Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Angst of Garfield

I remember as a youngster arguing with a friend of mine about who was the cooler cartoon cat: Garfield or Heathcliff. That friend was Shane Baucom. We were friends before kindergarten but have lost touch, which is sad, but I feel free to drag his name through the geeky murk of the blogosphere because I know he doesn’t touch computers—probably still doesn’t have an email address. If only he were on Facebook, I could just friend him and be done with it—friendship saved in a mouse click.

I digress. I, sadly, was on the losing end of that Garfield/Heathcliff fight. Now, I would argue that Heathcliff, the tougher and saucier of the two, was an allusion to the gloomy and doomed Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights and thus a superior literary creation. But at the time, my primary reason for siding with the alley cat was that my parents bought most of my cartoon books from garage sales and people were dumping the Heathcliff collections like stock in mortgage companies. So after I caught up with the exploits of Garfield a few years later through the discards of other children, I concurred: he was the funnier cartoon cat.

Until, of course, Jim Davis became a man driven to appear in every newspaper in America and so had to appeal the lowest common denominator. His brilliant epiphany? People, on the whole, are slow. Too many characters, too many continuing plotlines, too many running gags, and your audience is reduced to a loyal fan base. So he cut all the side characters (Doc Boy? Lyman? etc.), reduced Garfield, Odie, and Jon to a few quirks, and played the same simple gags endlessly in a loop (you kill those spiders Garfield!)—a strip so easy it’s produced via assembly line. And presto! A super successful comic strip suckfest.

Garfield minus Garfield, which removes the cat Garfield from the strip, has restored my interest in Garfield. As the intro to the site states once the corporate cuteness of the cat is taken out, what’s left is a disturbing and artful cartoon on the existential horror of life. It reminds me of the brilliant strip Red Meat (compare the two below). Except Garfield without Garfield may have an advantage because of seeing the iconic Jon Arbuckle in this new light.

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