What Makes Garfielf Great (And What Imitators Couldn’t Imitate)
Garfield has had a wild career arc, all without changing much about the formula. In print, he was (and still is, to a degree), a dominant force — a popular and highly syndicated staple of newspapers across America. That life in print paved the way for appearances in other media like books, television shows, and even a pair of live-action movies in the mid-2000’s. And that’s not to even breach the wide world of Garfield-related merchandise. I won’t even bother listing off the breadth of products that bear Garfield’s likeness, because it would quickly become overwhelming. To keep it simple, if there’s something that can be purchased and can reasonably bear Garfield’s likeness, then it’s probably already been done. And sometimes, whether or not the product is actually reasonable is of no real consequence.
But, I don’t need to tell you that the Garfield Media Empire is formidable, you’ll know that just by wandering the harsher, less-tested badlands of our late-capitalist, softly murmuring hellscape. Garfield appears in places that don’t suit him to sell things that don’t make much sense for him. Garfield’s character, once possessing of at least a grain of nuance early on in the strip’s history, over time has been distilled down to nothing more than the most base components of his personality. Becoming a collection of immediately recognizable signifiers for the sake of easy marketing and to serve up the safety provided by a familiar brand. Garfield can no longer provide a soft critique of television’s banality as he could early on because Garfield is that very banality. It’s a state similar to late-period Simpsons as described by YouTuber Super Eyepatch Wolf, wherein a franchise reaches a problematic impasse in trying to critique popular culture because they have become themselves an institution of popular culture.
The difference between the two properties are obvious, though. The Simpsons was conceived as an anti-establishment take-down of heretofore milquetoast representations of the American family in popular media. The success of this anti-establishment portrayal spring-boarded the 1990’s fixation on dysfunction and social ennui, until by the time the 2000’s came around, such dysfunction was the norm. In this way, The Simpsons molded popular culture until they could no longer be counterculture.
Garfield was, in comparison, never that purposeful. It never had that capacity that great art has of commenting on the world at large because it was always pretty safe — easy entertainment for a broad-spanning demographic. The strip comprised a mix of childlike goofiness in the form of slapstick, exaggerated expressions, and talking animals, and the more jaded outlook of the adult, with Garfield’s caffeine addiction and hatred of Mondays spotlighting his wry & cynical views on life, and Jon’s inability to find lasting human companionship echoing many of the current or past problems of adults reading the the strip. In a very real way, Garfield was engineered specifically to sell, and to sell big. Kids and adults alike could find something worth liking about Garfield without it being too soft or cuddly to alienate people, nor too edgy to scare them off. It wasn’t like this was Heathcliff we were talking about.
Seeking out popularity through the design of your strip is one thing, acquiring it beyond reasonable imagination is quite another. I think, even with creator Jim Davis’ ambitions, Garfield achieved the sort of success that should be considered “beyond reasonable imagination”. That state of overwhelming— with the motives of profit at your back, and a lot of invested interest from people in Hollywood, television, and merchandise — is a natural enemy of art in whatever shape it takes. Suddenly your creation is not the vision of any one person or even small group of people, it is in part the vision of each person who has money in the pot. Whether or not they understand anything ephemeral like the “spirit” of the work, they have a say regardless. This was one of the primary concerns of Calvin & Hobbes cartoonist Bill Watterson, and why you’ll never see official Calvin & Hobbes merchandise so long as he’s alive, in spite of the fact that he could’ve certainly made millions off of it.
Any nuance Garfield may have once had needed to be shaved down to match the financial interest that guided the brand’s relevance in the marketplace. And with that brand relevance also came with it the mind’s of people. Nuance is not the way to hammer the tendencies of Garfield into the mind of the people. What if Garfield got up one Monday and decided that he would be happy with that day because each day brings its blessing? What if Garfield started drinking decaf coffee? Or tea? Or if he asked Jon to order a calzone from the Italian food place rather than Lasagna? Maybe he would as a one-off gag for one comic but you can bet we’re gonna revert back before any eyebrows get raised. Garfield in this sense exists in a state of limbo, unable to develop any further from this point out.
