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Is Garfield (1978-present) Gothic?

This article begs the question, "Is Garfield Gothic?" So many textual mutations of the cat have recently emerged. I shall outline some of them, here.

Is Garfield Gothic? At first glance, the answer would seem to be no. For decades, he's been nothing but a fat cat who likes lasagna. There are no allegories about him. What you see is more or less what you get.

I can assure you, this is only the beginning.

Upon further consideration, the answer is less simple. The Garfield of the present exists in many more forms than he originally did, years ago. He's no longer produced exclusively by Jim Davis; there are "other Garfields" out there, made by other people as (debatable) tribute. Some are funny because they are different than, but reminiscent of, the parent version; and some of are monstrous, and largely for the same reasons. Once there was one; now there is Legion.

One of the "other Garfields." Familiar, and very, very wrong.

All stem from the Jim Davis original, but he is no longer in control. Instead, the others multiply like a virus. They copy the original and each other, but poorly. They are uncanny (familiar-alien) and abject (abhorrent). Considered en masse, there seems to be no end to this freakish "brood" and their chimeric mutations. By comparison, their sire feels almost hyper-normal—false, because fresh wendigos haunt the viewer's spoiled mind. Compared with the monstrous, the ordinary feels fake, like a spurious shell. Such innocence will soon be forgotten, eclipsed by what now is.

As Seth Brundle once said, "I'm an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over, and the insect is awake." Like Brundle, Garfield is no more. This wasn't always the case. In older times, Garfield was just a cat. What started off as harmless parody has now been infected by a truly sinister copycat (malign replication is a quintessential Gothic trope). The evolution was gradual. Taking decades to evolve, it now sits, out in the open for all to see; we stare in horror as Garfields everywhere turn into monsters. The invasion is complete, its freakish culmination playing out before our eyes. We are Jon, if Jon found himself at the end of Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978).

But what lead to it? In part, the cause is technological—the internet has only been around for so long, and once upon a time, the only accessible route was the newspaper, or other forms of print. The canonical form was regulated by a lack of readily-disseminated alternatives. Nowadays, though, the image of Garfield is online, and seldom stays aright. Is it Gothic that his likeness mutates into self-parody? Some of these mutations are bleak, or hilarious; but, again, some are overtly sinister. It is not the process of mutation that is Gothic, but the end-result. 

As sagely as John(!) Blyth Barrymore is, his angelic musings could scarce prepare us for what horrors lay in wait.

Normally Garfield is blank, his mayhem sanitized. To be Gothic, Garfield must be tied to the past, but the past as Gothic (this includes the "past" as a series of perennial, replicated images, both uncanny and abject). This is because the Gothic is modal, and occurs over time. As things endure, they are inevitably torn apart and stitched back together. The question is, what remains; or rather, what happens when the pieces you work with are dead symbols that start to move again?

Whatever happens, the revenant is not the same thing it was, pre-operation. Furthermore, Gothic pastiche has a way of directly introducing monstrous elements into the host. These additions highlight what was already monstrous, but hidden, pre-inoculation (or, in Garfield's case, omitted by Davis); they do so by injecting the subject with the object: the monsters of folklore and media. This notion is a tenuous proposition, elliptical and crumbling. It falls apart like a corpse, but, like a giant, is too big to rot:

"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

During the pipe strip analysis video, Barrymore calls Garfield "the demon cat." And now it seems this is more than a passing whim. Replicated by fans, Davis' sassy icon has been reproduced into an actual demon: one, as artwork; two, as digital artwork, in this "videogame" by Lumpy Touch. There's something uncanny about this simulacrum, the copy of a fictional cat; there is also something perennial, a return of older images—of the Gothic destroyer. It swells to tremendous size, a dark titan betrayed by a smaller counterpart.

The destroyer is nebulous; like Gozer's chosen destructor, it can taken many forms, and not just Garfield. Consider the black giants from Hyper Light Drifter (2016). These beings are textually and technologically different than Garfield; one is retro, and the other vintage, but the tremendous mystery they project is even older, still. The Grim Reaper, or the man-in-black—these intimations of death are hardly new. Per decade, they can assume unique forms that nevertheless remain "aware" of past versions. All the while, they decay and rot, but in a frozen state.

Lumpy Touch's "Garfield Gameboy'd" (2019) is both textually "aware" and "frozen," in a Gothic sense. One, it's a nod to the Gameboy-era (1989-2003); it also warps Garfield (the familiar) into images of contemporary monsters (the alien). Lumpy's work animates drawings of the titular cat, made and submitted daily on Reddit (the artists inspired by John Carpenter's The Thing [1982] and other Gothic media). There are palimpsests, and more palimpsests. These monsters include those from movies, but also horror videogames.

The survival-horror videogame that never was.

Yet, these monsters are familiar, too. Jim Davis and John Carpenter (or should I say "Jon" Carpenter) would've produced their material in the same time frame; their Gothic marriage would happen, years later. In the present, Lumpy and Reddit synchronize, the former eliding many of the latter within his own Garfield-monster creation. Like Frankenstein's Creature, the disparate pieces meld into a single, uncanny thing that Jon must hide from. His peril is our pleasure, but Gothic pleasure is sublime, not benign.

