Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Movable Feast, Hold the Sauce

Now that Garfield has wadded up the spaghetti and put it in his armpit, Jon is not interested in eating it. On first scan, the gag is that the cat has swiped his master's dinner yet again. Garfield's inventive ruse, disguising the pasta as a ball of yarn, takes advantage of both the feline propensity for yarn-assisted frolics and the strip's art style which does not allow the eye to readily distinguish between food and fabric.

And that joke is there. Garfield steals this food although Jon's phrasing probably implies that Garfield was going to get a portion of spaghetti anyway. If his motivation were just to eat unseasoned, plain spaghetti, Garfield could have completed his mission alone in the kitchen. If he feared Jon's return to the kitchen, Garfield could have concealed the food as he spirited it away to a safe location. Garfield goes through unnecessary labor and trickery to dupe Jon for a matter of seconds.

Because ultimately this is not about Garfield's appetite for food. Garfield wants Jon to know that dinner is ruined. He wants Jon to know that he could have stopped it. He wants that middle panel, that moment where Jon realizes what is happening, what it means, that the man is a fool and the cat is triumphant, malicious, and a complete prick. And that, ladies and Nermals, is another sort of appetite.

And: I don't want to turn into one of those guys, but the missing hyphen in Jon's first word balloon makes my palms itch. As long as I'm being one of those guys anyway, that looks more like a fettuccine or tagliatelle.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Unfancy Feast

The longer they stand around talking about this, the more burned the casserole will become. When Jon sprays water on it, it's going to be wet and burned. The boys are still excited to eat this horrible meal. Garfield and Jon are bachelors, but what does that mean? Here they demonstrate belief that the freedoms associated with bachelorhood should be relished, even those that are gross, pitiful, and, in the case of the burnt, soggy casserole, not even pleasurable unto themselves. No one wants to eat this mess because it will taste good, but because there is no one to stop them. That is not charred StarKist you're tasting, it is freedom.

This strip also suggests that perhaps the most vital function of a mate is to prevent us from acting like disgusting animals. And so it is that the thing separating us from the beasts is that human beings are trying to impress someone.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Immodest Mouse

The mouse combo performs a song that both is / is about a celebration of their freedom of speech. The mice are interested in testing the boundaries and openly criticizing Garfield because they "can" do it, and do not consider whether they ought to do so, and if it will have repercussions beyond being murdered. As is all too frequent an ailment in fully developed nations with protection of natural human rights, these creatures have confused, ignored, or forgotten that guaranteed freedom of expression does not absolve one from responsibility for that expression. It does rather the opposite.

Sung, presumably, to the tune of "Blue Tail Fly" ("Jimmy Crack Corn"), the mice's song is tied to the history of minstrelsy and the larger tradition of American folk music. It is a protest song of sorts, in the mode of complaint, lament, or criticism aimed at Boss, the Man, the System; the power of these sorts of cheeky-serious numbers has historically been that they are symbolic, coded, or written in slang, and that the ruling class does not see musical expression as a meaningful threat, or does not patter Romany as it were. With this song the mice are probably a little too de-coded and foolishly perform one inch from the oppressor's face.

And so do the singing mice commit an error common among adversaries of the Batman. Criminals aware of Batman's "no guns" and "no killing" rules constantly try to exploit the perceived loophole, and particularly foolish villains will use it to taunt the hero. The self-imposed rules, of course, are flexible at best, questionable for certain. Garfield does not normally do violence to the mice because he has no motivation to do so. The mice seem to have confused Garfield's disinterest with benevolence or weakness.

Meanwhile, in the title panel, Garfield leaves his particularly unappealing bite pattern for forensic odontologists, so it is a good thing he did not eat the mice.

This is all theoretical, of course, because in practice, Garfield crushes and maims mice all the time.

