This article originally appeared on VICE US.
This Is Fine. is a weekly newsletter from VICE about the personal tactics people use to make the world feel less harrowing. In this edition, Donald Collins finds high art in a cartoon cat. Sign up here to receive an essay about a dealing-with-life strategy via This Is Fine. every other Sunday evening.
Not to brag or anything, but I can draw a likeness of Garfield’s disembodied face in just under 15 seconds. I exercise this power whenever and wherever possible. I’ve left Garfields on chalkboards, classmates' notebooks, restaurant receipts, and bathroom stalls. They are childish, rushed, lopsided, and they never improve in quality. The drawings are bad. Yet I persist, making Garfield a presence both in public spaces and in all my close relationships.
For those unfamiliar with Garfield’s aesthetic evolution since his first appearance in 1978, my Garf of choice is the 1980s to 90s model. Medium-sized oval eyes still within proportional bounds; a puffy jowl that’s not too droopy, but just right. Though his lines may waver, my Garfield clones are placid and unchanging. Their heavy eyelids and closed smile suggest our fat cat’s trademark smugness, but beneath, one can sense distance, conflict, perhaps… melancholy?
Or maybe that's just what he brings to mind for me: He's an avatar of the life I most wanted to pursue growing up, and an expression of my ongoing connection to that part of me. I spent most of my young life in studio art classes, both during summers and the school year, even attending a prestigious pre-college portfolio program. My nascent dream, when I was a kid? To become a comic strip artist. My hero? Jim Davis, of course, the creator of Garfield.
Jim Davis grew up on an Indiana farm with a lot of cats. After years of unsuccessful comic pitches, he hit pay dirt with the sad-man-fat-cat combo, and the strip debuted June 18, 1978 in 41 newspapers across the United States. This information, of course, has been reliably sourced from a handwritten speech I gave in third grade about Garfield:
Davis’s success story showed child-me that making a career drawing stuff was possible—that any artist is potentially one good idea away from becoming a legend. I didn’t understand at the time that Garfield was strategically designed to generate infinite amounts of revenue through merchandise and spinoffs, with an often-indifferent regard for the strip's quality itself. Young Jim Davis had noticed the funny pages featured a proliferation of dogs and lack of cats, so he merely filled the gap. Garfield was a corporate empire, rather than a work of artistic mastery.
I joined the cult of Garf willingly, joyously. I genuinely loved Garfield comics as a child. I thought they were freaking hilarious. By age 10, I had a subscription to the short-lived Garfield Magazine, 30 "Fat Cat 3-Pack" comic collections, Garfield's 25th anniversary book, and a treasury of likely counterfeit Garfield merchandise. A Garfield alarm clock woke me up every day, and, riding the D.C. subway with my mom, I sported a bright orange T-shirt on which Garfield’s face, without outline, blended ominously into the background.
My comic artist–dream died out around age 11, as I became interested in making other artistic media, specifically printmaking and multimedia assemblage. In high school, I could spend upwards of six hours a day in the studio, but even I had to admit I wasn’t sure I knew where I was going. At the time, my plan was simply to make as much art as I could, for as long as I could, because I loved it.
Joining the adult world turned my perception of Garfield’s billion-dollar empire and 200-million readership from inspiring success story to unattainable outlier. A life making art, I thought, likely meant a constant hustle: I pictured part-time jobs and sleepless nights. Leaving the studio signified practicality and future-mindedness. Besides, as everyone reassured me, couldn’t I always do art as a hobby?
My family supported my love and practice of art, but we mutually agreed I would pursue a liberal arts degree of some kind, not one in fine arts. I was assured by teachers and friends alike that this was practical. I went on to earn my bachelor’s in media studies and screenwriting, then entered my current Master’s program in East Asian studies with a focus on gender and media. But now, I wonder, Did I really understand what I was giving up?
Today, as a second-year student in my Master’s program at USC, I find deep fulfillment in my current studies. But studio art was, and will always be, my first and only true love. Still, every few months, I'm paralyzed with regret, scheming for ways to fit a figure drawing class into my schedule, to no avail. Post–high school, I did my best to find other ways to be creative outside the studio by mastering Photoshop and making zines, but, now, my studies demand all my energy and attention. I don’t have time for any substantial commitment to art. Or, I thought I didn't.
Years after my studio retirement, a glimmer of hope emerged like a whiff of fresh lasagna in the oven after a long Monday: Garfield, in his kitsch and cynicism, experienced an ironic renaissance online in the 2010s. I began seeing Garfield’s face in all corners of the internet, from Facebook walls to my Tumblr feed. He was everywhere. This phenomenon picked up speed in 2008, when Dan Walsh’s seminal project Garfield Minus Garfield gradually achieved popularity. BuzzFeed pointed out in 2014 that Jaden Smith’s tweets work perfectly as Garfield comics. In 2017, Twitter user Virgil Texas unearthed a Mental Floss interview in which Jim Davis remarked, “Garfield is very universal. By virtue of being a cat, really, he’s not really male or female or any particular race or nationality, young or old.” Texas accordingly changed the “gender” on Garfield’s Wikipedia page to “none,” setting off an editing war so bad Wikipedia locked the page. Most recently, in 2019, illustrators began re-imagining Garfield as a dark entity who terrorizes his owner with a bottomless hunger for lasagna. The web became a dazzling hellscape of shoddy Garfield memes, content remixes designed to make us laugh as we slog through the collective project of living. It ushered in the avant-garfe.
I thought Garfield and I had parted ways forever, but it turned out that while I may have left him, he never left me. Pawprints in the sand. As a joke, I began telling more people about my youthful Garfield craze, often dashing off drawings on post-its to stick around my workplace, or in friend’s cars and apartments. When drawing Garfield, I start with the eyes. Nose, mouth, ears, cheeks, stripes, and whiskers always last. I don’t color him in; I let the line work speak for itself.
My Garfield drawings reflect none of my rigorous, early artistic training, but they make me feel closer to it, even though I'm still conflicted over the fact that I didn't ultimately pursue my creative education or career. Sure, I may not be the artist painting the new mural in downtown Los Angeles, but I am the artist drawing a Garfield under the sink of the café next door. There’s something comforting about just moving my hand to draw, accessing the motor memory of sketches past. And there’s a sense of pride watching my tiny creations go out into the world, bringing smiles (or eye rolls) to the masses.
Garfield is my horcrux, a way of keeping alive the part of myself that loves art, believes I could succeed at it, and wants to find my way back to that dream. Making Garfs is a tiny, joyful act of resistance against a current life path that has significantly curtailed my access to creative production, which, for so many years, was the very core of my identity.
As Garfield memes continue to proliferate online, my quick-draw misshapen Garfs are no longer an obscure pastime laden with personal symbolism, but a—dare I say cool?—party trick. Sharing Garfield with my friends allows me to wax nostalgic about my time as an art student, too—a past not many people in my life know about.
While the cultural context for my habit has changed, the significance remains the same. Part of growing up is making big choices about what personal timelines to pursue. It's also allowing yourself—even in the midst of a good life—to confront complex feelings over the infinite other lives we might have lived. I can acknowledge that my acceptance of the choice to pursue my current studies can, and likely always will, exist alongside the disappointment that my last decade might have been spent in the studio, but wasn’t. I can deal with all of that, too. I can take it one Garf at a time.
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