Garfield, the comic strip, has a bad rap that’s mostly unwarranted. As a popular art form, newspaper comic strips have been in a qualitative free-fall since television began replacing newspapers as people’s primary source of information and entertainment, with a few bright spots like Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side and Bloom County proving exceptions to the rule. Garfield earned a lot of rightful contempt for being among the first that was ubiquitously, inescapably merchandised; the suction-cup car window doll becoming an 80s staple along with mass marketed junk available at every mall in America. Long after Garfield the franchise hit its lucrative peak, the strip continued to hold the same low reputation as the dregs of the newspaper comics pages: the same dozen or so gags, repeated with only minor variation. There’s not a lot to be said in defense of this, as hating Mondays, eating Lasagna, and being slobbered upon by Odie are all staples of the brand to this day.
Despite the endless landfills worth of claptrap, there are still a few points to be made in defense of America’s Favorite Flabby Tabby with ‘Tude to Spare™. While comic strips were going the way of Ziggy or Family Circus in terms of being anemically drawn, saccharinely cute “family” strips, Garfield showed commitment over time to increasingly cartoonish art and cynical humor that, while not terribly sophisticated was often dry and absurd. Sure, total garbage like The Lockhorns is technically “dry” as well but who the hell is The Lockhorns even aimed at, besides elderly people too tired to turn the page? Garfield never aspired to be much more than a comic strip for kids, and as kiddie comic strips went it was a little smarter and better drawn than most.
The cynicism could also be genuinely cutting and mean; in one strip Garfield’s girlfriend Arlene claims the gap in her teeth is a sign of sensitivity, he replies that he’d be “sensitive about it, too.” That’s like The Larry Sanders Show for eight year olds. The development of Jon Arbuckle as an über-dweeb patsy reached such depths of hilariously pathetic behavior that decades later the website Garfield Without Garfield became a sensation by photoshopping Garfield out of the picture to make Jon the star. Hipsters smugly concluded that the editing turned an otherwise unfunny strip into something worthwhile, but comedy superstar Jon Arbuckle was always there – the culture jammers just pushed the spotlight a few inches over to him.
Another bit from the strip that sticks in my memory from when I was a kid was a weeklong series of gags in which Garfield is pelted by pies, thrown by unknown assailants from every possible direction and place. Jim Davis and his staff aren’t the most talented or imaginative cartoonists in the world, but they always seemed to enjoy the possibilities inherent in the medium. Jim Davis eventually signed off on an official Garfield Without Garfield collection, which shows he appreciated the joke or was at least savvy enough to capitalize on the subversion. On the more somber end of the strip’s capacity for darkness was another weeklong story near Halloween of 1989 placed Garfield in a jokeless Twilight Zone style nightmare. This series of strips was rediscovered years later and memed around online, but few kids who read them at the time ever forgot them. I specifically remember a sweaty extreme closeup on Garfield’s dilated eye, and the rare use of an omniscient narrator’s caption for the ominous line: YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW ALONE YOU ARE, GARFIELD.
What these blips on the otherwise even history of workmanlike professional comic strip production that is Garfield betray is that like Walt Disney, Jim Davis is first and foremost a mainstream entrepreneur of cartoon banality, but also a mainstream cartoon entrepreneur with repressed artistic ambitions.
The apotheosis of these repressed artistic ambitions came early in the history of Garfield, with the 1984 book Garfield: His 9 Lives.
The most amazing thing about this book is that it exists. It’s like Walt cashing his chips at the height of Mickey Mouse’s popularity to make Fantasia, but more adventurous because while Disney was interested in allowing his animators to essentially depict Satan for the Night On Bald Mountain segment, they weren’t about to let anyone play around with reinterpretations of Mickey Mouse. In comic book terms, this is Jim Davis and his staff guesting an all-Garfield issue of 2000 A.D. or Heavy Metal, with a collection of stories based on 9 iterations (plus an introductory story) of Garfield along a loose historical timeline. A third of the stories are pretty typical Garfield fare, the other third are unrecognizable as Garfield and the remaining third were seemingly created to frighten small children. They printed it in oversized magazine graphic album size, on glossy paper and in full color. There’s no warning on the cover about how some of the contents might not be suitable for the kiddies, and one imagines the suits at Ballantine Books struggling to understand why Jim Davis wanted to risk controversy by pushing a project where the Garfield version of The Secret of N.I.M.H. wasn’t even the collection’s most traumatizing story.
