Ask Chris #218: The Scariest Comic Of All Time Is A ‘Garfield’ Story From 1989
Q: Is Garfield: Alone the best horror story in comics? -- @discord_inc
A: Even though I usually try to do an entire month of spooky questions every October, this is, I believe, the first time an installment of Ask Chris has ever been posted on Halloween, and it wasn't surprising that a lot of readers asked me about stories that scared me, or what I thought was the single most frightening comic of all time. To be honest, it's not a difficult question to answer, either. The comics I love are full of scary stuff, from the grotesque horror of Alan Moore and Rick Veitch's swamp thing to the horrific imagery that you'd get in manga like The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service.
But if you want to see something really scary? No question. There are six days of Garfield from 1989 that'll turn your hair white.
A couple of pieces of background before we move on: First, when I was a little kid, I loved Garfield. Absolutely loved it. I have a vivid memory of taking a pair of Garfield scissors and using them to cut out every day's strips in the local newspaper and keeping them in a manilla folder so that I could re-read them at my leisure, which only ranks behind ironing my copies of those Pizza Hut X-Men comics so that they'd stay flat as one of the weirdest things I've ever done to preserve my comics.
I'm can't say for certain what made me such a big fan back then, but if I had to guess, I'd say it was probably Garfield's Halloween Adventure, the 1985 animated special. It's up on Hulu if you've never seen it, but it used to air every year, and it's actually really fun. It starts off with Garfield taking Odie trick-or-treating so that he can get twice as much candy as he would get by himself, and then takes a sudden left turn straight into spookums and haints when p-p-p-pirate ghosts! show up to reclaim their lost treasure. At the very least, I know I had the storybook adaptation of the special.
Either way, I was a fan, and cutting out the strips every day was just the tip of a very strange iceberg: I'm pretty sure that the first time I ever really understood the concept of death was when I realized that Jim Davis would die one day and there wouldn't be any more Garfield strips, which caused me to literally burst into tears.
None of this is a joke.
All of which leads into the second point: Before I grew into the ego-driven know-it-all that you so justifiably love today, I was what you might call a... sensitive child, and my biggest fear in the world was being left alone. I think that's why I gravitated towards Batman so much -- the central tragedy of his origin, of being orphaned and left alone in an instant, completely at random, was something that terrified me. I could relate to it, and I could understand why it would make him go to the extremes that he did.
So with all of that in place, imagine me at the age of 7 years old, opening up the newspaper in 1989 and finding the story we're about to talk about. I don't think it actually has an official name, but pretty much everyone who knows about it just calls it Garfield: Alone -- that's what we called it when Matt Wilson and I discussed it on a recent episode of War Rocket Ajax, trying to fit it into our Every story Ever List.
Just for the record, here's the strip that ran the day before this whole thing starts, another one that I can remember with crystal clarity:
Incidentally, these strips are all available online in full color if you want to experience the ultimate in cat-based terror for yourself before we get into the nitpicking.
So right. Sunday, October 22, funny bird call sound effects.
On Monday, October 23, the descent begins.
Right away, there is something very off with this strip, if only because it was, to my knowledge, the first time Davis had used that "to be continued" interstitial, and probably the first time there hadn't even been an attempt at a joke. That, of course, would emerge as the regular pattern for Garfield as the strips went on, but for now, things were starting off pretty ominous.
On Tuesday, October 24, things got worse.
It's not often that you hear folks in comics -- even in newspaper strips -- talk about Jim Davis as a craftsman, but the simple act of throwing a Dutch angle into that first panel is remarkably unsettling. Keep in mind that Garfield had been at large (ha ha!) for over a decade at this point, with ten solid years of the same kind of straightforward, level panels. Everything was built around Jon's curiously chest-high counter/table thing -- seriously, does that dude live in Gears of War? -- and with the exception of the occasional strip in front of the living room window, those tight shots are Garfield's entire world. Something as simple as skewing the panel makes everything feel off, especially when you're encountering it on a page full of those rigid, three-panel strips, Garfield scissors in hand, ready to cut it out and add it to the manilla folder.
It's that last panel that does it, though. As heavy-handed as the narration might be -- another first for the strip, I think -- that shot of Garfield staring endlessly at the reader witih the simple thought "I'M ALONE" is chilling. What got me about it at seven was that it was Garfield staring at me while expressing my worst fear, but looking back on it now, what sticks out is that there's no punctuation. No period. No exclamation point. A blunt statement of fact with no emotion, but carrying a heavy implication: I'm Alone
On Wednesday, October 25, panic sets in.
