One of the handful of truly splendid things about America is the newspaper comic Garfield. While the strip doesn’t quite have the art snob street cred of Peanuts, Nancy or even Calvin and Hobbes, there’s something about the fat cat that seems to stick around throughout the humdrum of our lives. Out of the corner of your eye you almost see him, each bemoaning of a Monday morning comes from a voice we may have learned from him. Each one of us is a little bit Jon Arbuckle, each of us grapples with a Nermal or an Odie in our midst. Not unlike the country we live in, Garfield is exactly as bad as you’ve heard, but it’s always there, and there can be a lot of good and beauty to be found in that banal reality.
Like the suburb, the country song or any Americana, there’s a weirdo, deviant undercurrent to the Garfield cycle, just beneath the surface that bubbles up every once in a while. The original Garfield of the late 70s was a much crueller fellow than we know today, a petulant, violent beast with a penchant for pipe smoking. One bizarre run of strips from 1989 nicknamed “Garfield Alone” by fans features the feline abandoned and isolated, possibly dying, finally submitting to an illusory fantasy of not being alone which allows the series to continue as normal.
Absences also plague the Garfield mythos: whatever happened to Jon’s mustachioed buddy Lyman, Odie’s prior owner, who vanished from the strip entirely after a few weeks of playing foil to Arbuckle’s early adventures in pet ownership? A brief cameo in an official haunted house-themed computer game as a prisoner in a dungeon drove Lyman fans to spin mad conspiracies of his dissidence and torture. More recently, archival audio of Jim Davis describing Garfield as neither a boy nor a girl sparked a multiday editing war on Wikipedia over the fat cat’s gender identity.
And then there is the Fine Litter of Puppies. In a strip dated to May 30, 1990, Jon helps himself to a cup of “coffee” that he assumes Garfield’s veterinarian Liz, the love of Jon’s life, has prepared. “Congratulations, Mr. Arbuckle,” Liz responds drolly, “You are going to give birth to a fine, healthy litter of puppies.” Jon visibly gags as Garfield delivers the hilarious punchline, “I hate puppies!”
By all appearances, this would seem to be the first and only instance of dog semen being depicted (not to mention consumed) in a nationally syndicated comic strip, a bit of bitter lore cherished by Garfield-heads for now nearly thirty years, circulating later as internet platforms allowed for new channels of broadcast. An image of a print of the strip signed by cartoonist Jim Davis with the caption “This is canon” circulated widely on Twitter, creating a virtual uproar. To my mind it’s no wonder people love this strip so much. There’s a joy to the cartoon, an acknowledgement of bodily fluid and grotesquery in the sexless world of the funnies. It’s not merely subversive, it’s a gateway into a whole new cartoon world where people puke and itch their groins and do the vulgar, fun things that people do.
But what if it isn’t vulgar after all? In a recent interview with Buzzfeed, Jim Davis himself was asked about the litter of puppies, to which he replied:
“On the farm, we used to give first-calf heifers a high protein supplement to help them deliver healthier calves. The supplement was provided by our vet… I assumed that there would be a similar supplement for dogs. So Jon is drinking a protein-enriched drink formulated for a pregnant dog. There you have it!”
Is Davis telling the truth? Could this be an evasion of the coarse reality, cooked up for the more prudish Garfield lovers? It could go either way. Knowing the undercurrent of bumpkin farmboy stuff that runs throughout Garfield (n.b. U.S. Acres) and how heavily Davis derives that strain of humor from his own upbringing, his explanation seems completely plausible to me. Yet somehow this does not diminish the perverse fascination that the fine litter provokes, but rather intensifies it. What kind of strange life has Davis had that made this joke seem plausible? What the heck is a “protein supplement” in this context, and how are we supposed to infer it? A cup of dog spunk now becomes a Shroedingeresque ambiguity that prods at the gateways to our collective unconscious. Time only makes the strip grow stranger, maturing like a puppy raised to doghood from a fine, well-nourished litter.
In other news, Jon and Liz started dating a few years ago in the comics. Mazel tov!
Nathan Chazan is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. The Next Panel will appear Mondays this semester. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.