Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Book Review: Garfield Minus Garfield by Jim Davis and Dan Walsh

Garfield is one of the most popular comic strips in the world and in its 30-year run has spawned beloved animated specials and series, live-action and animated films, and tons of merchandise. However, the strip takes on a new life when the title character is removed in Garfield Minus Garfield. This collection of strips culled from the popular (and Jim Davis-approved) site garfieldminusgarfield.net is a fun example of addition by subtraction.

Fans (and non-fans) of Garfield have always found ways to tweak the strip. The Garfield Randomizer lets visitors create their own strips out of random panels. Images of strips with Garfield's thought bubbles removed or Garfield replaced by a silent, realistically-drawn cat have been circulating online for years. Dan Walsh, creator of Garfield Minus Garfield, went one step further by removing Garfield from the strip entirely.

Without Garfield's wisecracks, the focus is squarely on Jon, Garfield's perpetually single owner. While it's always been clear that Jon's a bit of a nerd, Garfield Minus Garfield really highlights Jon's lonely, strange, and sometimes sad life. The humor found in these modified strips comes from different places than your typical Garfield comic. Some strips have a dark, existential feel reminiscent of Stephan Pastis's Pearls Before Swine. Some have a randomness to them that let your imagination run wild. Some are hilarious simply because you immediately empathize with Jon's situation. There are also strips that feel more dramatic than funny.

Each page of Garfield Minus Garfield is arranged with the modified strip on top (in color) and the original strip on the bottom (in black and white). Seeing the modified and original strips together for the first time (only the modified strips are posted on the website) is quite an eyeopener. What you realize as you read them is that Garfield's appearance in the original strips actually hampers them. Garfield's thoughts make some of the strips seem mean-spirited and in others, he adds nothing to the proceedings but a punchline. Most of the strips in Garfield Minus Garfield come from the duller years of the comic and none of the original strips feature Odie or any other characters apart from Garfield and Jon. This is probably why removing Garfield works so well.

The most intriguing aspect of Garfield Minus Garfield, however, is that the book is actually split into two parts. The first part features the strips modified by Dan Walsh, the site's creator. The modified strips are presented as they were on the site. Little mistakes in photoshopping, such as leaving Garfield's pinch marks on Jon's cheek or being able to see Garfield's outline on a guitar Jon holds, are left intact. In addition, Walsh's strips sometimes go beyond simply removing Garfield. There are strips where Jon's dialogue is edited or even removed for effect.

The second part of the book features strips modified by Garfield creator Jim Davis. The strips Davis picks aren't quite as appropriate for the treatment as the ones Walsh picks. Many of these strips don't really gain anything by not having Garfield. The originals are actually pretty decent and work just as well with Garfield as without him.

Garfield Minus Garfield is a fun book and a great alternate take on the popular comic strip. It gives the long-running strip a new lease on life and undoubtedly will inspire a generation of fans who may have written it off a long time ago. Creators could learn a thing or two from the way Jim Davis handled all of this. Instead of lawyering it out of existence, he embraced it and will now profit from it. Here's hoping we get another collection sometime in the future because there are a lot of great strips on the site that aren't in this book.

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