Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Cool Shit Alert: Jon Arbuckle's existential misery

I was introduced to something minor but fascinating today. It's a blog, hosted on Tumblr, called Garfield minus Garfield, and it's one of those amusing little media experiments that works out surprisingly well, if you're able to read it receptively. Here's the introduction to the blog:

"Who would have guessed that when you remove Garfield from the Garfield comic strips, the result is an even better comic about schizophrenia, bipolor disorder, and the empty desperation of modern life?

Friends, meet Jon Arbuckle. Let’s laugh and learn with him on a journey deep into the tortured mind of an isolated young everyman as he fights a losing battle against lonliness and methamphetamine addiction in a quiet American suburb."
Yes, friends, it's a simple experiment: remove Garfield, the commentator and primary personality, from a mundane comic strip and get a glimpse into the angst of a permanent secondary character. Some of the more recent ones are just goofy... "Something is wrong with my pants" is probably my favorite... but if you go back toward the beginning, you discover untold levels of existential anxiety and psychological disorder (such as February 18th, which was truly a miserable day for Jon Arbuckle).

Is there anything to this strange, funny, perhaps unsettling phenomenon, besides simple weirdness? Well, it might stem partly from the fact that Jon Arbuckle is a secondary character whose role is to bear Garfield's ridicule. Of course, Fat Orange Kitty normally distracts us from Jon's tribulations and lightens the mood, but when you remove him, you're left wondering how Jon got like this, what's going on in his head, and how he bears his lonely life. If you removed Sherlock Holmes from Watson's life, would you be left with a failed, lonely writer wandering a ghostly London town? Is secondary characterhood a great curse to be borne throughout literary history?

The empty panels are an effective part of this phenomenon, as well. The blank spaces around Jon give a sense of both physical emptiness (i.e. an empty room) and extended silence. When you have a single line by an afflicted Jon, surrounded by space and silence, you get a very lonely effect... you may sense that the world simply doesn't need Jon Arbuckle, and more frighteningly, you may realize that he feels the same way.

In this way, this reminds me of something else similarly spooky. Rene Magritte painted a piece called "Now, You Don't" which consists of four identical sitting rooms, only one of which contains a human being. His presence is ultimately irrelevant to the room he's sitting in, and ultimately, Jon seems totally insignificant, nonsensical, and even invisible, without his main character to give meaning to his little absurdities.

If you're interested in other creepy phenomena in Sunday funnies, I can suggest a few leads. If you can find it in a library, check out "Family Circus of Horrors" in The Book of Zines, which makes an interesting case about the human condition in Family Circus. You can also check out a Garfield-related existential crisis in the strips of Halloween 1989, which is generally chronicled online, in sites such as this one. Also take a look at the Christian (and anti-Jewish and Muslim) themes in Johnny Hart's comic B.C., which are hard to deny after a review of a few examples.


meed said...
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Anonymous said...

I've never seen this done with Garfield completely removed from the comic strip, but I have seen similar results from removing the thoughts from Garfield's thought bubbles. What's interesting is that with Garfield present John becomes the male representation of the stereotypically female cat lady.

I just read your posts on Metroid and Zelda. You and I have exactly the same thoughts on the subject. Kudos to your style.