Control Nathan and Clint: Garfield: His 9 Lives (1988)
For the latest installment in Control Nathan and Clint, the column where we give the forty one living saints who pledge to the Nathan Rabin’s Happy Cast Patreon page an opportunity to choose between one of two torments Clint and I must watch, then jibber-jabber about on the podcast, I chose a pair of animated entries in honor of guest Josh Fruhlinger, the Comics Curmudgeon.
The choices were Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue, the unintentional hilarious anti-drug special where Alf and Baby Kermit deliver some harsh truths about the evils of marijuana to an impressionable young man hooked on the reefer sticks, and 1988’s Garfield: His 9 Lives, which finds the lasagna-hating and Monday-maligning misanthrope at his artiest and most ambitious. That’s setting the bar pretty low, as “arty” and “ambitious” are words seldom applied to Garfield in any form but Garfield: His 9 Lives shocked and surprised me with its eagerness to experiment and take chances.
There was a tie between Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue and Garfield His 9 Lives. That happens an awful lot with this column because of the modest number of patrons. So I did what I always do when there’s a tie: I watched both, talked about both on the podcast and now here I am writing my second article based on this one particular poll. I am doing my damnedest to really earn the 199 dollars in pledges me and my boy Clint collect on Patreon every month.
Usually that instinct to throw myself on both options when there is a Control Nathan and Clint tie is rooted in a strange combination of obligation, dedication and masochism. That was the case here so I was very pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying something Garfield-related.
As a child, I was obsessed with Garfield. He represented to me the seductive allure of the mainstream. In his 1980s prime, Garfield was not good, necessarily, but he was appealingly mediocre. Garfield has always been a consumer product as much as a comic strip character but as a consumer product he has a lot going for him.
Or rather Garfield used to have a lot going for him. These days Garfield is unrelentingly one-note to an almost perverse, punishing degree. It’s every bit as lazy as its anti-hero, endlessly recycling the same hoary bits involving Mondays, lasagna and his disdain for Odie to the point of insanity.
In Garfield: His 9 Lives, however, Garfield had not yet ossified into the grim exercise in self-parody that we know and mock today. Oh sure, the core is fundamentally the same but Garfield: His 9 Lives both builds on that core, and deviates wildly from it, in ways that are both entertaining and surprising.
Loosely adapted from the book of the same name, Garfield: His 9 Lives begins at the beginning. The very beginning. As in, the beginning of feline existence, with a shadowy, live action representation of God booming “I feel like creating cat today.”
As the final touch on his most magnificent creation, God orders, “Give it 9 lives!”
When his minions ask why cats should get eight more lives than everyone other than Shirley MacLaine (if you can’t enjoy, or at least grudgingly tolerate, a dad joke from 1986 then you are on the wrong site), he answers paternally, “Let’s just say it would make a good plot for a story.”
In actuality, the “nine lives” of Garfield qualify more as a framing device than a plot. Indeed, one of the special’s surprising gifts is its randomness. It feels more like nine sketches of wildly varying quality and ambition more than a cohesive story but that surprisingly works in its favor.
Garfield’s first incarnation is Cave Cat, a prehistoric version of our anti-hero. He’s like his latter day version, only with long fangs, a much bigger libido and no discernible opinion on Monday, positive or negative. Cave Cat meets Big Bob, a giant, slobbering early incarnation of Odie who brings him a stick in the form of a tree that falls on Garfield and crushes the life right out of his furry little body.
As Josh pointed out on the podcast, Garfield: His 9 Lives is a crazy carnival of violent deaths. A whole lot can go wrong in even a single life. I know from personal experience. Multiply that by nine and you have ample room for Garfield to die and then die again, and then die some more. This is a relatively conventional segment but it’s still bracingly dark.
The second segment is even darker and even more obsessed with death. In this segment, Garfield is a cat in ancient Egypt, where, we are informed, cats were “venerated”, with the god of cats looming large over all the other animal Gods. Even Garfield’s vocabulary is better here.
As the favored pet of the Pharaoh, this version of Garfield wields enormous power that he flagrantly abuses, whipping a slave dog that bears a distinct resemblance to Odie and regularly heading over to the pyramids to torture the people building them.
Then he makes a horrifying discovery: a Pharaoh is buried with all of his worldly possessions. That includes his beloved cat. This lend a distinct element of dark comedy to the vignette once the Egyptian Garfield realizes that he could very well spend his final hours suffocating to death in his dim-witted owner’s massive tomb.
Garfield has always been a little mean-spirited but with the exception of this special and the notorious strip where Garfield confronts the horrifying specter of loneliness and abandonment, he’s seldom been this bracingly dark, or as striking weird as he is in the third segment, “In The Garden.”
It’s a trippy meditation on the Garden of Eden with a stripe-less Garfield (referred to as “The Orange Kitten”), and a whimsical lass named Chloe cavorting in a psychedelic paradise/wonderland that’s part Candy Land, part Garden of Eden, part acid trip and part kitty biblical version of Yellow Submarine.
