The Persistence of Mockery: Garfield and Surrealism

Surreal Garfield October 23 1989

IMAGE: Garfield by Jim Davis (October 23, 1989)

I remember a time (many more years ago than I would care to admit) when I read Jim Davis’ Garfield comics lovingly.  Indeed, I know many others who have shared a similar experience, most often in their youth, and almost all eventually growing out of this phase and looking back on the experience with a nostalgic (if somewhat puzzled) glow.  There seems to be a curious shared history in Garfield, with the comic and its titular character operating as cultural touchstones, at one time so ubiquitous that even those who didn’t faithfully follow the strip – seemingly by some kind of referential osmosis – somehow still recognise the fat orange cat, are familiar with his hatred of Mondays and his penchant for sleeping, and know of the way in which he can unhinge his jaw to devour a whole tray of lasagne.

Garfield, as I remember it, was my entry point into the daily strips, that childhood wonderland that once filled out newspapers pages and sprawled across a rainbow-coloured lift-out on Sundays – a space that has since dwindled to the microscopic remnants still hovering somewhere in the vicinity of the cryptic crossword.  There was a time when his were the first panels I would flick to, the first gags that I would drink in to titter at the cat who thought he was people…

But if I’m honest, when I look back on the strip now, I cannot really articulate what it was that I once enjoyed.  Instead, it is  growing out of my affection for Garfield that I most accurately recall.  I remember suddenly realising that Garfield had none of the emotion, and imagination, and sumptuous visuals of Bill Waterson’s Calvin and Hobbes (although what does?); it was devoid of the wit and subversive absurdism of Gary Larson’s The Far Side; it even lacked the sense of character and universe-building of Lynn Johnston’s For Better or Worse, or (‘AACK!!!‘) Cathy Guisewite’s Cathy.  While many other comics seemed to be evolving and adapting and growing, Garfield remained happily shackled to the same handful of predictable set-ups and pay-offs, never bothering to look beyond its own introverted world to expand its horizons.

In a fantastic article on the website Wondermark, a writer going by the title The Comic Strip Doctor discussed the decline in quality of Davis’ strip over the (now thirty-five) years of its run, charting Garfield’s slide from anarchic, narcissistic sprite, to bloated, over-merchandised behemoth, sagging under a cache of exhausted one-liners worn into redundancy.*  And although I was struck by The Doctor’s astute diagnosis (and it really is a great article; do read it), I’m not sure I entirely share his faith in the material’s original greatness…

If you go to the Garfield website (and manage to machete your way through the advertisements and merchandising), there is a daily comic to read, where, above the panel, there is a button that says ‘Random Strip’; push it, and the site provides you with a sample from the fully digitised collection of Garfield’s past three and a half decades.  And what immediately becomes clear is that aside from the change in art style – the visuals get cleaner; the pencil millage more sparse – the strip seems to have always exhibited an almost belligerent unwillingness to evolve or expand or explore.

A real Garfield strip 3

IMAGE: Garfield by Jim Davis (June 24, 2013)

The jokes remain the same recycled derivations of the exact same handful of one-note premises that have been there all along: Garfield is fat and lazy; John is a socially awkward loser; Odie is dumb.  Garfield doesn’t want to get out of bed; John gets insulted by his date; Odie gets kicked off the table.  Now there are even seasonal retreads of gags, with Garfield every year lamenting his encroaching birthday and sneering at the reminders of his age.  The jokes aren’t built off these foundations, they just restate them endlessly.  Indeed, I was surprised how often (particularly in more recent offerings) Garfield literally looks out at the reader in the last frame and actually announces the joke, as if somehow, someone missed it.  For all of its superficial anarchic energy – for a cat who repeatedly proclaimed himself to ‘not play by anyone else’s rules’ (when I was younger I think I even had a mug with him printed on it stating that) – ultimately Garfield has always been wearyingly conventional.

As a direct reaction to this stagnation, in the absence of any variety or evolution on Davis’ part, others have taken to adapting and playing with Davis’ creation to give it new life.  One of the first such re-appropriations occurred in the form of the Garfield Randomiser.  A reader of Garfield believed that given the comic’s weary predictability, it was actually funnier to randomly splice together three panels of old Garfield strips and see what happened.  He/she programmed a website to do just that, and the result is often inspired…

I swear to you these strangely self-aware examples were the first things that popped up when I tried:

Garfield generic example

Garfield repetition

Garfields strange foresight

IMAGES: Examples from the Garfield Randomiser by Jim Davis and …Me, I guess

And as I goofed around, amusing myself wildly, it struck me that in many ways this playful reclamation of the series – finding a means of shaking out its tedium and investing it with new meaning – was a lot like the poetic Surrealism that arose in the wake of the Dada movement at the turn of the twentieth century.

The Dada movement had been a scathing reaction against society, and the old, established ways of creating art.  Enraged, and enflamed with a wickedly acerbic humour, Dada, in the wake of the first world war, sought to blow up all of the conventions of the way that art was created, exhibited, and interpreted.  It celebrated and actively cultivated nonsense, with its proponents, including figures like Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball, Marcel Duchamp, and Hans Arp, tearing down traditional culture with radical manifestos of such crazed non-conformity that they even denied their own existence; with poems that defied all interpretation or reason; and visual art that desecrated the seemingly sacred (Duchamp painted a moustache on the Mona Lisa and exhibited a urinal with someone else’s name written on it).

