I was bouncing around retroCRUSH the other day, when I came across the creepiest comic strip-related thing I have ever seen: Garfield’s death. (Naturally, I have had no luck trying to find the page again. Trust me, it’s there.)
I’m sure this has been blogged ad nauseum prior to my discovery of it, but I shall cover it nonetheless. Here are the strips in question, which ran from October 23 to October 28, 1989 (apologies if they don’t fit):
Clearly, this is something with a little more punch than your average “Garfield is fat, Jon is lame, Odie is retarded” strip. This is about as bizarre and surreal as major syndicated strips can be. There is no humour. There are no punchlines. Garfield is just tossed into a horrific scenario of abandonment and isolation.
The theory regarding this strip, and the one that I personally subscribe to, is that this storyline represents Garfield’s death, almost. As we see in the final strip, beginning with that bizarre close up on a sweaty, hallucinating eye, Garfield has turned to denial. Those third and fourth panels? Denial. Garfield is clearly alone, trapped in an abandoned home, with no way out. Using sheer force of will, he utterly denies his situation, conjuring up familiar visions of Jon and Odie. It follows, then, that every Garfield strip since 1989 is just a continuing hallucination. Garfield’s mind is working at a fevered pace in the moments before death, as he imagines the same scenarios over and over again with painful repetition. His denial is so powerful that he has crammed the intervening eighteen years into the span of a few hours, while he starves to death in the empty house.
Jim Davis, of course, denies everything. In a 20th anniversary collection, he wrote:
“During a writing session for week, I got the idea for this decidedly different series of strips. I wanted to scare people. And what do people fear? Why, being alone of course. We carried out the concept to its logical conclusion and got a lot of responses from readers.”
At least, that’s what it says he says on Wikipedia. And really, it’s only natural that he would say something like that. Because the whole thing was a cover for something far more momentous: Jim Davis’ departure from the strip, and his replacement with some kind of secret ghost-creator.
Please note: I have absolutely no evidence to support this claim. But it makes sense to me. By 1989, Garfield had been running for just over ten years. That’s Jim Davis working, day-in day-out, on more and more jokes about a bloated cat and his dipshit master. How quickly do you think that would get old? By ’89, Davis was already well established. He had Garfield, and US Acres, and was rolling in money from merchandising and cartoon adaptations. He must have woken up one day and realized, “Shit, I don’t have to keep on drawing this tripe. I can hire some halfwit art student to churn out 365 strips a year while I relax on a beach in Malibu.” And so he did. US Acres folded up shop in May, but wasn’t popular enough to warrant Davis hiring a ghost. Garfield, though, was his flagship. He needed to keep it running, if only to keep the character in the minds of the people. But he planned a nice big fuck you to his millions of readers, prior to his departure. He would hit them with a surreal salvo, a brief little storyline so bizarre that his readers would be left scratching their heads for years, or as long as it took them to read the next, comfortably familiar strip. And so, with the October 28 strip, Davis faded into the background, leaving an armada of lawyers to sort out the confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements that would be hoisted upon his anonymous successors.
Don’t believe me? Honestly, when was the last time you read a Garfield strip that hasn’t already been done a dozen times? There are only so many jokes you can tell with those characters, and David told them all from ’78 to ’89. Give the man credit: he established a money-making empire that has spawned animated series, films, and countless car window suction toys. Do you really think somebody that deviously clever would keep himself chained to a drawing table churning out mindless dreck?
Doesn’t it make sense?