Friday, March 12, 2010

Newspaper Comics #2

Well, I'm back again for another edition of Newspaper Comics.  Last time, I covered Peanuts, one of my all time favorites and probably one of the most popular comics ever produced.  So what shall I cover next?  How about one of the few comics that ever directly challenged Peanuts for the top spot of all time:  Garfield.

There was a time, not all that long ago, that I was a massive Garfield fan.  Of course, I also lived overseas at the time and there wasn't much else to read, but still, I had Garfield and I enjoyed the hell out of it.  I've got several books, editions of the Garfield Magazine and at least one poster on my wall featuring the fat orange cat.  I still read the comic, though I'm not nearly as much into it as I once was.

The differences between Peanuts and Garfield are pretty obvious.  Garfield went for the gut laughs, sarcasm of the funniest kind and eating lots and lots of food, while Peanuts was frequently more subdued.  So in a way, they really never competed with each other.  Still, Peanuts gets the accolades, and what does Garfield get?

Merchandising!  The amount of stuff with Garfield's name and face on it is insane and grows all the time.  Peanuts, despite it's long life and high popularity, never even covered a fraction of the territory the cat has.  While Peanuts will always get the accolades, Garfield will have to make do with the money.

Jim Davis is one of the other great newspaper comic artists, and at one time I think there were at least 3 comics in papers with his name:  Garfield, US Acres and some Mr. Potato head comic that I never read.  I think US Acres died off a long time ago (could be wrong), and to be honest, Garfield nearly did too.  For a bit there in the late 90's and early 00's, the comic was abysmal.  At least one paper actually stopped printing it.  For a comic built on mass consumption, this was a bad sign.

So what happened?  A change in direction that utterly backfired.  Through most of the 80's Garfield grew a substantial cast of characters, nearly all of which were pushed into the merchandising market.  None surpassed Garfield himself, except maybe Odie (but Odie had been the first), but none did particularly well either.  The change was apparent quickly:  The characters vanished.  When was the last time you saw Nermal in the comic?  It's been so long I don't remember it, and the bulk of the rest of the cast was dumped and the focus was drawn back to mostly Garfield and his owner Jon.

It failed.  The comic became dull and lifeless.  Weird when you think about it, since this was what made Garfield popular in the first place, right?  Well, yes and no.  Yes, the interactions between cat and owner were the core of the comic, but it built up from there, because honestly, you can only do so much with it.  Breaking up the monotony by throwing in a cute rival for Garfield keep the jokes "fresh," as did the many other characters that dotted the comic.  Change was good, and when the change ceased to be, the comic became worse than even the most terrible zombie comic in the paper today.

Many webcomics fall into the same trap, changing what shouldn't be changed because they missed the point.  The absolute best example is Sluggy Freelance's Ocean's Unmoving story, which removed all but one normal character and tried to tell a different story.  As a stand alone, Ocean's Unmoving worked, as a Sluggy Freelance story, it bombed.  Garfield's change was just as dramatic, cutting away the ability to spread out the bachelor jokes so they didn't become stale and uninteresting.

The fix Sluggy was simply to go back to where the main characters were.  For Garfield, it was giving Jon a girlfriend.  Wow, Garfield is such a different comic than it was only a couple years ago because of that.  It's more interesting, funnier and overall better.  Is it as good as it was?  Oh hell no, but it's not nearly as BAD as it was, and I'll take that any day.

I would have to say that the webcomic that most wants to be, and probably is the closest to the goal of being Garfield is Penny Arcade (still no link).  I don't like the comic, I really don't, but it's ubiquity, the money that simply pours into it, the fact that they have a boxed, published GAME, probably says more about the cash generating powers it has that only Garfield itself can easily outdo (with at least one terrible NES game, several movies and countless TV specials).

More intriguing is the string of comics that are edits of original Garfield strips.  Garfield minus Garfield, Silent Garfield and the Random Garfield Generator.  Davis himself was so amazed at Garfield minus Garfield that he published it!  That's a hell of an effect.

I still like Garfield.  The poster on my wall has followed me to college and every place I've lived since I got it.  It's Garfield's version of "Foot prints on the sands of time."  Of course, it says pawprints and has a picture of the fat orange cat himself.  Garfield will likely have those paw prints in the newspapers as long as they exist, and all the way out into the web itself.  I don't think I mind that so much.

Alright, next time I'll see about posting an actual webcomic article.  Or it'll be old reviews.  Whichever comes first.  Until then kiddies.

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