Saturday, May 08, 2010


Garfield and Odie engage in the dialectical death struggle, but this master-slave conflict will never resolve, never synthesize. One side is too dumb to resist or surrender. Garfield is playing Hegel's game correctly, but his opponent barely qualifies as a self-consciousness to be battled.

Garfield's behaviors are cultivated and perfected or at least self-aware. He may not be able to control his food addiction, but he frames it as an artform, a lifestyle, a moral certitude. Odie's body simply cannot be regulated. He is beyond choice, out of control, outside the boundaries of self-awareness. His tongue protrudes, eyes bulge, body spasms because he cannot help it. Odie cannot follow Garfield's rules because he cannot process them, but also through the sheer force of the rampaging lifeforce that Garfield would annihilate.

Finally, Garfield defines himself through sheer opposition to the Other, even as he tries to conscript Odie into his own behavioral patterns. Though he can name the activities that define the dog, he looks into the core of what makes a cat — his own identity — and comes up empty.

Attempting to curb Odie's behavior through orders couched in the form of a sort of game, Garfield makes two weird logistical moves and the sum comes out less than zero.

Friday, May 07, 2010

What is Truth? Paper or Plastic?

Panel 1: What is Jon doing?

Jon is dressed up in a typically pattern-blind checkered suit and polka dot bow-tie combo, and standing around by his table, staring off into space.

Panel 2: What is Garfield doing?

Garfield has inverted a paper bag over his head as a sort of improvised mask. Two tiny holes have been cut in the bag to facilitate Garfield's vision. These holes are not nearly large enough to accommodate the Garfield's bulbous eyes, currently estimated at four to six inches in height.

Panel 3: Mysteries of meaning.

An ensemble like this usually signals that Jon is going on a date, and thus leaving the house. Garfield may be implying that Jon's attire will cause pointing and stares when the man eventually goes out, but at present they are just standing around at the table where there is no one to see either one of them. Jon takes Garfield's meaning well enough, but refuses to listen, despite decades of criticism of similar outfits and from sources independent of Garfield's skewed opinions.

Garfield makes the complicated assertion that "the bag doesn't lie." In one possible sense, this means that as one creature on this planet is disguising his identity lest he suffer humiliation due to association with Jon's clothing, then Jon is, indeed, embarrassing to be seen with. The very presence of Garfield's point of view negates Jon's emphatic statement of self-worth.

The stranger innuendo is that the bag speaks The Truth, chooses its wearer because it must be worn. Between the warring forces of Jon's clashing fabrics and The Bag, Garfield is powerless. His paw is forced, and he is crowned with The Bag through necessity, not to editorialize. Thus Garfield insinuates that his personal taste is equivalent to an objective fact.

Which is more embarrassing, a badly dressed man or a cat walking around with a bag on its head? Which is more endearing?

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Eye of the Tabby

So outsized is Garfield's self-regard that he does not differentiate between the sort of feelings Jon has for his girlfriend and the feelings he has for his pet. Garfield may or may not be half-joking in his eyelash batting and the flirty pose he strikes, ignoring the gulf of aesthetic standards and nature of the relationships. But whether Garfield equates, conflates, confuses, ignores or blurs these separate concepts of beauty, he does so because he cannot conceive that they co-exist, that Jon could appreciate both kitty and woman in different ways. All Garfield sees is that someone else is occupying some of Jon's brainspace, usurping the center of attention, he is not being treated as special and perfect, and in his last line shifts his shame onto someone else.

Here is a case where Garfield's enormous vanity works at odds with his propensity to sloth and gluttony. Garfield does nothing whatsoever to "keep [himself] up," unless we mean that he rigorously maintains a body shape like several water balloons in a fur backpack. These contradictions run deep in Garfield, tentacles rising out of a bottomless pool of aggressive narcissism.

