Thursday, November 06, 2008

Review: Garfield: 30 Years of Laughs and Lasagna

I’ve been thinking a lot about Garfield lately, having just read Garfield: 30 Years of Laughs and Lasagna (Ballantine) and Garfield Minus Garfield (Ballantine again), and having wrote a review of the latter.

I don’t really like Garfield.

I don’t like the strips, I don’t like the cartoons*, I was very glad I didn’t have to see either of the live action films despite working as a film critic at the time (I remember my editor saying she couldn’t bring herself to make someone else go see them instead of her, as it would have been too cruel) and when I see a Garfield coffee mug or some other piece of merchandise with the character on it, I become filled with revulsion.

The thing is, I used to like Garfield. Growing up, I used to read it—and the rest of the funnies pages—every day, seven days a week. There was a time when it was one of my very favorite strips. I can remember being really excited about a Garfield Halloween special being on when I was a kid, trying to draw Garfield and Odie myself (they were hard; not Donald Duck hard, but hard) and I have a distinct memory of sitting in an armchair in the house I grew up in, playing with a little plastic Odie pencil-topper for hours one afternoon (I remember the chair was dark brown, and I was imagining Odie digging this elaborate, Dig Dug-like maze of tunnels underground).

So what happened?

“I grew up” seems like too easy, too pat an answer. Certainly my sense of humor and my tastes in general have gotten somewhat more sophisticated, but not by all that much. There are plenty of things I liked as a kid that I still like—Star Wars, G.I. Joe, “G1” Transformers, He-Man, superheroes, Beatrix Potter, Dr. Seuss, Richard Scarry’s art, The Chronicles of Narnia, Looney Tunes, Popeye, and on and on and on.

Is there something particular to Garfield that separates it from other things I liked as a little kid to the extent that not only do I not care for it at all anymore, but I don’t even feel any nostalgia for having once liked it, but only confusion and shame over my prior fondness?

Is it the character’s sarcasm and cynicism, which might seem sharp to a five- to ten-year-old who had yet to be introduced to other examples of sarcasm and cynicism with which to compare it? (Certainly Garfield seemed edgier than Family Circle, Hi and Lois and Marmaduke; Doonesbury and Bloom County often went unread, as I never got any of the jokes).

Or perhaps that the first ten-to-300 times you read a joke about how Mondays and spiders are awful, or that dogs are dumber than cats, or that teddy bears and lasagna are both pretty great, you find it amusing, even funny, but by the 301st time, the humor evaporates, and by the 650th time it’s lost any and all appeal?

I don’t know; I suspect both of those reasons may be factors, along with the fact that as my own personal horizons broadened as age and geography gave me access to more popular entertainment material, and that more and more great comics of all kinds have become available over the years, what bloom might have been on Garfield’s rose seemed to wilt all the faster.

So, with those 500 words about myself out of the way, I suppose it’s time to turn to the alleged subject of this post, Garfield: 30 Years of Laughs and Lasagna (Yes, I’m afraid this is going to be one of those over-long, unfocused reviews I sometimes tend towards).

First of all, I should say this is an extremely nice-looking book. Thomas Howard is credited with the design, and I say “Well done, Mr. Howard.”

It’s a rectangular hardcover, all in orange and black, save for the whites of Garfield’s eyes, the white lettering of the sub-title (“The life & times of a fat, furry legend!”… too bad I can never read the word “furry” and merely think of something covered in fur anymore, but instead of perverts in plush animal suits; damn you, Internet!) and the silver lettering of the title.

The image is an extreme close up of Garfield’s eyes and nose, caught in a smile, reducing Davis’ design to some essential shapes that seem to give it new life. Under the slipcover is more or less the same close-up of Garfield, only now the image is unencumbered by the title, and his face has drained of all enthusiasm, a thought cloud reading “Shut up and feed me” appearing.

Oh, Garfield, you glutton, you!

The rest of the book? Well, it’s not without value. Like I said, I’ve been thinking a lot about Garfield lately, and as easy as he is to hate—as awful as the strip may be—it is popular, and it’s worthwhile to consider why it’s so, what makes it so, whether it’s good for the comics page and other cartoonists, and how it got to the point it is now.

I can’t say I laughed at all during the reading of the book—in fact, some parts of it made me sad, and/or confused—but the specific format of this particular book at least offers an overview of sorts to the strip, its components and its evolution.

Dean Young, the cartoonist currently caretaking Blondie for his late father Chic Young, provides an introduction. Apparently, Young and Davis are good friends, and based solely on the introduction, neither of them seem at all funny. He shares two anecdotes about his best friend of 30 years to try and convey their zany relationship.

This one time, before a golf tournament, Davis’ glasses broke, but, get this, he had to wear them anyway! And this other time they were on a boat with the guy who does Mother Goose and Grimm, and one of them pretended to fall out of the boat, but he was just pretending!

Oh, my sides!

From there, the book is divided into three main sections, each focusing on a decade’s worth of strips (then followed by Davis’ selection of his personal favorite 30 strips). They’re broken up randomly by paragraphs of Davis musing about the nature of his work and humor in general, and profiles of various characters.

These are all less than insightful. For example, “Garfield can get away with such bad behavior because he’s a cat. If humans were to act this way, they would be despicable.”

