderfully dark, off-brand Garfield’s Nine Lives special I wrote about for Control Nathan and Clint, but this went a long way towards curing me of my morbid curiosity about the lasagna-loving fat cat.
The initial book in what I imagine will be an ongoing series closes with the words, “I go for a good smile. If I’m lucky, a chortle—maybe a laugh.”
Those are refreshingly modest goals but I’ve got to say that reading years of Garfield made me smile a few times but did not come close to making me laugh. I’m not sure there are chuckles to be found in the next thirty eight years of Garfield and I’m nowhere near masochistic enough to find out.
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