The third joke is that Jon's experience of this conversation is his cat making a weird face at him — possibly he even understands that the cat is flirting with him — which he thinks is "strange." And even if Garfield actually were expressing sexual feelings for his owner, the reality is far stranger than Jon knows, as Garfield seems to be using the Hare Psychopathy Checklist as a lifestyle guide and has gotten halfway through.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Smile, Even Though Your Sharpie's Aching

To Garfield, Pooky is more than VanPeltian security object. His psychology may be stunted, but Garfield prizes his individuality and selfhood to a degree that suggests he needs no transfer object to aid in separating himself from the One-ness of his mother (or, in this cat's case, a stand-in for his absent mother).

The teddy bear which Garfield has historically referred to as his "best friend," an object to which he speaks with more respect than his human and animal associates, is the sole recipient of Garfield's kindness, protectorship, compassion, warmth and unconditional love. Even the self-love with which Garfield regards himself is muddied with self-destruction, but what he gives to Pooky is unadulterated. In a way, Garfield funnels these feelings into this one-way relationship with Pooky making the teddy a strongbox repository for his soul.

In The Golden Bough, James Frazer catalogues extensive examples of the "external soul" motif in folktales from wide-ranging cultures, and extending back into the misty predawn of time. Magicians of myth hide their very mortality into remote, protected objects — in Inda, Punchkin conceals his vulnerability in a green parrot, and in Slavic folklore Koshchei the Deathless stashes his death in a hidden egg. Across time and continents, warriors of legend extract their sousl and lock them away before entering battle. In modern pop myth equivalent, compare to the Horcruxes in which Voldemort seals his sundered soul in Harry Potter, the jarred soul of the vampire warrior hero on Angel season 4.

In such stories the soul is detachable from its owner but they remain sympathetic. It is physical, has mass/ may be deposited elsewhere / takes the shape of an object. The irony of the "external soul" story is that in attempt to render himself invulnerable, the would-be immortal places himself at greater spiritual risk. First of all, the soul is extracted to facilitate ignoble or violent goals. Secondly, simply by existing, the immortal invites challengers to defeat him (and they invariably succeed). Finally, the immortal's fate becomes a matter not of his body's strength but his mental fortitude and virtue — his patience, modesty, tact, wisdom, etc. as he must keep the most vital of his secrets; this capacity is already symbolically hobbled by having removed the soul in the first place.

That Garfield pours his soul "into" Pooky is metaphorical, in the way that the bottle city of Kandor symbolically contains Superman's alienness as he protects his adopted home. But the cat empties his softer emotions upon the toy bear that he may sharpen his malice, coldness, and self-centeredness. It is as if Garfield acknowledges that every creature has the instinct to love, to express affection, to nurture, and the runoff is going to end up somewhere. Everybody's gonna need some kind of ventilator, and Garfield's is Pooky.

Jon Arbuckle could use cheering up on most days, and Garfield does not try to help. Odie's default setting is joy/ignorant bliss, and Garfield actively works to defuse that joy.

Upon the plush doll where he hides his heart, Garfield inscribes a parodic grimace of happiness.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

A Mid-Pleistocene Night's Dream

Jon wistfully recounts an erotic dream to his cat, who mocks him in return. Before we get to the nature of what Garfield is up to, consider that we cannot understand, or at least confirm, that Garfield is being a wise-ass until the punchline. The strip is built so that the strange possibility exists that Garfield is actually recounting a parallel dream that reveals his hitherto unspoken feelings about Liz. Because we know Garfield better than that, it is fairly plain that he is taunting Jon. Though the human cannot hear the cat's thoughts, were Jon to glance behind him and observe Garfield's perfect mimicry of his posture and expressions, he would likely get the gist.

Jon's moony account centers around a dream. From his speech, Jon understands dreams in the Disneyland/Martin Luther King, Jr. mode, as a sort of fond fancy which is not yet manifest in reality, and/or a shimmering goal toward which one might aspire. Whether Jon considers the dream might have any psychoanalytic weight — Freudian, Jungian, or pop psycho-spirituality — is harder to discern. He likely understands the dream as a basic wish-fulfillment scenario, but he so starry-eyed that he fails to connect the dots and read the darker implications for his waking life. Enter Garfield.

