Thursday, January 03, 2008

Strip Nude for Your Kitty

Were Garfield a human being, we would not hesitate to read this incident, in which Garfield strips a 3-year-old child to his underwear and leaves him standing in a snowbank, as cruel at best, sexual-assulty at worst. This is one of the many advantages of Garfield's constantly shifting blur between cat, anthropomorphized cat, and cat-in-name-only.

Because of Davis' cartooning style, in which everything is mildly grotesque, we always have to take characters at their word when it comes to aesthetic evaluation. Jon's looks, for example, are regularly evaluated as somewhere in the spectrum of plain to unappealing, but he's drawn essentially the same as world class hottie Liz; that these assessments are often made by the spiteful and rude Garfield does not make them easier to parse. We take it as a given that Garfield is morbidly obese, but from the physical evidence, he does not appear out of the ordinary next to, say, Nermal. This is an interesting phenomenon/ problem for cartoonists with a penchant for exaggerated, hideous stylization, from Don Martin to Kaz to Jim Davis. When a gag requires a character or object to immediately read as ugly or tasteless, the art has to go an extra mile... a sprint of which Garfield is perfectly capable. Witness the character design of Greta the pet sitter only last week.

So the "stupidity" of the boy's outfit in today's strip doesn't even register. No clothing ensemble is particularly fashionable or flattering in Garfield, so as with the case of Jon's bad taste in evening wear, the kid's outfit requires additional cues in dialogue/ reaction, etc. We get no such help until the far right of the final panel. The strip's focus clearly isn't on the kid's fashion crimes as Garfield perceives them, on the kid's hypocrisy, or really his comeuppance for calculated rudeness to animals. The core of the strip is a burgeoning little bully mistakenly trying to tango with a grandmaster. Garfield bats not an eye as he goes way, way past the point of eye-for-an-eye in return of a child's meaningless insult. He lays something else bare, besides the child's vulnerable white underbelly: Garfield cares about what this idiot thinks. And he cares that his art has been attacked, even if he has to destroy it to refute the criticism. And he cannot resist striking the kid out when he steps up to the plate, even though the lad's hopelessly outmatched, because it's a bullying contest, and that's what bullies do. When everyone's an asshole, the biggest asshole may win, but he's still an asshole.

I humbly submit that both combatants in this battle of insults are slightly wrong, as any tiny cat-crafted snowman is not going to be "stupid" but rather "adorable", and with the little outfit, it would be just precious. Not that these things can't happen, but there must've been a heavy surprise snowfall overnight, since spring was in full bloom only yesterday.

"Tango with a grandmaster" officially marks PerMon's first glaringly mixed metaphor of 2008.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Some These Pizzas I'll Be Gone

p1. There's a subtle violation of cartooning conventional wisdom in the first panel. Time flows in a fluid, dynamic manner through comics panels when they don't depict a moment of frozen temporality; i.e.- any time you're reading dialogue, time is passing in the panel. The period depicted in the first panel spans the time it takes for the doorbell to ring, Garfield to physically react, and Jon and Liz to have their exchange. This time-crammed panel isn't unusual, but the left-to-right reading rules of the Western world usually demand that the incidents unspool in an organized fashion that mimics our reading flow - left to right, or top to bottom - so that the causality is clear. The typical way to lay out the panel would be with the eighth note / DING DONG on the left, or hovering above the reactants. The front door is more often than not to the right of the kitchen and dining room, but the geography of Jon's house is malleable, so the action could easily be staged with the cast reacting to a doorbell off left. The solution may not be a Scott McCloud approved method of seamlessly depicting time-passage, but isn't entirely a botch-job. Because the huge sound effect takes up 1/6 of the panel with jaunty lettering, it is likely to draw the eye before the dialogue, and before we begin studying the characters who we've seen in these poses roughly 10 bazillion times.

p2. Panel 1 is going through such layout tortures to preserve a left-to-right line of action, because it has to extend the imaginary stage into off-panel space. The fast/slow area dynamic is being played with, as our eyes push through left/right, only to find static images of people and cats standing around (slow area), with their attention and eyelines focused on off-panel action to the right. The gag is that the pizza delivery person is fleeing Garfield, presumably running and screaming (fast area): the structure of the joke, of the strip, of the composition (even the house's siding is angled to slide us along the path) tug our eyes continually right, playing with the reality of how we physically read Garfield. The strip simulates the urgency of the delivery person running away, even while remaining glued to the spot to watch Garfield and Liz's reactions. The imagination fills the voided image of the delivery person and the flight from Garfield. The joke doesn't hinge on that terror, but on Garfield's nonchalance and Liz's natural surprise and shift to understanding: this happens all the time.

p3. The dust eddying back in Garfield's face is the last element of a sure hand using eloquent cartooning shorthand to build a story in which the action takes place in imaginary space, centering on a character we never see.

