Some of you may already be familiar with the so-called “Death of Garfield” comic strips from 1989. But Pete’s excellent posts on the cat inspired me to look at them again, and they are freaky.
I promise, the comics you are about to read are completely real. To put these strips in context, here’s the Sunday strip that ran before the weirdness…
Sunday, October 22
Perfectly harmless, whimsical fun. Perhaps bit more surreal than normal, with the Seussian menagerie. But no one could have expected what Monday would bring…
Monday, October 23
I’m sure thousands of people stared at this strip for hours, looking for the punchline. And notice the severe cross-hatching in the background, and the off-kilter angles of the door. We’re clearly outside of the traditional visual and storytelling worlds of Garfield.
Tuesday, October 24
Let me point out that this IS late October. Davis is clearly trying to do a Halloween storyline, so that’s a partial explanation. On the other hand, this seems like a very un-Garfield take on Halloween. In fact, when I was a kid, I owned a book-length Garfield Halloween story. It was not like this at all. It mostly involved Garfield trying to amass candy.
Wednesday, October 25
In the Garfield 20th Anniversary Collection, Jim Davis included a brief note about these strips:
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. Reaction ranged from “Right on!” to “This isn’t a trend is it?”
Thursday, October 26
Now it’s a little more clear what’s going on. This is supposed to be Garfield’s worst nightmare brought to life. He’s been abandoned – and not only abandoned, but abandoned for years, lost beyond all hope of recovery. It’s surprisingly deep of Davis to acknowledge that Garfield’s deepest fear isn’t a lasagna shortage, but the absence of the people he often heaps abuse upon.
Friday, October 27
When I’m faced with a story that seems vaguely familar, I consult Television Tropes. It’s an open-source encyclopedia of plot devices.
This Garfield arc is pretty much what they call a Cuckoo Nest scenario. That’s when a character awakes in an insane asylum, and is told that the world that they believed was true is just an elaborate fantasy they’ve been trapped in. (I don’t know if this technically qualifies, since Garfield is not in an asylum. But it’s close enough.) The person (or cat) is then forced to choose which is real – the world they know, or the world where they’re insane. Sometimes, this is resolved when it turns out the insane asylum thing was just a ruse by their enemies. The more twisted version has the person partially or completely convinced the insane asylum world is the real one, but choosing to retreat back into fantasy anyway. That appears to be what happens to Garfield…
Saturday, October 28
The extreme closeup on Garfield’s sweaty red eye is probably the single strangest frame in the history of American comic strips.
There are two ways to interpret this story. Either Garfield was having a nightmare about loneliness, and he finally wakes up and things are back to normal. OR… more disturbingly, and thus more compellingly, Garfield really is in some sort of parallel world, and it drives him insane. The final two panels are taking place behind that bloodshot, crazy eyeball. If you want to believe Option B, note that Jon isn’t waking Garfield up in bed. Garfield just finds himself in the middle of a normal scene, with no acknowledgment that he was sleepwalking or crying out in terror.
This ambiguous ending resulted in a lot of people hypothesizing that every single strip after this one takes place in Garfield’s feverish imagination, as he slowly starves to death alone. Jim Davis laughs at this idea.
What I find particularly interesting about these strips is that the Cuckoo Nest page lists a ton of examples of similar plots… the LARGE majority of which came AFTER Garfield. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Smallville, Charmed, two Star Trek series, two Stargate series, etc. It seems like in the 90’s, the dam burst and every fantasy or sci-fi show had to include an episode where the main character questions his or her sanity.
Am I suggesting that Jim Davis inspired a generation of TV writers? Well, let’s keep in mind that Cuckoo Nest wasn’t exactly his invention (it appeared in The Twilight Zone, and even The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (which is also a possible inspiration for the drawing style of these strips)). But in any case, we can give Davis credit for being ahead of the curve. He had Garfield questioning his sanity before it was cool.
Anyway, after six days of Sartresque horror, it was back to business as usual for the Sunday strip.
Sunday, October 29
But can we really enjoy that light-hearted vignette, or any of the hundreds that have come after it, knowing that we might still be locked inside that red eye, spiraling ever deeper into madness, waiting for a Tuesday that will never come?
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