The book is very much a product of the early 80s – just before the superheroes got serious, but when animation and comic books were nonetheless producing more exciting work in the wane of Disney’s dominance and ascendency of underground comics – comics like 2000 A.D., Heavy Metal, Cerebus the Aardvark and Elfquest, and animated films like Watership Down, The Last Unicorn, Rock & Rule, Twice Upon a Time or the late-period studio films of Ralph Bakshi. I think Jim Davis, or the people working closely with him, took a look at what was happening and seized the moment to do something alternative with the mainstream character they owned. Like most of the aforementioned comics and films, Garfield: His 9 Lives isn’t for very young children but isn’t quite for adults either: it is precisely for kids who are just getting to be old enough that they’re just a little too old for Garfield and are perhaps ready for graduation to, say, Mad Magazine, where adolescent mischief and dark irony awaited.
Garfield himself appears before each chapter to quip about the forthcoming story like your standard anthology host, but the straightforward preface by Jim Davis himself is the only statement of intent about this book’s genesis, then or now – one has to assume it wasn’t commercially successful (how could it be?) since there’s never been so much as a second printing:
Garfield was created to entertain. Given that and our feeling that there’s a lot more to Garfield than a seven inch newspaper format will allow, the artists at Paws, Incorporated, and I put the furry fellow on the rack and stretched him to the limits of our imaginations.
It occurred to us there were elements of Garfield’s complex personality that may well have been established in his previous lives…a cat’s proverbial “nine lives.” It was an exciting premise, one which consumed the staff and brought out the best in everyone. Many all-nighters and hundreds of hours of conceptual discussion went into this book.
This is a different book. It is dedicated to the Garfield philosophy of pure entertainment. I am also dedicating this book to the staff whose talents and courage made this bold statement possible: Neil Altrekruse, Gary Barker, Kevin Campbell, Jim Clements, Doc Davis, Larry Fentz, Mike Fentz, Valette Hildebrand, Dave Kühn and Ron Tuthill.
The cover reads “By: Jim Davis” but aside from his writing contributions, this was mainly the result of all those artists listed in the preface, who also get credited at the start of each story so you know exactly who did what. The opening story “In the Beginning” is a riff on the Paws, Incorporated staff themselves, using Fumetti traced over with caricature and fluorescent 80s airbrush colors. The hazy scene conflates the creation and design of Garfield with the creation and design of cats themselves, according to the boss’ grand idea. Yes, Jim Davis is your God.
The first “Lives” story is a caveman tale starring Garfield as a cave cat. Despite Davis’ pronouncements in the preface about how Garfield’s possibilities shouldn’t just be limited to the seven inch newspaper format, Cave Cat follows the same rhythms as a Sunday Garfield strip for seven pages to unsurprising comedic results, with some noticeably handmade but unimaginative use of color. The most interesting aspect of the chapter is how brothers Mike and Larry Fentz are credited (with Davis) on art duties. It’s immediately apparent that they’re among the staffers who took Davis’ itchy, B. Kliban style designs from the strip’s early days and finessed a more appealing “house style” for the mass market. The chapter feels rushed – if you look closely you can see many stray pencil lines.
The second chapter, The Vikings, is a real tour-de-force for Mike Fentz. The story by him and Davis is about Garfield as a viking pet being unfrozen from an iceberg along with his human viking clan in St. Paul, Minnesota circa 1984. Fentz and Davis push themselves to write for a more comic-book and less comic-strip kind of script, and Fentz has a lot of fun setting the vikings on the loose in the 80s, with solid figure construction, funny character designs, expressive poses and use of color. The era of Frank Frazetta worship amongst illustrators shows its influence with the character of Helga the valkyrie, and her skimpy attire is the first inkling that not everything within the book may meet with your mom’s approval when she thumbs through it at Waldenbooks.
The third chapter hits the first peak of experimentalism with Garfield the pop culture and comic strip icon: a text story (with illustrations) detective noir parody, Sam Spade with cats (“Sam Spayed” here, natch.) The script by Rob Tuthill is funny but not really Garfield-centric; there’s no references to lasagna or Mondays or any of those tropes and since the illustrations are black and white, you don’t get the visual cue of an orange cat, either. He’s not even named Garfield. This is truly off-brand material. Artist Kevin Campbell’s photorealistic humanoid cats in 1950s Los Angeles are startling and uncanny. It’s very neat.
As if to reassure the younger readers who skipped past all that daunting text, chapter four is another pleasantly silly Davis/Fentz Brothers riff. The Exterminators, an homage to The Three Stooges with a nearly unrecognizable Garfield as Moe and two unnamed cats as Larry and Curly. The pacing and drawings are wackier than Cave Cat and the piece’s only real flaw is that it’s just a little too short on gags – it has a funny beginning and ending but no middle.