The punchline, however, doesn't make a terrible lot of sense, because "customer appreciation" normally means a show of appreciation for customers, not, as Garfield has it, an overzealous appreciation by the customer.

In other news, winter is apparently over in Indiana, and the shrubbery have returned in bushy green force. For the Lizes of the world, this may signal Short-Sleeved Sweater season, but our fashionable readers are advised never to wear such a garment, even in unseasonably warm weather.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

2008 Pound Cat

The staging here is Garfield 101: an outlandish sight gag is the punchline to a story about bad behavior, but remains off-panel, and is presented to us only by the cast's shocked and/or laconic reaction. In this case, the un-sight gag is the destroyed sofa and the pet sitter's weightlifting performance. One school of cartooning understands this technique as a gyp, and the Garfield reader knows that half the joke is that we don't see the joke. To untangle this reasoning a bit:

A) The spare staging of a Garfield daily is nearly always about paring away unnecessary information and stimulus, both in the name of clean, minimalist gag writing, and depriving the audience of some traditional form of pleasure and payoff.

i) In some regards, this technique strips potential joy and liveliness out of the strip, but matches the Garfield tone, worldview and characters' experiences. The reader is free to find this cynical, frustrating, lazy, or ingenious as she sees fit: no answer is wrong, and all are thoroughly appropriate for the strip.

ii) On the other hand, the non-traditional staging helps Garfield avoid certain easy gag-strip pacing clich├ęs. Today's episode is perhaps not a prime example, and the off-frame outrageous incident style carries its own historical baggage as well, but it is the less common option for funny animal cartooning. In a way, Garfield makes you work for the gag a little harder.

B) Relegating complex sight gags to off-frame serves several practical purposes regarding the cartoonist's physical labor.

i) Given Davis's big-shape, bubbly style, there is no logical way to stage the couch-lifting, including Greta, the couch, and any reacting witnesses in a way that would read. The daily strip panel is simply too small.

ii) The trashed couch would be hard to draw. Especially in Garfield style.

C) Seeing the couch would not actually be funny in and of itself. Nor would seeing the terrifying sight of Greta mangling the couch. However...

D) This isn't about the couch, or Greta's uncouthness, or even the intrusion of hyper-masculine behavior into the all but degendered Arbuckle household. This is about Jon, Garfield and Odie's reactions in the aftermath of Greta's visit. There might have been a funny freak-out reaction moment in Jon finding the trashed sofa, but we're in some undefined period after that, and he's had time to readjust. Readjustment, a return to normal in Garfield is usually a rapid slide back into slight disappointment and weariness. The key here is that Jon doesn't even raise his eyelids in surprise. This is how things go in this strip.

E) For all the pets-in-panic fuel the strip got out of Greta for a few days -- she posed a physical threat, claimed she would impose discipline, and cast a strange air of gender confusion over the house -- in the end nothing came of it. In the only glimpse we had of Greta interacting with Garfield and Odie, she was letting them sit on the couch and watch TV with her, which is business as usual. In Garfield and Odie's perception, Greta's only crime was making them uncomfortable by being unattractive and defeminized.

So given that i) it's unlikely that if the sofa were clean and jerked in the manner Odie indicates that it would be "bent", and ii) Greta, established as obsessed with discipline, would destroy a client's property and leave with no explanation, we are led to wonder:

Did Garfield and Odie somehow bend the couch, and drive Greta out of the house, then blame it on the pet sitter to avoid Jon hiring her again? In the end, Jon's home would've sustained less damage had he left Garfield and Odie with run of the house, so he's screwed either way. Which is, of course, the way things go in Garfield.

Happy New Year, sucker.