You Had Me, And You Lost Me: Garfield

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GarfieldFrom Garfield

Sequential art has had its superstars through the generations. Walter Kelly and Pogo. Al Capp and Li╠l Abner. Charles Schulz and Peanuts. I could go on and on, and no doubt you╠re hoping I won╠t, which makes continuing all the more attractive. Sweet, sweet continuing.

Still, since the late seventies, there has been one comic strip that has consistently topped peoples╠ recognition lists. It is one of the most popular comic strips ever, with dozens of compilation books in print, a highly regarded and still re-run television series in its history, and a major motion picture in the can. Surely, no one can deny the powerful addition to both our cultural heritage and the development of the sequential art form that Garfield, by Jim Davis (et al) has produced.

That╠s what makes an essay like this so difficult to write. It was one thing to write about webcomics that had me and ultimately lost me. I mean, by definition, everything on my webcomics list has only been part of my life since the mid-nineties or after. I invest a good amount of emotional attachment into comics I like, but still -- that╠s just a few scant years. Garfield, on the other hand, has been a part of my reading experience since the seventies. That╠s most of my reading life, if you think about it.

Still, if someone is to be true to themselves, they have to accept when the magic leaves. They have to know when the time comes that they can╠t deny it any longer. They have to let former friends go. And that╠s where we are now. You have to accept the truth of this.

Garfield started with great promise and above all, a sense of consistency that bordered on the pathological. Not content to leave the evolution of his characters to chance or the variances of artistic temperament, Garfield╠s creator (Jim Davis -- a veteran cartoonist of such notable features as Tumbleweeds) took the extra time and effort to bring experts in the field in, to consider all angles. The very selection of the cast was weighed for the broadest possible appeal and the greatest marketability. Davis knew, confidentially, that artistic merit would follow.

And so it did. I hardly need to sell you on that point. On June 19, 1978, Garfield premiered. Its premise was rock solid. Jon Arbuckle promised to have no thoughts but our entertainment. Garfield, comedically, was only interested in being fed. This of course also meant that from the very beginning, the fourth wall was sundered, the very first joke metahumor. And as long time readers know, there╠s nothing like metahumor to form my opinions and catch my interest.

The strip began mostly as a comic about a cat, with the foibles of cats a primary theme. However, that didn╠t last long -- the universality of cats was eclipsed by the universality of Jon Arbuckle as a geek. Perhaps that should have been considered the first warning sign, but still -- comedy gold was being mined. Garfield, as it worked out, liked lasagna. He didn╠t like Mondays. He was overweight, and somewhat less active than Jon might have liked. The strip practically wrote itself (with help from Davis, an editorial staff and a focus group, of course).

And the cast expanded, but did so in a very safe way. You see, one of the most dangerous traps that a comic strip can fall into is continuity -- the idea that fans of the strip should possibly have to know what happened yesterday to get tomorrow╠s joke. It was continuity that ultimately destroyed Li╠l Abner after a too-short run of just forty-three years, and continuity of course clung like barnacles to Peanuts, reducing the appeal of what was otherwise a promising little strip. Davis fully understood the dangers of continuity to begin with, and set a solid promise that every strip would be essentially self contained. You would never need to know anything -- not one single, solitary thing -- to read a Garfield strip.

It was a noble goal, but after time, Davis began to waver, and ultimately to crack. He succumbed to the temptation, and went for a Diff'rent Strokes Syndrome attempt.

Long time readers know from the Diff╠rent Strokes Syndrome, but just in case let me run over the entire thing in excruciating detail. Diff╠rent Strokes was a television program that ran during the eighties, most notably starring Todd Bridges and Conrad Bain. In this television program, the essential thesis was put forward (so eloquently in the words of TV╠s Alan Thicke, I swear to Christ I╠m not kidding) that the world don╠t move to the beat of just one drum. What might be right for you, may not, in fact, be right for some. Say a man is born -- he╠s a man of means. Then along come two -- they got nothing but their jeans. But they got diff╠rent strokes -- and it takes diff╠rent strokes to move the world.

You see the appeal for cartoonists, of course. In the bridge, we learn that everybody╠s got a special kind of story -- everybody finds a way to shine. It don╠t matter that you got not a lot. I mean, so what. They╠ll have theirs, and you╠ll have yours, and I, in fact, will have mine. And together we╠ll be fine.

