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I began yesterday with an idle visit to a certain news website where an opinion writer quipped a comparison between some current item and Garfield Minus Garfield. And because I hadn’t commenced my day’s work yet, this meant that I could bend the entirety of my mental attention towards an unresolved mystery that has bothered me ever since that particular bit of comics-remix tomfoolery rode its own shooting star, a few years back.
I summed it up in a tweet, thus:
I *swear* that “Garfield Minus Garfield” was *preceded* by a funnier variant (by another person?) that left Garfield in but erased his thought balloons. So it wasn’t a man screaming at nothing, it was a man screaming at his cat, staring silently. Objectively funnier; unfindable.— Jason McIntosh (@JmacDotOrg) May 15, 2019
Delightfully, this within minutes had caught a double-digit amount of reactions from both friends and strangers, all of whom agreed with me that, yes, they all remembered something matching my description, and yes, it was funnier than Garfield Minus Garfield. As Leon Arnott so excellently summed it up, this dimly recalled work was basically the Threes to the other’s 2048: something amazing and original that became almost immediately eclipsed by an inferior clone, which then through some fluke managed to capture all the world’s love and attention — and leaving the fist thing’s tiny cadre of fans forever bitter at the injustice.
Expanding this a little: Garfield Minus Garfield turns the strip into nonsense, deriving its humor mainly by playing on life-long familiarity (for anyone born after 1970) with Garfield characters. Read with no cultural context, it merely depicts Garfield’s owner Jon as a gibbering lunatic, shouting at the walls of his empty home. Its untitled predecessor — let’s call it Garfield Can’t Talk — does better than this: it transforms Garfield’s greeting-card pabulum into the chronicle of a pathetic man who talks to his cat all day, and the cat responds only by staring back, or wandering off, or glancing wearily at the reader. Sometimes these staring silences stretch across multiple panels.
I would not make the case that Garfield Can’t Talk is a good comic strip; I wouldn’t want to read it daily, no more than I would its source material. But it did present the world with such a wonderful example of a purpose-built but elegant remix-filter: just cut this little bit out, and watch this comic strip about a snarky cat and his silly owner turn into that comic strip about an indifferent cat and his pathetic owner. When considered in this light, Garfield Minus Garfield feels like the creation of one who liked this a lot too, and thought that cutting out twice as much would make the result twice as funny, and thus missed the point entirely.
Anyway, I posted that tweet. And then a beautiful thing happened: so many of the people that it unexpectedly jolted on a Wednesday morning felt compelled to scour the web for evidence as to the forgotten project’s existence. Collectively, they did some excellent detective work, some of which you can see for yourself in the replies to my first tweet.
If I may summarize their findings: As best as anyone can tell, what I call Garfield Can’t Talk first appeared on the forums of Something Awful, a pre-Reddit cultural trash compactor responsible for a great deal of the infectious remix-catchphrasing of the early web. (Remember “All Your Base”?) It may have started to vector into the wider world by way of a now-defunct website called “Truth and Beauty Bombs”; this 2006 article by Eric Burns-White describes the phenomenon from a point of view contemporary with the game’s discovery, and points to an apparently lost-to-time thread elsewhere.
From these origins, other websites joined in on the fun, including this LiveJournal community (hollow with age, but with a few strips still clinging to its rusting skeleton), and these comics by Tailsteak. We can see how quickly folks started their own twists to the game, such as redrawing the strips from scratch in their own style, but otherwise remaining faithful to the originals. And Garfield Minus Garfield seems to have begun in that spirit: well, what if we erased even more, ha ha? And then, because nothing in life needs to make sense, that became the permutation that caught the world’s favor for a while.
Interestingly, the subtler humor of Garfield Can’t Talk looks like it gets independently rediscovered and re-implemented every so often in our fallen, post Garfield Minus Garfield world. See, for example, Realfield, which finds another in-between spot for the gag, replacing every appearance of Garfield with a more realistically drawn (and therefore always blank-faced) orange cat. See also Silent Garfield, which apparently re-posts a pared down Garfield strip as soon as the original appears on its own website, with a mechanical fervor that cares little for the humor value of the result.
So, that’s my report to the internet on this topic. I wasn’t imagining this older, funnier Garfield permutation, and neither were you. Some, indeed, keep its candle lit, more than a dozen years later, standing in the long shadow of Garfield Minus Garfield. This BoingBoing article re-discovered the joy of the original joke in 2014, describing it as something new. I see this as emblematic as anything that for long as Garfield continues, people will continue to rediscover and re-share this mutation of it.
I shall conclude by noting how my pal Joe misread me as casting shade on the more popular work. I do not mean to disparage Garfield Minus Garfield, or suggest that it does not deserve the attention and financial reward that it caught. I merely claim its utter inferiority to that which came before. Indeed, I can only find it on-brand for a late-aughts web project to have taken the sloppy beauty of a many-handed effort spread across multiple domains, and create fame and fortune for one artist through a slickly packaged effort that all but snuffed out any cultural awareness for its predecessor.
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