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How Garfield Helped Me Make Peace With a Culture in Decline

Something about the last few weeks has made me long for a big orange monomaniac to dominate my attention. Maybe he could have a high opinion of himself despite his evident flaws. I would like it if his behavior were both unpredictable and monotonous, repeatedly surprising me with how himself he could be. Most important, I want him to come at me every day, in minor variations, through the internet — ideally on Twitter.

If you are troubled by similar appetites, you might try getting into Garfield variants: remixes of the original strips that testify to the internet’s limitless invention and similarly uninhibited attitude toward copyright. Perhaps the best known is Garfield Minus Garfield, which removes all evidence of the title character to yield a comic about a lonely man talking to himself. Relieved of the pet that is at once his antagonist and his companion, Jon might sit silently for two panels before saying, “I dread tomorrow.” Without Garfield, the strip shifts to a register of psychological realism in which Jon’s circumstances become horror instead of comedy.

Garfield Minus Garfield is the novice’s entry to the genre, the Garfield-variant equivalent of a wine cooler. More refined palates might prefer Pipe Garfield, which replaces the last panel of every strip with the 1978 sight gag in which Garfield smokes a pipe. Jon asks Garfield what he plans to do with his day: pipe gag. Garfield promises a “brisk walk” and strides out of frame: pipe gag. Garfield is about to kick Odie off the table but pauses to wonder if that would be wrong: pipe gag. While most theories of humor involve the element of surprise, to read Pipe Garfield is to keep encountering what you expect.

What’s strange is that it keeps making sense. Pipe Garfield relies on what cinema theorists call the Kuleshov effect: the tendency of audiences to invent a narrative connection between any two images in sequence. This phenomenon is the basis for not just modern film editing but also several Garfield variants, including Garfield Thrown Out the Window, which intensifies the Kuleshov effect considerably. The final frame of each strip, in which Garfield’s body flies through a pane of broken glass, implies vigorous activity between panels. The difference between Pipe Garfield and Garfield Thrown Out the Window is a matter of existential disposition: Smoking a pipe is something Garfield does, but defenestration is something done to Garfield. Both variants exercise the mind’s capacity for sense-making, inviting the reader to devise a story from found materials.

For most people, these two corpora are enough entertainment for a lifetime. Aesthetes can supplement them with the Dali-esque Deflated Garfield (ends with the same panel of Jon shrieking “Speak to me!” at a limp, wrinkled Garfield); the allusive Garfield Censored (arbitrarily censors one panel “due to its graphic nature”); or the bot-operated Garfield Randomized (assembles a strip from three unrelated panels). Those who wish to go further — perhaps to glimpse the very essence of Garfield — might enjoy the animations of panels generated by artificial intelligence, in which the characters become twitching mollusks who speak in clouds of hieroglyphics forever on the verge of becoming “DO” and “THE.”

I grew up watching animated Garfield cartoons, both the Saturday-morning “Garfield and Friends” and the prime-time specials that ran every year from 1982 to 1991. I obviously had collections of the strips, but I also had a Garfield plush toy, and my friend had a Garfield toothbrush; I knew the locations of at least two Garfield phones. The sheer ubiquity of Garfield-branded products during the late 20th century led the Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association to induct Jim Davis into its Hall of Fame in 1993.

In the world of the strip, Garfield is a cat who hates Mondays and likes lasagna, but in our world, he is a brand. The adults who funded my childhood must have recognized something crass in his relentless marketing, but I was just happy to get more iterations of a character that I loved. Little did I know that iteration would become the dominant model of 21st-century entertainment: beloved intellectual property endlessly spun off, rebooted and crossed over; culture not as a series of works but as a constellation of reliable draws.

It is true that I am getting older, but it is also true that culture can get worse: less surprising, more reliant on references and brands, familiar to the point of revulsion. I worry that I have witnessed these changes in my short lifetime, although I cannot really know. As a hedge against uncertainty, Garfield variants offer a course of conditioning. To consume them is to become a kind of aesthetic Spartan, training yourself to survive in an environment that offers less and less comfort. Once you’ve learned to experience the pipe gag as the satisfying outcome of any two events, sitting through another “Avengers” movie feels easy. These algorithmically modified reruns of decades-old cartoons sharpen the skills we will need to find meaning in a potentially more disordered future.

There may come a day when we long for the sophistication of newspaper comic strips. The prospect saddens me, but somewhere during the second hour of Pipe Garfield, I experience a sense of overwhelming determination. It’s the same feeling I get when I walk past the six-month supply of emergency food in Costco. I will ready myself for what is coming. If the past was a soft bed, culturally speaking, then Garfield variants are the rough blanket that prepares us to sleep on the floor. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.


Dan Brooks writes essays, fiction and commentary from Missoula, Mont.

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