To the artistic committee unburdened by continuity, the siren song is potent. If we bring in more -- different characters, we can create ongoing and lasting artistic stories of significant evolution. And so they bring in two, with nothing but their jeans, and a considerable quantity of dog slobber.

Lyman and Odie were introduced, and Garfield would never be the same.

Lyman was Jon╠s old friend. Odie was Lyman╠s inordinately stupid dog. The pair moved in and began to get involved, and relationships began to form. Dynamics began to spike. Garfield and Odie developed a certain dynamic. Lyman and Garfield another. Jon and Lyman still a third. The reader began being unduly challenged to remember what happened before.

And once the writer dips his big toe into the pool of continuity and diversity of characters, it╠s hard not to belly-flop all the way in. Garfield got a collection of stuffed animals and rubber chickens -- Stretch and Pooky. (What is it with stuffed bears named Pooky and the ¤You Had Me and You Lost MeË list? I suspect deeper level mimetics at work.) He got a girlfriend with an unfeasably long neck named Arlene. He got a foil named Nermal -- an eternal kitten (putting one in mind of Arnold -- a minor character on Diff╠rent Strokes itself who oddly never seemed to grow up or get taller) who often got sent to Abu Dhabi. A large number of spiders and mice, with whom he began to form ever increasingly complex relationships. Jon developed a family -- a mother and father who work a farm, a grandmother who rides a Harley -- and object of his lust, most notably Garfield╠s vet.

But more about them later. By now, you can see the warning signs, so let me just confirm what you already suspect: having gone for the full on Diff╠rent Strokes Syndrome, Davis and his committee fell headlong into Webster Syndrome.

You remember Webster Syndrome, of course. Having gone for beat of different drums, right for some, men of means, jeans and all from before, sometimes you just end up an overweight white ex football player who adopts a knockoff height challenged chubby cheeked black kid who lacks memorable lyrics in his theme music. I clearly don╠t need to go into detail how this applies to Garfield.

Davis, drunk on continuity, finally turned his attention away from Garfield to create U.S. Acres, a continuity laden strip (also known as Orson╠s Farm for those of you who don╠t think ¤U.S.Ë is a good thing to put on a strip title). His committee, left to their own devices, found themselves foundering in a morass of complexity and -- perhaps worst of all -- emotional resonance.

The problem with Webster Syndrome is once you╠re in it, you try to shove the fat little black kid back into his bottle. (Now that I╠ve managed to give all of you the mental image of Emmanuel Lewis dressed like Jeannie from I Dream of Jeannie, my work here is done.) You try to minimize continuity, and go back to the zenlike state you had before. Unfortunately, continuity isn╠t so easy to get rid of, and of course it can lead to ever spirally traps. The very first of those traps were sprung when controversy settled over Lyman.

You remember Lyman. Curly black hair. A rather suspect mustache. A tendency to wear either turtlenecks or kitschy Hawaiian shirts. Living in an ill-defined relationship with another man. Jim Davis denied the rumors that inevitably started up, but come on -- this was the 1980╠s. The core code was there. We knew what Lyman was supposed to be.

And there was no place for a womanizing Republican on the comics page. Not then, and not now.

Come on, look at Lyman, and look at Tom Selleck. (T.V.╠s Magnum, I would add.) They╠re practically a match. And look at their respective roles. Magnum lived with another man, name of Higgens, who actually controlled the house (ownership being vested elsewhere). He got dragged into adventures with beautiful women or in matters of National Security. This was Lyman all over, and there was just so long people were going to stand for it.

Needless to say, Lyman disappeared. But Odie, inexplicably, stayed. Lyman╠s disappearance was never fully elaborated upon (though Steve Troop did a journeyman╠s job of fanfic-style reconciliation in his own Melonpool. My hat is off to him). My personal theory is Lyman was on a case and, having successfully romanced two women and crashing the Ferrari, he reupped in the United States Navy to give his newly discovered daughter a stable home environment -- since the best possible career choice for a single parent with a four year old daughter he never knew he had would be one that caused said parent to sail out to sea for months at a time.

However, those are just conjectures. A hole had been made in the ever growing continuity, and the cracks would radiate from it. The committee, still floundering without solid artistic direction while Davis pursued stories of pigs and chicks still in their shell, focused their attentions elsewhere -- Jon Arbuckle╠s courtship of Dr. Liz Wilson... Garfield╠s vet.

