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.
Wade Duck is a pantophobe. Or rather, this is how the other animals on the farm see him: As a sad, pathetic soul who has an irrational fear of everything. And indeed, when Orson’s Farm is adapted for Saturday Morning Cartoon TV as the backup segment of Garfield and Friends, the series gets a great deal of mileage out of this concept. One of the show’s most iconic and defining motifs is having Wade, perfectly voiced by the legendary Howie Morris, hilariously overreacting to any number of insignificant things, ranging from caterpillars to caraway seeds to jelly doughnuts. Sometimes, wildly implausible things, like finding a band of bagpipe players hiding in the closet, or “being attacked by talking flashlight batteries during a potato race”.
But that’s not quite an apt description of the Wade who appears in the actual Orson’s Farm comic strip. Wade as written by Jim Davis is indeed afraid of most everything, but there’s a critical difference here: Wade is afraid of literally everything because literally everything has his number. Wade is a cosmic plaything akin to Wile E. Coyote except on an even grander and more exaggerated scale: The laws of nature and the very logic of narrative will warp, contort and distend in grotesque ways in order to make sure that Wade Duck and Wade Duck in particular suffers. Wade will sing “Home on the Range” and get attacked by the animals and objects in the song, because fuck Wade Duck. Booker and Sheldon will build a pretend set of train tracks out of sticks and, through pure accident, summon. an actual train that will collide with innocent bystander Wade head on because fuck Wade Duck. Wade will slide down a slide, then reverse direction and slide back up the slide and get launched into orbit in complete defiance of every law of gravitational physics because fuck Wade Duck.
It’s like what they always say about paranoia. It’s not really paranoia if everything actually is trying to kill you.
The choice of the telephone for this strip is therefore somewhat deceptive at first glance, as all great Garfield and Orson’s Farm jokes ultimately are. A common, everyday household object, Wade’s evident dread of it seems like a typical Garfield and Friends gag: Silly Wade is afraid of completely innocent and inoffensive things. And this would make sense, especially as, given the mid August 1988 publication date (and even accommodating for the strips’ lengthy advance writing), while Garfield and Friends would not have yet been on the air, it was almost certainly late in development and Jim Davis and Brett Koth absolutely knew everything that was going on as it got closer to launch. But there are a number of different ways we could read this: Perhaps, since Jim Davis originally conceived of Orson’s Farm as a way to affectionately satirize his childhood growing up on a rural Indiana farm, Wade is being naive and provincial. He believes the horror movie he’s watching on TV about murderous telephones is a literal description of a true event, so he panics when he gets the harmless and unrelated phone call.
But let’s not forget that in the comic strip, as we have established, Wade is rarely afraid of something without good reason (and even in Garfield and Friends, Wade tells Roy in one short that he’s not afraid of everything, “just the things one should be afraid of”). And telephone anxiety is a very real affliction people actually do suffer from. Perhaps, like many working class people in the real world, Wade is only used to getting phone calls for bad news or intimidation purposes, like for appointments or collection agencies trying strongarm tactics. But that’s not what the context of the strip would seem to imply: No, Wade really is afraid of “killer phones” and has come to associate the telephone as a concept with death and murder. Why?
According to Avital Ronell, the telephone “marks the place of an absence”. By redefining notions of place and identity, it challenges our concept of self and constantly relays us to an absent other. In this way then, the logic of the telephone can be said to employ a “hermeneutics of mourning”. In fact, this goes all the way back to the device’s invention (or at least, what history says was the telephone’s invention, as it’s altogether possible Alexander Graham Bell stole the research notes from another inventor’s expired patent): Alexander Graham Bell’s partner Thomas Watson was a poet and a spiritualist medium who explicitly believed in reincarnation and the possibility of communicating with the dead. Indeed, he saw the telephone itself as one potential way to do just that, and he often spoke of it in spiritualist terms. So the telephone, by definition, emulates the act of mourning by connecting us to people we cannot be with. It is the logic of the unattainable, the unreachable and the departed: The voice of the dead that keeps us trapped in the mental state of loss and grief.
But the telephone is also the voice of the oppressor and the propagandist (and this is your operator-please hold, you are being transferred). Those collection agencies who keep calling you with sternly worded empty threats, and those doctors who keep calling you to reprimand you for not making appointments on their schedule. As Ronell also points out, during World War II, the Nazis used the telephone as a method of surveillance (in the first “Double Oh Orson” episode of the Orson’s Farm cartoon, Orson imagines him and Wade in a James Bond-style spy novel, and Wade is afraid of his office being bugged. With both “list-tening devices” and actual bugs) and a vessel for literal propaganda. The Germans relied upon voice and broadcast; when deciding which technologies to press into service to their racist agenda, they made the choice to use telephone and radio. “The Call” in this case is not just a call from the absent beyond (and note how, in this strip, we “hear” the phone before we see it), but from absent fascist authority. We are “called upon” to take action because a distant and intractable authority coerces us to do so. A call to arms, a call of duty. So perhaps not a murderous phone then, but a genocidal one.
So what of Orson? Although typically pegged as the hero of the strip (it is, after all, his name in the title) and a lovable “friend to all living things”, there are times in which Orson displays a rather shocking coldness and lack of empathy, coming across as rather insensitive, self-centered and dismissive. This would seem to be one of those times: Orson displays that signature Garfield look of knowingly stoic and ironic disapproval in the last panel, apparently completely incapable of empathizing with Wade’s pain and anxiety. Well, what do you expect from a pig who spends his days absorbed in his own escapist power fantasies?
And as for Wade, Wade does the only thing Wade can do. He runs in terror to escape the creeping undead techno-fascist horror of the telephone. The call that is, of course, for him. We don’t get to see him break through the barn (is there something to that visual metaphor, I wonder?), and this is a very common trick Jim Davis uses a lot in both Garfield and Orson’s Farm: Once again mobilizing the place of absence, Davis prefers to show the empty space where an action has taken place or is about to take place instead of the action itself. Denying us the visceral and voyeuristic thrill of a lurid spectacle, Jim Davis’s worlds are about downtime and the space between, those fleeting and forgettable everyday moments between our memories that make up the majority of our lives.
And yet…Our last panel for the day falls on a literal empty space where a Wade Duck used to be. A place of an absence. The phone call was for him.