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Why Do Kids Love GARFIELD Comics?

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Jeffrey Davies

Contributor

Jeffrey Davies is a professional introvert and writer with imposter syndrome whose work spans the worlds of pop culture, books, music, feminism, and mental health. In addition to Book Riot, his writing has appeared on HuffPost, Collider, PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and other places. Find him on his website and follow him on Twitter @teeveejeff and Instagram @jeffreyreads. He is also the co-host of a Gilmore Girls podcast, Coffee With a Shot of Cynicism.

I grew up in an era where collections of comic strips and graphic novels were marketed toward kids as a way of “getting them into reading.” For children who didn’t naturally gravitate toward books and reading (I can’t speak for them since I certainly wasn’t one), middle grade graphic novels and books of comic strips were almost a way to trick them into liking reading since there were lots of impressive illustrations accompanied by an often genuinely compelling and quick to read story. It’s why, to this day, I’ll recommend YA and adult graphic novels to people looking to hit a reading goal.

But there’s one particular comic strip that has endured in popularity across multiple generations now, whose fame among children has been the subject of controversy among parents. You might know him: he’s orange, round, and lazy. He hates Mondays despite having quite literally no responsibilities in life beyond his commitment to loving lasagna. He’s a cat named Garfield, who lives with his owner, Jon, and their dog, Odie.

Garfield was created by cartoonist Jim Davis and began its syndicated run in newspapers in 1978. For roughly the last two decades, it has been the most widely syndicated comic strip in the world. Garfield and his friends have been the subject of television specials, computer-animated theatrical releases (there’s a new one due out in 2024), video games, an off-Broadway musical, and even a restaurant in Dubai. Pretty impressive for a comic strip that’s essentially about nothing and promotes the kind of manners most parents discourage.

I first got into Garfield after catching a rerun of a Halloween primetime special, in which the titular character’s inner dialogue is so flawlessly voiced by Lorenzo Music. The popularity of these specials, in turn, inspired a Saturday morning cartoon show starring Music, Garfield and Friends, which ran from 1988 to 1994. I’d known about Garfield comics after finding the occasional comic strip in the funny pages that my grandmother would save for me from her Saturday newspaper. Garfield, Jon, and Odie weren’t always included in our paper, so it was a treat when they were.

I’d never really responded to the messaging I’d had in elementary school that tried to get kids, namely boys, into reading by encouraging them to read comic books. I was too busy plowing through classic titles that my mom ordered for me from Scholastic to care about comic books. I didn’t care for superheroes, which was what I thought most comic books were. But I was also one to try to fit in by any means necessary, and if that meant reading comic books like the other boys, then that was what I was going to do.

I bought some old, black-and-white Garfield collections from a local used bookshop for a dollar each one day while riding my bike back home from the barbershop. I loved the Garfield comic strips that I occasionally got to read in the newspaper, so I was delighted to learn they existed in book format. Also, I was reading a comic book, so that made me one step closer to being a “real boy” like Pinocchio!

I blew through those two collections in probably less than a weekend and was hungry for more. I started using the bookstore gift cards I hoarded like nobody’s business to buy some Fat Cat 3-Pack collections online, which are composed of three Garfield collections in one volume, and in color this time. I blew through those as well because it didn’t really feel like reading — and yet I enjoyed myself the entire time. One of the fondest memories I have of my best friend’s grandmother growing up is sitting in the kitchen of their cottage, her reading whatever novel she had on her and me reading my Garfield books.

Comic strips don’t typically have an age limit since many of these cartoons still printed today are written with adult humor with grown adults in mind. Garfield somehow falls somewhere in between the extreme of mindless comic strip written for children and mindless comic strip written for adults because the humor has cross-generational appeal. I was already in the 7th grade by the time I was reading the most Garfield, but today, the interest in him extends much younger.

Truly, nothing much happens in a typical Garfield strip. Garfield is lazy, naps incessantly, complains about Mondays or eats lasagna. He’s mean to Odie and refers to him as stupid any chance he gets. He mocks his owner, Jon, a struggling cartoonist, for being pathetic, depressed, and desperate for a date. And the kicker is that Garfield is a cat — he can’t speak, at least in this universe. All of his commentary is expressed in comic thought bubbles, unlike Jon, who speaks out loud to his pets. What makes Garfield’s sedentary lifestyle and nasty personality all the more amusing is that we, the audience, are privy to his innermost (cruel) thoughts, almost like some kind of omniscient narrator.

The only person Garfield is kind to is his teddy bear, Pooky, or himself, for that matter. He is always pleased with himself for doing the bare minimum or playing a trick on the clueless, drooling Odie. Similar to Frog and Toad, which almost seems childish in comparison to the humor of Garfield, the fat orange cat is something of an anti-capitalist figure that teaches everyone, especially children, that their worth shouldn’t be defined by how much a person gets done in a day. Granted, Garfield is a lazy, good-for-nothing character who could sometimes use a taste of his own medicine, but still.

There’s something calming about Garfield. Unlike Calvin and Hobbes or The Adventures of Tintin, which employ vast and colorful sceneries, usually paired with adventures, Garfield’s artistry is simple, almost to the point of being dull, in the best way possible. I long for the days when I could read Garfield comics without a care in the world because that’s exactly what he would have expected of me. In the anxious atmosphere that is childhood, Garfield can be mean and nasty, sure, but he also doesn’t ask anything of his readers. The simplicity and repetition, and the comfort that comes with that, is the appeal.

As a current library employee, I can report that Garfield books still fly off the shelves in multiple languages. His simplicity is so well pronounced that it’s almost comical to think of this particular cat being made a scapegoat for children’s lethargic or cynical behavior. His message really isn’t that deep. He’s here to groan about needing a nap, marathon-eat lasagna, and express a bitter, sarcastic thought or two. He teaches kids that we all need mindless entertainment from time to time.