Entertainment

How Garfield Spawned Some of the Internet's Weirdest Memes

Garfield has been in our cultural vernacular since 1978, but only recently has he been transformed into a harbinger of doom.

by Luke Winkie
Jul 25 2019, 12:49pm

Composite image by Lia Kantrowitz

A colossal eldritch Garfield is mounted on a rocky acropolis somewhere in the midst of a violent ocean storm. Bubbling orange flesh and tangled tentacles drip down his body; lightning cracks in the distance; his eyes emit ultraviolet light. In front of him, perched on his knees, is Jon—dressed in his usual blue collared shirt—soaking in the end of the world.

Everything goes black. Garfield shreds the fabric of time and space, and briefly Jon witnesses the entire breadth of human knowledge, every Monday past, present, and future, before his cat scours the multiverse to find another dimension to devour.

This animation was created by a Reddit user named Dylan Greene, who lives in Arizona and works in 3D modeling. Last month, he posted it to a subreddit called r/imsorryjon—a community dedicated to a bizarre, Lovecraftian interpretation of the Garfield canon; a universe where this lasagna-addicted orange tabby is also the source of all evil in the world. Scroll through, and witness a truly bewildering body of work: Garfield merging consciousnesses with Jon; Garfield hacking Jon's memories; Garfield stomping through a leveled metropolis, admiring his work. It represents the apex of Garfield's bizarre infiltration of internet culture. Memedom is inherently difficult to track, but nobody could've expected it to land on the most inoffensive newspaper comic in the world.

"The internet has a snow-globe effect. It morphs into a hive mind. It grabs onto something and changes it. I think Garfield is a good character for that because everyone knows him," says Greene. "Movies like The Avengers are so well-defined; they wrote those characters and that's what they are. But with Garfield, it can be broad. There's no tight narrative. It can be expanded on, it can be made weird."

Garfield's most famous turn as a meme was back in 2008, as part of Dan Walsh's legendary Garfield Minus Garfield blog. Every day, Walsh would photoshop the namesake cat out of the strip, leaving a delirious Jon Arbuckle babbling to himself in his empty apartment. Compared to the mind-melting horror of r/imsorryjon, Garfield Minus Garfield was fairly benign. (It doesn't recast Garfield as, say, an angry god.) But it did establish several genre tenets for every Garfield meme to come; namely, by magnifying the plainspoken bleakness of Jon's existence as a single, lonely man, subjected every day to the casual cruelty of his cat.

And honestly, there's an element of that dread in every fantasy the internet spins about Garfield. 2007's Lasagna Cat, created by the team at Fatal Farm, was a web series in which the cast acted out feeble Garfield strips verbatim, in order to let each muted, withering punchline hang in the air. Garfief, a viral animation from 2013, dreamt up an MS Paint interpretation of the strip, in which the hellish lives and poisonous relationships between the characters are exposed for all to see. In 2018, the video game website Giant Bomb embarked on one of the most Sisyphean stunts imaginable, as they resolved to play through the Garfield games that had the misfortune of making it to market.

Cameron Schott hosts a podcast called Garfield Forever, in which and he and two of his friends construct close-readings of old, bad Garfield comics. The sheer ambience of the Garfield canon is natural leverage for humor, explains Schott—the fact that the newspaper strip has been whirring away for generations, completely independent of shifts in taste, passion, or culture.

"[Garfield] was always popping up in my life. I would acquire these Garfield comic collections somehow, and I had Garfield toys and things that I don’t think I ever bought or asked for," continues Schott. "So he was kind of on the periphery of my childhood, like a shark circling chum."

It is within that void where Garfield memes thrive. The comics have filtered through the world daily since June 19, 1978, which has made Garfield one of the most recognizable mascots in pop culture history. Still, I've yet to meet a true Garfield superfan, or even a Garfield connoisseur. Within the venerable demographic that newspaper funnies attract, other strips like Peanuts, Calvin & Hobbes, and The Far Side are held in greater esteem. Garfield is more ubiquitous (and probably more profitable) than any of those franchises, but Jim Davis has never earned the same artistic credit as Charles Schulz or the cult-classic respect bestowed on Gary Larson. Instead, Garfield's legacy is this impenetrable corporate force that will continue to sell T-shirts, mugs, and pepperoni pizzas for eternity without anyone even realizing it's still happening. You can understand why someone like Schott was drawn to the majesty of its empire.

"It’s really funny to over-analyze him and try to dissect his relationship with Jon and to go down this rabbit hole," says Schott. "I like the idea of treating Jim Davis like James Joyce. Garfield is his Ulysses."

Wyatt Duncan feels the same way. He's the comedian who's probably profited the most from Garfield, thanks to the popular Garf Gab podcast, which is similar to Garfield Forever, except that Duncan focuses specifically on recaps of the Garfield & Friends show, a cartoon which originally aired in the 80s but continues to echo out in syndication forever. Like Schott, Duncan doesn't hold any hatred toward Garfield, or Jon, or Jim Davis. Instead, he is instead simply confused by the characters' invulnerability; their immunity to time. "[Garfield] has this formula, they have this cycle and it's never going to change," he says. "I think [we're] just commenting on how weird that is."

Duncan compares Garfield's place in culture to that of Shrek, another wildly successful children's property that's been slowly reconquested by shitposters. His logic is sound; both Garfield and Shrek are touched with a distinct, unshakable phoniness, an appeal to the lowest common denominator—be that a hatred of Mondays, or a Smash Mouth cover of "I'm a Believer." "You can sense the cynicism of Shrek the same way you can with Garfield. It doesn't feel like it's as authentic as the early Pixar movies," adds Duncan. "Once you get older, you realize that it's a little bizarre that something so weird was able to get so big."

You have to wonder what Jim Davis thinks about all this. For as much fun as the internet has with the character, Garfield remains his property. The strips remain in active development, and Garfield continues to flesh out his mundane corner of the universe, completely isolated from the vibrant psychosis of r/imsorryjon. Paws. Inc, the corporation responsible for Garfield, has made some ovations to the memes in the past—they released the Garfield Minus Garfield book as an officially licensed product—but that will probably never happen for something more caustic in nature, like GarfGab.

So how does Jim Davis reconcile the fact that Garfield, as a brand, means something completely new and sarcastic to a certain generation? How does he feel about the way the character has been hijacked and taken off the rails? We wrote to Paws. Inc, and miraculously, Jim wrote back.

"I enjoy seeing other artists interpret Garfield," Davis said. "Often they’ll reveal something about the character that informs and enlightens me. I’ve always been interested in seeing the character adapt to different mediums. He’s evolved over the years in large part to adapting him for television, video games, movies.

"I don’t know that I’ve cherished all the renditions of Garfield on the internet. Some go too far and venture into obscenity, and that bothers me because there are a lot of kids out there innocently searching for Garfield who run across images that are pretty depraved," continued Davis. "I guess you can say I take it in stride.

"Our intellectual property attorney—well, that’s a different story."

This article originally appeared on VICE US.