Saturday, October 19, 2013

Stranger Nightmare VII: The Dark Side of Garfield

Twenty-six years ago today, the stock market crashed and burned in an event financiers fearfully refer to as Black Monday. Of course, this wasn't the first, nor even remotely the last, stock market crash -- nor is it the only day to be saddled with that ominous moniker. In fact, if Wikipedia is to be believed, there are as many as 19 different occasions which have been dubbed "Black Monday," including the original Black Monday in 1929, as well as massacres, natural disasters, riots, assassinations, and worst of all, the first day of school after the holidays.

However, today's nightmare isn't about stock market crashes -- or any of those other things Black Monday stands for. It's not even about Black Monday. (In fact, if you haven't noticed, today isn't even a Monday at all.) Rather, today's nightmare is dedicated to a certain furry feline with a particular grudge against that day of the week. Yep, that's right: Garfield.

What's so scary about Garfield? Not much -- not usually, anyway. Over the course of a thirty-five year career (yes, really), the beloved orange furball has seen his fair of Halloween specials. Aside from countless comic strips featuring Garfield and company cavorting about during the holiday (collected in a ton of books), the original TV show Garfield and Friends included a recurring segment titled "Garfield's Tales of Scary Stuff," and a separate special, Garfield's Halloween Adventure (originally called Garfield in Disguise) aired in 1985, featuring one of the cat's darkest -- yet still kid-friendly -- animated tales.

If the words "kid-friendly" leave a bitter taste in your mouth, however, there's always the legitimately creepy stuff -- and no, I'm not kidding. I'm not even talking about Garfield Minus Garfield, which does occasionally shift from the usual sad/funny tone to just plain WTF. Check out this set of Garfield comics dating back to October 1989 (click for full size):

You can also read a colorized version in the official Garfield archives.

Needless to say, fans sorta freaked out over this. Quite a few people pointed out the similarities in the arc to the "Valse Triste" segment of the Italian animation Allegro Non Troppo (which I haven't yet mustered the courage to watch), though Jim Davis says he was not aware of the connection and did not base the strip on it. Rather, according to a caption from Garfield's Twentieth Anniversary Collection, Davis drew inspiration from a common fear:

"During a writing session for Halloween week, I got the idea for this decidedly different series of strips. I wanted to scare people. And what do people fear most? Why, being alone. We carried out the concept to its logical conclusion and got a lot of responses from readers."

No kidding. The comics led many to speculate that it wasn't just a dream, or a random non-canonical aside, but that Garfield is dead, or starving to death (possibly in a post-apocalyptic universe), and that everything else in the strip consisted of the poor cat's twisted hallucinations and desperate attempts to cope with his horrific fate. Taking things one step further, it even spawned the creepypasta "Garfield is a Lie," which argues that the entire strip is Davis's way of dealing with his overwhelming guilt over the murder of a friend, and that the 1989 "Alone" series sprang from a mental breakdown from which Davis never recovered. (Needless to say, all of this would be news to Davis. At least, I think so...)

Thing is, this wasn't even the first time Davis went over to the dark side. October of 1984 saw the publication of Garfield: His 9 Lives, a graphic novel compilation which told the tales of the cat's past lives, including commentary from present-day Garfield explaining how his past affected his personality. While most of the stories stuck to the strip's usual lightheartedness, two notable exceptions included "Lab Animal" and "Primal Self," pictured below (again, click for full size):

Not all cats go to heaven? At any rate, this story marked Garfield's sole totally serious (in both subject and look) foray into the horror genre -- in some respects, it totally beats the "Alone" strip on the freaky scale. In fact, when the collection sparked a TV special in 1988, "Primal Self" didn't make the cut, and has never appeared on television. Interestingly enough, "Lab Animal" did make it into the special -- perhaps the nicer-looking art style (reminiscent of Disney's Oliver and Company) distracted the producers from the actual content? If you snoop around on YouTube, you can probably find a copy. Here's one that I found (let's see how long it lasts before the copyright gestapo find it):

Cutting "Primal Self" left "Lab Animal" to fend for itself as the sole source of creep-factor in the adaptation -- unless, of course, you count the part where (spoiler alert?) Garfield and Odie die during Garfield's 9th life and find themselves standing before God, who sees fit to grant them both nine extra lives. What appears to be a generous gesture on the Almighty's part, however, quickly starts to seem like some sort of underhanded punishment when God, who already had a pretty scary voice to begin with, turns out to possess glowing yellow cat-eyes of death:

So there you have it. Beneath the fair facade of family-friendly fun-times and comfortingly familiar humor, buried way deep down in his little kitty heart, Garfield has some pretty heavy issues to deal with, including possession, gene-splicing, and the ever-present possibility that his entire existence has all been a lie. Kind of like your childhood.

(You're welcome.)

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