Posts Tagged ‘garfield’


The Set

I’m a big fan of backgrounds in comics. I think they get neglected, for the most part because there is so little space. But a few well-placed background elements make for a more expansive world. It’s amazing how far a well-placed shrub or cactus will go to setting a scene.

Garfield succeeds because of, not in spite of, it’s minimalist nature. You rarely see a background. You see the single line representing the counter, or table on which Garfield and his co-inhabitants live. If Jon needs to make or receive a phone call, there is a phone. If Garfield is sleeping, there is a box for his bed. It would be scary to picture a real house of solid white walls and waist-high counters, but this is the world of Garfield. It works because of Jim Davis’ writing style. If he wrote florid, descriptive dialogue, well maybe there could be more decoration in the drawing. But as it is, there’s really no need. The drawing does everything the writing sets out for it.

I like to include background elements into each panel, unless I’m doing a close-up or a very emotional scene. Since I don’t care about continuity, I like to change the elements around on purpose. I like to think that the characters are walking around and so you’d see different views of the surrounding desert each panel. Sometimes I’ll deliberately move around the same background elements. When I do that, I think of the characters as being on a theater stage and the stage hands keep shifting the sets for no reason. On a recent comic, I had two plants and two mountains. In each of the three panels I shifted them just a bit – not drastically, but enough so that they don’t look like I’m trying to make them look the same. Do I do this out of boredom? I know I hate drawing the same picture over and over. But I’m also not going for realism in my stories, so why go for realism in backgrounds?

Krazy Kat was the comic strip that did this best. When I saw the original drawings at the Cartoon Research Library, it made perfect sense why. Herriman was writing a fantastical strip, and drawing solid, unchanging backgrounds wouldn’t have jibed with the writing or the characters. It made sense, in the terms of the strip, that a house would morph into a plateau then into a tree. Nothing was stationary. It’s part of what makes Krazy Kat so fun to look at.

I’m going to talk about Calvin and Hobbes again, so read no further if you’ve heard enough from me about that comic.

While thinking about backgrounds, I remembered that Watterson said he used the landscape of the Southwest (Welcome to Falling Rock National Park territory, in case you’re wondering) as his inspiration for alien worlds. Spaceman Spiff crash lands into a canyon that resembles the Grand one in Arizona; Calvin and Hobbes go searching for aliens on another planet that resembles Aches National Park, in Utah. It was completely accepted that these strange worlds would look like the Southwest. I wonder now, had Watterson grown up in Flagstaff or Moab, if he would have done the same thing. Would Calvin be tramping through the canyons and dry riverbeds in his backyard and flying off to forest-covered worlds resembling Ohio in the summer? I don’t think it would have worked.

Even though I’m so used to the landscape of the Southwest, I never thought it strange that alien worlds resembled the one that surrounded me every day. Heck, even NASA uses the Arizona desert to test their Mars rovers before shooting them into the void. It’s natural, to us anyway, that the desert is not our natural habitat. It’s otherworldly; we live there now thanks to technology. Air-conditioning and water piped in from the Colorado River allow people to reside there, for now. But when resources become scarce, we may have to leave the desert. We can only be visitors there.

The desert is a good setting for the fantastic. So when I move a cactus here or a mountain there, don’t be alarmed. It’s all part of the story.

Say it ain’t so, Garfield

I suppose everyone has a story of the time their youthful ideals were crushed to the ground. Usually these ideals are crushed by some adult who is unaware of the catastrophe this causes in the life of the child. You cease to be amazed at life. The sunset no longer holds such rapture, the spring is just another season in which to drag your corporeal self through the days, your glazed eyes uncaring, your tongue lolling, your feet shuffling. You have left the wonder of childhood and entered into the jagged world of adolescence. It will take you years to regain that wonder. Some never do. For me, that slide began with a Happy Meal.

In the heady days of my youth, McDonalds was my Valhalla. I’d beg my parents to go at least once a week. It was bliss. Even better than the food, of course, was the toy in the Happy Meal. Now, for those of you thinking to yourselves, “Happy Meal toys are not for playing with. They are for collecting, like comic books, baseball cards, and license plates.” You people make me sick. How many times was I in a toy store as a six year-old, vainly searching for that last Transformer I couldn’t find ANYWHERE because jerk collectors had bought them all up? When I’m President, kids will get first crack at toys. All of us over the age of 10 will just have to wait.

Okay, I got off topic. If McDonalds was my culinary delight, then Garfield was, in my mind, the pinnacle of artistic expression. Garfield was my favorite comic strip as a kid. My first comic book purchase was a collection of Garfield strips. I was into Garfield in that way kids can be really into something. I set up a Garfield club with my cousins (we called it the Garfield Club). I read the books obsessively. I would think to myself, “What Would Garfield Do?” in a given situation. I knew Garfield like I never thought I could know another person. Was it love? It may have been, because Garfield broke my heart.