Garfield, too, claims to have had a dream. (To head off Comment section wiseacres it doesn't particularly matter if Garfield actually had this dream or not; either way, his purpose is to submarine Jon.) Garfield's dream account begins identical to Jon's, but concludes differently.

Jon finds his dream "romantic," while Garfield does not. The cat's first point is that the dream is potentially entirely meaningless. With equal possibility, we may all dream of our waking-life lovers, movie stars, nonexistent people, and mortal enemies. Garfield does not have feelings for Liz, yet had a similar dream. Dream-Liz expressing her love is not the same thing as Jon's girlfriend saying she loves him in waking life.

Garfield both denies and and supports the argument for the wish-fulfillment dream (he is a cat toying with his prey, after all). We know it is unlikely that Garfield yearns for Liz's love, because we have deep knowledge of Garfield's character: his stunted empathy, displacement of libidinal energy onto food, a sadistic streak, etc... And, informed by that jumbled pathology, that is exactly how Garfield's dream plays out. Garfield's gluttony, pride, predatory instinct, hedonism and showboating converge in a dream of excess, power and consumption of another life. By placing his own fantasy next to Jon's, Garfield parodies Jon's desires, and also implies that he dreams bigger and better than his owner.

Dozens of mammoth carcasses in various states of preservation have been discovered over the last several centuries; the flesh has always been far too decayed, reeking and foul for consumption. Should a housecat attempt to eat of these specimens, he would likely become seriously ill. Other than these museum-case sources, Mammuthus primigenius is long extinct and unavailable for hunting or meat harvest.

Finally and most importantly, Garfield is illustrating to Jon that we dream of those things that are simply, completely, utterly, forever impossible in the real world. Among those things, says Garfield, is human love.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Cat, Cook and Candle

It is impossible to admonish, throw hints at, or guilt trip someone who is behaving rudely on purpose. A cat does not sit on your newspaper because he is confused; he sits there because he knows you are reading and wants attention. Here, Garfield fully understands that he is disrupting Jon's romantic intent, snubbing Liz, and willfully disregarding Jon's forceful hint — refuting it, even, as the man implies that any company would be a third wheel, and the cat deflects the insinuation by pretending it was addressed elsewhere.

Now, as to the Garf's motivation, it is possible that he is asserting his household dominance and demonstrating his primacy to Jon and over Liz. As the devil is a lawyer whose favorite phrase is "well, technically...," Garfield inserts himself into the conversation just in time to assign himself a spot in Jon's vague personal pronoun. If Jon wants the company of One, that should, can, and will only mean Garfield.

On the other paw, this is about the food, and if only two diners will be eating in style tonight, Garfield is determined, assumes, or knows he is taking up one of those reservations.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Ink Stud Fever

Rare, valuable confirmation of Jon's profession! and...

Daniel Clowes once compared the compliment of being a generation's most famous underground cartoonist to being "the world's most famous badminton player." Jim Davis comes right out and depicts cartoonists as universally despised. The gag is no more explicit than "everyone hates cartoonists," so one can only speculate on the precise reasons for Liz's folks' panic. Given the personal problems plaguing a vast percentage of comics artists, perhaps those fears are not unfounded. Not without historical precedent are: O.C.D., chronic depression, impotence, sex mania, alcoholism, BDSM, agoraphobia, womanizing, domestic violence, megalomania, schizophrenia, L.S.D. damage, antisemitism, Libertarianism, Objectivism, perpetual misery, religious zealotry, intense assholism, insanity. More of these lives have ended in suicide, self-destruction, and sorrow than seems statistically reasonable.

