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Garfield Minus Garfield
posted January 13, 2010


Creators: Jim Davis, Dan Walsh
Publishing Information: Ballantine Books, softcover, 128 pages, 2008, $12
Ordering Numbers: 9780345513878 (ISBN13)

It's hard for me to find an entry point into this one. I only barely paid attention to the "Garfield Minus Garfield" effort when it was an Internet sensation, bringing six- and seven-figure audiences to it host web site. I recognized how clever it was; it just didn't interest me. As Jim Davis was a family friend growing up, I'm also not surprised that his reaction to the phenomenon was genial and solicitous in nature. Perhaps alone among the people known to my parents in their wide circle of acquaintances, Davis maintains the good-guy aura he seemed to have when I was a kid and would watch the adults interact. This book version seems to have been made possible by Davis generously allowing this newly-discovered "other side" to his work find as wide an audience as possible, even the traditional print one. Unfortunately, I'm not certain this was a one hundred percent good idea.

As Dan Walsh explains in his introduction, Garfield's owner Jon Arbuckle leads a bleak existence, one full of frustration and failure, the cumulative effect of which he seems blissfully unaware. Most of us don't notice Jon's desperate situation because we're watching the cat. The fact that Jon has a cat as the primary audience to his general fecklessness works in his favor in that we grant the cat the license to be a witness in comic-strip terms, to make fun of what he sees and orient ourselves towards Jon's state as something entirely his own fault. A different perspective on what comic strips do -- and why -- allows our view of Arbuckle to readjust. If we take the cat out of the equation, as Walsh did to great effect over time, we more easily see Arbuckle as flat-out disturbed: there's something about interacting with nothing that's far more spooky than thinking the cat understands us. Thinking our cats understand us on some primordial level isn't just a cartoon effect; it's a human one.

Where Garfield Minus Garfield the book fails to work except as a novelty item can be found in the fact the original strips are included in close proximity to the originals. This is either an arrangement allowing what Walsh has done to see paper publication, or a choice made on the work's behalf, I couldn't tell you. Either way you end up with a distracting visual element that obliterates the drip-drip horror of seeing Jon's awful-seeming life unfold itself right in front of your eyes. Including the unaltered strips also dampens everything down, in the way that seeing Dana Carvey do his impersonation of President Bush I while President Bush I is in the same room felt tamer than when he'd do it on late-night TV. John Belushi impersonating Joe Cocker standing next to the singer aside, having original performer and satirical take in close proximity almost always tones down the outlandishness of the event, much more so than simply being assured that the two actors or agencies involved have a friendly relationship. Reading a whole book of work operating on that level is pretty slow going. One thing that did become clear is that the book neither adds to or takes from Davis' reputation as a gag-oriented cartoonist on a comics page devoted to amusing verbal interplay and the occasional instance of slapstick. I would say there are still some mysteries here, just maybe not any that are best expressed on paper.