On a sunny day in Tucson my parents took me to McDonalds for my Meal. I was especially happy because this week Garfield was the theme. I was looking forward to my Garfield-related toy. As I was eating, I gazed at the Happy Meal box. It had jokes, games, and puzzles that would keep the average child rapt for about .01 seconds. However, one side of the box gave me pause. It was a maze. Garfield stood in the top left hand corner, smiling his catlike (but utterly non-catlike) smile. At the bottom right sat a steaming plate of lasagna. The instructions told me to help Garfield find the lasagna so that he could eat it, and then presumably sleep or kick Odie off the table. But there was a major problem with this maze. Can you see it, kids? Garfield would NEVER go through all that trouble for anything, even his favorite food. He may trick Odie into bringing it to him, or command Jon to go get it. He may devise a fishing rod of sorts that he can hoist over the maze walls and lift the lasagna up and into his waiting mouth. But he wouldn’t go on a “Labyrinth”-style quest just for pasta. My first thought, and keep in mind that I was still a pre-preteen, was that Garfield would most likely fall asleep in the entrance corridor of the maze.

On my way home from McDonalds, I became more curious about the obvious misstep. Jim Davis, creator of Garfield and therefore knower of all things, would never have drawn that maze. He would know better than that. It was totally out of Garfield’s character. So I wrote him a letter. I told Mr. Davis that I was a huge fan and that I was troubled other people were doing things to Garfield that Garfield would never want to do. I asked him to stop the production of these wrongful things. I hoped, at the very least, for a few sentences of explanation:

“I had no idea this was happening to Garfield! I will put a stop to it immediately.”
“The Happy Meal Garfield, the suction-cup Garfield, and the assortment of other un-Garfieldlike objects for sale are not condoned by Garfield himself, but a clone of Garfield specifically engineered to do those things Garfield has no time for. Garfield sleeps, eats, and kicks Odie off the table. All is well with the universe.”

6-8 weeks after I wrote, I received a letter from Jim Davis that was a real kick in the teeth. It was a form letter! It made no mention of my questions. It was worded in a way that was obviously targeted at someone two or three years younger than myself (I fancied myself a regular Man of the World at 10). At the bottom was Jim Davis’ familiar signature.

So not only did Mr. Davis not deign to check for obvious out-of-character displays of his beloved feline, he couldn’t even be bothered to dictate two sentences to his secretary in response to a letter from a worried fan. If there was ever a “Say it ain’t so” moment in my life, that letter was it.

I still cared for Garfield after the incident, but things had changed. If Jim Davis didn’t care about Garfield, why should I? I began noticing flaws in the comic strip. Why did Garfield’s look change so dramatically from his inception? I learned that Davis stopped drawing the strip long ago. I noticed that certain jokes were repeated too much. Garfield and I grew apart.

When it comes to licensing comic characters, it doesn’t need to be all or nothing. As long as the creator can maintain the integrity of the characters by strictly controlling the products they appear on, I have no problem. But when it gets to Garfield-levels, the character becomes nothing more than a shell, a mascot, a hypocrite. It destroys the magic the creator works so hard to conjure, and once the magic is gone, it don’t come back.
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the garfield effect

In an effort to dredge up my entire life history on this blog, I present you with perhaps the most important letter I have ever received.  For the full back story, please read this post.

The short version is: when I was a kid, I wrote a letter to Jim Davis, creator of Garfield, imploring him to stop the exploitation of his characters.  What I got back was a very nice form letter.  He did sign it, at least.garfield-letter
This letter changed the course of my life.  Soon after, I started reading Calvin & Hobbes.  Bill Watterson’s strict ethic about his work and the control of his characters resonated with me.  I had seen the dark side, and I never wanted to look back.

Now that I have my own comic strip, I look at Jim Davis and Bill Watterson’s ideas as opposite sides on a spectrum.  There is plenty of ideological space between the two.  Note that I’m not against licensing my characters.  But when that fateful day does come, I will have a balanced view.

I’m glad I had this devastating experience as a kid, or I wouldn’t be the fully-formed adult I am now.


coloring pages

A favorite activity for LQ and me is drawing at the dining room table. Lately she’s been into coloring pages. I found some online, but most of the characters she loves best do not have readily available coloring pages. I decided to remedy this situation by creating our own coloring pages.

I’m sharing them below in case you or a kid you love wants to spend some time coloring. I own none of these characters, so I am not selling them. Please take them as they are intended: loving tributes. LQ certainly enjoys coloring her favorite characters.

Dirty, from Kate and Jim McMullen’s series
Stinky, from Kate and Jim McMullen’s series
Mighty, from Kate and Jim McMullen’s series
Sender, from the cartoon “Stinky and Dirty,”
which is based on Kate and Jim McMullen’s book series
Supertruck, from the book of the same name, by Stephen Savage.
I’ve read this book to LQ hundreds of times.
Supertruck is her first superhero crush.
Garfield, of course. By Jim Davis.
Garfield napping. By Jim Davis.