Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Garfield

Today I am focusing on one of my favourite comics the long-running Garfield strip. (For more on my love of comics click here.) For those of you who don't know, or perhaps have never cared to find out, the Garfield comic debuted on June 19, 1978 and is set in Muncie, Indiana. The gags are fairly simple, revolving around a fat, sarcastic cat with a penchant for eating food and his hapless owner Jon Arbuckle. The comics fit in with the standard newspaper format - three panels six days a week and a larger Sunday comic. The weekday comics typically feature a single theme that is played out over the course of a week, while the Sunday comics tend to be self-contained, brighter and tend to rely on visual comedy, rather than wit.  As the strip has now run for over 30 years, the animation and number of characters have changed over the years. The original Garfield was considerably tubbier, grouchier and quite possibly had more stripes than his modern incarnation. See:

Garfield as he appeared on June 19, 1978
Garfield in his modern incarnation,
torturing Odie.
The change in animation has two explanations. The first is that in 1984, Jim Davis the animator of Garfield decided to have Garfield "walk" on his back legs, in order to make the character more active. (Davis has later joked that Garfield does not like being active.) The second is that as the popularity of the strip grew, so too did the merchandise. While Davis does the initial writing and inking, a team of animators from his company, Paws Inc are now responsible for preparing the strip so that it is of a publishable standard. Davis, meanwhile, is busy overseeing merchandising of the Garfield brand, which includes everything from the iconic stick on Garfield that can be found on car windows, t-shirts, television series and specials, a range of books and, more surprisingly, a range of children's eyeglasses. Another surprising merchandising venture, brought to us by Paws Inc in conjunction with Ball State University is Professor Garfield an educational site that uses the characters from the cartoon to educate children on everything from science to online safety. As well as merchandise for children, Davis has released two books which are intended for adult fans. Garfield: His Nine Lives showcases a variety of animation styles and darker storytelling, giving readers the story of Garfield's other eight lives. (Apparently, he is currently enjoying his eighth life.) The book was later made into a television special, though the darker stories were left out and new stories, intended to appear to a younger audience were put in their place. A more recent release is Garfield From the Trash Bin a collection of offensive and hilarious supposed out-takes from the strip, as well as failed ideas for Garfield merchandise. I have my doubts that the big butt mug on page 31 was ever intended to be a real product. The underwear I'm a tad more inclined to believe, given that I once saw a 7-pack of Garfield themed undies for sale at Target. And if the undies aren't frightening enough, here's an interesting statistic. Garfield merchandise yields Paws Inc. 1 billion US dollars a year.

Lyman Johnson, who disappeared from the strip
in 1988. Do not look inside Jon's basement.
A number of characters have come and gone from the strip, while others have undergone dramatic personality changes. From 1978 to 1984 Lyman Johnson was John's housemate and the original owner of Odie. His purpose, initially, seemed to be to give John someone to talk to and to wear white disco suits that Garfield could shed his hair on. Gradually, Lyman's appearance in the comics became less frequent, as Jon began to "speak" to Garfield instead. Lyman made a brief reappearance in a strip dated June 19 1988. Davis has subsequently joked that Lyman left to join the peace corps and has never been seen or heard from again and added, "Don't look inside Jon's basement". A picture of Lyman also appears inside a haunted mansion in the Garfield Scavanger Hunt game, which can be played free on garfield.com The fact that without Lyman Jon was essentially talking to himself was later explored in the wonderful, fan made site Garfield Minus Garfield. This site later expanded to create a book and iPhone app of the same name. The best part of the iPhone app is that once readers have read the strip, they can then opt to show Garfield in the strip, thus allowing readers to see the strip in its original and altered format.

Another early character who experienced a dramatic change is Grandma Arbuckle. When she first appeared in the comic in 1982 she was a frail, older woman who bore an uncanny resemblance to Jon's Aunt Gussie. From 1993 onward, Grandma Arbuckle has made infrequent appearances and is depicted as a spritely, older woman who likes pink sweatshirts and drives a motorcycle: 

Grandma Arbuckle's first appearance in 1982
Grandma Arbuckle's second appearance in 1993


Dr Liz Wilson was a regular in early comics, playing the part of Garfield's vet and Jon's reluctant love interest. As the strip wore on, her appearances grew less frequent, until she was brought back as Jon's steady girlfriend in 2006, thus finally putting an end to a to an ongoing series of unfunny strips where Jon's difficulty in finding a girlfriend was thoroughly exploited. 

In 2004 after many years of television specials and television shows Garfield was made into a family-friendly feature film. Bill Murray voiced the sarcastic cat. The film and its sequel, A Tale of Two Kitties did well at the box office, but suffered poor reviews from critics. Early TV specials, the Garfield and Friends television series and three CGI films are now all available on DVD. At one stage in Australia Sanitarium was giving away free Garfield DVDs with packets of Mini Wheats as part of a joint promotion. I scored a 30 minute DVD that includes two cartoons from Garfield and Friends, promotional pieces and a trailer from the film and a PC game. However, Garfield's most controversial moment on film occurred in 1990, when he made an unauthorised appearance in the television special, Cartoon All Stars to the Rescue without the consent of Jim Davis. Given that the strip does not make social or political comments and this has been a huge part of its success, Jim Davis could have taken the producers to court and won. Fortunately for them, he chose not to. 

Although one of the more innocent strips that can be found inside the comics pages, Garfield has experienced its share of controversial moments. There are entire websites dedicated to a story that ran during October 1989 in which Garfield woke and found himself alone in a world without Jon and Odie, speculating that the sarcastic tabby actually died, however the final strip in the series notes that, 'imagination is a powerful tool, it can tint memories of the past, shade perceptions of the present or paint a future so vivid it can entice or terrify, all depending on how we conduct ourselves today' suggesting that what Garfield experienced was simply a nightmare, intended to shock him into being nicer to Jon and Odie.

A more recent controversy occurred in 2010 when this comic strip appeared in newspapers on November 11:


November 11 is, of course, Remembrance Day. The comic caused outrage, particularly in his native America (where Remembrance Day is known as Veterans Day). Davis later apologised for the timing of the strip, which had been written many months before and explained that it was part of a series of comics where Garfield interacted with spiders. He was also quick to point out that his father and brother were both veterans. Considering the lack of social and political comment that exists in the comics (and the fact that Davis had refused the producers of Cartoon All Stars to the rescue to use his character to do just that,) there is no reason to disbelieve his statement. All in all, Davis appears to be fairly laid back. He has welcomed incarnations that spoof the comics such as Garfield Minus Garfield (at one stage, he even advertised it on the Garfield website,) and doesn't seem interested in chasing lawsuits. The entire back catalogue of Garfield strips is freely available on garfield.com as well as via various official Garfield iPhone and Andriod apps.

Garfield is an enjoyable, long running strip that relies on a combination of wit and visual humour. While the merchandise may not suit every fan, the all round-awesomeness of the character and his laid back creator is undeniable.