Permanent Saturday: All cats can see futures, and see echoes of the past
With deepest apologies to Chris Stangl, Permanent Saturday is a semiregular critical exploration of Jim Davis’ comic strips Garfield and U.S. Acres/Orson’s Farm.
In Garfield, the space-time continuum is an arrow that moves from left to right. Movement across comic panels corresponds to movement through both time and space and, while it is often played with, the law itself is inviolate. So Garfield’s physical positioning within the strip itself reinforces the central joke of this strip: With his eyes closed, the cat faces left and declares that he is “contemplating the future”. But because he is facing left he is, in fact, looking into the past. Indeed, as this is the first panel, he’s looking so far into the past it extends into his own prehistoric deep time, as the only thing to the left of the first panel is the first border of the strip itself, the boundary of his own reality. Garfield realises his mistake in panel two: Note how while he’s still facing left, his eyes are now open, and, as this is the second panel, he is explicitly gazing into his own immediate personal history.
(My fellow Alice Aficionados may catch some subtle Looking-Glass motifs here that also tie into the central joke, but while Garfield can and does play with Alice on occasion, I don’t think it’s as pronounced, or really relevant, in this particular instance.)
The unfolding present only becomes the past once we stop to reflect on it (and let’s flag that to return to later). The first punchline, the humourous dissonance and absurdity of a cat who can’t tell the difference between the past and the future, is subsumed and undercut by the winking acknowledgment of the rules and realities of comic strip time. And indeed, without missing a beat, the feline sage delivers a second by confessing that his pasts and futures “look a lot alike”.
The two biggest criticisms of Garfield and Jim Davis’ writing are, curiously enough, the two most mutually incompatible. According to its critics, Garfield is somehow simultaneously a boring, unfunny, patronizing hack job blatantly only written to cynically pander to cat owners and start a merchandising empire that has been this way since day 1 *and* a brilliantly subversive postmodern deconstruction of the comic strip medium that used to be hilarious and cutting edge in the 1980s and early 1990s but stopped being that at some point. Whether this cutoff point is pegged at 1995, 1997, 2000, 2006, 2008 or 2013 tends to change depending on who’s making the argument at any given time, and that there are so many dates given is probably telling. But Jon’s last name is Arbuckle, not Schrödinger, and Garfield can’t be both at once. The strip has outlasted all of its critics and attacks, and is well aware of the reputation it has amongst the comic strip intellegentsia, hence jokes like this one: Garfield’s pasts looks a lot like his futures (and his presence: Note how he’s staring straight ahead, out of the strip and at us, in that last panel) because not much in his world ever changes.
Not that nothing ever changes in Garfield: Supporting characters will come and go, and reoccurring gags will be introduced, stay awhile, and eventually fade away. And in spite of what its reputation as an out-of-touch dinosaur would have you believe, Garfield is one of the only comic strips that is extremely diligent at keeping up with the times-Jon’s electronics and appliances always match what the average lower middle class person in the United States might be expected to have at that particular moment, and the strip is very good at keeping on top of current slang and cultural trends surrounding those selfsame technologies. And if you archive binge Garfield the way I do, you might start to notice how any given strip will generally appear to slot very nicely into the cultural context it was written into *without* actually coming across as dated, such that archive binging remains pleasurable. And that’s an impressive accomplishment no matter which way you look at it.
But the world of Garfield is simply not one where epoch shifting changes occur on a regular basis. You’re just not going to find sprawling myth-story arcs or a fetishization of character development here. Nor, really, should you: That’s not a format that would be eminently desirable in a newspaper comic strip. Though I suspect most Garfield fans probably read the strip online these days (the ease of accessing every single strip in the comic’s nearly four decade long history at the touch of a button, a concept Garfield itself pioneered, ironically contributes to its reputation for stagnation because it removes the distance that would otherwise allow individual jokes to fade from memory) its original home was the newspaper, a medium whose disposability is built into it by default.