At this point, I remember not wanting to cut this one out, but even back then I had the completist streak that you get from a lot of people who end up obsessing over comic books.
Once again, we can see that Davis is experimenting with angles in the first panel, but what grabs me about this is the color. Whoever did the coloring for the digital version did a pretty great job and that sickly olive green sky in the last panel is a pretty great touch, but in 1989, the strip ran in black and white. The silhouettes ands shadows in the first two panels, the walls closing in on Garfield and the darkness falling across his outstretched hands are appropriately haunting touches.
Again, though, it's panel three that does it -- the house isn't just abandoned, it's dilapidated. It's boarded up like there are zombies roaming around, and even the For Sale sign jutting up from the overgrown lawn -- a lawn also producing a skeletal tree stretching up into that bile-colored sky --has been there long enough that it's starting to rot away. Garfield isn't just alone, he's alone in a place that's been abandoned for a long, long time.
On Thursday, October 26, Garfield suspects he may be dead.
Honestly, the weakest of the bunch, but at this point that's kind of a relief. It's a little too overdramatic, even if Garfield's realization that he is at best in a place that is Wrong and at worst actually dead is a pretty weird thing to see right under the Junior Jumble. The best thing about it is the opening sentence, "My home has been abandoned," which tells an entire story in five simple words.
On Friday, October 27, false hope is destroyed.
Like I said, I'm not a huge fan of Davis as a storyteller, but you have to hand it to the man: He knows how to mess with his audience. If you were in the habit of reading the newspaper on a weekday -- like, say, if you picked it up on the way to work but didn't get it at home on the weekends -- then you might expect Friday's strip to be where it all wrapped up. It doesn't. Instead, there's a false ending, a brief glimpse of happiness that's revealed to be a hallucination, leaving Garfield alone in the kitchen, arms outstretched for a bowl that's never coming.
Two things worth noting here: First, Jon's robotic "Hello, Garfield. Have some food" is similarly un-punctuated, like Garfield's "I'm Alone", which feels like a callback to the disturbing feel of the second strip, setting up the knife twist of the third panel. Second, Davis is leveling a pretty harsh criticism at his own creation -- Garfield's reaching for food, not companionship, something that's going to come back in the final act. The moment he touches it, he's pulled out of the hallucination and into a rotting world with a mocking, un-punctuated caption. He has chosen material goods over people, and is damned because of it.
On Saturday, October 28, Garfield gave in to madness.
This messed me up.
As much as that last caption might point to a Dickensian moral about how the previous week of strips was what may be and not what will be, it's the earlier strip that changes everything about the strip. The last resort of the sweaty, spiraling eye in the first panel, buckling under the weight of the realization that the progress of time is inevitable and will wear down all that you love and hate, that everything you know is ultimately insignificant, isn't "friendship" or "companionship" or even "love," that nebulous force that people always turn to when they get desperate.
Garfield, already hallucinating, refuses to accept what he is seeing. He rejects it, this sudden twisted reality that he's found himself in, and in that denial, he gets his family back, and then settles right back into his old ways as though nothing has happened. There's no change, no Ebeneezer Scrooge moment of treating Odie better or being nicer to Jon, no matter what that final panel might indicate. He just keeps going, acting as though everything is the same as it always was.
But it's not. Garfield has seen -- we have seen -- another version of his reality, one where he's alone in a long-abandoned house, where Jon and Odie and bright colors and food are just fading visions, hallucinations that fade at the slightest lapse in concentration, a reality that is only replaced by the act of forcing yourself to deny that it's the truth. That is what we have been shown, and while the strip goes on, you're left with all the questions that Garfield has refused to answer. What is real? Is it the world of comfort and safety that we want to believe in, or is believing in it an act of denial for ourselves? Has the world around us become so wretched that we retreat into the safety of our minds? Are we -- am I -- alone and abandoned, isolated in a world that creeps in around the edges of what I know unless I force myself not to see it?
These are not questions I was prepared to answer at seven years old. All I know is that this was the last strip I cut out, and I later sold those scissors at a yard sale to a woman in a Garfield sweatshirt and Garfield sweatpants who tried to talk me down from 50 cents to a quarter.
Ask Chris art by Erica Henderson. If you’ve got a question you’d like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris.