June 23, 2018

Horse 2427 - Garfield Turned Forty But Nobody Noticed

I take a break from this season of the festival of the boot, to write a piece about something that happened this past week that went by with almost minimal fanfare. Garfield, that's the orange cartoon tabby cat and not the beardy President of the United States, turned forty years old this past week. On June 19, 1978, the first Garfield strip was published and from there a merchandising empire was born.
And that there is the inherent thing wrong with modern Garfield strips. I have heard it said that the comic strip could be abandoned entirely and the marketing company PAWS Incorporated could survive entirely, just by keeping the cash registers ticking over through sales of plush toys alone. So what happened? To diagnose that is to look at the very nature of the strip itself.

The basic premise of the Garfield comic strip is that Jon Arbuckle is a freelance cartoonist who is something of a social misfit, who lives with his cat. I don't know if that was supposed to be autobiographical for the artist Jim Davis or not but if if is, then maybe it was supposed to be a sort of dark satire on the comics industry itself. Jon lives alone and has few social interactions except for those which are transactionary, such as with someone at the local diner or the vet, and the one constant in his life is his cat who, like the vast majority of cats in the world, is aloof and distant. Although we the audience are allowed inside the mind of Garfield, Jon is not. So if you remove Garfield's thought bubbles, which is how Jon sees the world, you actually get the ramblings of a sad strange man.
Early on, Jon is accompanied by a housemate called Lyman who it must be said, borders on bizarre and when he disappears from the strip in about 1983, his dog Odie is left behind; with no explanation ever offered except in a piece of retconning that happens in about 2005.

This is fundamentally why the comic strip would eventually fail. As the popularity of the strip grew and the marketing of the thing took off, then the focus changed to one where Garfield himself was given all of the punchlines, and truth be told, there aren't really that many different scenarios that are all that different. Peak Garfield happened in about 1984 at the latest and by about 1990, it had exhausted every single possible gag that could be done. From about 1995 when there started to be ghost writers, they're really just writing derivative gags and so the strip was caught in an endless loop of perpetual unfunniness, as though it were trudging around one of the lower circles of hell in Dante's Inferno.

You don't tend to see this sort of thing as much where the initial world that the characters live in is bigger. It was revealed in Dennis The Menace, that Dennis' dad is an older and slightly balder person who was also called Dennis. We are led to make the inference that there have always been Denii The Menii going back into antiquity and there will be more Denii The Menii going into the eternal future.
Ginger Meggs which appears in Australian newspapers, is refreshed every so often and never ages ever. No explanation is ever offered for his eternal childhood and none ever needs to be. Ginger Meggs is always doing things that a spritely boy will always do.
Garfield has no such luxury. He is condemned to forever making quips and bon mots  that have all been done before. About the only real difference is the exceptionally slow burning arc where Jon eventually wore down Liz the Vet into becoming his girlfriend. Those earliest strips in the late 1970s though, kind of make this relationship look incredibly awkward, even when read in context.

Garfield's problem as a character is that he is only the wisecracker. There is virtually no other character traits that he has. He doesn't have a job and so there is no direct interaction there, his adventures in the very small world that he occupies are limited to visiting other cats and dogs, and his mail foil doesn't really speak at all. Garfield doesn't have a job selling ice creams, nor is he a cartographer, nor he is driven mad by having seven children, nor is he a politician on the local council - no, Garfield is none of these things.

Once peak Garfield was reached in about 1984, there was nowhere else for him to go except downhill. If you want to buy collections of strips, then by about 1990, all the best is in the past. The strip still occasionally manages to raise a titter but when have literally read it all before, that''s rare.

Or better yet, why not read a derivative of a strip which is already derivative like Garfield As Garfield:

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