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Eric: I seem to be becoming a professional devil's advocate.

I don't like Garfield.

I said it. It's official. I don't like it. I don't like that it's repetitive and unimaginative. I don't like that it was designed to be innocuous and marketable, not artistic and funny. I don't like that despite that fact, Garfield has potential (proven most clearly by the Garfield and Friends saturday morning cartoon, which was actually funny and clever and imaginative kids' fare) that it steadfastly refuses to exploit. I don't like the lasagna jokes. I don't like the "Jon is a helpless dweeb" jokes. I don't like the "I don't like Mondays" jokes (like a given housecat has any reason to care what day of the week it is). I don't. Like. Garfield.

So, here's a Snark defending Garfield.

See, Garfield is big news in comicdom right at the moment, thanks to the Los Angeles Times dropping the strip to make room for a new one. (My favorite part of that article? The one where the Syndicate representative describes Jim Davis as "hands on" with Garfield. Do you think anyone would ever describe, say, Lynn Johnston as "hands on" with For Better or For Worse?) And, when big news happens in comicdom, I get letters, most of them excited. "Did you hear?" they asked. "When are you going to comment?"

I guess the answer to that was 'Monday.' And yeah, I was glad to see it -- mostly I was glad that there was some actual response from the newspaper community cheering for the move, for artistic reasons. But, it didn't much impact on me, since I don't read the L.A Times and I don't read Garfield. However, it got me to thinking about Garfield... and about the down side to dropping the strip.

First off, this is unreservedly a kid's comic strip. Yes, its creation was cynical, its writing is hackneyed and uninspiring, and it repeats itself constantly. But to be honest, I don't think it's intended to hold readers past, oh, 12. It wants kids -- the ones who've never seen the jokes. The ones who like repetition because they're still having their brains develop (this is why, on Teletubbies, everything is done twice. This is not why there's a giant fucking scary sun baby overlooking them all on Teletubbies, to my knowledge). Kids quickly learn the lay of the land and laugh. They anticipate the joke the moment they see the pan of lasagna, or the moment Garfield thinks "Jon has a date tonight," or the moment Odie is shown sitting on the corner of the table. They get it, and that makes them happy.

And the thing is, that gets the kids reading the funny pages in the newspaper. Something toned to them, that they think is funny, sets a habit. And by the time they outgrow Garfield (when their brains get formed enough to start thinking "Jesus, did they just photocopy this?") the habit's formed and they go back to read stuff that's actually funny.

Secondly... Garfield actually is popular.

I know, I don't get it either.

But it has a readership. For that 1 prominent newspaper who dropped Garfield last year, there's 40 or 50 that picked it up. According to the Syndicate, it's in 2,700 newspapers world wide. Twenty seven hundred newspapers. That doesn't happen today -- not because of issues of quality, but because there's nothing so popular that jumps out of the current information glutted environment. Which means like it or not, Garfield is a part of our collective culture, in a world that increasingly doesn't have a collective culture. There's very few comic strips you can say that about, these days. Even the old (bad) standbys like Hagar and Blondie and B.C. can't claim that -- they might be on almost as many newspaper pages, but if you ask random folks to name Hagar's children or who Mr. Dithers was or any character names from B.C., they're not likely to know. Cathy is lucky people know Cathy's name, and her name is the title of the strip, for Christ's sakes.

But odds are, those people will be able to name "Garfield," "Jon," "Odie," "Veterinarian," and "Lasagna." And maybe even "Nermal." Christ, I can name them all, and I haven't willingly read Garfield in 20 years or more. The only comic strip (not counting Peanuts, which is even bigger in terms of culture, deserves it more, but is in eternal reruns now) in current production that comes close to that level of recognition are Dilbert, and Doonesbury, and neither are really meant for kids, and Doonesbury often as not is on the editorial page anyhow.

There is a value to shared cultural landmarks, even when those landmarks are insipid. There is a value to the shared referent we get from Gilligans Island and The Beverly Hillbillies, even when there were vastly better shows on the air at the same time. (And Married with Children and Baywatch, for that matter.)

And honestly, it's unseemly to despise the popular because it is popular. It's all right to despise Garfield as recycled humor by committee designed to push merchandise instead of art or humor, but it's not all right to despise people for liking it.

