By Caitlin Rosberg
Garfield is a little orange cat that hates Mondays and loves lasagna and sleep. This is the shallowest understanding of Garfield, but it is also the one that is most reliable. If you ask someone what they know about Garfield, they are likely to know that he is a little orange cat that hates Mondays and loves lasagna and sleep.
But what else is Garfield? He is a Gen X-er. He was born in 1976, though didn’t reach national syndication until two years later, so Garfield is part of a generation of newspaper funny strips that include Cathy (1976-2010), The Far Side (1979-1995), and Bloom County (1980-1989). Unlike those three, Garfield has been running continuously since then, yoking this small orange cat to the millstone that grinds Jim Davis’s ideas into flour for all the comics bread he makes. That’s a truly astonishing career by any measure, even if it is eclipsed by the likes of Blondie and Dick Tracy, both of which have been running for nine decades. Neither has enjoyed the same creative continuity as Garfield, caught in the grip of Davis’s singular vision.
Like many of his generation, Garfield is caught in a capitalistic cycle where his work is increasingly less valuable over time. He is exhausted by decreasing returns on his efforts, particularly as newspaper readership continues to dwindle. Massive media conglomerates and private investment firms continue to buy newspapers en masse and either combine them into toothless shadows of their former selves or strip them for parts and sell off what’s left of the assets. It used to be that major cities could support multiple different papers, but now the vast majority of Americans are left with one local paper, if any.
Garfield must work harder to reach the same number of people he did at his height, with diminishing returns. And where is his alternative, where can readers turn for their fix of the little orange cat? Facebook or Twitter? It seems inevitable that someone would find something to object to, be it PETA protesting the exploitation of Garfield and his fuzzy compatriots or a misguided group of mothers convinced that Arlene is somehow trying to turn their children queer. The alternative then is GoComics.com, which distributes a variety of syndicated newspaper comics but eventually requires a paid membership, if readers know about it at all. There are cartoons, which are controlled by Nickelodeon and thus Paramount/CBS. Davis ran Garfield.com and collaborated on the educational DoctorGarfield.com. There are print collections, video games, a stage musical that briefly toured, an underwater container filled with phones and the Bill Murray-led CGI films. This doesn’t even touch the unofficial outlets like Garfield Minus Garfield and realistic Garfields; the former was reclaimed by Davis before going to print. There were not one, but two Garfield themed restaurants. Garfield, like many Gen X-ers, is working too many jobs.
But in this comic he is supine, unmoving. He is not working, struggling to prove his value. He is laying still and considering getting up, ultimately not doing so. What’s not clear is if he does not get up of his own volition or because something feels out of his control. If the little orange cat is simply lazy, or feeling something overwhelming and paralyzing. Fear maybe, or sadness. Worry about the world outside the walls of his home, and how it will impact him. Davis doesn’t even give us a hint from his face, an opportunity to try to discern how he is feeling. What he is thinking, besides that he will get up…eventually. Does he feel bad that he is not getting up? Does he feel ashamed that he is not doing leisure “right”, as perfectly described in this comic from Meg? Is he indulging in conspicuous rest in the manner of the “relatably” wealthy? Does he hear Jimmy Buffet in the air as he lays on the ground, is he considering the magic of a shrimp cocktail and the fact that he is only allowed to rest because everyone knows how hard he works through his sheer visibility in the world?
What we do know is that he is busy being too many things to too many people. Is he a flash of comfortable nostalgia for children of the 80s and 90s? Is he a throw back to a simpler time when cancel culture didn’t exist for people who remember his inception? Maybe he is simply a little orange cat struggling with Revenge Bedtime Procrastination and depression, unable to go to therapy because none of his jobs give him health insurance even as they line the pockets of his creator, who is apparently worth nearly a billion dollars. The jack-booted king of Muncie Indiana, as we call Davis in my household, has this bone-tired 45 year old in a stranglehold, and like his peers, Garf deserves far better.
If you’d like to see more ‘Field Theory on Shelfdust, please consider sending a donation to our Ko-Fi page! Each pledge we get, regardless of the amount, means one new feature will be commissioned for the site!