The following article ran in the comics journal a while back.
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Jim Davis
Garfield Minus Garfield
Ballantine Books
128 pages/color
softcover/$12.00
9780345513878

Jim Davis
Garfield: 30 Years of Laughs and Lasagna
Ballantine Books
287 pages/color
hardcover/$35.00
9780345503794

Garfield should be better than it is. Jim Davis is not and has never tried to be a great artist, but he is a talented cartoonist,. Flip through Garfield:30 Years of Laughs and Lasagna and you will see slapstick humor executed with hyperbolic panache (Odie’s tongue stuck to an ice-cold street lamp and then stretched across an entire Sunday spread is a stand-out.) You’ll read some solid schtick: (“Irma, is this tea or coffee?” “What does it taste like?” “It tastes like turpentine.” “Oh, that’s our coffee. Our tea tastes like transmission fluid.” Badabump!) You’ll even find the occasional moment of surreal brilliance (on an island vacation Jon’s palm-frond skirt is devoured by an infestation of leaf weasels.) The visuals are inventive and flexible; Davis is able not only to draw, but to render instantly recognizable, everything from a Baroque archway over a mouse hole to a Mongolian mime fish — the last of which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like it should be. In other words, all the elements are present for consistent, day-in, day-out, high-quality laffs.

Alas, it’s that very consistency which ultimately drags the comic down. Not that Garfield never delivers; I chuckled more than once while reading through this book. But three decades is a long, long time. To remain entertaining over that span, there needs to be change as well as continuity. Charles Schulz managed to go on, and on, and on by continually introducing new characters — Lucy, Linus, Woodstock, Peppermint Patty, Sally, Rerun, Spike — and revising old ones like Snoopy. Berkeley Breathed and Gary Trudeau had continuity; their characters existed in a loose but ongoing storyline which helped to place even repeated gags in different contexts.

Garfield, though, was, right from the beginning, more in the vein of crotchety warhorses like Beetle Bailey. There’s a fat, sarcastic cat. There’s Jon, his hapless owner. Shortly thereafter there’s Odie the stupid dog, and a few other ancillary characters — Irma the waitress, Nermal the cute cat, Pookie the teddy bear. And then that’s it. For ten, twenty, thirty years. Reading through this collection, the repetition across the decades is first amazing and then numbing. There’s one wow-coffee-makes-you-bonkers! gag…and then there’s another…and, yep, it still-makes-you-bonkers! It’s telling that when Jon finally, finally, after twenty-five years gets a girlfriend, it’s Liz the veterinarian, the sardonic woman he’s been pursuing almost that entire time. Another writer might have…I don’t know, made up a different girlfriend who hadn’t already shown herself entirely uninterested? Not Davis, though. Why draw somebody new when you’ve got a perfectly good character design just sitting there?

Davis shows the same level of creative attention in choosing his 30 favorite Garfield cartoons for the end of this volume . He predictably picks the strips debut…and after that one, he seems to make his selections entirely at random. They’re all just decent gags, like any other decent gag. Of course; what else could they be? The strip has no milestones, no events. Not only is nothing happening now, but nothing has ever happened, or will ever happen. It exists in an eternal amnesiac present.

This is what makes www.garfieldminusgarfield.net such a brilliant coup. In the last few years, some Internet users and bloggers started to digitally remove Garfield from the Garfield strip, leaving only poor Jon Arbuckle talking to himself. In 2008, Dan Walsh, an Irish musician and businessman, took the idea to the next level, systematically altering strips and posting a new one every day.

The result is that Garfield’s greatest weakness — its monotony — suddenly becomes a strength. Hammy sit-com vaudeville turns into Beckett — which makes it both more poignant and a hell of a lot funnier. Jon and Garfield threatening each other with sock puppets is fairly amusing; Jon brandishing a puppet at nothing and then sinking into utter lethargy is absurdist genius. Even the art is startlingly improved. When you take out the main character, the strip suddenly starts to use negative space as if it had taken an intensive design class. A three-panel sequence will often have two squares of nothing; just a primary color and a single line defining a table top. When he does show up, Jon is pushed to one side of the panel or the other, dramatically isolating him. Visually, it’s daring and funny, and perfectly captures the emptiness of Jon’s sad and lonely existence.

