The Garfield Controversy
by Cal Sindel
December 7, 1999
Many readers and loyal fans of the popular daily comic strip "Garfield" were shocked and outraged last Friday, December 3, when the star character, a fat cat with attitude and the strip's namesake, mauled his owner of 21 years, Jon, in a scene so violent and gory that many papers refused to run it. Jon was taken to the hospital for hemorrhaging immediately after the altercation, where he remains in critical condition and experts warn he may never fully recover.
In Friday's controversial strip, the character Garfield became enraged when Jon refused him lasagna; something any regular reader would warn against. In response, Garfield, possibly in a rage induced by the character's long-time anabolic steroid use, attacked his owner, clawing at his face and then biting into his jugular vein, rupturing it. Luckily, several concerned neighbors phoned police to report the disturbance. The strip ended with Jon being rushed to the hospital and Garfield being taken away in handcuffs by Animal Services. Blood from the incident soaked clear through to the Metro section.
"It was awful," says Becky Reinsch, a Garfield fan who complained to her local paper about the strip. "The paper was completely soaked with blood that day. I had to hide it from my children."
"It was the most horrific and disgusting thing I ever saw," said Jessica Newton, who now calls herself a "former Garfield fan." "I opened up the paper and blood dripped out onto my lap, and then I screamed and called the police when I saw Jon's body lifeless on the floor in the last frame. He didn't look like he was breathing."
Another fan, who asked not be named, also phoned the police after a friend called her on Friday morning, hysterical over the strip. "He sounded really shaken up, so I called the police, and they found him a few hours later completely naked, wandering the streets near his apartment, crying, with blood on his hands."
But some say they saw the whole thing coming. Garfield has had a long history of steroid abuse and morphine addiction since the very early '80s, and his battle with alcohol dependency has been a recurrent theme in the strip for the better part of last year. Things started to get worse, however, in April after Garfield witnessed his girlfriend, Arlene, cheating on him with another, bigger cat. Their relationship ended shortly thereafter, and Garfield fell into a deep depression.
In May, Garfield was arrested for DUI, and in July, he was taken to detox following alcohol poisoning. Last week, Garfield's personal demons came to a bloody and sad climax.
"Garfield had been drinking rum all week," said Nathan Schmidt, a Garfield fan from Ontario, "his speech was slurred on Tuesday, and by Wednesday he had become belligerent and verbally abusive to Odie and Nermal. I knew something bad was going to happen, but I felt powerless to stop it."
Schmidt says he called the strip's creater, Jim Davis, repeatedly over the last week to warn that he sensed something was wrong, but received only an answering machine with the cryptic message, "Each gets what he deserves. Beep."
"On Friday the paper came," recalls Schmidt, "and it was completely soaked with blood. I knew without even opening it that something awful had happened to Garfield."
In the days following the attack, a controversy quickly welled up regarding the strip's content. Many parents and legislators are asking, should a cartoon cat be allowed to maul a cartoon man in a daily newspaper? What does an incident like this say to our kids? And what are the consequences? As the laws stand now, fictional characters bear no legal responsibility for their actions. Even if the laws are changed, as Senator Rod Gramms (R), Minnesota, is proposing, it would still be too late to punish the assault that left Jon in critical condition. That means that no matter what, Garfield remains free.
"I'm afraid he's gonna walk," lamented Gramms during a Senate hearing Monday on comic strip violence, "and there's nothing we can do about it...it should never have hapened[sic] in the first place, but with new legislation on the books, we can keep it from happening again."
The Senate hearing regarding violence in newspaper comic strips was scheduled several months prior to Friday's "Garfield", but the attack added a grim note of urgency to the proceedings.
Many industry watchers are quick to point out that the recent "Garfield" is only the latest incident to cast the spotlight on the increasingly violent world of newspaper comics. In just the past six months, Blondie shot Dagwood in his sleep, Pigpen raped and murdered Lucy, Hi cheated on Lois with an underage schoolgirl, Cathy experimented with heroin, Beetle Bailey made threatening comments to Miss Buxley, and Dilbert exposed himself to a female coworker, receiving a shot of mace to the eyes and a kick to the groin.
All of this is what prompted the Senate to take action. "We have to think about the millions of children® who read these strips daily and absorb all of this violence," Senator Gramms wrote in a letter to divisiontwo. "Last Friday, the moral degradation of America was splattered all across its funny pages. Hopefully, my legislation will protect our children® from ever having to see such an atrocity again."
The ACLU has already released a statement threatening to sue if the proposed legislation should be enacted into law, citing free speech and free press issues, as well as the constitutional right to show graphic cartoon depictions of rape, murder and torture to children under 5.
Jim Davis, author and creator of Garfield, was reached for comment, but he didn't say anything terribly interesting.
Previous Feature Stories:
November 10, 1999 - West Virginia's Homoerotic Military Academy may be forced to open its doors to women.
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