Tuesday, September 28, 2010

My Reasons for Hating Garfield

About once a year, I get the inspiration to write a blatant hate post on Garfield. It's not a very remarkable comic, and if it were a webcomic with a small readership, it would be easiest to just ignore and read something I like instead.

But Garfield is frakking everywhere. It's plush toys, T-shirts and mugs. It's still running in many newspapers worldwide - in fact, I think most Finnish newspapers have a Garfield slot too. (The Finnish name is Karvinen, which is a surname, like Garfield. I think they were just going for a similar-sounding name.) Every time I see a Garfield image somewhere, I remember how much I loathe this comic. It's hard to forget.

I know I can't change the environment I live in. Many comic characters live among us in merchandise. I mind it less when it's Peanuts and Snoopy, because Peanuts was an actually creative comic. It wasn't perfect; the later strips were mostly tired, and there were way too many about golf. Very few strips can thrive under "7 strips a week forever and ever", and this one was no exception. But the characters were great, and a lot of the humor and story was character based. It wasn't just setup setup pun, and I think it often expressed some real things about life. It was a philosophical strip. Unlike Garfield, Snoopy is a great character. He's not a human on four legs, and he's not just a typical dog. He's imaginative, a failed writer, a fighter pilot, the friend of a very small bird. He surprises you and makes you smile. This is why I don't loathe Snoopy or Charles Schultz. Snoopy is a fleshed-out character, and he's welcome in my life in the form of toys and greeting cards. There's a breath of life to him.

But Garfield? Even when I read the strip, I feel it's all about the merchandise. It's like Jim Davis took out a notepad and listed what people laugh at: fat people, dumb people, hillbillies, losers. Turning things upside down - a cat who HATES mice! A dog who's dumb! It seems calculated and uncreative, even from the start. Yes, I loved it as a child, because it was easy to get and I liked the art. I wanted a Garfield T-shirt and plush toy, and was upset that my parents couldn't afford them. (Or wouldn't waste money on a fad product; either way, I see the point now.)

I really consider Garfield a "what not to do" guide, if you want to have a comic with artistic value.

Some of my reasons for hating it. (This may not be my only post on the comic, but just to outline my (excessive?) hatred a little.)

Lazy art. 
The characters look cute and are well-drawn. The backgrounds, on the other hand, are a big nothing. Often it's just a wall of one color, with a shadow falling on it, and a straight line for the floor/table Garfield is on. In most strips, there is little to no action, and the images get very similar: talking heads with lots of text. Davis has talent for drawing, but he rarely uses it.

Too few characters.
The strip started out with Jon and Garfield, Odie and his owner Lyman. Lyman was quickly dropped and it was just Jon with the two pets, with no explanation. Mistake number one. This strip really needs more characters, more voices. How much can you do with two talking characters? Odie never speaks, and there's also the issue of whether or not Jon can hear Garfield. (This could be an interesting dilemma, but it's not really played out that way.) I don't think any other comic has had such a small gallery of personalities to draw from. It's definitely a problem if you have to fill 7 strips a week.

Interestingly, the Wikipedia article mentions Davis' motivation for dropping Lyman:

The fourth character, Lyman, was Odie's original owner; he was written in to give Jon someone to talk with. Davis later realized that Garfield and Jon could "communicate nonverbally", and Lyman was written out. 

Right, but in the interest of having different voices, you can't just substitute one character for another. There needs to be some variation. Jon and Garfield's communication is rarely conversation per se. It may be scolding-defiance, or setup-pun, but there isn't a real exchange of ideas.

Stereotypical characters. 
The characters are really stereotypes more than rounded-out personalities. Garfield is fat, lazy, and selfish; Jon is a loser, cowardly and lonely; Odie is dumb and that's all. They are often treated as symbols. How cool would it be if, for instance, Garfield talked back when Jon scolds him for being fat? But as the symbol of laziness and gluttony, how can he talk back? He's a cautionary tale.

It's not funny anymore when you do it a hundred times. It seems like, in later years, the same themes are repeated at intervals: a week of Garfield-swats-a-talking-spider jokes, another of Garfield-and-the-talking-scale jokes, a third of Odie is dumb jokes. I don't think any of these ideas is very funny to begin with, and once you milk them for a few years, there's nothing left. Because really, the spider always ends up dying, and all the scales do is tell fat jokes, and Odie being dumb is really not news anymore.

Unlikeable characters. 
There are kind comics and then there are mean ones. Ones where everybody's flawed and a butt of jokes, but at the same time, they all act superior to each other. Jon acts superior because Garfield is so fat, and Garfield acts superior because he thinks he's smarter than Jon, and much smarter than Odie. Liz acts superior because Jon keeps trying to hit on her - until the day she finally agrees to go on a date with him. And everyone's superior at Jon's family, because they are from the countryside, I mean that's hilarious, right? Really, the only character I like is Odie, because he's just cute and oblivious and never mean to anyone. But he's also very...empty. He never speaks or does much.

There are sweet moments, of course - Jon bonding with his pets, Garfield and Odie having an actual friendship, Jon and Liz liking each other, and so forth. But then they go back to despising and mocking each other. To bring it back to Peanuts, one of the reasons I love it is probably the warmth. That comic has a heart, even if a lot of the jokes are on Charlie Brown. He's sad about it, and it breaks your heart to read that. You're supposed to sympathize with him. He isn't mean to anyone.

I think this all boils down to one thing: lack of creativity. The sad part is, Davis does seem to have some talent, and he had originally pitched a different idea, Gnorm Gnat. It was praised for originality, but no one would publish it because people wouldn't get it. So he decided to go very lowest common denominator with Garfield.

Maybe Gnorm Gnat would have just been dull too, who knows? But I do wish the syndicates had given it a chance. It could not be less creative than Garfield. I'm so glad I live in the era of the internet, when anyone can just publish their comics online. There are many poor strips, for sure, but creativity will be rewarded.

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