‘Garfield,’ Sarcasm, and Autism

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People give Garfield a lot of sh*t.

I don’t understand it, personally. The comic has been running for forty years. Forty years! Forty years ago, the Atari 2600 hadn’t been released. Forty years ago, the idea of a new Star Wars movie was a novelty, not an expectation. Forty years ago, my parents hadn’t met yet. There’s got to be something to a comic strip that’s gone on for forty years. I mean, we kept Nancy around for 36 years practically as a benchwarmer for someone who could fill Ernie Bushmiller’s shoes, and after that wait Olivia Jaimes’ Nancy is arguably the best thing in the newspaper today.

For me, the importance of this forty year old comic strip is that it allowed a young autistic kid to understand what sarcasm was.

This was my lifeline.

If you didn’t know, I have Nonverbal Learning Disorder. NLD is a particular type of autism, but the long and short of it is that I didn’t naturally develop the ability to pick up nonverbal cues in language such as tone of voice, non-literal uses of language, facial expressions, and general body language. I like the name Nonverbal Learning Disorder, it’s properly evocative. Critically, these are all skills I can and have worked to learn, and some pieces of them have even started to become so habitual that they seem and almost feel natural, albeit through brute force repetition. But to learn those skills, I had to know what skills I didn’t have because you can’t learn a thing if you don’t know that it exists.

My NLD went undiagnosed until I was about sixteen. The incident I’m about to describe, showcasing a skill I didn’t have, caused two people a lot of pain. And without it, I don’t think I’d be here.

My parents were/are (how do you describe it when one parent is still sarcastic and the other is dead? That’s a syntax question I’ll take any level of detailed comment on) very sarcastic. My dad was remarkably sarcastic, while my mom’s sense of humor is so dry you’d think she was a well-written Spock. Both of them were/are loving parents with nothing but good intentions, but to my ears, there were times where they were suddenly mean for no reason at all. “Yup, Mathias definitely doesn’t go for books whenever he can to learn about things in exhaustive detail, I’ve never seen that happen ever.” To them, a teasing comment about how I was a voracious reader. To a six-year-old, they were calling me lazy and not very smart. It made no sense, especially because they were always talking about how smart I was. Which one was the lie?

Training Wheels for Sarcasm

One day, after a sarcastic comment that I can’t remember, I told my dad that I didn’t understand why he was mean sometimes. His face paled like a ghost, I remember that. I remember him saying he wasn’t being mean, he was being sarcastic, hoping that would be enough. It wasn’t—I didn’t know the word, and the skills that are required to be effectively sarcastic and to understand sarcasm weren’t there yet for me. He tried to explain what sarcasm was, but it was such a high level concept that had to do with intonation, reading other people’s moods and understanding non-literal language that he could have started speaking Latin and I would have had a better chance of picking up what he was saying, if only because English is a hodgepodge nightmare built on the scraps and bones of other languages.

Sometime that week, he gave me every little rectangular paperback reprint of Garfield he could find. He told me to read it, that this would explain sarcasm, and that it would make sense. He promised he’d answer any question I had.

Swear to God, this is how it started to click.

Two days later, the world made more sense than it ever had before. It wasn’t a magical cure-all, nothing of the sort. But I understood that things like sarcasm and irony existed around me in ways that I didn’t before. It was something I could understand as a kid because of Garfield’s format: simple, clear jokes that relied on those concepts. If I didn’t understand it, I could re-read it or bring it to my dad, and he’d talk me through it. I read them over and over again, not just during that two day period but for years to come.

And while I don’t know for certain, and can’t ask now, I guarantee you my dad helped by toning down his sarcasm by a lot after that. He wanted to make sure that I knew what was happening when he spoke to me, to make sure that I was part of the joke rather than the butt of it, and worked to make sure I never thought he was mean again.

I swear, with all the seriousness that I have, that if I didn’t have Garfield I might’ve never picked up that there was anything other than literal language. I didn’t have words for things like social skills, pragmatic language skills, or non-verbal communication. Neither did my parents, both of whom are autistic and both of whom went through life without a formal diagnosis. All I knew was that understanding sarcasm made me less literal because they had that word. I knew that being less literal was good, even if I didn’t know why. People even started laughing at what I said, not because I’d done something wrong that I didn’t understand, but because I had said or done something funny.