Romance, especially a hapless, doomed one between a woman in white and a man in contrasting strips and plaids, is the surest signpost in the broader community that is Webster Syndrome. This artful blend of pathos and slapstick has its share of chuckles -- oh, don╠t get me wrong on that account -- but the tortured subtextual message is utterly at contrast with what made Garfield great in the first place. Oh sure, if one looks at the purely superficial, one can see jokes about nerds and haplessness, but if there╠s one thing we╠ve learned, is that the surface is nothing -- it╠s the message, and clearly Davis╠s committee has elected to metaphorically reenact the epic love and struggle between Siegfried and Brunhylde from the Ring Cycle by Wagner -- the fire that Siegfried must walk through to clasp his love to him metaphorically represented by the sarcasm Liz feeds back to him. To be any clearer, one would have to shove a coaxial cable into Liz╠s eye socket and broadcast it on television -- not that the Committee hasn╠t considered that.

It got to be too much for me. It really did. I mean, I was old school with Garfield. In the old days, he spoke to me. I like lasagna. I didn╠t like Mondays. I was fat and lazy. I was owned by a sardonic and cynical owner named Jon. These are common to the human condition, damn it. Now? Now I feel like I need Cliff╠s Notes to follow along. ¤Doc Boy?Ë ¤Binky the Clown?Ë ¤Irma?Ë Slow this train down kids!

To his credit, Davis clearly recognizes this. He left the continuity-strewn fields of U.S. Acres behind, electing instead to accept an assignment to produce Mister Potatohead, a comic strip so bereft of expectation or assumption that you didn╠t even need familiarity with the child╠s toy. With that strip╠s end, he found himself fully in the thick of the morass of subtext and metareference, fourth-wall fracture and insight-laden metaphor that is Garfield.

I think he╠s trying. I really do. Yesterday╠s strip, where Garfield notes that he, unlike you, can always get what he wants, demonstrating by eating an entire cake in one gulp, shows that. But it╠s a desperate gasp. In Garfield╠s forced smile in the third panel, you know that he╠s thinking of how his relationship with Arlene is echoed in Jon and Liz╠s continued tempestuous path. You can tell that he too wonders what happened to Lyman, and how Nermal keeps getting back from Abu Dhabi. You can see the frayed edges of so many plot ends left untied, so many metaphors and metareferences left unexplained. He is burdened with decades of tortured cruft and backstory, and there╠s just no way I can possibly continue on.

Sometime, in the next few weeks, Garfield will hate Monday. Sometime, Garfield will express his love of lasagna. Sometime, Garfield will be disinclined to move when Jon wishes him to.

But he╠ll do it without me. He had me... and he lost me.

Seriously, dude. Alan Thicke wrote the theme to Diff╠rent Strokes. I wouldn╠t lie about that.

41 Comments

Brilliant.

A masterwork, and example of Burns at the pinnacle of his craft... Even the date was inspiration to him... after all, aren't we exactly 50 days from Garfield's birthday?

I hate April Fools Day. It always produces such insipid results.

Although if the Pope appears at the window of St Peter's today and says "Ha ha! I fooled you all!", man, that one is worth it. I'd forgive a lot for that.

Reading too much MHA lately, Eric? ;-)

Weasel--

No, seriously, dude. Alan Thicke did write the theme to Diff'rnt Strokes.

But a really GOOD April Fools' joke should be something that people may actually fall for. Anyone who regularly stops by here already KNOWS you hate Garfield and that it never "had you".

Yeah, but I hate those, Robo. ;)

A more amusing idea would have been to do a "You Had Me, etc" for Narbonic or something. THEN you would have had people totally freaking out while you laughed at them. And isn't that what April Fools' is REALLY all about?

*shrug* Humor is subjective. I had fun writing it. Life is good.

True enough.

...

...Well, you see...

...Of course...

...Ah, screw it. I had about four things I was going to say here, but then I stepped back and looked at it, and I realized... what is there to say? Honestly? Nothing. There is nothing to say here. And I mean that in a very good way.

I think you accomplished what you were trying to do. Kudos, Eric.

I just think it takes cajones of epic size to compare a comic to Wagnarian opera, even if one is doing so facetiously. Bravo.

So it's 1:45 in the morning, I just finished reading all of Arthur King of Time and Space in one sitting, the dog's whining at me to try to go to bed, I've got the soundtrack to Into the Woods drilling a hole through my brain, and this is what I come across before going to sleep?

All I can say is thank God for the soundtrack to Into the Woods 'cause it was the only thing that saved me from getting the theme song from Different Strokes stuck in my head.