Walsh’s site became an internet sensation, and then began garnering mainstream attention as well. Soon enough Davis discovered it. To his eternal credit he didn’t issue a cease-and-desist order; instead, he co-opted it. The result is Garfield Minus Garfield — a book featuring Walsh’s de-felined efforts next to the original Davis strips which spawned them. Davis even tries his hand himself, personally eliminating the cat from several of his own comics. In fact, once he started with the erasing, Davis enjoyed it so much he employed it on the book’s cover as well, cheerfully blotting out Walsh’s byline. Garfield Minus Garfield claims that it is “by Jim Davis”; Walsh is credited only with the introduction, and as the creator of www.garfieldminusgarfield.net.

In some sense, Davis is right to claim full credit. What’s most fascinating about this volume is that it shows the extent to which Walsh’s transformed strips are true to Davis’ vision. Indeed, the majority of altered strips feature Davis’ jokes, essentially as he wrote them. It is Davis’ Jon who has spent thirty years without being able to find a girlfriend; it’s Davis’ Jon who stays home alone on Friday nights playing with Scotch tape or staring vacantly at the wall. It’s Davis’ Jon who says, “What is the purpose of life?” and then hits himself in the face with his own ice-cream cone. Walsh isn’t engaged in détournment; instead, he’s creating brilliantly inspired fan-fic. As Walsh himself notes in his introduction:

“…Jon has always been talking to himself. Garfield never really answers because his replies are always just thoughts… Jon has always been telling us these things; it’s just that with Garfield there you’ve been distracted from the truth: Jon needs some help!”

So Davis is an underappreciated genius then? Well, no…not exactly. Walsh is right that Jon is talking to his cat…but then Garfield’s not a real cat. He’s a cartoon character. Though his words are always in thought bubbles, he and Jon clearly are able to communicate much more effectively than I can talk to my two Siamese. When Jon and Garfield are together, they’re a routine; with Jon as the eternal straight-man for Garfield’s dead-pan zingers.

When Walsh takes Garfield away, though, you lose that stand-up frame, and have to start thinking of Jon as an actual person. In many cases, what this gives you is simply the slapstick without the final snarky putdown. “I had a pretty good day today. (Beat.) Once I got my leg out of the bear trap,” works pretty much the same whether or not you have Garfield around to add “Jon never disappoints me.” The Davis-created Garfield Minus Garfield strips in the second part of the book are almost all of this sort; the joke is the same in both original and revised strips.

Walsh takes this route too sometimes. But the best of his efforts are the ones in which Garfield was more intrinsic to the original gag, so that, when he is removed, Jon is left overreacting to nothing but his own troubled psyche. Thus Jon takes a sip of soup…looks horrified…and then collapses weeping. Jon lies on the floor…and lies on the floor…and lies on the floor. Jon says, “Do you have any unfulfilled dreams?” and then sits there silently for two panels. In at least one instance, when Jon seems a bit too witty, Walsh gratuitously removes a punchline.

The point is that the genius here is Davis’ — and it also isn’t. Borges has a short essay in which he argues that Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat was greater than anything either could have done alone. “[F]rom the lucky conjunction of a Persian astronomer who ventures into poetry and an English eccentric who explores Spanish and Oriental texts…emerges an extraordinary poet who resembles neither of them.” Something like that seems to have happened here as well. Davis is an aesthetically dicey mainstream cartoonist; Walsh is a wannabe rock-and-roller who never hit it big. Together, though, they are, as Borges said, an extraordinary poet. Erase Garfield and you are left with a Davis who is just the same, only funnier.