The other roles in our world under harsh criticism today are children and parents, which constitutes the entire population. Liz's parents are unable/ unwilling to conceal their disappointment in their daughter's lifestyle choices. Liz, being a strong-willed professional woman of cool, detached demeanor, may or may not care that her parents have expectations of Liz that differ from her own. The Wilsons' disapproval takes the form of a (feigned?) threat to their physical health, forcing Liz to express concern even if she has seen past her boyfriend's social caste and her parents' prejudice.

The parent who expects more of their child than general good health, ability to function in adult society, and the pursuit of personal happiness is setting everyone up for a Catch-22 of doom. The inevitably imperfect offspring can never feel adequate and the tyrant parent will never be satisfied. This cycle begins at birth and does not end until the family tree is burnt to the ground.

One strategy for potential liberation from this loop is through acts of rebellion. Not without its own associated damages, this kind of resistance, conscious or unconscious, still binds one to the wheel: decades into adulthood you're still just acting out against your parents. The more they don't want you to date a cartoonist, the more you may feel compelled to date a cartoonist.

Compare and contrast to Liz's BF having this conversation with his mother. So long has Jon been, well, Jon, that the smallest measure of triumph in his life causes her mind to snap and body to shut down. Note the parallel, though: Jon and Liz's announcements both cause physical reactions and near-suffocation in their parents. Whether overjoyed or displeased, we'll be the death of them.

Also, hmm, Betty Wilson... Betty Wilson... ah, Betty Wilson.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Doors of Deception

If you have not experienced this, it may seem a little specific, but it happens all the time. There is a strain of practical jokery which involves telling the "victim" something completely reasonable, mundane and within the realm of possibility, then cackling with self-satisfaction when they believe the lie. It is the laziest and saddest of "jokes," because the joke is ultimately on the prankster. For example, it is very funny to convince the nation they are being attacked by Martians. It is not funny say "the mail is here! No, just kidding." Pranks such as calling the police to convince them you have committed a murder fall in a gray area. Garfield's trick on Odie largely falls into the first category, wherein it is perfectly reasonable that if Odie is far enough from the door, or there is a prowler outside, the dog might not have heard the approaching human.

Garfield seems to believe that the trick proves that Odie is stupid. Perhaps it does, but not because the dog is gullible enough to act on the cat's bad information despite lack of evidence. If Odie does anything stupid in this strip, it is believing Garfield, who habitually acts deceitfully toward Odie. All Garfield has demonstrated is that he is not trustworthy, though he may have descended so far into his own pathology that it is amusing that people assume they are not being lied to about subjects of no importance. This is funny only in the way that it is funny that people breathe air to survive and wear coats when it is cold.

There is a second, less malicious level to the joke, though. It is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy gag, in which the victim is given a cue, unconsciously enacts a predictable behavior pattern, and finds the letter of the promise fulfilled by their own action, if not the spirit. That is vague, so for example: my dad's favorite of these jokes is to ask a child "what's in your pockets?" Child instinctually thrusts hands into pockets, gropes about only to find nothing. Punchline: "Your hands!" This is more a gag about the intricacies of literal language and programmed behavior than a joke at someone's expense. See also under The Monster at the End of this Book. It is interesting to consider why the prank works, beyond the dog's gullibility. Once Odie has reached the door, "someone" is indeed at the door. Most of us still might not grasp the punchline without explanation, because we do not typically think of our personal Self as "Someone." Therefore the joke is about identity and individual consciousness, if only in the broadest possible way. Related, Garfield is preying on Odie's curiosity and protective instinct, and while barking at everyone who comes to the door is an obnoxious trait of dogs, it is one of the basic reasons they were domesticated in the first place.

This does not stop it from being a dick thing to to, of course. Though Garfield forces Odie to demonstrate some vagaries of language, it is one step removed from correcting someone's grammar in the middle of conversation. Garfield intends the common irony of applying Einstein's name to someone who has just demonstrated foolishness, but given that Einstein understood God "who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a god who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind," he would likely approve of the elegant cause/effect demonstration enacted by the idiot dog and the jerk-ass cat.