Newspapers and newspaper comic strips are not prestige entertainment. People read them to kill time before work, or on lunch breaks, or in the evenings before dinner. Garfield is part of the workaday routine that we live through in the moment, but that will soon fade into into the morass of history we trudge through on autopilot and that we didn’t decide was important enough to remember. That’s what the world of Garfield is ultimately about: Those rote, boring moments where we get up, get ready for work, feed the cat, decide what we’re having for dinner that night, or vegetate in front of something mindless on TV at the end of it all. The strip itself is not boring or banal, it is *about* boredom and banality, and this is the perilously razor-thin line it always must walk. And yet almost because of this, there is a soothing familiarity to Garfield. Because it’s a story about everyday people in everyday situations wherein nothing much ever changes, it is very easy to empathize with and go back to in a way that’s comforting, albeit in an ever-so-slightly perverse way. A case could be made it’s almost comparable to Japanese iyashikei in this regard.
Although Aristotle was onto something when he posited that we are drawn to narrative because of its simulacrum of reality, in reality, our lives do not play out like a three act structure where the present moves from past to future, ending in a grand finale. And those people who believe theirs do are dangerous. It is much more accurate, in my experience, to suppose that existence is one constant, unbroken now of experiential presence. We only experience that which we call time in the present, because the present is all there ever was and all there ever will be. “Time”, as we think of it, does not exist. There is no rule stating that the laws of physics only work in one direction and quite a lot of evidence, in fact, to suggest that the quantum decoupling we experience as time only happens once it is observed. The unfolding present only becomes the past once we stop to reflect on it, and Garfield can only understand his past when the first panel gives way to the second and he looks back.
But Artistotle’s point still holds here to some extent. While it doesn’t really fit his model of narrative, Garfield is a reflection of reality and that’s why we like it. It is, in fact, a far better and clearer one than it tends to get credit for being, because it’s a far better and clearer one than people are comfortable with accepting. The idea that life is nothing more than what we make it right here and right now because now literally is forever is immensely liberating, but it is also horrific and overwhelming. When you look back on your own life, how much of it do you actually remember? What percentage of your corporeal existence in this form is comprised of memories, happy or sad, and how much of it was actually spent on the mundane and banal grind of everyday life that, while a toil on us, will inevitably fade as days turn into months, years and decades with us doing the same things over and over again? How much of your life have you spent punching the metaphorical clock at work, doing the dishes, planning dinner, shopping for groceries or slumped in a stupor of boredom and exhaustion after a long, hard day of just existing in our chosen lives and worlds? And what will you do with your life once you know?
Original Strip: October 3, 2016
Garfield: U.S. Acres/Orson’s Farm
October 12, 2016 @ 9:26 am
Cor, bloody hell this is good work. I don’t have anything useful to add. but thanks, looking forward to more.
Also, I’d be very interested in your take on Calvin and Hobbes if you ever fancied it.
October 12, 2016 @ 1:30 pm
“The strip itself is not boring or banal, it is about boredom and banality, and this is the perilously razor-thin line it always must walk.”
In other words, it’s raised boredom to an art form.
“It is much more accurate, in my experience, to suppose that existence is one constant, unbroken now of experiential presence. We only experience that which we call time in the present, because the present is all there ever was and all there ever will be. ‘Time’, as we think of it, does not exist.”
Just ask Alan Moore. 🙂
October 12, 2016 @ 5:21 pm
Garfield’s pasts looks a lot like his futures
I admit that I misread this as “Garfield’s pasta…” and wondered if you were about to make some comment about lasagna being multi-layered.
And I definitely agree with your general thesis. I have often assumed that the reason people devour “celebrity” autobiographies is because they at least have days that don’t just instantly disappear into the black hole of nothingness. And we envy that.
October 13, 2016 @ 8:25 am
I remember being maybe twelve, thirteen, and delivering newspapers, and Garfield would frequently send my preadolescent self into gales of laughter.
I saw your first post though and was like, what? But this is a really interesting project. Hooked.
October 13, 2016 @ 10:10 pm
I believe Garfield has had just one epoch-changing shift; Jon starting an actual relationship with Liz the vet, thereby removing “Jon has bad luck with women” as one of the tools in the Davis repertoire.
I think this originally happened to tie in with the movie and then stayed as something that happened even though the movie wasn’t terribly popular. (Probably because a CGI Garfield who looks like a cross between a Garfield soft toy and Tim Burton’s Cheshire Cat, interacting with real animals, is even freakier than the CGI Scooby-Doo.)