By Sean Dillon
There is only one way this could end.
It’s July 27, 1978. Jon Arbuckle is reading a newspaper. From the looks of it, he is reading the classifieds, perhaps looking for a job. Perhaps looking for a friend. While reading, Jon reaches for something on the table. He puts the paper down, turns towards the camera, and asks “Now where could my pipe be?” He does not verbalize his question to anyone who can hear it. His question remains in the realm of thought and implication. Of narrative and story. He stares into the camera like he’s in The Office, as if he knows exactly where his pipe is. So then why ask us? Why, even in the realm of thought, ask the question? For this, we must first understand the nature of the pipe.
There are many angles upon which one can examine the pipe, not to mention the nature of Garfield being the one to smoke it. How, for example, did a cat with no thumbs light the matches needed to burn the tobacco to smoke the pipe? But perhaps the most important aspect of the pipe comes in the very nature of the asking. Not the what, but the how.
It might be best if I shift gears with a different comic entirely so we can see the wider scope of what is being asked. In one of the more superfluous moments of Tom King and Clay Mann’s Heroes in Crisis, the character of Donna Troy talks about the ancient city of Troy. In her confession, Donna notes (rather metafictionally) that:
“No one knows if it’s real. But it seems like it could be real. Where they took Helen. Sent the thousand ships. Where Achilles decided not to fight. Then decided to fight. Where Hector died, then Achilles died. It’s the passion of all man. It’s the war of Gods. It’s the birth of literature, every story. It’s Troy. But…Ask a historian or an archeologist. And they’ll tell you there’s nothing to prove it ever actually really was a place. Beyond a myth maybe written down by a guy who maybe was named Homer. They look for it. They find ruins, but they don’t know. It should exist. There’s so much built around it. It should be… It just should be. But maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it’s just a mistake. A confusion between two old storytellers who got mixed up. Maybe it was never there in the first place.”
While not Heroes in Crisis’ core flaw, there was a brief conversation about the implications of that confession. How King simply ignored the fact that we do know where Troy is for the sake of a metatextual gag about how confusing Donna Troy’s backstory is. We have found the ruins of that real place and can verify its location. You can even wander through the ruins. But this is missing the central point of what King is talking about.
Consider New York City. One of the most popular places to visit in the continental United States, a place where many a story occurred. From the interdimensional annihilation at the hands of Adrian Veidt to the muted love affair of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson to the chaotic and strange odyssey of Llewellyn Davis, Manny. All these stories, and so many others, took place in New York City.
But tell me… Where is the Daily Bugle?
Where is the Hellfire Club?
Where did Gwen Stacy die?
I have traveled to New York City on many an occasion, both for business and pleasure, and I have never once seen these places. They are part of the stories we read after all. The ones we experience day in and day out. Surely they must be somewhere in the city. And yet, I have never been in any of them. (Though I have walked the George Washington Bridge, however it has never looked like the Brooklyn Bridge.) One might point out that these places simply do not exist, to which I say that’s my point.
There is no Daily Bugle, no Hellfire club. Any more than there is no beach where Achilles and Hector fell or room where Helen was born. Even the places we know to be real, to exist beyond mere metafictional curiosity, are not the places where these things did not occur. Often, they are sets or words written or spoken by a storyteller. Even the ones filmed on location are nothing more than digital projections remodeled for the sake of visual clarity. One cannot experience the city of New York by walking through its vast implications the same way one does by seeing Spider-Man jump cut from Queens to Union Square as if they’re right next to one another. We are simply wandering through places calling themselves New York City or Troy or Rome rather than the ones that exist within our fictions.
It is this treachery of images that is vital to understanding the nature of Jon Arbuckle’s question.
To wit, let us consider for a moment this project calling itself Field Theory. To many a comics fan, the idea of doing a project diving deep into the vast implications of Garfield strips, comics that are churned out day in, day out, commercialized to the highest bidder and tossed aside like they are nothing, is absurd. No one would think this was anything more than shitposting, right?
The truth of the matter is this is the fourth project that takes Garfield seriously.
The second of these projects, “Lasagna Cat,” was a 2007 series of skits created by Zach Johnson and Jeffery Max wherein they would riff on several Garfield strips. Be it remaking the ending of an episode of Miami Vice to highlight the existential dread of thinking you’re someone you’re not or spending four hours sharing the number of times callers have had sex before presenting an art film about the horror of Garfield’s existence. But it is 07/27/1978 that is of the most value to this article. In this one, actor John Blyth Barrymore spends a little over an hour discussing the strip in question. The very one we have been talking about.
Unlike our analysis, however, the “Lasagna Cat” take on the strip is more conspiratorial in nature. Barrymore spends the video waxing about the cosmological nature of Garfield as a metaphor for life itself, such that he ends up collapsing into mere mysticism that serves only to fellate his own ego. Given the overall nature of the series, one could take this as a thesis statement. That the very act of taking Garfield has having any deeper meaning is stupid and a sign of a diseased mind.
Seeing as I’m doing this piece, I disagree with this take. It is not that I think Garfield highlights the knowledge of the cosmos or is secretly subverting the very artform its working within. Rather, it’s an interesting lens through which one can highlight interesting ideas; be they personal, philosophical, or structural in nature. Their meanings could lead to other conversations that dive deeper still into what’s being analyzed. Indeed, by taking this dismissive approach to Garfield and this strip in particular, the creators of Lasagna Cat miss the, frankly, obvious thing one could talk about: the question Jon Arbuckle asks.
“Now where could my pipe be?”
Let us consider for a moment the nature of him asking the question. He does not say the words “Now where could my pipe be?” He thinks them. He looks directly at the reader, as if we already know the answer, as if there is but one place the pipe could possibly be. But he asks nevertheless. Or rather, we see the words “NOW WHERE COULD MY PIPE BE?” appear right next to his head in a white thought balloon, structured like a stanza so it reads “NOW WHERE/COULD MY/PIPE BE?”
Given the medium, we are meant to read this as Jon’s thoughts. But the thing of it is… are we sure? Jon Arbuckle, after all, has no voice. It is in the nature of the comic book medium that all its characters are silent. We cannot hear a comic any more than we can smell purple or taste a guitar solo. It is out of the realm of comics to do this. Even people calling themselves Jon Arbuckle sound more like Thom Huge or Wally Wingert or Breckin Meyer.
The truth of the matter is that Jon Arbuckle only exists within the pages of this strip. Indeed, I am only calling him Jon Arbuckle for the sake of convenience as he remains unnamed within the panels of this strip. He is simple a man reading a newspaper, wondering where his pipe is. That is seems like he knows exactly where that pipe is likewise is clear: the pipe is where it has always been and will always be. In Garfield’s mouth. The thought balloon is nothing more than a title for the strip, beyond mere dating.
But then again, if we are to understand this as nothing more than fictions built on fictions, there is but one conclusion we can have for where that pipe could be: nowhere. Because the pipe does not exist any more than the pink background or the city of Troy or a rapping Alexander Hamilton. They are all fictions, stories where the reality of them can only be said to share a name rather than be the same thing.
Ceci n’est pas une Garfield.
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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