Defending the Cat

One of the more curious successes that’s emerged from the whatever’s-clever Tumblr era of the internet has been “Garfield Minus Garfield,” created by Dan Walsh. The central conceit is that Walsh would re-publish old Garfield strips having used Photoshop to remove Garfield and any of Garfield’s dialogue from them, making it appear as though Jon was talking to himself. (Though I call shenanigans on the execution, since Walsh often manipulated other elements in the strip as well, including panel-count and Jon’s own dialogue, tainting the purity of the eponymous premise and significantly compromising the commentary.)

Walsh’s stated intent was to create “a journey deep into the mind of an isolated young everyman as he fights a losing battle against loneliness and depression in a quiet American suburb.”

I have a massive problem with this idea – the idea that underpins the entire project. Because, the fact is… that’s what Garfield is about anyway. Loneliness, despair and depression are some of the strip’s pet themes. To misunderstand or misidentify that suggests an ignorance of one’s own material so profound and significant it’s on par with a studio suggesting that they plan on remaking The Godfather but this time making it about the mafia.

There is a Garfield strip (a particular favorite of mine I’ve actually snipped out and taped to my work desk, which is why it comes so easily to mind) which features a melancholy Jon, in the first panel, remarking “I guess I’ve made some mistakes in my life.” The second panel is Garfield laughing uproariously at the hilarious understatement. Panel three is Jon admitting that turning to Garfield for sympathy is one of those mistakes.

I fail to see how removing Garfield from that strip could possibly bring the themes of failure and regret further to the foreground. If anything it would soften the blow, since the entire savage premise is that Jon believes Garfield is his only friend and refuge, yet he’s wrong about even that, to his abject humiliation. To remove Garfield from that equation doesn’t enhance the isolation, it actually deprives it of its brutal punctuation.

But the success of “Garfield Minus Garfield” is just another symptom of the sad, lazy and reductive place that Garfield has fallen to in the pop-cultural canon. It’s maligned as a shallow, vapid relic even by those who are ostensibly immersed in it as they mine it for meta-commentary. In this way Garfield has become a victim of its own success, as comic strips (just as comic books) produce snobs so paranoid of the inherent worth of their passions that they assume a defensive stance abjectly denying the artistic validity of mainstream popularity. This is a reaction-formation against the cascading volume of middling drek that comics (both strips and books) have proliferated over the decades, resulting in their present status as lower art-forms. I understand this attitude, but I do not condone it. Particularly when it starts to justify its own pejorative opinions in defiance of evidence. It’s the foolish ouroboros of self-flagellation and self-congratulation that defines the taste of callow posers in every medium.

Peanuts is a classic for many reasons, most of them opaque and inscrutable to modern audiences. And though I won’t be so ludicrous and foolish as to compare Garfield to such a watershed masterpiece, I would be so bold as to suggest that it requires a second look to its detractors for similar reasons. Just as Peanuts might appear as crudely-drawn and largely free of any punch lines, Garfield can’t escape its off-putting veneer of slick calculation and middle-brow appeal. But a shrewd reader will begin to identify the themes of bleak cynicism and misanthropy that distinguish both strips and separate them from the truly mercenary and middling.

And the hard truth is that Garfield makes me laugh much harder and much more often than Peanuts. If newspaper strips truly go extinct and their great history is written, it could not be done “minus” Garfield. I hope more critics now recognize that, and re-evaluate a modern classic before it’s gone.

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