Garfield: His 9 Lives came out in 1984. We owned it when I was a kid, and I remember even then finding it odd. Now we’ve received an old copy for my kid as a gift…and it seems even odder.

Like the title says, the book tracks Garfield through his 9 lives, starting as a cave cat and ending up as a cat in space. Which certainly makes sense as far as it goes…and several of the segments are, in fact, more or less exactly what you’d expect — that is, they’re Garfield gag strips with a different time setting. Here, for example, cave man domesticates cave cat:


Cartoony style, professionally accomplished basic slapstick schtick — that’s what I expect, more or less, when I go to a Garfield comic. Similarly, there’s a very funny Three Stooges riff in which Garfield is an exterminator, allowing Jim Davis to get a bit more squicky than he tends to in the funny pages:


Other parts of the book, though, are harder to parse. In the first place, little is done with the conceit of Garfield-through-time; almost all of the stories except for the cave cat and future cat ones are effectively set in the present. There is one story where Garfield is a Viking Cat…but then he gets frozen in a block of ice and ends up in 1984 anyway along with his Viking comrades. This sets up a confused and toothless Mad Magazine knock off, as the Vikings meet the modern day world and end up as factory workers, plumbers, and advertising executives. There’s also a prose story about Garfield as a detective (I guess that does seem vaguely set in the 40s…) and a fairy-tale story with slick computer-surreal art which is too saccharine to discuss further.

And then there’s this:


Yes, that’s an incarnation of Garfield as atavistic monster. I don’t have the equipment to scan the entire double-page spread at once, but basically he’s leaping to slaughter his aged owner.

And the twist-ending horror shocker isn’t even the weirdest of the tales. That honor would have to go to the tale which has Garfield as a laboratory animal who is injected with an experimental drug, escapes from his cage….and then changes into a dog. It’s done in a more or less realistic style, and the whole thing is extremely creepy, from the traums of the vivisection to the apparently painful transformation; even the sort of winking ending (he escaped!) seems very creepy — I mean, surely an animal who this happened to would be terribly traumatized. It all seems very far from the jokey world of the Garfield strips; this is more like 2000 AD twist endings…except that crossing it with a children’s comic strip makes it significantly more, not less, disturbing.

Part of what’s going on here is that Davis is giving the folks in his studio a chance to stretch out. For instance, that creepy, atavistic cat above isn’t drawn by Davis, but by Jim Clements, Gary Barker, and Larry Fentz. The saccharine fairy-tale is written and drawn by Dave Kuhn. But then, the oddest stories — the lab animal one, the atavistic cat one, are written by…Jim Davis. The same Jim Davis who has been writing essentially the same Garfield gags (coffee makes you crazy! cats are lazy!) for thirty years. The same Jim Davis who, when asked to talk about his strip, utters bland profundities like “This whole line of work is to make people happy and smile. Getting paid for is it just a bonus.” If you were going to guess, you’d say that Jim Davis hasn’t thought about anything in particular for most of his adult life. And then you find something like this, or Davis’s appreciation of Garfield Minus Garfield and you start to wonder…

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