Now, don’t mistake me, this isn’t some unique feature of Garfield, it’s well-trodden issue to consider all the ways long-running fictional characters can get stuck in a rut, unable to develop. Whether it be the character undergoing a Flanderization where all their personality quirks get amplified or if they just cease to grow due to creative reasons, it’s not uncommon. The thing that distinguishes Garfield is that, due to his particular invention as character meant to be marketed, his quirks are very… specific. Garfield’s personality — that of a somewhat curmudgeonly smart aleck — is too general to be identifiable as Garfield alone. However, Garfield’s relationships with Jon, Odie, Nermal, Arlene, and the household spiders are very sharp, as are Garfield’s preferences and dislikes. You can, without even much knowledge probably hash out these specifics — he’s disdainful and snarky towards Jon, callous towards Odie, envious of Nermal, and so on. Garfield likes lasagna, his stuffed bear Pooky, naps, coffee, and television. Garfield dislikes alarm clocks, diets, spiders, Mondays, dogs, and vet visits. The lock-step nature of these interactions and tendencies makes for both a predictable strip, but also some solid character-based humor. Also important is that no other character in the comic is brought into such sharp relief by way of their preferences. Garfield, being the center of the strip, is given voice nearly every comic to make these marketable tendencies known. The Flanderizing of Garfield, as it were, is him becoming less a believable character and more a series of preferences with an attendant snarky attitude, complete with a smug face that is just perfect to slap on the back windshield of your car. That’s the commodity of Garfield, and there’s been a long gestation of Garfield’s appearances in all media that has allowed this shape to be carved precisely and specifically out. And this brings us to the creation of post-modern Garfield.
This might not be a precise moment, but the true genesis of this reading of Garfield probably has its roots in the Garfield Minus Garfield web comic of the late 2000’s. Which, as its name indicates, is the Garfield comic strip without Garfield, leaving Jon alone in a stark and psychologically uneasy context. This has almost nothing thematically or conceptually to do with the main piece of post-modern Garfield media that I’ll be looking at, but it has the important distinction of truly opening the door to alternative interpretations of the staid world of Garfield. Around this time also emerged the lasagnacat YouTube channel, which is primarily operates by making abstract and disturbing recreations of banal Garfield stripS. These videos, though ahead of their time, does not reveal anything in particular about the Garfield strip, except maybe, that the humor sometimes wasn’t all that funny in and of itself. Where the video I’m examining — the Garfielf YouTube video — comes in is taking this new climate of interpreting Garfield through a new lens and using that to distill Garfield as a strip to its purest, most base essence.
Garfielf, released in April of 2013, succeeds in being supremely Garfield-esque within its heart and nowhere else; it resembles Garfield in essence while having no aesthetic similarities The video is poorly drawn MS Paint interpretations of Garfield and company engaging in their clichéd behavior to a soundtrack of discombobulating avant-garde jazz and Microsoft speech to text voices reciting the broken and poorly-spelled dialogue. Critical to the success of the video is that nothing is off-brand to how the Garfield strip actually is. Jon spends the video powerlessly chiding and scolding Garfield for being lazy, gluttonous, and mean-spirited. Garfield, in turn, ignores him completely, naps, eats lasagna, kicks Odie off the table, destroys alarm clocks and eats nearly all the food in the house. And that’s it. Recounting the video dryly does no justice to how strange and hilarious it is, so please, see it if you haven’t already.
The idea of Garfield as walking set of memetic and highly specific preferences is the main idea being explored here. The writing, illustration, and “voice acting” may all be appallingly bad, but if anything it just brings to mind how little effort is needed to keep the content train of the Garfield comic strip going. The poor quality of the video’s composition just forces you to confront the quality of what’s being said, only to find that it’s not funny, but it’s also not far off from the content of a typical Garfield strip. The Garfield of the Garfielf video chaotically and senselessly flits about among his various likes, dislikes, and behavioral tendencies like it’s running a marathon through the Garfield punchline farm without the pretense of setup or comedic timing. Meanwhile, the deformed and misshapen quality of every part of the video reminds us of the deformity that Garfield becomes in order to remain the same marketable enterprise he’s been for years. Garfielf is great not just because it’s funny, but because, like My Roommate Sonic, it gives us a fucked up peek into the psychological well-being of a franchise as a whole. And just like with Sonic, there’s something that’s wrong here.
