By Sean Dillon
Perhaps one of the most distinct aspects of Jim Davis’ Garfield is the backgrounds. In strips like Calvin and Hobbes or Peanuts, the backgrounds are typically set within a realist space or in a white void – but while Davis is not unwilling to use the realist space, he cannot use the white void. Unlike either of those other strips strips, Garfield is a comic released in color and Davis, as a result, opts for a different approach to that white void that still retains the out of worldliness quality.
Take, for example, this strip from October 16, 1978. Here, we have a set of three panels featuring Garfield and Jon. The first panel is presented on a predominately green backdrop with a hint of black shading and pink flooring. The second is a yellow background with the black shading moved from the middle of the page to the direct bottom, right where the now removed red flooring should be. And the third panel returns us to the green background with black shading.
The gag of this strip is rather straightforwardly one about Garfield clawing into Jon’s genitalia, causing him immense pain and anguish. And while Davis’ cartooning skills highlight Jon’s arc from contentment to pain to resignment and Garfield’s less begrudging attitude, the backgrounds likewise extenuate the gag. While the focus of the panels is always with both Jon and Garfield, the backgrounds give us a degree of narrative control. Who the primary figure is within the sequence and who the secondary one is.
The first panel, while on the surface has the pair on equal footing, highlights Jon as the primary figure. He’s feeling content with his lot in life as the figure of Garfield approaches to ruin his day. Note the usage of the red flooring in contrast to all the other panels. It provides them with an even playing field that veers towards the future. In American comics, sequences are typically read from left to right. In facing forwards, Jon is in the more dominant position. Whereas, Garfield’s movement away from the right ultimately away from the traditional sequence of events, and thus out of step from American Comics.
In the second panel, we flip gears entirely with the move towards a yellow backdrop. In doing so, we highlight the pain expressed in Davis’ cartooning. It’s a disruption in what we once knew, highlighting Garfield taking the primary role within this point of the narrative while Jon has a secondary part. Additionally, the characters retain their positionings within the panel. Jon facing right, Garfield facing left. However, what’s interesting is that for all that Jon is facing the right direction, he remains a static figure. He never moves from his spot or even looks like he’s trying to. He is content in this placement in the world. But in being content, in not desiring to move forward as his body wants to, he allows the backwards moving Garfield to hurt him. To force him to move in the only way a static being can: in pain.
The final panel, then, returns us to the green background where Jon returns to being the primary figure of the image. The camera angle shifts from a full body to a medium shot. While Jon and Garfield’s bodies are still oriented in the directions they have always been, Jon’s head has turned towards the audience as if he’s on The Office or, to use a more contemporaneous example, The Muppet Show. He remains a static figure, unmoving from his spot. But Garfield too is unmoving, resting on Jon’s arms with the content he’s had throughout the strip. There is no more movement needed on Garfield’s part. Jon has moved his head towards the present, away from a future he has no interest in traveling towards. A time where Garfield reigns supreme.
Sean Dillon has written for publications including PanelXPanel, and is prolific on their Patreon page, which you can find here. You can also follow Sean on Twitter here!
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