Sunday, November 29, 2015

Reader's Diary #1220- Jim Davis, Dan Walsh: Garfield Minus Garfield

I'll give Jim Davis and Ballantine Books credit for their business savvy. In 2008 Dan Walsh managed to get the world's attention with his parody website, People, it would seem, wanted the cat out his eponymous comic strip.

But Garfield Minus Garfield, the book, is credited to Jim Davis. Granted, they do include a foreword by Dan Walsh. In this foreword, Walsh admits getting nervous as his site began to get noticed. (Incidentally, Walsh didn't come up with the idea of getting rid of Garfield either, but he certainly was the most prolific with his results.) Would Jim Davis sue?

Davis probably could have, but whether or not he would have won is up in the air, parody laws being what they are. But even if he could have won, I'm not sure that would have been the greatest publicity. No, instead Davis let it slide and capitalized on it. Smart choice. I can't say I'd have had much interest in reading a Garfield book at this point in my life, but it's an interesting premise and here I am.

Like most kids from my generation, I read Garfield strips now and again when I was a kid. Truth be told, I was more into Heathcliff. But in hindsight, I think I just had a thing for underdogs (or undercats, as the case might be) because Heathcliff wasn't actually any funnier than Garfield. (As an aside, I was also more into the GoBots than the Transformers.)

On that note, I can't say that Garfield Minus Garfield is much funnier than the originals. Much has been said about Jon, Garfield's owner, appearing more crazy without the cat there. But, as Walsh himself points out, it's not like Garfield ever talked back. He's always shown with a thought balloon in comparison to Jon's speech balloons. And really, is talking to oneself all that much crazier than talking to your cat? If they really wanted Jon to look psycho, Garfield could have been replaced with a half-eaten sandwich, getting moldier as the strips progressed. Or better yet, remember Jon's old roommate that went missing, Lyman? How about if Jon was always talking to Lyman's severed head, floating in a transparent bag of ice water?

Granted some of the Garfield-less strips are funny, I suppose, but I found it more interesting as an art project. I like found poetry and mashups and this, to me, feels in the same vein as those. In many scenes Jon comes across as quite sad. Without Garfield's sarcastic commentary, the reader is forced often with long awkward pauses— to focus on Jon's mental state. He comes across as a much more sympathetic character, rather than a punch line, in the process. Of course, he also seems out right nuts at times, too, but you feel at this point that all things considered, he's entitled to a break down every now and again. Those points, I'll concede, are amusing.

Ballantine has published these with the original strips underneath for comparison purposes. That's a great idea, but occasionally it shows how Walsh cheated a bit on the idea. In one original strip, for instance, Jon and Garfield are having a sock puppet battle. In the final scene, the pathetic-ness of the situation occurs to both at the same time. Garfield thinks it's Jon's fault for not having dates that they have to play such games, Jon asks, "Wanna go get pizza?" However, in Walsh's take, he's also removed Jon's question at the end, resulting in a speechless scene with Jon and a defeated look on his face, holding up his sock puppet in silence. Sure it makes him look sad, but he should have been asking "Wanna go get pizza?" It still could have worked; it would have looked like he was asking this of his sock puppet, thus making him look even crazier. But I suspect it didn't fit into Walsh's more common statement, i.e., that Jon is depressed.

A supposed reason that Garfield Minus Garfield was such a hit is that Garfield is shown as kind of pointless to his own strip. Again, this was another good reason for Ballantine to include the originals. While this does appear to be true in some strips, it's certainly not all of the time. Garfield often works as a straight man, and his reaction to Jon's strangeness is necessary. At other times, he's actually the protagonist, not simply a target for Jon's musings and complaints. In one Garfield-less strip, for example, Jon comes strolling by, walking upon his fingertips with his shoes tied together and back around his head. "Mister funny man!" he yells. True, the Garfield-less one works: Jon looks like he's gone completely off the deep end. But the original works as well. In the first panel, Garfield is thinking, "I'm not tying Jon's shoelaces together anymore." The next panel, he continues, "It's too dull." And finally, in the third, Jon comes by as described above, and Garfield concludes, "I'm forging new frontiers." I liked such comparisons the best; when each strip represented two very different ideas, without pointing out any weaknesses in the other.  

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