The one thing I never understood about Garfield is this: Is John's house just filled with counter tops and 15-foot-long tables, or what? Every Sunday has a different colored counter for the cat to perch upon.

That's enough for me. I very much enjoyed the snark. Thanks, Eric.

For me, the moment when continuity wrecked the strip forever was when Garfield kicked Odie into next week. And he stayed missing for the entire rest of the week.

Then Monday came around, and Odie fell from out of nowhere, and Garfield belatedly realized he'd kicked Odie into next week, last week.

And things only got more complicated. "Garfield" devotees everywhere are still trying to figure out how the shocking turn of events eight years ago can fit in with everything else we know about the history of the strip. I'm speaking, of course, about the revelation that Jon Arbuckle inhabits the same universe as Dagwood Bumstead. The ramifications of the unexpected crossover with "Blondie" in 1997 are still being felt today. (Can it be mere coincidence that this Snark was written on the anniversary of that mind-bending event?)

Clearly, the only solution is to reboot the strip. Yes, it will upset fans who've followed it from the beginning. But the alternative is the slow end of the strip as its fans (whose average age is now mid-to-late 60s) start to die, leaving behind a young generation afraid to dive into the ocean of continuity that is "Garfield."

(Good grief, this is fun.)

You know, I started reading it... and it looked like you were about to give an epic history from start to finish of the comic in its progression...

And I stopped. I can't help it. I scrolled to the bottom to see how very long this post is, and realized I didn't want to sink the time into reading it, despite how much I enjoy your work. The title of the post says what I imagine is the essence of your point here. What more is there to read about it?

Certainly, this is your blog, and you write as you choose. (God knows I lean to the verbose.) And I can't talk about being succinct anyway, because for all I (don't) know, you wove a splendid tapestry of elegant meaning and tactfully placed thoughts.

But I can't say -- because it was really long, and I didn't read it. My loss, I guess.

Zutto--

Sometimes they're short, sometimes they're long. I think my record is five thousand words. This is less than half that, but it's still pretty hefty.

As for the essence of my point... maybe reading a bit more would be helpful in elaborating that.

Aye. I'll probably come back and read it when I'm less tired, matter of fact...

But yes, no doubt there are subjects that merit a lengthy address, and I can easily see how this would be one. :)

Best snarking ever. You see, I am a sucker for this sort of thing.

...I've never realized how deep Garfield is until now. I will now purchase each of the Garfield books and seek the wisdom that Davis has so cleverly hidden within those panels.

You had me until you mentioned continuity, and then you lost lost me. ;)

What of that about Lyman is true? I've never seen him outside of a lone reappearance (I think...might have just been the 20th Anniversary collection). I suppose I could wade through garfield.com, but have you seen that flash interface? *shudders*

Any writing that quotes the Diff'rent Strokes theme song is one of pure genuis.

It took me a couple pages before it dawned on me that it was an April Fool's joke. Pretty sad. I blame being up late and helping a friend for much of the day. *chuckle*

So, is this going to make it into the YHMAYLM file? :D

Rob

kirabug:

"The one thing I never understood about Garfield is this: Is John's house just filled with counter tops and 15-foot-long tables, or what? Every Sunday has a different colored counter for the cat to perch upon."

It seems like these sorts of questions were regularly addressed in the metahumor portions of the cartoon show, which was genuinely good to a greater degree than anything associated with Garfield has any right to be.

I'll admit. It didn't even occour to me while reading it that you said you didn't read Garfield. Maybe it's all this 3:23AM in my eyes.

But for what it's worth, you fooled me for a little while.

3 Awesome Points┘, EB.

Despite your attempts to stick the Diff'rent Strokes theme in my head, what I instead was reminded of was the animated Garfield show's theme song, and then promptly reminded of the recent Niego strip.

http://www.niego.org/comic/comic57.html

And my excessive gullibility is proven once again by the fact that it wasn't until about six paragraphs in that I realized what day it was...

I don't much participate in April Fool's day.. There seems to be two types of pranks.. lame, tired, old jokes that should have been buried when the originator of said prank was six and the nasty type, the viscious, humilate and hurt type joke. And while I prefer the former to the latter, I can't say I like either.

And then out of the giant pile of crap stuff comes about like Mr Burns' I didn't realize *at all* until I read the comments. (Me? A fluffhead? That's unpossible!) But I grin at it. It's subtle, it's ironic and it's just slightly evil.

