What writers can learn from Garfield

Yes, that’s right. We’ve talked about Calvin and Hobbs. We’ve talked about Peanuts. We’ve talked about Cathy. Now, I’m back from Nebula Con, and I’m fighting allergies for every breath that goes in or out of my body. So I’m pissy and ready to talk about Garfield. 

 A cautionary tale for writers if there ever was one. 

Unlike the other comic strips in this series, Garfield is a lesson in what not to do. As in, what not to do with a franchise that is smart, edgy, and popular.

Launching in 1976, then titled Jon (The name didn’t change to Garfield until the strip was syndicated in 1978) the Garfield comic strip is probably as well known as Mickey Mouse.

In the beginning, it was way darker than most people realize. Jon once had a roommate named Lyman. He was Odie’s original person, and he vanished without a trace. He’ll make the occasional appearance, but for the most part, he’s not around. When questioned, Jim Davis would for the longest time say that no one should look in Jon’s basement. 

Man, I loved that. I also loved the series of comics that seemed to suggest that Garfield was left alone at home, without food or family, to starve to death. There’s a fan theory that nothing after that strip is real, it’s just a fever dream of Garfield’s to comfort him as his life ends, lonely and starving. 

Lots of people have dark fan theories about Garfield. And they’re fun. At least to a twisted person like me. 

The strip itself used to be fun. You had Jon, a successful cartoonist who isn’t successful at anything else. He strikes out constantly with Dr. Liz. He has no friends, except Lyman. His pets don’t respect him, and his neighbors hate him.

That’s funny. 

Then, there’s Garfield. He’s smart-mouthed, violent, and self-indulgent. He eats too much and doesn’t work out enough. He hates Mondays (even though he doesn’t work) and loves lasagna, his bear Pookie and his grandma. (Jon’s Grandma, who is exactly who I want to grow up to be.)

Add Odie into the mix as the idiot with all the luck, and it’s a cute mix. 

Then, things got stagnant. The stories came to a standstill. Then, like everything else that stops moving, it started to rot. 

Now, to my dismay, Garfield is a joke. It’s a strip that tells the same five jokes over and over. It’s a cartoon that has the laziest artwork I’ve ever seen. It’s a cringe-inducing movie. It is, in short, a disappointment.

So today, let’s discuss how we can learn from this. How can we avoid being Garfield? 

Don’t stop growing

Some of you reading this are going to be stars. It’s just a numbers game. Someone reading this is going to make it big. You’re going to be a household name, a Stephen King or a Toni Morrison. 

Many of you reading this will achieve at least some success so long as you keep writing and keep submitting. Again, it’s just a numbers game. To succeed in writing you need talent, persistence, and luck. And talent means the least of those three.

When you succeed, do not stop growing. Do not stop learning and becoming a better writer. 

That’s what, I think, happened to Jim Davis. He had success. Like, a lot of it. His characters are well-known and loved all over the planet. 

So he stopped getting better. 

Do you know who hasn’t stopped getting better? Stephen King. I know, me praising the King? Big surprise. But it’s true. His books keep on getting better. The Outsider was better than anything he’d written to that point. Then he wrote If It Bleeds, and that was even better still.

I would like to think that the same can be said of my work. I think Quiet Apocalypse is the best book I’ve ever written. I think the book I’m working on right now is even better. (It damn well better be. It’s the last Station 86 book. It had better blow your minds.) 

That’s how art should be. Every story should build on the talent and strength of the last one. The dialog can always get better. The story can be more creative. The characters can feel more real. You are probably already a pretty good writer, my friend. But don’t ever stop getting better.

Don’t give up your edge

Garfield is at its best when it’s a little edgy. When it’s a little dark. When Garfield is trying to send Nermal to Abu Dhabi without air holes in the box. When he’s smoking a pipe. When he’s shredding the neighbor’s dog within an inch of his life.

Garfield is at his best when he’s at his worst. When he is the hedonistic, unmotivated rage ball that we all kind of want to be at times. And because he is that so much of the time, it’s all the more endearing when he is kind. When he lets slip how much he cares about Odie. When he’s cuddly with Pooky or sensitive with Arlene. He is in that way a mini version of an anti-hero. We love Loki and Magnito for the same basic reasons. They do horrible things we would never think to do but might secretly want to. At the same time, they have kindness in them that only a precious few ever see.

That doesn’t work when the balance gets tipped. When the bad sides of a character are blunted. 

If you want to write a compelling anti-hero, let them be sharp. Let them do terrible things for their warped reasons. Let them do the things that you would never do, but secretly want to. Like, I would never stab a guy at a bar for touching me without my consent. But it feels so good when a character does it. I would never eat a whole lasagna, kick someone I don’t like over a fence, or cause an uprising in a vet’s waiting room. But I kind of want to.

And Garfield stopped doing those things. Maybe it’s because he was expected to be a good example for children. Or maybe it’s just because Jim Davis got soft. Either way, the strip doesn’t really without it. 

Don’t say yes to everyone who wants to play in your sandbox

Finally let’s talk about Garfield, the movie. Released in 2004 and almost universally despised, this could have been good. It wasn’t, but it could have been. 

If it wasn’t so cheap.

If it wasn’t so lazy.

If the characters didn’t suck and have little to nothing to do with the originals.

Here’s the thing. The Garfield movie was not done by people who loved the source material. It was written by people who wanted to make some quick money off a popular name. And it worked, sadly. 

This wouldn’t have happened if Jim Davis had been protective over his intellectual property. And it shouldn’t have happened. 

I’m all for shared worlds. Star Wars has been such an astounding success because so many diverse authors have been permitted to write in it. But not everyone who wants to write with you wants to do so with good intentions. Some people do not care about your characters in the same way you do. Some don’t care at all, except for what they can get out of it.

Remember, your story belongs to you. Your characters belong to you until you agree to let someone else play with them.

You always have the right to say no.

So that’s it. I hope you’ve been enjoying this series. If there’s a cartoonist I’ve missed, please let me know in the comments. 

Paper Beats World is a labor of love. Please consider supporting us on Ko-fi. 

The Man In The Woods is available now on Amazon.


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