Funny Papers

Last night I walked by the humor section at work, as I do at least a dozen times a day, but this time I paused because a Garfield book was out of place. I picked it up, flipped it open, and thumbed through the pages. It was the first collection, where Garfield looks weirdly misshapen through about half the book and slowly morphs into the familiar cat we all love (or love to hate).

When I was a child, I sat in the Trumann Public Library every afternoon after school and read their comic collections from cover to cover. I was also a fan of the Time Life books and the Disney annuals, and sometimes I’d wander into science fiction, but I pretty much stayed in the left-hand corner as you walk in the door, right past the model of Old Ironsides, the USS Constitution. At the time, I didn’t know a Talbot had once steered that ship, but it wouldn’t have meant much to me anyway. Just a handful of years later, I would be on the opposite wall perusing (and I do mean perusing, fuckers, look it up) the works of Stephen King and Michael Crichton, but in elementary school I was more interested in the adventures of a particular orange cat.

Back in the bookstore yesterday, I read strip after strip without much effect until I came to one where Garfield accidentally jumps into a toilet, and here’s the kicker: It was a short, weekday strip which would have been printed in black and white, but there in the book the “SPLOOSH” was lovingly rendered in yellow ink. That, combined with Garfield’s “I hate Mondays” in the last panel really tied it all together.

In my later Cedar Park Elementary years I discovered The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes, of course. I hate to even mention the works of Bill Watterson lest you all collapse in jizzheaps of orgasmic self-satisfaction at being fans of the greatest comic that ever was or shall be. Man, fuck you, Bill. I suffered through the goddamned documentary where a guy travels to libraries and museums to pull out newspapers and prints featuring Watterson’s work and view them with all the awe and wonder of Indy in the map room. Bill is hiding somewhere in the Midwest and burning his oil paintings, the most noble artist. Whatever.

As for The Far Side, it is beyond reproach. I envy the kids these days who get to do book reports on things like Diary of a Wimpy Kid or whatever Raina Telgemeier’s most recent relevant work is. I tried to do a book report on a Larson collection in fifth grade and I got my ass handed to me by one of those teachers who looked and acted 60, but I’m sure she was actually 32. The same crone gave my brother a D for turning in a brilliant short story about three ghosts named Moe, Larry, and Curly, who were, as he put it, “Zestfully Dead.” Sometimes that phrase hits me in the shower and, thirty years later, I have a good chuckle.

As products of 1978, Garfield and I share a special kinship. I could read not long after the 1980s rolled in, to the glee and excitement of all my relatives. This was probably also my downfall, because speed of development doesn’t have too much correlation with the point at which someone peaks, so while Little Bobby Talbot, Boy Genius, would soon become Bob Talbot, Idiot-Man, the general expectation of automatic greatness was set early. Sorry to disappoint you, fam.

The old folks would often sit me on their knee and ask me to read the funny papers, since that seemed both appropriate and challenging enough for a toddler, and I guess I gravitated toward the adventures of Jon Arbuckle and his sassy cat. The dotted-line Family Circus comics always seemed like an adventure, but what the fuck was Mary Worth?

Later, I’d seek out Jim Davis’s fresh takes at the library, and I even got into US Acres for a while when ol’ Jimmy couldn’t keep up with my lust for more original grumpy-cat action. There were other tomes there that I wish I could find online, like a huge, taped-together hardcover on the history of Popeye. I know way too much about that salty sailor and his Thimble Theatre friends, and I have the handful of taxpaying citizens of Trumann, Arkansas, to thank for it.

They also had an even thicker, even more taped-together fat black book on the history of comics in general. It started with the Yellow Kid, and the Katzenjammer Kids, but it also introduced me to other classics like The Spirit, Krazy Kat, and The Red Tornado. I don’t remember the collection’s exact title, and my Google-Fu has failed me so far, but I’m sure someone else out there read this thing. I cherished it, and if I could find a copy online for under $100, it would be mine by tomorrow.

It is something strange to see the lasagna-loving cat I studied so much in my youth bandied about in memes and edits, but I don’t take too much offense. It is a testament to the enduring work of Jim Davis. You don’t see nearly as many Peanuts memes, and the Calvin and Hobbes ones are often saccharine, but if I remember my Žižek properly (he was either quoting Mao or disagreeing with him, but I digress), an ideological battle is won when the enemy starts using your language. Now that religious fundamentalists explain superstition in scientific terms, it is only a matter of time before they’re engulfed by rational thought, which they don’t have to accept, but they’ll still be forced to describe their denial with our words.

It is the negation of negation. When you claim to loathe Garfield or at least be bored by it, yet you continue to describe life and humor with its imagery, it has already penetrated to your core. There’s a strange ennui about the comic, a depth many miss until they remove dialogue boxes or work it into live-action plays or YouTube poops, and for all the complaining about Garfield, almost forty years later you are still complaining about Garfield. Slavoj may not be right about everything, but he’s hit that one square on the nose.

My kids are aware of Garfield, mostly in cartoon form, but they’d rather watch The Real Ghostbusters. Lorenzo Music voices characters in both, so perhaps there’s something about his benzo’d Bill Murray delivery that appeals to children. In any case, I’m glad they at least tolerate a thing that was once so important to me. I suffered through enough dark, tediously boring afternoons of Peanuts cartoons at Granny’s house to know what it’s like to just not feel it. I know some of you have fond memories of good ol’ Chuck, and I don’t seek to shit on them, but to me it was all grey skies and WWI fantasies, screaming beagles and irrelevance. I wanted to watch Sesame Street.

Dat Vince Guaraldi, tho.

I had a ratty, orange, stuffed cat I dragged around the house and yard on adventures. It was my buddy and my constant companion, though the doll now rests in some box, I am sure, in a sequel to Toy Story 3 that doesn’t end in donation or incineration. Consider it, perhaps, an alternate ending 10 minutes into the film where the correct container gets put into the attic. Time to gather dust, roll credits.

I had something you wrote about, Mr. Watterson, and for all the slutty merchandising, maybe I had it because Jim Davis didn’t hide his light under a bushel. Maybe you wrote about something only someone else could provide. Your comics are a history, and they are history, but all the beauty and insight in the world sequestered in your cabin, torched in the woods, do not touch what was striped and sour and droll and mine.

I had a friend, and my friend’s name was Garfield.

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