In honor of April Fools' day, and because I love your work, I've decided to pull a Websnark in my LJ. Just click on my name in the sig there to see it.

The only thing I don't like about this snark is that it left me with the theme song to The Facts of Life running through my head, and I can't get rid of it.

(Yes, The Facts of Life. I watched more than a few episodes of Diff'rent Strokes back in the day, but I can't remember a single note of its theme song, despite having the lyrics right there in front of me to jog my memory. And whenever I try to dredge it up, a crossed wire in the part of my brain that stores '80s sitcom theme songs serves up the Facts of Life song. It's bloody annoying.)

How can you say that? You so OBVIOUSLY don't know the first thing about what makes FUNNY! Go back to reading drek like Penny Arcade, you hack! This site has so TOTALLY leapt the octopus!

-The Gneech

Hey, it makes perfect sense to get Facts of Life music stuck in your head, Trevor, what with the whole Mrs. Garrett situation and all.

No wonder you posted hardly anything yesterday.

The best April Fool's jokes are subtle. My all-time favorite is from a couple years ago, when Taco Bell took out full-page ads in the largest papers in the U.S., claiming that they bought the Liberty Bell. Complete with Taco Bell logo with cracked bell. That was genius.

Though I have to say, if you really wanted to do a good April Fool's joke, you would have given Garfield a biscuit. A tasty, lasagna-flavored biscuit.

Trevor, I too have suffered through the Facts of Life theme song today, brought on by this same snark. Of course, to me, Different Strokes always struck me as a different version of The Facts of Life. I mean, a grown man with two young boys at his beck and call? And they're just now getting around to Michael Jackson??? Why didn't they take the 'ex-football player' to jail? *sigh* Why, oh why, does child molestation have to be one of The Facts of Life?

"I don't much participate in April Fool's day.. There seems to be two types of pranks.. lame, tired, old jokes that should have been buried when the originator of said prank was six and the nasty type, the viscious, humilate and hurt type joke. And while I prefer the former to the latter, I can't say I like either."

OK... so which is this one? }:-{D

http://www.wlpcomics.com/general/home.html

I realized immediately that the article had to be in jest (I've read enough of this blog to know that Eric just plain hates Garfield), but I didn't realize that it was because it was April Fools' until I read the comments. What can I say, it was around midnight and I wasn't thinking in terms of "it's already tomorrow" at that point.

Still very well done, though, and better than most April Fools' things I've seen.

Heh. Took me a while to figure out what was going on, but I once I did, I thought it was pretty funny.

"Now that I╠ve managed to give all of you the mental image of Emmanuel Lewis dressed like Jeannie from I Dream of Jeannie, my work here is done."

Thanks Eric, you b*stard. I'll never get that image out of my head!

To me the genius of this piece was in not just quoting the theme from Different Strokes, but quoting it in its entirety with explanatory text. I also note the common thread with this and the commentary in Gossamer Commons of 80's TV shows.

I'd be willing to guess this is the first essay to finally bring together Different Strokes, Magnum PI, Webster and Wagner's Ring cycle in one form. What comic other than the troubled work of genius that is Garfield could do that?

"I'd be willing to guess this is the first essay to finally bring together Different Strokes, Magnum PI, Webster and Wagner's Ring cycle in one form. What comic other than the troubled work of genius that is Garfield could do that?"

Mr. Straub, you have just been paged. }:-{D

I didn't get it right away either. My only problem is that it's 8:00 here, not 2 in the morning, so I don't have any "oh, it was late" excuse. Yeah, I'm just dumb.

One nice thing about being young is that I'm too little to remember pretty much any of those TV references. Mua-ha-ha! Also, I think Lyman was the only character I liked from Garfield. He had style, man. :)

Garfield actually DID have me and then it lost me. Granted, it had me from the age of 3 to the age of somewhere near the end of elementary school. (I'm 19 now.) But I loved it dearly for a long time as a little kid, and knew far too little of the world's dastardly, corporate ways to see it for what it really was. I just loved the characters and I loved the humour. And while it was never stellar, it DID have charm back then. Especially to a seven or eight year old. The TV show was better than the comic, and made my Saturday mornings awesome. :P But now I am "old," bitter, and disillusioned. Therefore, this snark was extremely appreciated and enjoyed by me (or rather, the backstabbed little girl within me, the former aficionado). (Yes, I KNOW it's an April Fool's prank, people. Doesn't mean it's not hilarious anyway.) So... thank you for bringing the fucking funny. :)

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