The success of Garfield in the world of memes seems to me to be a suggestion of something fundamentally lopsided and dysfunctional about the franchise when examined too closely. Like the video game Garfield Kart — why does that exist? Why is Garfield kart racing around the neighborhood? Does that make sense? What about garfieldeats.com? What’s up with that? The Garfield media empire wants to expand to encompass all sorts of things, but Garfield is too hemmed in, too specific for most of that to make any sense at all. Even the Garfield movies are goddamn incomprehensible, because Garfield would never take enough action or have enough emotional conflicts for a typical 3-act film structure to make sense. But he’s jammed into one anyway, all while keeping his stock of Garfield-isms at the ready — TV, lasagna, laziness, hating dogs, etc. I think a lot of people have come to recognize that Garfield is just… weird as source of a media empire. He’s a simple, lazy, orange cat, strongly bound to his preferences, highly habitual, and skilled in wisecracks. It’s a good enough formula for a daily comic strip — and that’s where Garfield had its best moments, especially early on. But when this simplicity is extrapolated out over 40 years and turned into a multi-media juggernaut with a serious profit motive, the late-capitalist madness at play becomes clearer and clearer. And with that, it acquires an absurdity, and there’s no environment a meme biome thrives better in than an absurd one.
Garfielf itself spawned derivatives, pretty much all of which miss the point in some way, I think. Like garfellow makes a lasaga and Garfielf Reaches the Last straw and Garfielf Rips Jon’s Ball Off. Damn, there’s so many of these things that I’m not gonna bother get too deep into what does and doesn’t work in these derivatives, because it would be exhausting. Needless to say, on a fundamental level all of these miss the mark because they simply do too much. Sure, Garfield becoming an Neon Genesis Evangelion reference in garfielf becomes god and vores the universe is kind of funny, but just as in the Garfield movies, it doesn’t make any real sense within the scope of the character. Of course, people will counter that claim with the counterpoint that a meme “doesn’t need to make any sense”, and that memes are fine as pure Dadaist absurdism and slotting the predictable universe of Garfield into an unrelated piece of absurdist humor is a way to make a successful meme. Well, maybe. But extremely overlong and burdensome videos by the likes of YouTuber Sgt. Pinecone don’t feel… actually… funny. I guess I can’t tell you what to think, but there’s nothing innately funny about Garfield being made to smoke bongs and say things like “holy motherfucking shit”. Nor do I think it’s an incisive jab into Garfield’s banality as a late-capitalist product. I see it as people (correctly) thinking the original Garfielf video was hilarious, but not exactly understanding what made the writing on that video effective. And also thinking that literal hours of videos with the same speech-to-text voice will somehow magically create a funny video.
These videos don’t really remind me much of garfielf nearly as much they want to, but rather bring to mind The Barney Bunch meme of old YouTube. Same cheap and profane humor, same shock value of banal and wholesome characters behaving badly, same over-reliance on speech-to-text to cover up a deficiency of written wit. That’s what it is, it’s like an aborted mixture of Sanic, YouTube Poop, and The Barney Bunch. Yikes. These garfielf-derivatives are practically their own universe, but it’s not a universe I’m particularly interested in. This is because rather than lampoon the weirdness of Garfield’s unerring, repetitive consistency in an ever-changing world, it just takes its own weirdness and profanity and haphazardly slaps Garfield into it. Like putting Garfield in a kart and making him race. Or putting Garfield into a Prince & The Pauper pastiche like in Tale Of Two Kitties. Or any other countless scenarios to try to inject freshness into a franchise that necessarily eschews the very idea of freshness.
As a final point, and regarding Garfield’s continued existence, I don’t think it’s a problem, exactly. The Garfield media empire occupies a spot within the cultural canon that’s at least unique and specific to itself. But it is a franchise that’s extremely limited in scope — Garfield is not like a Mario where you can slot the plumber into almost any scenario because his character is extremely mutable — Garfield is about a cat that lazes around and eats everything. And that’s pretty much it. And there’s something to that too, something that led me to read a lot of Garfield comics over the years, primarily as a kid. So, believe it or not, I don’t like Garfield being profanized to physically attack Jon or smoke weed or drop F-bombs for cheap shock value just as I don’t like when similar things are done to Mario. Not only is it somewhat creatively void, especially at this point where I’ve lived an entire life hearing mockeries of Barney being “gay”, but it just doesn’t fit. The irony is not lost on me, but it’s a stale irony at this point, I think. Garfielf though? That’s that real shit. You know why? It skewers Garfield on the stake that really stings — it recognizes that Garfield isn’t weird because it’s a consistent and relatively wholesome comic strip where nothing particularly eventful happens. It sees that Garfield is weird because its turned by the gears of late-capitalism and is a brand, first and foremost. And that’s a realization that honestly has more edge than any amount of times you can make Garfield say curse words.
(Originally published May 8th, 2020)