Now, the next three chapters are where things get weeeeeird.
Lab Animal, with a story by Davis and art by Gary Barker and Mike Fentz (showing he can do more than just the funny animal style) is more or less Jim Davis’ The Plague Dogs. An orange cat escapes from a science lab and nearly dies, but carries a secret that allows it to escape. Realistic rendering, dramatic use of color to create atmosphere and, notably, the first chapter in the story wherein Garfield (or his analogue) has no dialogue or narration. A short but moody thriller, well done.
Taking a sharp left turn with the next chapter, The Garden is a pure auteur piece – one of only two chapters with both story and art credited to one author, in this case Dave Kühn, and it’s Garfield going full Lisa Frank. There’s not much to say except that it’s pure 80s candy colored sludge, professionally executed but aesthetically indefensible, even from a nostalgic point of view. A girl frolics in a trippy magic garden with another unnamed version of Garfield, who is totally superfluous to the non-story written in calligraphy above their heads. Of interest only to scholars of the decade’s more dubious trends in graphic design.
Chapter Seven is the piece de resistance, the one that everyone remembers above all others, the one most frequently excerpted for clickbait like “Top Ten Totally Insanely Dark Moments From Your Childhood That Actually Happened But You Won’t Believe Actually Happened Please Click This Article Or My Children Will Starve!” Even Garfield himself warns you in the prologue that this is going to be the scary one. Barker and Fentz return on art duties from Lab Animal along with Jim Clements, and the art looks much the same but with sketchier inks and more abstract backgrounds to heighten the horror. Also as with that prior story, the stand-in for Garfield is a silent, realistic cat and the narrative is almost purely visual. It’s a great little seven page horror story that would fit in any decent horror comic collection and is all the more arresting for being slipped into a Garfield book. Jim Davis must be a secret horror fan – between this, the 1989 Halloween psychodrama and the well-produced 1985 animated special Garfield’s Halloween Adventure, which The Onion AV Club interviewed Davis about here. And, indeed, His 9 Lives was an October release.
The penultimate chapter resets the Garfield universe back to status quo with what in today’s parlance is called a soft reboot: an official canon origin story about Garfield being born in an Italian restaurant, adopted by Jon Arbuckle and introduced to Odie. The page layouts and color design resemble the Sunday newspaper strips, and the art by Gary Barker and Valette Hildebrand is on-model to the strip as well, so you’re left wondering what the point was of an unremarkable Garfield story with a longer page count – besides, presumably, satisfying the publisher that there’s at least one normal Garfield story amongst all the weirdness.
Crisis On Infinite Garfields concludes with the other auteur turn, a chapter written and illustrated by Jim Clements called Space Cat. Where The Garden was at least stylistically idiosyncratic, Clements doesn’t stray far from the standard Garfield art or comedy, simply putting Garfield on a spaceship for some anti-gravity and artificial intelligence jokes that probably weren’t as stale in 1984. The backgrounds are especially fun, with lots of detail in the spaceship interiors and space vistas. The only unconventional features are how dense some of the dialogue balloons are and how Garfield is sometimes shown speaking with his mouth open.
Garfield: His 9 Lives may not have been a smash hit, but there’s some quality work on display and a legacy of sorts: beyond the infamous Primal Self being rediscovered by the Internet, there was also a 1988 animated version of the book which, with a few segments switched out for new ones, attempted an anthology with different animation styles akin to Heavy Metal the movie. Garfield the pop culture icon didn’t try anything radical in the subsequent 30 years – the abysmal film versions with Bill Murray were certainly retrograde. However in 2014 Boom! Studios used their monthly Garfield comic book series as the platform for a four-part remake of Garfield: His 9 Lives, hiring a diverse group of cartoonists to get creative, including Brittney Williams, David DeGrand, Roger Langridge, and a 2000 A.D. artist (Frazer Irving) remaking Lab Cat – which definitely brings the project to a conceptual full circle.
If you’re old enough to appreciate Garfield: His 9 Lives, you’re too old for Garfield the comic strip. But if you grew up enjoying Garfield as a kid and want one Garfield book to keep on your shelf to reminisce with – one that’s not in that inconvenient rectangular format – this is the one.
Writers, Jim Davis, Mike Fentz, Ron Tuthill, Dave Kühn, Jim Clements; artists, Jim Davis, Mike Fentz, Larry Fentz, Kevin Campbell, Gary Barker, Dave Kühn, Jim Clements, Valette Hildebrand, Doc Davis; publisher, Ballantine Books.