The Weird, Wonderful World of Subversive Garfield Spinoffs

It’s lasagna cats all the way down.

How better to pay tribute to your favorite absurdist comic strip by getting even more absurd? (Photo: Tony Alter/Flickr)

Even by the conventional standards of your local paper’s comics section, “Garfield” long ago achieved a level of mindless predictability that makes Charles Schulz look like Charlie Kaufman. Garfield’s brand of tame irascibility (hating Mondays and diets) has such broad appeal that he spawned his own merchandising empire, including several CGI-assisted films, a Saturday morning cartoon, and this inexplicable T-shirt.

Yet, that same tabby whose suction-cupped paws once graced the windows of family station wagons across the nation has also spawned a very odd subculture — one that draws from the worlds of avant-garde art, complex mathematics, and deliberate stupidity. Straddling the line between parody and homage, dozens of clever, hilarious, and downright bizarre “Garfield” spinoffs have popped up throughout the internet.

The most well-known variant is Garfield Minus Garfield, which removes the main character from published strips to unexpectedly dark results. Jon Arbuckle, Garfield’s owner and the frequent butt of his jokes, becomes the central figure and is revealed as an unhinged bachelor living on the fringes of society. As the website describes, “It is a journey deep into the mind of an isolated young everyman as he fights a losing battle against loneliness and depression in a quiet American suburb.”

Garfield Minus Garfield

Garkov took that spirit of “Garfield” experimentation and added the next logical piece: a mathematical probabilistic model known as Markov’s chain. Essentially, it randomly combines dialogue from different “Garfield” strips, but in a way that verges on an odd coherence. Creator Josh Millard described via e-mail how the Markov chain worked off a generated list of pairs of key words mined from the strip, with the resulting comic “hopping from one source strip to another.”

“It’s like if you were whistling a song to yourself and switched melodies mid-stream to another song that had the same couple notes in a row right there,” explained Millard.

If the best way to describe Garfield Minus Garfield is existential, Garkov is its absurdist cousin. The site’s main page allows you to endlessly reload for new surrealistic combinations in search of the perfect Garkov comic. I’ve included some of my best results below, in which the familiar characters stalk Jon’s home spouting utter madness, as if in the throes of a crippling LSD trip:


Many other randomizers have sprung up, including the addictive Random Garfield Generator, which allows you to load random panels from “Garfield” strips to create your own new strip. This iteration has chosen some particularly evocative panels (like the middle one pulled from this odd strip in which a diner waitress threatens suicide when Jon says his coffee is a little strong), and it also allows you to retain the ones you like while randomizing. Here are a few personal masterpieces:

Random Garfield Generator

Square Root of Minus Garfield sounds like a concept album from a prog-rock band, but it’s actually a self-described “webcomic devoted to parodies and mash-ups of the popular comic strip ‘Garfield.’” Variety and a prolific output are the site’s two best features, as it has updated daily with user-generated content since 2008. The submissions run the gamut in terms of scope and style: the visuals and/or dialogue may be altered and some comics are completely reimagined, whereas others are merely tweaked to highlight a disturbing subtext in the original. The titles range from low-brow (“Gimpfield,” in which Jon dresses up as Pulp Fiction’s infamous sex-slave) to post-modern (“The Physical Impossibility of Garfield in the Mind of Someone Living,” a physical strip suspended in a vitrine full of water).

Square Root of Minus Garfield

As the site’s creator, David Morgan-Mar, explained to me via e-mail, “‘Garfield’ has evolved into a rigid format of layout, with fairly simple graphics, which makes it easy for many people to digitally alter to generate new parody strips. It’s the combination of familiarity, ripe parody material, and ease of making new submissions which has kept the reader submission rate high enough for us to publish a comic every day for the past eight years.”

There are a host of projects that have pivoted from Garfield Minus Garfield by choosing to substitute one of the main characters rather than completely remove them, with the choices often hinging on puns rather than contextual interplay. For example, there’s Garfield as Garfield, in which the lasagna-loving cat is replaced by former President James Garfield, who was tragically assassinated before his stance on lasagna could be ascertained:

Garfield as Garfield

Then there’s Minus Jon Plus Jon. As creator Chris Impink explains on the site, “In my own fevered dream amidst the Watchmen zeitgeist, it occurs to me that Jon Arbuckle’s existential woes have nothing on those of Jon Osterman, aka Dr. Manhattan.” Well, we were all thinking it. The resulting hybrid has the graceful symbiosis of a combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, as well as a very cool visual aesthetic:

Minus Jon Plus Jon

All of this experimentation prompts one to nod one’s head before begging the question, “Um, why ‘Garfield’?”

Garkov creator Josh Millard explained, “The relative inanity of the original strip’s dialogue is a uniquely strong setup for weird/broken/scrambled non-sequitur text. I think that’s what works so well about so many ‘Garfield’ variations, really; it’s such a sterile, safe, drama- and menace-free strip that injecting *any* kind of Dada strangeness or emotional complexity into it makes it jump off the page a bit.”

In the spirit of jumping off the page, I’ll close with Lasagna Cat, a live-action video parody featuring a guy in a Garfield suit. These strange, uncomfortable clips are usually around 90 seconds long and follow a similar pattern: the actors faithfully recreate a “Garfield” strip to deadening effect (and the roaring approval of a studio audience), followed by a music montage set to a thematically relevant pop song. No other “Garfield” variant feels as aggressively juxtaposed to the source material as Lasagna Cat, and no other “Garfield” variant so effectively compromised the integrity of my sleep:

Ted Pillow writes.