Chloe and the Orange Kitten live in a paradise until Chloe’s whimsical uncle gives them a crystal box that functions as a combination Pandora’s Box and Apple of Wisdom and admonishes them not to open it. And you know what? They don’t, a weirdly satisfying anti-climax to easily the most psychedelic thing Garfield has ever been involved with, with the possible exception of his 1969 pre-comic strip stoner rock album Tasting the Sunshine: Crimson Daydreams.
In the fourth segment, an alternate life Garfield is the kitty of composer George Frideric Handel, who must write a concerto to please the king or, or of course he will be brutally murdered. The cat cowrites the concerto, filling it with anachronistically hip and contemporary sounds that save his owner’s life and fills the world with crazy new music.
In the next segment, one of the most acclaimed comic strips of all time meets one of the most maligned when an alternate life Garfield serves as the stunt double for Krazy Kat. It’s a decidedly short sequence, essentially just Garfield being tagged in to get a pile of bricks dumped on his head, but that doesn’t make it any less auspicious.
Death similarly haunts the next sequence, Diana’s Piano, albeit in a much more melancholy and tender way. It’s called “Diana’s Piano” and the alternate life Garfield is the title character, a beautiful female cat who is given to a girl named Sara on her eighth birthday along with her very first piano lesson.
In the years ahead these two gifts are inextricably intertwined. Sara plays piano for Diana, whose gentle soul comes alive when her owner is lovingly tickling the ivories. It becomes an invaluable form of communication for these two simpatico creatures. Sara expresses her love for Diana by playing piano and Diana returns that adoration by listening.
Then, in the way of the world, Sara grows up. She goes away to college. She graduates from college. She gets married and has a baby and her sacred bond with her music-loving cat changes accordingly.
Then one lovely, heartbreaking night Sara plays an entire concert just for Diana. Afterwards, Diana lies down on the piano that has given her so much joy and satisfaction throughout life and quietly passes away.
I’m not ashamed to admit, dear reader, that I got deeply choked up watching this segment from a 1980s Garfield special. It’s an elegant and understated exploration of aging, mortality, love, music and loss, a heartbreaking look at the power of music that feels more like a Pixar short than a piece of officially branded Garfield product.
It’s so off brand that I wondered at times what it had to do with Garfield at all but that’s a big part of what makes it so special. You don’t expect to cry during a Garfield special, but you also don’t expect to be surprised, and “Diana’s Piano” surprised me and moved me.
Things get a whole lot darker and more morbid in the next segment, which opens with an adorable cat facing an enormous, terrifying syringe. The cat is the unfortunate subject of animal testing but he manages to escape from the laboratory and mutates into a genetically modified dog with glowing eyes.
Garfield only became the fat cat of the popular imagination in his eighth life, which begins with him being born in an Italian restaurant in 1978. Even here, however, the special is suffused with pain and loss. Not long after being born, Garfield leaves his loving mother and finds a temporary new home in a pet store where some lonely creatures have waited decades to be taken home, with no luck.
Garfield is of course luckier. He’s taken home by Jon Arbuckle and quickly joined by foil Odie. This is the segment that feels the most like Garfield’s other specials but it’s also a reminder that in his Reagan-era prime Garfield was solid entertainment, if not exactly art. Garfield has certainly gotten bad and lazy but there was a point where Jim Davis at least seemed to be trying.
Garfield’s real-life future would be absurdly lucrative but creatively empty. Garfield: His 9 Lives’s final segment envisions a much different future for the lasagna-loving feline. In “Space Cat”, a future version of Garfield is hopelessly lost in space (not unlike my man Matt LeBlanc) and all too cognizant that he’s on the last of his nine lives. It’s a characteristically grim, darkly comic (for this special at least) look at survival where space Garfield and a clone army of Odies face down a hostile craft.
It looks grim but Garfield hold out hope. “Heroes don’t die! We always win our space battles” he reckons shortly before losing his space battle and dying.
We end, inevitably, with Garfield, having run out of lives, facing his creator. No, not Jim Davis, his other Creator.
God asks Garfield what life he’s on, conceding that normally He would know but “our computers are on the blink right now.”
Garfield lies multiple times to God, first by saying that he’s still on his first life, and then by trying to pass Odie off as a fellow cat. For God, it seems, if not a cat, at least has cat-like qualities, like glowing eyes. “We have to stick together you know” he tells Garfield in the episode’s final line of dialogue.
So, in essence, Garfield lied repeatedly to God and was greatly rewarded for doing so. That seems like an appropriately twisted way to end a Garfield special that pleasantly shocked me by being good and surprising and decidedly unexpected.
It certainly helped that I had low, low expectations for Garfield: His 9 Lives. I wasn't expecting much but Garfield: His 9 Lives over-delivered. I don’t want to oversell the special. This is still Garfield but Garfield at his very best was capable of delivering not only mild amusement but also genuine pathos.
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