This occurs on several registers. For one, Garfield is "just a cat," which the monsters invade to produce a half-cat, half-demon hybrid. However, Garfield and monster are equally familiar to us. At this stage, Jon Arbuckle and John Carpenter are both household names. Instead, the alien quality of their union is two-fold: the "newness" of their combination within Garfield, and what lies beyond all variations thereof. That is, beyond Garfield's present form, older monsters hide in plain sight: on Garfield. 

Whatever the form, "Garfield" is an image to perceive. We can nevertheless look upon him as non-identical to the palimpsest; like a canvas, progressively older monsters appear on him for us to remember as being from elsewhere. This includes older texts: short stories like Luis Borges' "There Are More Things" (1975) or H.P. Lovecraft's "Dunwich Horror" (1929); or, videogames like Dead Space (2008) and Dark Souls (2011).

Out from the apocryphal blaze floats a half-familiar face. The tentacles and wings (later in the animation) allude to Cthulhu. Beyond the graphical elements, the music is Dracula's theme from Super Castlevania IV (1991).

These texts were, in and of themselves, replicas of older horrors. Lovecraft worshiped Poe; Dead Space and Dark Souls owe their inspiration to Resident Evil (1996) and Blood (1997). But the buck doesn't stop there. The so-called makers of "survival-horror" had their own inspirations leading up to Resident Evil (1996). That videogame's survival-horror might seem naturalized ("originating from Capcom," as Bernard Perron puts it). It was hardly new when Capcom planted their banner in the heap; they merely robbed the graveyard.

As part of a ghoulish tradition, a given text of the Gothic mode offers unique combinations of textual symbols and themes. Coupled, these produce an uncanny ambiance amid the Gothic milieu (the zombies, castles and tyrants, etc). Beyond all the interwoven symbols lurks an older, forgotten element. This is true with "Garfield," but also with the monstrous forebears that disease him before our eyes.

As mentioned above, Garfield is a household name. Bear in mind, so is Cthulhu. The Great Old One is essentially public knowledge; Lovecraft's work is still replete with older, forgotten stories. He gathered examples of the real-world occult that was written centuries prior (real books, mind you; not the Necromonicon) and injected it into his own, pulpy stories. Even the word "Cthulhu" wasn't alien. "Chthonic" is a very-real word and, in English, means "concerning, belonging to, or inhabiting the underworld." Likewise, its Greek counterpart has its own usage, and pertains to nocturnal, sacrificial rites made in honor of subterranean gods. Sound familiar?

Armed with this knowledge, Lovecraft bastardized the word for his own use; so did the authors of many-a-classic Gothic work (apart from Lovecraft): Horace Walpole, Mary Shelley and Dan O'Bannon; Shinji Mikami, Bret Robbins, and Nick Newhard. Add Lumpy Touch and the hard-working redditors of r/imsorryjon to that list. Through them, Davis' titular cat is but a canvas to paint, a repository that evokes the Gothic past upon itself.
That's not lasagna Garfield's been eating. The "shadow" of Jung's collective subconscious pools inside.

Through the Gothic, symbolic and symbolized elements work in tandem. For example, a videogame like Castlevania (1986) is a burial site for animated miniatures and artifacts (monsters from cinema, novels, and Renaissance graveyard narratives). The living respond to these animations; Jon responds to what used to be, but no longer is, his cat. Such textual markers are effectively compiled as images to look upon, each time. So does Lumpy Touch assemble a corpus of uncanny images, in "Garfield Gameboy'd." Yet, his own bestiary is, like all the others, a codex of simulacra; together, they consist of copies of the monstrous make-believe, a "cat" recycled countless times.

Each cycle is unique; just as Konami's Dracula is not Bella Lugosi, Lumpy Touch's "Garfield" is not "Garfielf." Neither is either of them the cat Barrymore, himself, lampooned. And there are many more. Each is different, but all bound by a common, Gothic thread. On Reddit, and across the internet, they textualize each other through different Jons-under-attack, their homes besieged. Invaded by the "past," the Other lurks beyond them collectively. As a kind of midden, this void is, itself, evoked by numerous black shapes. On-screen and off, we imagine or see "Garfield," the results being terror and horror (the cornerstones of Gothic affect). The demon-cat takes various shapes; we witness the image "reaching back" unto a point we cannot determine, let alone cross.

Lovecraft's "cosmic nihilism" in Garfield-form. Note how small Jon is.

All of this is united by promises of violence and death: the end is nigh! In a Gothic sense, it has already occurred, and will again (the Gothic loves a good omen). The confusion of an echoing prophecy only adds to Jon's torment—as already being subject to Garfield's multitudinous guises: In life, the cat made his a living hell; in death, the tormentor has ballooned, dwarfing Jon. "I am nothing!" Jon whispers, faced with an endless reverie of demonic replication. Amidst it all, we're meant to laugh, to delight at Jon's torment (and our own) as paradoxically joyous.

Once upon a time, Garfield was just a cat. Now, the monstrous "past" has invaded him. In the hands of Lumpy Touch and Reddit, Garfield is unquestionably Gothic.


About me: My name is Nick van der Waard and I'm a Gothic ludologist. I primarily write reviews, Gothic analyses, and interviews. Because my main body of work is relatively vast, I've compiled it into a single compendium where I not only list my favorite works, I also summarize them. Check it out, here!

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