Garfield: You are not Immune to Propaganda

Grant Hinders, Garfield Lover

We all know Garfield. The lovable sunday morning cartoon cat that has blessed the pages of local newspapers for almost fifty years. He is an All-American classic, and a staple of Western culture. But, it wasn’t always like this. Before the mass marketing of the early 80’s and the widespread syndication of the strip, there was a time when Garfield was virtually unknown. He was merely a sidekick to the real star of the strip, Jonathan Arbuckle.

Now let’s take this back, way back to the year 1975. Jim Davis, the creator of Garfield, was working as a cartoonist assistant in Pendleton, Indiana. For the last four years he had worked on his comic Gnorm the Gnat with little critical or commercial success. He decided that bugs just weren’t cutting it. Something needed to change, and he made sure it did. After taking a look at popular comic characters throughout the Sunday papers he realized that there was a lack of cats as main characters. There were plenty of dogs, and humans, but Jim Davis saw an opportunity and he seized the chance to create something entirely new.

After his revelation, Jim Davis spent nearly a year creating and perfecting a multitude of characters, for this new comic. This included an eccentric room-mate, an annoying dog, a lasagna loving cat, and a depressed cartoonist. Finally, on January 8, 1976 his new comic was released to the Pendleton News.  Now you may think that I’m talking about the world-famous comic strip Garfield, but it wasn’t. It was something different, strangely familiar, yet fundamentally unique.The strip that was released on that fateful day in 1976, was Jon by Jim Davis.

Ilan Gavrielow

Generally believed to be lost media, copies of the Jon comic strip was rediscovered only a year ago by a YouTuber the name of Quinten Reviews. These early comics are often referred to as the prototype of the Garfield comics that subsequently wouldn’t be released for another two years. However, I believe that these early comics are something more than just a premonition of what’s to come. I believe that Jon, in some ways, is better than the actual Garfield strip itself.

The main fundamental differences between these two comics is quite obvious when you take a look at the two series.. Jon is, as you guessed it, about the everyday life of cartoonist Jon Arbuckle. Every character set in this universe from Lyman (the roommate), Garfield, and even the viewer is created to react to Mr. Arbuckle.  It is primarily for this reason that I believe that Jon is infinitely better than Garfield. Jon Arbuckle represented the human element that is desperately missing in the later comics. He was a sad, struggling cartoonist that lived with his roommate and with a fat cat and an excitable dog, Garfield as a character was originally a comedic foil, an absurd element in Mr. Arbuckle’s rather boring life. However, when the focus switched from Jon to Garfield, the whole dynamic was irreparably changed forever. The human heart and experience was sidelined, and replaced with wacky feline antics.

Let’s first take a look at the visuals of both of these projects. From an outside perspective, Jon pales in comparison to its successor with its lack of color and muppet-esque art style. However, I find something almost endearing in the ragged pages of rather crude illustrations. The strip is messy, it’s basic, but since the comics visuals are rather plain; the comedy and emotion within the stories are able to really shine through.

On the other hand, the Garfield comics are very polished and full of color, which I believe actually hinders the strips storytelling ability. Sure the line art is clean, and the comic actually has colors, but the whole environment seems rather dead and devoid of originality. Almost every modern Garfield cartoon features a two-tone background and two main characters, which in theory is not awful, but after forty years… things start to get old and stagnant.

Ilan Gavrielow

Whereas Jon’s plain backgrounds accentuate the human elements in the strip, Garfield’s backgrounds are unnecessary and lend into the timeless absurdity that is Garfield as a brand. In both of these comics, the art style dictates the mood of and tone found within both of these projects.

In Jon’s case the simplified art style is weird, but I find it exemplifies the mundane absurdity of the situations and the strange humour present in the strips.

This might be a bit controversial, but I don’t think that the Garfield comics are all that funny. Now I’m not saying that Jon is a brilliant stroke of comedy gold, but I think there is a certain self-awareness that was lost in syndication. With Jon Arbuckle as the main character, he  is allowed to interact with Lyman, who is his roommate, and to the audience.

Now, this is a very distinct difference between the two projects. With Jon being able to interact with us, the reader, it adds another layer of both humor and familiarity with this character. It is true that Garfield also speaks to the viewers in the early comic, but it’s not the same. Garfield as a character is rather abstract in concept.  I mean c’mon, he’s a cat who loves lasagna, so when he talks to the readers the sense of realism is gone. However, when Jon speaks, he is talking as a friend, as someone who is based in reality rather than absurdity. 

Whatever the case may be, If Jim Davis continued to expand and flesh out his characters, I believe that the Jon and the Garfield series as a whole could have morphed into something truly great. It could have gone beyond the pages of the daily news. What we got instead was a fat cat who hates mondays, and an owner who is all alone, talking to no one. He waits everyday in an empty two-tone house with his fat cat hoping that someday, someone will talk back.