Permanent Saturday: The Call of the Wild
Garfield is made great by the thin line it walks between comfort and banality. The strip is defined in equal parts by both concepts, and it’s impossible to have one without the other. Indeed, when it is one, it is so precisely because it is also the other at the same time. Like everything about Garfield, its running gags play into this: We expect to see them and thus enjoy the thrill of recognition when we do. And while the strip can dispense a seemingly endless series of variations on the same handful of setups, the structure itself must always remain fundamentally comforting, familiar, recognisable and, necessarily, banal.
Like the Wise Man of the Mountain we looked at last time, Garfield’s Echo Point is a running gag whose setup is based around one of our characters (usually the cat in question) interacting with an unseen aspect of Nature outside of the panel. And this time, it’s a comedic double-act built out of a literal call-and-response. Garfield reads the sign, understands that this is a place where echoes can be heard and meows into the canyon awaiting some kind of answer. Usually he gets one. In these strips then Garfield is more often than not playing the straight man again, with the punchline coming in the form of the comedic response the echo provides him with.
An echo is a captivating, almost magical thing. It’s a disembodied sound, sometimes your own voice, reverberating off of the surrounding landscape and coming back to you in such a way it seems as if it’s materializing out of thin air. Or, perhaps more accurately, as if it’s coming back to you from somewhere across the horizon. This is, after all, the sensory experience of an echo: The feeling that there’s someone somewhere in a faraway land who can hear what you’re saying, is listening, and responding back in turn. And yet, they can only respond by repeating what you yourself just said, as if they are your own ghost or shadow-self. Garfield itself has already explored this sensation, having the punchline of one Echo Point strip from a Sunday in 2011 be two cats meowing to each other from across the canyon’s expanse, with neither aware of the other’s existence. Cleverly, the Echo Point backdrop in that strip is mirrored across the divide between the final two panels, with Garfield and his interlocutor walking away marveling at the natural wonder. For of course, neither can see what or who exists beyond the boundaries of the comic strip panel’s border.
This time, the response comes in the form of a text message on Garfield’s smartphone (there is the inherent ludicrousness of a housecat owning a smartphone, but Garfield stands in for the modern human. Isn’t it just as ludicrous that statistically everyone has one of those things?). On its own, a telephone can be read as a suitable metaphor for the sensory experience of an echo: An unseen, perhaps even ghostly, presence on the other end of the line is listening to and interacting with you. But these days of course, very few people use their smartphones to actually call each other, preferring instead to respond in curt, emotionless text messages. (so emotionless, in fact, that we had to invent an entirely new pictorial language to express our emotions because we don’t do so with words anymore). Garfield’s expression of depressed resignation in the last panel says it all.
(On a tangential note, this strip is an excellent example of how Garfield‘s minimalist art style is really a strength. Over the course of the panels, we get a rundown of the major default facial expressions used for Garfield and many of the other characters: Happy, surprised and neutral. Note how, especially for the “surprised” and “neutral” expressions, an almost infinite amount of meaning can be projected onto these faces depending on the context. And what do you think it says that Garfield’s default, neutral expression is also his expression of sadness, exasperation and depression?)
And it’s little wonder. Perhaps it’s just me (and it may very well be), but I always feel a profound lack of passion and connection with contemporary text messaging. There’s the constant sense that the person on the other end doesn’t really want to talk to me, but is only responding begrudgingly out of obligation. And it is an obligation, as people these days are slaves to their smartphones, social networks, blogfeeds and website subscriptions. The constant torrent of notifications and alerts compels people to stop what they’re doing and react in an attempt to get “caught up”. The smartphone demands our attention; its notifications intrusions into our routine that constantly remind us how our individual lives are less important than the industrial machine we have a servile relationship with. But just as the products of capitalism delude us into thinking they make our lives simpler, easier and more convenient, we delude ourselves into thinking we have control over the products of capitalism. We will never, ever be “caught up”: The content industry (and indeed, consumer electronics) relies on an unrelenting stream of newness, and in that cycle we will forever be playing catch-up.
