“He’s furry, he’s fat — he’s a cool, orange cat.”
Confessions of a Lazy Cat
If you have ever come across The Old Possum Book of Practical Cats by TS Eliot, or watched Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical Cats, you would know that “he” is nothing like Macavity — the mysterious yet irresistibly debonair feline — or the badass thieves Rumpelteazer and Mungojerrie. In fact, “his” persona is completely antipodal to any of theirs.
Yet no one defines ‘cool’ like him. A lazy, fat, orange cat who hates Mondays (not like he leads a salaried life, and hence has to go to work during the week) — yes, we are indeed talking about Garfield. And he said hello to us for the first time on this day, 40 years ago.
During the 1970s, artist Jim Davis was looking to create a “good, marketable character”. And he did. Nothing captures the everydayness of the “marketed” American life as Garfield —a fat cat who glorifies consumption, and is the epitome of indolence and indifference.
The world’s most syndicated comic strip, the Garfield franchise now includes a massive range of merchandise, besides films and television shows.
If you think about it, thematically, Garfield is about nothing in particular. At the best it is a story of laziness. I am sure you have been taught all your life that an idle (read lazy) mind is the devil’s workshop.
So how come a celebration of laziness be so popular? Hence, today, on the 40th anniversary of its publication, we are not going to take the oft-tread path and bombard you with history and chronology. Instead we will talk about that horrible vice known to man(and cat)kind as laziness.
In Defence of Being Lazy
Not only is Garfield lazy, but he is also the only creature who works hard to be lazy. While I was growing up during the early ’90s in Kolkata, my father would often take me to Free School Street — a haven for old books and LPs. It was there that I first picked up my first two copies of the Garfield comics-series.
In of the first strips I read, a disgruntled Garfield can be seen battling with finding the perfect reclining position to watch the television. The next panels show him rushing out, and coming back with a tool kit. What the lazy cat goes on to do is nail the television up on the ceiling, so that he can watch it while lying on his back from the comfort of his cot.
Garfield may be the ultimate laggard, but is clearly the wittiest pet around. Think about Odie, the other pet in Jon’s household, Garfield’s owner — the mindless dog who is the classic idiot. Garfield is manipulative, and his relationship with Jon thrives on manipulation, with both of them trying their best to ply each other to attain desirable results.
The American conveyer belt economy is just this — the manufacturer who is ever manipulating you to consume their product, and you, who are fooled into thinking that your feedback, and choice to buy or not buy, is compelling them to better suit your needs. But Garfield is allowed to be lazy, though much to the chagrin of his owner.
But then there are others who are not fortunate enough to have the luxury of being lazy.
Think about it this way — Garfield and Jon also, at the very best, share a proprietary relationship. Jon ‘owns’ Garfield, but our smart cat hardly ever seems to embody that ownership. It’s like an employer and his employee. But employees cannot be lazy, can they? That would be antithetical. Workers are supposed to be productive, not some lazy bums. Why pay them otherwise? This brings us to two questions: What counts as laziness? And, who is allowed to be lazy?
The Luxury of Being Lazy
Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, among other things, concerned the very idea of ‘being productive’. In a letter, collected in his biographical sketches, Quincey writes about cotton mill labourers under the influence of opium, and the problem their employers had with their addiction.
What appears from Quincey’s correspondence is that the workers’ wages were lowered because the employers thought their opium-eating made them less productive, and sluggish. Given that their normal wages could never afford them the luxury of ale, opium was probably the only accessible intoxicant. But what is of importance to us in this context is Quincey’s next observation.
He goes on to note that for a person like him, who has once been exposed to the sweet intoxication of opium, alcohol becomes a “gross” and “mortal” entity. By ridiculing the choice inebriant of the rich, Quincey exposes a rather unfair dichotomy. Alcohol and opium are both intoxicants, inducing the same ‘laze’ in rich and poor (employer and worker) alike. It’s only because the former is more expensive, and preferred by the elite, that the laziness it induces is absolved of all sins.
Comics and a Lazy World
During my childhood, I never remember my mother not being angry at the sight of me sitting down with a comic book. After all, what can be a greater indicator of being completely unproductive than sitting down with a comic book in hand? Comics are not ‘serious’ reading, they are just fun flippant stuff. You don’t see kids, or adults reading comic books anymore. It’s a fast-paced, production-oriented world after all.
Cartoons have history of being political, owing to their deployment in the print media. But comics? They only feature in a lazy person’s arsenal. Then what about those ‘comic books’ that have ingeniously, and (most importantly) humorously got back at regressive conventions, orthodox practices and politics? Think about Art Spiegelman’s Maus, or MarjaneSatrapi’s Persepolis, or Joe Sacco’s Palestine — all graphic novels which evolved from comic strips.
But just like any art form, comics and cartoons can also be used for propaganda. About 50 years ago today, a cartoonist named Bal Thackeray, who would later go on to become the undeclared ruler Mumbai, founded a party called the Shiv Sena. Today is also writer Salman Rushdie’s birthday. A large part of his book, The Moor’s Last Sigh, concerns the fascinating images that the protagonist Moraes Zogoiby’s mother created. Though there are no illustrations, the visual permeates the verbal in Rushdie’s book, much to the effect of a ‘lazy’ comic book. Incidentally, Rushdie also chose to lampoon Thackeray in the book by creating a character akin to him, Raman Fielding, nicknamed Mainduck, the frog king.
The war of images and words can be fought, lost, or won. But what about laziness? Imagine a situation where you could have stood up for someone, but decided to keep tapping at our mobile. Weren’t you being lazy? A lazy world is not hell, but a selectively lazy one is.
(The Quint is republishing this story from its archives to mark Garfield’s 40th birthday. It was originally published on 19 June 2016.)