There's lots of strips I'd like to see off the comics page, because I don't think they're very good, I think they're taking up space, I think we should try to do better, and I think editors are typically a cowardly and superstitious lot. But when a strip actually is popular, especially with the children we're trying to recruit into the comic strip habit... I guess I give it more than a bye. So yeah, I hate Garfield. I'd give anything for Count Your Sheep to be sitting in its place in those 2,700 newspapers -- it's vastly better, funnier, and just as accessible, I think. But in a world where The Lockhorns and Marmaduke and B.C. Which Means Before Christ Not That You Can Tell In This Fucking Strip and the aptly named Hagar the Horrible are allowed to run free, stinking up the joint and bringing powerfully little in return... the fat cat who likes italian food and has a lame sense of sarcastic humor... and who actually hooks people on comics... gets more of a bye from me.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at January 10, 2005 12:53 PM


Comment from: Ben G. posted at January 10, 2005 3:01 PM

I think you're underestimating the twelve-year-olds.

Of course, I don't even know if twelve-year olds read newspapers, nowadays. The L.A. times seems to believe so, as they've split their comics section in twain; now there's one section for "grownup" comics and another for the young 'uns. You can guess which section the little misanthropic Monday-hater ended up in.

And yet, even in the corner of the newspaper set aside for young, underdeveloped minds, "Garfield" still came across as an insult to the reader. Perhaps it was just a matter of an unfortunate layout: with a "Peanuts" strip above, "Mutts" below, and "For Better or Worse" to the left, "Garfield" was sorely outclassed. You know that one unloved and untended house in the middle of the street that's just bringing down property values? The one with peeling paint and a yard full of weeds and vermin? Well, there you go. I mean, for cryin' out loud, it was on the same page as "Heathcliff", and "Heathcliff" usually proved the better strip.

Let's take the Dec. 19th comic, for example (because, well, it's the one I've got in front of me). You can read it here (I'll wait...it won't take long).

It looks like a comic composed of clip art. It looks...well, it looks like a bad webcomic.

And what irks me (and, I suspect, an L.A. Times editor or two as well) is that I believe Mr. Davis is capable of better things. Were there any evidence that he was putting in some sort of effort, that he had some sort of drive or passion to create left in him, I could forgive him for the very reasons you mentioned. But there's not and he doesn't. So I say it's time to give his spot to somebody who's hungry for it, someone who's passionate about cartooning and just wants a shot. You could argue that there are other strips of lesser quality that are more deserving of getting the boot, but that really doesn't hold true in this instance. There simply aren't any other comics in that part of that particular newspaper that are that god-awful.

Comment from: Tangent posted at January 10, 2005 3:01 PM

You have a point.

However, Garfield is about marketing. So was this decision.

Who buys newspapers? Adults. Who is the first to turn to the comics section? Well, usually adults unless the kid gets to the comics section first. ;) Who, ultimately, is the deciding factor about the paper? Adults.

A kid doesn't like something... they complain to their parents. Few parents would actually help them write a letter of complaint to a newspaper about the loss of a beloved comic strip. Virtually no parent (I'm talking like 0.01% if that) would cancel a newspaper subscription because their kids favorite comic strip was no longer run.

So... there's a certain irony in this... Garfield, a strip created for marketing reasons, in order to sell Garfield books, Garfield plush toys, Garfield cartoon tapes, and so forth... was cancelled by a newspaper for marketing reasons (it was felt not to bring enough people to the strip, compared to those who turned away from the strip because they so dislike the inanity of Garfield).

I doubt anyone would actually cancel a subscription to the LA Times just because Garfield was cancelled. Maybe one or two people would. On the other hand... I also can't see why anyone would subscribe just because Garfield wasn't being run anymore. However... I'm willing to bet it costs more money to run Garfield than whatever strip replaced Garfield.

So, in my cynical view... it's all about the money. Of course, this may be a good thing... and more "minor" strips will start climbing the ranks as newspapers trim out the more expensive (but not exactly exciting) strips like Doonsbury or Cathy (or Garfield) and print the new kids instead.

Robert A. Howard

Comment from: Phalanx posted at January 10, 2005 7:37 PM

Well, I can say Garfield was responsible for this webcomic artist starting to read newspaper comcis when she was a kid at least.

All that said, if there's ony guy I'd want to inherit the throne of Jin Davies, that'd be Adis.

Comment from: Digression Alley posted at January 11, 2005 12:51 AM

Oddly enough, I seem to recall having read this exact same rant before, only ten years ago, and it was about Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy. I'm just saying.

(And on a different note, I am so glad that it really pisses somebody else off besides myself that the birth of Christ can constantly be referenced in a strip named "Before Christ")

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