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.