Garfield Minus Garfield, Garfield: 30 Years of Laughs and Lasagna (Ballantine Books)

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garfield-header.jpgA look at the surrealist webcomic—which removes the titular tabby from Garfield strips to show how sad and lonely Jon Arbuckle really is—plus a special hardcover retrospective just in time for the character's 30th birthday.

 

 

Garfield: 30 Years of Laughs and Lasagna (Ballantine Books)

287 pgs. full color; $35.00

(W / A: Jim Davis)

 

Garfield Minus Garfield (Ballantine Books)

126 pgs. full color; $12.00

(W / A: Jim Davis, Dan Walsh)

 

The only thing that's harder to find than a genuinely funny Garfield strip is a Garfield fan...a real one—an adult who actively enjoys and follows Garfield in the 21st Century. I'm not insulting these people, but if Garfield is the most popular comic strip in the world, why are devotees so hard to come by?

Lots of people like Garfield ironically. Seemingly as a plea for relevance, Jim Davis agreed to let Ballantine publish the internet sensation Garfield Minus Garfield, albeit with the original strips on the same page. G-G is exactly what it sounds like: Dan Walsh removed Garfield and his thought balloons from Garfield comic strips. The result is a series of cartoons about a clinically depressed bachelor who talks to himself and overreacts to everything. In G-G's introduction, Walsh argues that Jon Arbuckle is always talking to himself, since Garfield only speaks in thought balloons. He makes a good point, and his work makes a hilarious book. 

The cover to Garfield Minus Garfield by Jim Davis. Click for a larger image.The other part of Davis' 30-year celebration is a well-done hardcover coffee table-type collection of Garfield strips, including a special section of his favorites, and what he thinks makes them funny. If madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then madness spread out over 30 years is lucrative, at least for Jim Davis. None of the comics in the collection are especially funny, even though a few are cuter than I remember Garfield ever being. Still, there's something to be admired in Davis' perseverance. I've heard rumors that Garfield is farmed out—mass produced without the creator's direct creative input. As vile as that may sound to dedicated cartoonists and purist fans, it shows the strength of the Garfield brand. (And I do mean brand. Garfield merch probably brings in more than the GDP of many third-world nations) Garfield is so iconic, so true to his cynical, sarcastic, lazy, lasagna-loving self that a team of writers can be brought in to produce the strip without any jumps in continuity or style. Maybe that also proves Garfield is too one-dimensional, but after looking at three decades' worth of best-ofs, I can say that isn't the case. One trick ponies don't live past 10 (Neither do some of the best comics. Calvin and Hobbes' finite run is a rare masterpiece for its medium, and Charles Schulz had his doubts about the last few years of Peanuts.)

And even if Garfield is lame and worthy of sometimes vicious lampooning—as Walsh's book proves—there's evidence that Jim Davis is not only in on the joke, but into something much darker. In October in the late 80s, the Garfield strip came as close as it ever did to following an arc. Not a running gag, but an actual plotted story. For one week, Garfield was scrambling around his house, alone and scared, searching for food. There wasn't any explanation about where Jon and Odie went - Garfield just woke up one day and was alone. On Saturday of that week, Garfield imagined Jon giving him food, and the narrator told the feline hero about the power of imagination. The arc was never referenced after that and the strip went back to boring jokes about sleeping, eating and hating Mondays.

This leads to the theory that for the last 19 years, Garfield the strip has been taking place in Garfield the cat's imagination. This explains the cat's reluctance to let his master find romance. If Jon falls in love, Garfield will no longer star in his own hallucination. His dream is weakening, and Garfield is dying. Thinking about that makes the strip seem more like something from Camus or Kafka than the work of one of Muncie, Indiana's favorite sons. It also makes Garfield the most compelling part of the newspaper, because at any moment the dream could end.

The cover to Garfield: 30 Years of Laughs and Lasagna. Click for a larger image.This is a strip that started off breaking the fourth wall ("Hi, there...I'm Jon Arbuckle" was the first line) and ended up relying on the technique. It took a painfully basic premise and stretched it out for 30 years, with 2/3 of that possibly being the saddest thing on the funny pages, second only to Funky Winkerbean. And if it isn't that deep, so what? The strip is reliable, and taking offense at blandness in the newspaper is a pretty useless activity nowadays. Garfield may not be funny, but it's not as infuriating as the Family Circus or as soul-crushing as fellow Hoosier-comic Mallard Fillmore. Garfield even manages to stay blander than old standbys like Blondie and Beetle Bailey, where the former puts the title character in nighties more often than I'm comfortable counting and the latter is apparently set in an active war zone, with missiles and friendly fire frequently used as punchlines.

No, the ten or so square inches devoted to Garfield every day is a different world. The strip doesn't change, it doesn't shock us or leave us marveling at the art. It's a shelter from the news pages' incomprehensible strips that surround it. It doesn't make us laugh, but it should make us smile. If not, too bad. Lots of features editors have learned that it's impossible to cancel Garfield - too many people will complain. It is the most popular comic strip, after all. | Gabe Bullard

Here is a small sampling of strips from Garfield Minus Garfield. For more, visit www.garfieldminusgarfield.net.

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