Okay, that’s it. Â I’m starting a weekly column. Â Right here, right now. Â It is called THE STRANGEST PICTURES I HAVE SEEN, because that was the nerdiest yet most accurate title I could think of. Â And what I am going to do in this column is review all the comics in my personal library, one by one. Â At random.
I used to do this kind of thing with manga, but I’m about so much more than just the manga.
Garfield: His 9 Lives
by Neil Altekruse, Gary Barker, Kevin Campbell, Jim Clements, Doc Davis, Larry Fentz, Mike Fentz, Valette Hildebrand, Dave KÃ¼hn, Ron Tuthill, and possibly Jim Davis
Published in 1984, Garfield: His 9 Lives was by far the strangest product of Paws Inc. until the day they actually publishedÂ Garfield Minus Garfield. Â Only occasionally and tangentially Garfield-related, it’s a collection of ten cat stories connected by putting them in vaguely chronological order and coloring the cats orange. Â It spawned not one, but two TV specials, “Garfield: His 9 Lives” and “Garfield’s Babes and Bullets,” back in the days when newspaper cartoonists could spawn TV specials by sneezing too hard. Â I miss those days. Â Nobody tries to animate the Doonesbury characters anymore.
The “9 Lives” TV special hewed more closely to the “past incarnations of Garfield” concept, with sequences featuring Garfield as a cave cat, an ancient Egyptian court cat, a medieval cat, and so on. Â The book doesn’t see any reason to make that much sense. Â One story is set in an alternate film noir universe populated by cats. Â Another is a story about Vikings stranded in the modern world, with Garfield kind of shoehorned in. Â Another features a trio of cats based on the Three Stooges. Â Garfield shows up in the introductions to reassure us that these are all stories about his previous lives, but he’s fooling no one.
As far as I can determine, 9 Lives is entirely the work of Paws Inc. staffers, some drawing in the Garfield house style, some not. Â It’s a rare glimpse of the Garfield cartoonists, licensing illustrators, and animation designers drawing something other than the standard fat orange marketing juggernaut. Â I know of several cartoonists who launched successful solo careers after honing their skills at Creative Associates, the Peanuts licensing arm, but Paws Inc. artists seldom seem to make it out of Indiana. Â Case in point: except for Jim Davis, none of the contributors to 9 Lives has a Wikipedia page. Â How am I supposed to figure out who these people were? Â (Googling around, I found speculation that a 2007 Garfield Sunday strip honoring longtime inker Valette Hildebrand might have been a signal that she had died. Â The fact that, to this day, no one on the Internet seems to know whether this woman is alive or dead tells you all you need to know about Garfield’s cloistered home base. Â If a DC or Marvel inker goes down, the Internet hears about it.)
The art in 9 Lives is, alas, mostly bland, sometimes downright unpolished. Â The better material, like Dave KÃ¼hn’s psychedelic “The Garden,” tends to suffer from an excess of early ’80s airbrush color. Â Remember when garish, overly-rendered airbrushing was the cutting edge in comic-book coloring? Â And then, just when we were beginning to recover and heal, the industry discovered garish, overly-rendered Photoshop coloring? Â It was an eye-gouging couple of decades. Â The loose colored pencils on the “Cave Cat” story by Jim Davis and Mike and Larry Fentz look so soothing by comparison. Â Sure, the art in “Cave Cat” isn’t gorgeous, but at least it’s not trying to kill you.
By far the best-looking piece in the book is “Babes & Bullets: The Continuing Adventures of Sam Spayed,” an illustrated pulp-fiction sendup that, groan-inducing title pun aside, is solidly entertaining. Â Kevin Campbell illustrates Ron Tuthill’s text with elegant, photorealistic black-and-white drawings of cats in fedoras. Â It’s kind of a proto-Blacksad thing. Â What does it have to do with Garfield? Â Exactly nothing, at least until Paws Inc. made a TV special out of it. Â Which of course they did.
Unsurprisingly, I tracked this book down out of nostalgia. Â As a kid, I used to pore over it in bookstores, but my parents wouldn’t buy it for me, probably because they were still hoping that if they didn’t give me quite so many Garfield books they could get me to grow up with taste. Â Ha! Â I have a vivid memory of reading “Lab Animal,” Gary Barker’sÂ and Larry Fentz’s piece about an escaped shapeshifting mutant cat, at a Waldenbooks while waiting to see Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend. Â (Does it add anything to the story that this was at the mall outside Pittsburgh where they shot Dawn of the Dead? Â Probably not.) Â Upon rereading, “Lab Animal” isn’t nearly as juicy as I remember, but when I was seven a superpowered mutant tabby cat was a concept that could only be topped by, possibly, a talking gold unicorn that could fly. Â Or a pet baby dinosaur.
Two decades later, I got my very own copy of Garfield: His 9 Lives to see how it compared to my half-remembered childhood version of the book. Â Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t hold up very well, albeit better than Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend. But I’m still fascinated. Â As far as I know, Paws Inc. never did anything remotely like this again. Â I wish they had. Â As Garfield Minus Garfield has since conclusively proven, the Garfield franchise grows more compelling the further it drifts away from Garfield.