Lachlan Mitchell is perhaps the only person more qualified than Jim Davis to speak on the history of Garfield. Here, he tries to explain the evolution of Garfield from entirely stale merchandising behemoth into something we can appreciate, always and forever.
Hi. How are you? Taking care during these interesting times? Sit down. Take a moment. Centre yourself, breathe, allow yourself the possibility to ruminate on the following question. What do you know about Garfield? Think about it. What do you really know about Garfield? What is there to know?
Garfield, both the intellectual property and the cat itself, is famed for being able to be reduced to about four core traits. Garfield is orange. Garfield is lazy. Garfield is fat. Garfield is tamely sarcastic. The comic strip itself can also be reduced to four core aspects. Garfield is the star. Jon is a loser. Odie is stupid. Nermal and/or Liz may appear. It’s not complicated – simplicity is at the core of the Garfield ethos, ruthlessly so. Garfield’s laziness in-universe is born out of the comic’s notorious inability to be more forceful than a slight breeze – it all stagnated before the end of the first comic strip. Though Garfield, as a comic and a surprisingly hefty merchandising helicarrier, has been running for over 40 years, Jim Davis is about as involved in the product these days as you are when you flush a toilet – the pipes guide your shit to the right location, and you forget about it, confident that the ceramic and steel will deal with your waste with total compliance. Garfield is looked over by a team that is rigorously checked over to detect any signs of life, any spark of a soul not strangled by decades of Gen X dead-eyed cynicism. Anyone that still wants to live is shot, and their body thrown into a pig trough. The point I’m trying to make is that Garfield, in every facet of its official presence, is defined by indifference and vigorously defended boredom; aspirations for joy are snuffed out under the weight of Garfield’s tangerine ass, their last breaths entirely choked out as Jim Davis brushes your hair and tells you that it is okay to die.
Which has made Garfield the perfect jumping off point for ironic reclamation these last five years. The success of Garfield as a property is down to that very simple Nintendo principle: instantly recognisable character design comes above all else. Garfield the cat, that bloated sack of a feline, has very good artwork. The kind of stuff any half-way competent company would fight over. Easily moldable for whatever purpose you need, easily identifiable. His dynamic with Jon is the same – Jon is a horny wide-eyed loser that looks like Michael Cera, and they are bonded together for all eternity. Simple stuff known to anyone. It’s not that there haven’t been attempts to mess around with the iron-wrought formula – the movies tried to wink and nudge somewhat, the tv shows have gone for some more bizarre imagery, but they still tried to work within the confines of Garfield’s blandness, rather than eschewing any sense of formula entirely.
Only when the internet, great arbitrator of pop culture, randomly settled upon Garfield as an outlet for surreal humour did he finally rise above his Davis-mandated station in life. He, and all associated with him, became so much more; likeable not in spite of his absence of quality, but because of it. I’m not quite sure when it all started, but by 2015, Garfield had become a meme resource on par with self-described ‘90s kids manufactured adoration for The Simpsons. Garfield became… not cool, but his omnipresence finally became notable.Think about it. Did you care at all about him or Odie before 2010? You may have owned a plushie, or seen the movies, or grown up with the ‘80s TV show, but did you care at all? But now… now Garf is Forever. He’s funny again, because he’s fucking worthless! Finally, the boomers gave us something, outside of most popular music, cinema, and anthropogenic climate change. People realised that there was no real cultural claim to Garfield because, like Jesus, Jim Davis had given us our gift and then left us to our own devices. So he became incredibly easy to play with. Because Garfield has nothing but the previously defined traits to ascribe to him, by the 2010s Garfield existed solely for the purpose of marketing – and so many have taken to it, in increasingly… visceral ways. It was only natural, I suppose.
Two examples of this fascinating brand evolution come in the form of Gorefield, and Garfield Eats. Gorefield is the collective name for horror imagery that transforms Garfield into a deeply nauseating immortal monster, all bubbling flesh and endless hunger. He exists solely to consume and torture Jon Arbuckle, though he may not realise the torture he is inflicting. There are thousands upon thousands of examples of this genre just existing out there, waiting to be discovered, waiting to become part of your life. Many of them can be found on the r/imsorryjon subreddit, a hub for all practitioners of the newest high art. Just as disgusting, though far more rooted in the physical realm, is Garfield Eats. First, a quote from the Garfield wiki: ‘Jim Davis has described the restaurant as “entergaging”, a combination of entertaining and engaging.’ After filming this very rare public appearance, Jim Davis, hoarder of unfathomable levels of gold, then flew back to Erebor to viciously protect his unearned riches. Don’t Google the restaurant just yet. I want you to create an image in your head, and then I want you to compare. Launched in 2019, Garfield Eats is a restaurant brand dedicated exclusively to Garfield-themed food, such as test-tube-bred pizza shaped like Garfield’s head, the lasagna that comes doused in Garfield’s Special Sauce™, the Garficcino and so much more! Locations in Dubai, Toronto, Canada’s London and eventually, London Prime and Dublin! Now you may Google. Of course, I absolutely want to eat there. It looks like it was all made in Jahannam, but it would taste so great. I want to slurp on Garfield’s Special Sauce.
Garfield has become so much more than a dead-end intellectual property, the embodiment of creative sterility and an impressive Borg-style ability to attach to & reproduce itself within the minds of boomers. Now, Garfield is so much more: he has transcended beyond simple ironic reclamation. We love Garfield now, because he has never tried to be anything more than what he needs to be. And for that, we can use him to be anything we need him to be. He’s our friend for mutual benefit, and he has limitless potential. No one is saying that the source material is great. Fuck that. But this is a brand evolution that Branded Twitter Accounts™ try and harness on a daily basis, and miserably fall short of achieving. The emptiness of Garfield is no longer – his gluttony has finally been quelled by our endless meals of love. We have finally given him all that he ever wanted; recognition. Jim Davis has never tried, but he has lived long enough to see that he never had to. Maybe if he did, maybe if he had the slightest grasp of comedic timing, pathos or motivation in general, Garfield would have been different. But then Garfield would only be mediocre. And we can’t love that. Garfield was our Odie – and like Garfield, we don’t want to kick him around any longer.