Or “I’m glad people want to have Garfield on their coffee cups, T-shirts or on a poster…It’s flattering. Garfield’s success has opened up many doors for me, allowed me to live a comfortable life…”

The most interesting decades for me were the first and the last, because they’re the ones I was least familiar with (I was only one-year-old when the strip began, and obviously not reading newspapers yet; I quit reading it and an awful lot of the comics pages somewhere around high school).

Davis’ characters are so familiar-looking, with such a uniform appearance from artist to artist and occurrence to occurrence (that is, the Garfield on a desk calendar looks like the one on the coffee cup looks like the one on the greeting card looks like the one in the newspaper strip), that it was interesting to see how Jon and Garfield looked in their first appearance (It’s a bit of a revelation how much the designs have evolved, not entirely unlike how crazy Charlie Brown and Snoopy looked in the first years of Peanuts compared to their “final” forms that exist in the popular imagination).

In the very first strip, Jon introduces himself as a cartoonist, which honestly blew my mind. I had no idea what he did for a living, and am kinda glad to hear he’s a cartoonist; he’s home talking to his pets all day because he works from home, and not because of the debilitating mental illnesses Garfield Minus Garfield suggests he suffers from (and, as Dan Walsh of GMG points out, is also implied in Davis’ won strips since Garfield doesn’t really talk to Jon, but “thinks” at him; so whether Garfield is physically in the strips or not, Jon is still talking to himself all the time).

In that same strip, Garfield is gigantic. He looks more feline, and less round. His head isn’t quite spherical, but he’s all jowls beneath his ears. His shape is also less round, and more like a huge tiger-striped gumdrop. Oddly, Garfield grows smaller and smaller as time goes on, although he eats more and more.

Odie has also changed quite a bit, originally looking rather Snoopy-like from the neck up (albeit a lobotomized, bug-eyed Snoopy).

Throughout the strips in the first decade, 1978 to 1988, you can see Davis refining his characters, their eyes becoming bigger, their heads and bodies stabilizing into smaller, rounder, more expressive shapes. By the end of the decade, the characters have reached their final iterations, and the strip has settled down into its somewhat tiresome format, where Davis simply chooses one of the 12 different jokes from a Garfield joke bank to illustrate on a particular day.

The 1998 to 2008 strips were all new to me, as I rarely if ever read Garfield during that time. It was kind of strange to me to see the characters using computers and talking about email, as they seem to exist perpetually in the ‘80s for me, and it was nice to see Jon apparently having a relationship with the vet Liz.

It’s nice to see some evolution in the characters’ static lives, and it opened up the possibility for a different set of Jon jokes.

While I can’t really appreciate Davis’ sense of humor any more, and a lot of the drawings seem lazy and uninspired, the character design work that went into the original cast is pretty impressive. Say what you will about Garfield, but he’s a great character design. Davis also got an awful lot of emotion out of his characters; I’m particularly impressed with his ability at drawing characters’ eyes. Davis may not be much of a comedian, but he’s a hell of an actor when it comes to cartooning.

Finally, and somewhat disturbingly, Davis seems like a really, genuinely nice guy. A lot of what he says about his work seems obvious and less than incisive, but he clearly seems like a guy who likes his work, likes his life, and is good at it. All of which makes me feel a little bad about hating it.

Davis may not be a great cartoonist, but I suppose he’s great at doing Garfield, and if that’s what makes him happy (and makes him tons of money), then I suppose it doesn’t really matter how much I personally love or hate his work, now does it?

*Lorenzo Music’s voice work aside. That guy was great.


Rob McMonigal said...

I had the same realization about Garfield one day--"you know what? this isn't funny" and I got rid of my dozen or so Garfield books. We're roughly the same age, so maybe it is just seeing the same gag too many times?

Matt D said...

There's a heck of a lot of good/clever stuff in the cartoon and I blame all of it on Evanier.

Siskoid said...

So Davis is the George Lucas of cartooning.

My Garfield experience seems to parallel yours very closely.

SallyP said...

Yup. That pretty much sums it all up. I feel the same way about Garfield that I feel about Cathy. How many times can you FLOG those same tired jokes?

I'd rather read Mary Worth. At least she's genuinely horrifying.

Unknown said...

i know it's really hot nowadays (and by real hot i mean Caleb and one other person that i know) to hate on Garfield, but i want to go on record and say that i have always loved the comic strip. i actually tried to get an internship with Paws Inc. back in my college days, but Jim and company just weren't having it. i know the strip is a bit rehashed and not the most poignant thing on earth, but it still cracks me up all the time. p.s. look into the building the Jim Davis has built for Paws Inc. - it's one of the first completely self-sustainable office workplaces among many other things (fascinating stuff).

Dono said...

I had a similar experience with the show King of the Hill. I'd watch it every Sunday, and multiple times during the week through syndication. Then one day I realized I hate it!I'm sure it's like any bad relationship: at first you find little quips and quirks funny and cute, but after awhile the same thing over and over again gets annoying.

Simon Hayes Budgen said...

On Garfield's popularity: the Rocky Mountain News dropped the strip the other week, but there was a public outcry (sort of - grumpy emails rather than a march on the newspaper offices) and so they've brought it back.

The unlovely Over The Hedge has gone to make way for the strip, so it's not entirely bad news.