Garfield and the Consumer Event Horizon

Last night I sat through a YouTube video nearly as long as a feature-length film, discussing a cartoon cat I haven’t cared about in decades. When I was a young fellow, I had a whole slew of Garfield books, at least the first 14 or so. Adolescence brought changes, and the existence of Calvin & Hobbes provided a creative counterpoint to the blandness of a cat who is lazy and wants lasagna and has a loser for an owner. So I sluffed off all Garfield fandom the way I’m currently sluffing off Star Wars fandom (and the whole concept of fandom in general, frankly).

However, I’ve become aware of the way in which Garfield, in the hands of internet artists and wags, has become a nexus of negativity, a critique of him and so much more. Which is why I sat through “What the Internet Did to Garfield”:

This video is not recommended for those who fondly remember the fat cat from the 80’s, or who still consider themselves fans. In fact, it’s only recommended for those who have a strong stomach and are familiar with Lovecraft and cosmic horror. Because the internet went there. It went there so hard.

The question is why, and the answers are these:

  1. Garfield is a character known by his selfishness and indifference.
  2. Garfield is a character we nonetheless find extremely relatable. He is the definition of mass market appeal.
  3. The comic strip itself is not terribly funny, but it’s infinitely reproducible. Jim Davis hasn’t missed a day since June of 1978.
  4. Garfield merchandise is everywhere. We can’t get enough of him. Remember the plushes with the suction cups? We had one. Everyone had one.
  5. Jon Arbuckle, a man ostensibly based on Jim Davis himself, is the biggest loser in the history of the universe, a friendless schmuck who exists purely for Garfield to torment. In fact, most of the “jokes” in the comic are based on this premise.
If you take Garfield out of Garfield, it becomes a harrowing look at depression and loneliness. Jon Arbuckle is spiritually destroyed.

It doesn’t take much for someone to carry this to it’s logical conclusion, turning a fat cat who hates Mondays (why does he hate Mondays? He doesn’t have a job. He’s a cat) into an eldritch abomination who devours the souls of men. There are whole subreddits devoted to art on this concept. It’s …. it’s gross.

This is droll on one level, but on another it betrays an anxiety about the world we have wrought. People have been dismissing Garfield as unfunny and tiresome since the 80’s, but he hasn’t gone away. We’re at the 45-year-mark, or will be soon. My beloved Calvin & Hobbes, which is to Garfield what a wagyu steak is to a Big Mac, managed only ten years. Infinite reproducibility is job security. Creativity is burnout.

Scott Adams had some insight on this in one of his books:

In my career I’ve always felt that my knack for simplicity was a sort of superpower. For example, when I draw Dilbert I include little or no background art in most panels, and when I do, it’s usually simple. that’s a gigantic time-saver. I assume that other cartoonists retire early at least in part because they are optimizers, and that level of energy can be hard to sustain in the long run. No one reads Dilbert comics for the artwork.

Scott Adams, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, pg. 58

Dilbert is a much cleverer comic than Garfield, much better written, better-constructed characters. It even goes on multi-comic arcs, telling a story over several comics. But it’s got a structure similar to Garfield: scenario, setup, punchline. Dilbert is an engineer and a nerd. His boss is a management drone who doesn’t understand what their company actually makes. His coworkers are lazy, crazy, or clueless. Rinse and Repeat. Dilbert hit its 30th anniversary three years ago.

This goes right into the creativity desert that pop culture has been on for most of the last decade or so. Everything is remixed; everything is remade; nothing is new; even that complaint has become tired. Garfield is still around because there’s nothing to him; ergo he can be anything. He’s an Andy Warhol Campbell’s soup can masquerading as a joke premise. There’s a lesson in there about art and industrial society, and taking the time to absorb it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

But, and if you ignore my advise about watching the video, make sure you watch it to the end, because there is a but. If Garfield is an idol, remember that idols draw their power from idolatry. He’s not real. If you ignore him, he vanishes like the morning mist. Another of Scott Adams insights is that you should put your energy where it will reward you. Fandom is a thing I’ve soured on because it involves giving energy to corporate product, which doesn’t deserve it. We must all learn to remember that we are humans, and what we make are only things.

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