I miss my dad terribly because in a lot of ways he was the one in my family who understood the amount of work and effort that I was putting into things. He saw how hard I have worked my whole life to grow. I love my mom, but I never quite made sense to her. I’d still put myself in front of a bullet for her. But I digress. You’ve heard part of why Garfield is important to me, now I’d like to talk about how I’ve chosen to read Garfield today.

Garfield Complete Works: Volume 1

I was thinking quite a lot about my dad one day, about the social skills I’d worked so hard to develop, and how that ball had started rolling out of reading Garfield—a minor miracle when no one knew why, exactly, I had the problems I did for so long. From those thoughts and a strong sense of grief, I bought the new Garfield collection, which is larger and sturdier than my old rectangular ones. It covers 06/19/78 to 12/31/79, including color Sundays.

Reading through it, I saw the genesis of much of my sense of humor. The structure of how I made jokes, the ways I’d use my sarcasm in casual conversation, the idea of something absurd or dark being funny. It held such essential foundations in expressing my sense of humor that if you took it away from who I am today, I don’t think I could tell you a knock-knock joke.

If you’re ever curious what I’m like alone, now you know.

And some twenty-four years after my first exposure to the comic, I can happily say it’s not a nostalgia trip when I laugh at it. It’s a good, funny comic, with a sharp sense of humor that comes across well in the brief time it takes to read a strip. Yes, it’s simpler than the complexities of other works that I enjoy in terms of dialogue and art. So what? My favorite fantasy story ever has art with stick figures, and it’s perfect for what it’s doing—serving the needs of the medium and story. In Garfield, the art is as detailed and expressive as it needs to be, no more, no less. There’s a tightness to the jokes and the art that makes the humor land exactly as intended.

It actually reads better in a collection than it does in a daily newspaper since the setup and punchline sometimes occur across two or three days. I can attribute that to Davis’s relative inexperience with the format (while he did have a comic strip before Garfield, Gnorm the Gnat, he has never missed a chance to disparage its quality), he does seem to control the pacing of the jokes better as time goes on, along with various artistic improvements. He became a better writer and artist, and the biting (no pun intended) humor still surprises me, even half-remembered.

Who here thinks anyone can pull this off today?

There is one note I need to make about the completeness of the collection: specifically, that it IS complete. Most Sunday strips for newspaper comics have three rows of identical width, the first of which is typically a title page taking up 2/3rds of the first row and a secondary, throwaway panel with its own joke. There’s a very complicated explanation for why newspapers do this related to the desire to rearrange comics in different heights and widths, but that’s not the point unless you’re Bill Watterson. What does matter is if you’re familiar with the practice, this collection’s lack of a third row up top may seem like it’s incomplete. This isn’t the case—Garfield did not have a third row for several years after it began publication. With the dailies in black and white, the whole comic is here, top to bottom.

Today, Garfield is a comic that people consider to be a mascot of a character, devoid of personality and there for a quick buck. Even my favorite comics writer/artist, Don Rosa, found the comic infuriating compared to the amount of time and effort that he’d put into his own newspaper comic, Captain Kentucky, enough to put in a harsh attack in his critique of newspaper comics as a whole. But here’s the truth: Jim Davis said that he wanted to create a character and strip that could make money, so he created Garfield. Chester Gould said the same thing and he created Dick Tracy. Both of them succeeded in what they were trying to do in wildly different ways, and neither of them is any less of an artist for it.

The comic isn’t any less for it.

The comic doesn’t mean any less to me for it.

I’ve pre-ordered volume two, and I’ll be recommending volume one to parents of autistic kids and autistic adults every chance that I get. And even without that? I think you’ll get exactly what Jim Davis was looking for.

Jim Davis.


You can buy the Garfield Complete Works collections at the affiliate links below.

Garfield Complete Works: Volume 1 – 1978 & 1979

Garfield Complete Works: Volume 2 – 1980 & 1981

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