When the scatological fury of Dada faded, a number of the members of the movement in Europe eventually went on to explore some of these contradictions of meaning that they had been manufacturing in more detail, and – rather ironically – came to find meaning within them.  So instead of merely self-destruct poetry and art by randomly aligning words and images and pretending that they had meaning, writers and painters including Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, Suzanne Muzard and Salvador Dali began exploring what meanings might genuinely be produced by randomly colliding images and language.  In doing this, they started researching the way in which the production of a poem (its poesis) could consequentially reveal unspoken truths about the mind and all reality; what deeper meaning an artful collage could reflect back at us about ourselves.  After all, they reasoned, this kind of weird collision of imagery was precisely how dreams seemed to function.  They therefore titled this exploration into the subconscious connections that could be drawn from these artworks: Surrealism.

Andre Breton in his ‘Manifesto of Surrealism‘ (1924) describes it thus:

‘ENCYCLOPAEDIA.  Philosophy.  Surrealism is based upon the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought.

In exploring these connections, in finding new meaning in their art and poetry, these surrealists would play games together to try to access these subconscious spaces without allowing boring rational thought to get in the way.  And frankly, things got pretty trippy when they did.  They would gather together in one another’s houses for extended periods and stage ‘language-events’: hold lengthy ‘automatic writing’ seminars in which they wrote endless passages of material, freeform, without stopping, for hours; they tried hypnotism, trances, some drugs; and most significantly for the correlation I am about to draw with Jim Davis’ narcoleptic feline, they would play games.

In two of these games the surrealists would write images on slips of paper – sentences that began ‘If…’ or ‘When…’; or sentences that were either questions or answers – and shuffle them up.  The results, when these images were drawn randomly and assembled, were extraordinary:

When Children slap their father’s face

all young men will have white hair.

(Yves Tanguy, Andre Breton)

…..

If orchids grew in the palm of my hand

Masseurs would have plenty of work.

(Benjamin Peret, Andre Breton)

…..

What is daylight ?

A naked woman bathing at nightfall.

(Suzanne Muzard, Andre Breton)

…..

What are eyes?

The night watchmen in a perfume factory.

(Suzanne Muzard, Andre Breton)

By accidentally colliding rational, traditional imagery, they created something unexpected – something more surprising, more sublime.  And this is precisely what seems to result when three decades of tiresome predictability is fed through the Garfield Randomiser, regurgitated, and left to stand on its own.  Indeed, some of what is created appears wonderfully surreal indeed:

Garfileld and plants

Garfield and biting

Garfield surrealism

IMAGES: More examples from the Garfield Randomiser (with art by Jim Davis)

Currently, another website called Garfield Minus Garfield, owned and operated by Dan Walsh, likewise repurposes old Garfield cartoons, this time by removing the pasta-obsessed tabby entirely from the strip.  Like the Garfield Randomiser, the alterations elevate the original’s stale material, but in Walsh’s product, what remains is a more cohesive long-form exploration of John Arbuckle, Garfield’s one-time owner, who now lives alone, talking aloud to no one as his dateless, jobless, friendless, aimless existence stagnates in seclusion.  As Walsh’s mission statement blurb for the site describes:

Garfield Minus Garfield is a site dedicated to removing Garfield from the Garfield comic strips in order to reveal the existential angst of a certain young Mr. Jon Arbuckle.  It is 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.’

Extraordinarily, the resulting comics are, at times, quite hilarious, and strangely affecting.  With the character of John no longer tethered like a prop to the increasingly rote antics of his cat, or thanklessly offering the fodder for banal put downs (gone are Garfield’s lazy appeals to the reader’s incredulity, his ‘Whaddya think of this guy?!’ breaks through the fourth wall).  Instead, John becomes a forlorn, vaguely unhinged figure with a fascinatingly deep subconscious.  Staring at a telephone spouting self-loathing non-sequiturs; asking rhetorical questions yet still looking hazily insulted in the absence of a reply; his mood swinging wildly from hopeful bliss to numb shock on a whim; this John seems to be genuinely wrestling  with some inner personal turmoil that bubbles out into his abstract daily routine.  And since Jim Davis long ago stopped bothering to add any excess detail to his strips, leaving his backgrounds as non-descript one-colour slabs, John even seems to float in an empty transom, his bewildered self-assessment echoing into the uncaring void.

Garfield Minus Garfield March 04 2013

Garfield Minus Garfield March 26 2013

Garfield Minus Garfield April 27 2013

IMAGES: Garfield Minus Garfield by Jim Davis and Dan Walsh

And while neither of these projects, Garfield Minus Garfield nor the Garfield Randomiser, have fed directly back into the creative enterprise of Jim Davis and restored any vigour to his work**, it is worth noting how fruitful removing the most iconic figure of the original text, or shuffling his antics up, can prove to be for an audience that has long since grown tired of the predictable baggage of its overly-familiar gags.  Like the surrealists before them, who managed to reinvent an artistic milieu that had grown stale with familiarity – breaking the conventional to seek out new associations of representation and thought – these playful re-contextualisations of Garfield take hackneyed pratfalls and redundancies and breathe new life and meaning into them.  They return what has been sorely lacking from the original comic for many years (arguably the entire length of its run): nuance and the capacity to surprise – the primary ingredients necessary to elicit a laugh.

Garfield surrealism 2

IMAGES: Example from the Garfield Randomiser by Jim Davis and Me

* As The Comic Strip Doctor also notes, there is a Slate article from almost a decade ago that argues Davis’ intent was in fact always to create a purely marketable commodity: a character and premise as inoffensive as possible, that filled a targeted niche, with recyclable gags that could be spun into endless profitable merchandising.

** Although to Jim Davis’ credit (and no doubt financial gain), he has given his blessing to Walsh’s endeavour, even allowing selections from the site to be published in a book, also titled Garfield Minus Garfield.

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