Perhaps this is why Garfield is sad. He feels his friend on the other side of the Echo Point canyon isn’t respecting their relationship enough to actually converse with him. Even he only texts anymore. Like everything else since we elected to permanently tether ourselves to computers and the Internet, friendships and personal relationships are just another notification to attend to and clear in our neverending quest to chase the dragon and get caught up with our own lives. And what’s particularly dour here is the fact that this, like so much else in Garfield, is a relationship built around natural patterns and rhythms. Poetic embellishment aside (though not out of sight), an echo is a natural phenomenon. Once more, emergent natural patterns have been reshaped around human modernity: It’s gotten to the point where even our own echoes have to text us. Or perhaps there’s another interesting mirror joke going on here: Garfield’s echo would by definition by a version of himself and, as we see in the second panel (a mirroring of the “call” from the first panel?), Garfield himself has a smartphone. So naturally his echo does too.
Or perhaps it’s that Garfield himself is his own echo, a revelation with several interpretive layers we could potentially unpack, should we be so inclined. Speaking strictly scientifically and unimaginatively, Garfield is very much in a sense his own echo, for his echo would be a reverberation of his own voice. And Garfield, as a strip, could be argued to “echo” itself: It has a set handful of themes and ideas that are in its wheelhouse, and revisits them like clockwork (“punching the clock”?) day after day. This even applies to the notion of running gags themselves (which, in hindsight, makes the idea of a running gag based around echoes a particularly perceptive bit of self-metacommentary). But just as real echoes are oftentimes faint and “distorted” in some way (due to geological and acoustic forces, an echo is hardly going to sound to the speaker exactly the same as when they spoke it) these same themes, concepts and running gags, though reliable and predictable, are never presented to us in the same way twice. Hence the endless variations on things like the Echo Point running gag.
But regardless, Garfield does still get a response, even if it is absurdly (and perhaps bleakly if thought of in a certain light) a text message of an echo. And if we think about it, is this really so unusual and concerning? Humans are a part of the ecosystem just like any other creature, and there has never been a point in history when the rest of the natural world hasn’t reacted to human presence and human actions. There’s no such thing as a pure, untouched and unspoiled wilderness (and there’s a line of thought we could go down, but I won’t here, about the framing of wild places in conservation and expansionist rhetoric both as “pure and virginal”) and never has been. Garfield‘s entire premise is built around the juxtaposition of the natural and the modern. Nature adapts just as it should, just as it always has, and just as it always will. That is the lesson the housecat, who rankles at the thought of being “domesticated”, teaches us. It’s also worth remembering one more time the Echo Point joke’s status as a running gag: It’s very rare for running gags to be phased out or retired completely, as by their very status as running gags they must reiterate their familiar structure in perpetuity for the comfort and benefit of the readers. It’s sure that Garfield will be back on this cliff someday meowing into the chasm below, and it’s sure he’ll get some humorous response to his inquiry in return.
Garfield looks down dejectedly at his phone. It’s just another day.
Original Strip: November 14, 2017
November 30, 2017 @ 4:56 am
Your comments about trying to “catch up” with the world around us struck me as particularly apt as I read this wonderful post, as I split my time between enjoying your work and worrying about my other obligations.
John G. Wood
November 30, 2017 @ 9:24 am
I don’t yet have a smartphone, just a cheap brick which does calls and texting (but literally text, no emojis). I usually remember to check it a couple of times a day. I look at my email every two or three days, and Facebook maybe once a week.
The ironic thing is that I’m probably lurking here or looking at (the nicer parts of) Gallifrey Base far more often than any of the above…
November 30, 2017 @ 11:59 am
I understand why you feel like that about text messaging and social media and you’re certainly right about the negative consequences they sometimes have… but I just can’t see it that way.
I’m not sending text messages because I don’t really want to call someone, I’m sending them because I’m at work and can’t call. Or because it’s pretty late and I don’t want to wake anybody up in case they’re asleep. Or because I just have a quick practical question that doesn’t require a long conversation. Or because I don’t want to intrude upon someone’s day, demanding their attention with my phonecall – they can respond to the text, or indeed read it, whenever they feel like it. Or perhaps because I have something important to say and I want to both take my time composing the message and give the other person time to process it. You know, like we used to do with paper letters.
And above all else, if it wasn’t for text communication, I would be much more miserable as a teenager. A small town in the middle of nowhere, peers I didn’t really have that much in common with. I met some of my best friends through message boards. I fell in love with a girl who was half a world away thanks to instant messaging programs. I’m texting her right now. Not because I don’t want to call her but because when she wakes up she’ll have something to smile about.
Aside from that, an interesting and well-written post. Thank you.