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Know Thy History: Garfield

EditGarfield may literally be the only character that doesn’t need a Know Thy History, because the guy never went away.  Who doesn’t know all the comics’ beats?  He hates Mondays and he loves lasagna.  When I when to Abu Dhabi some time ago, I was a little disappointed Nermal wasn’t there.  There’s plushies stuck on car windows.  Roger Ebert once pretended he was him.  And one webcomic speculated a world without him… a scenario that is fantastical for Garfield is always with us.  He will never forsake us.

And, perhaps unfairly, Garfield gets tagged with being ultimately lazy. (I mean, the strip. There’s no doubt the cat is lazy.).  It is, after all, a strip that seems to be recycling the same gags ad infinitum.  The Lasagna Cat video series reenacted Garfield strips, pointing out how utterly square the comic is by pairing the accurate delivery with a bonkers music video.  Slate posted the following answer to “Is Garfield supposed to be funny?”:

Garfield was never intended to be humorous. The joke’s always the same because it follows a bland humor formula well-known to anyone in advertising: enough to put a smile on someone’s face, but take care never to offend. And if the humor has to suffer for it, fine.

Ouch.

It’s not unfounded though.  Jim Davis graduated from Ball State, majored in business and art.  After striking out with a few early strips like “Gnorm the Gnat,” Davis hit upon the recurring gags of a pile of orange fur.  In an interview with the Washington Post in 1982, Davis is the first to agree with his critics:

I’d like to say it was some sort of a divine inspiration that created the strip. In fact, it wasn’t so much that as a conscious effort to come up with a good, marketable character. I’ve been trying to get syndicated for eight years. That’s a lot of time to try to figure out what makes some strips go and others fail.

It’s essentially a formula. I notice dog strips are doing well, and I knew an animal strip would be strong. People aren’t threatened by an animal. They have a lot of latitude. Do a lot of things that humans can’t. By virtue of being a cat, Garfield’s not black, white, male or female, young, or old or a particular nationality. He’s not going to step on anyone’s feet if these thoughts are coming from an animal. So that was my first theory.

This interview is usually pointed out as “Exhibit A” that Jim Davis is a soulless hack. How dare he put out a comic strip so cynically calculated to reach the widest audience possible? You might as well be reading a Zoloft ad.

Which would bother me if the majority of comic strips at the time weren’t even more square and more calculated. Everyone holds up Peanuts and Calvin & Hobbes, but for every one of those there’s tenfold comics in the strain of Hi & Lois, Blondie, and Broomhilda… all older than Garfield, all trying to do the Jim Davis thing, all crowding out the “artists” in the funny section, and none doing quite as well.


Besides, I think Davis actually sells himself short. Later in the interview, he talks about wanting to grow the characters, but having to put that aside because he feels the need to establish the same beats over and over again to familiarize new readers.

Maybe the character’s a little bit static, but then all at once a tiny little aspect of his personality will come forth and give me some new material. But it’s been very slow, primarily because I’m having to reestablish the same Garfield over and over again for selling one or two newspapers a day every day of the week. We’ve about saturated the market. (But) each day, depending on the size of the paper, he may have 20,000 or 100,000 brand-new readers for the very first time. I have a feeling of responsibility for the brand- new readers. The fact that he loves lasagna, he’s lazy, that he’s cynical, that he’s selfish, that he hates to exercise, loves to sleep. So only on the day that we determine we’ve saturated the market will he really start expanding. But being so close to him, the subtle changes I’ve built are much more obvious to me.

I think down the road, even if it means him finding a girl friend, even if it means Jon getting married to Liz the lady vet or something, it’s going to change. It’s going to have to. Just to keep me interested.

It took a while, but Jon and Liz started dating in 2006.  And Garfield has been dating Arlene for a couple of decades now.

The emphasis on repetition does make sense, by the way. Who reads Garfield, after all? People do buy collections, sure. But I think the biggest audience would likely be kids. And for them, lasagna, Mondays, and Abu Dhabi are still brand new.

And finally, there is the cynicism.  If Garfield were purely a creation to sell things, you’d think he’d be more unbearably adorable.  Like Pikachu.  But Davis doesn’t like cute.

Look at that look in his eye. There’s something else on his mind. He’s looking ornery. To me cute is “Have a Smurphy day.” Don’t quote me on that. That’s cute. Cute is the Keene paintings with the big eyes, with the kids always crying. That’s cute. Cute is three fluffy kittens all staring off camera in the same direction on the month of March.

I can’t join the club that’s ready to dump on Garfield as merely a cynical cash grab. Especially when that property generated the best cartoon of the 80’s and two movies that Ebert gave 3 out of 4 stars each. (Say what you will about the movies, but Bill Murray sounded the part and it wasn’t the Marmaduke movie.)  There is actual love going into the strip… Davis is just a lot better at getting the character out there to as many people as possible.

After all, just because a character was calculated to succeed doesn’t mean that it necessarily will.  If it was as easy as getting a “marketable cat” out there, you’d think there’d be a hundred more comic strips with a grumpy fat cat. You know… like how there’s a hundred video game webcomics out there trading off the success of a strip that debuted in 1997. Or how, in the world of comic strips, Far Side imitators started multiplying after Gary Larson hit it big.

But Garfield is it.  Garfield reigns supreme.

Finally, it’s kind of heartening to know that, in this ultra-litigious society regarding intellectual property, one of the things Davis has a sense of humor about is himself. He counted himself a fan of Garfield Minus Garfield, and ultimately gave his blessing to a book version. Honestly, I can’t hate that. Jim Davis is one cool cat.

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About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on September 28, 2016, in comics, Know Thy History and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Garfield is training wheels for humor. I liked Garfield before I could appreciate Calvin & Hobbes.

  2. Couldn’t agree with you, more, El Santo. I always thought the way people have dumped on Garfield was ridiculous.
    It’s not exactly avant guarde, but it’s consistent in it’s quality and does a whole lot of things right that other comics (syndicated and web) do not – well-defined characters, clean lines, proper joke pacing, and attractive character design, to name a few.

  3. By the way, it’s nice to have you back!

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