"I hate context!" The Adaptability and Spreadability of Garfield's Many Memes

Curator's Note

The comic strip Garfield by Jim Davis has appeared in newspapers for decades, but it has experienced a rebirth online. This rebirth has taken the form of reproduction, remixes, and absurdity in Lasagna Cat, Garfield Minus Garfield, Gramfel, and numerous others. So why has this pasta-loving, grumpy cat seen so many different iterations as a meme? What makes this seemingly mundane comic strip (and other media texts like it) particularly well-suited for (re)distribution as memes? Or, as meme creators and distributors might say, what makes it “meme-worthy?”

Perhaps what makes Garfield meme-worthy is not the possession of some special quality, but rather a lack. The comic, arguably, often lacks comedic elements or substantial cultural context. It frequently emphasizes overly mundane or quotidian topics, e.g “I hate Mondays.” The original lack of context allows meme creators to add their own. Furthermore, the popularity of Garfield means that, while the comic effectively serves as a universally applicable or adaptable tabula rasa, it is also recognizable and familiar to a broad audience. Perhaps, then, this void of connotation or expressiveness is perfectly suited for reappropriation in meme form where creators can ascribe their own context and ideas onto a media text accessible in the American cultural lexicon.

These media texts are not, however, completely removed from their original contexts. Even in all of the various meme versions, Garfield retains something of itself that makes it recognizable to the larger audience. Garfield might still eat lasagna, or he may be grumpy, or there may be a John-type character. Even as they recontextualize and remix Garfield, meme creators capitalize on Garfield’s latent textual elements (lasagna, Mondays, John, etc.). The meme, however, is in the usage and the spread, not the content.

This could explain why a picture of Kermit drinking tea has been repurposed into thousands of different contexts but nothing is ever his business, or why stills from the 60s Spider-Man show have been captioned, posted, and shared but always seem to highlight the goofiness of the original animation style. Perhaps Garfield — and rage comics, advice animals, and others by extension — is “meme-worthy” because of its anodyne quality or lack of predetermined context that allows others to give it a whole new life online.

Comments

Renee Hobbs's picture

A Blank Canvas for Expression

The universality and timelessness of the Garfield character and his everyday situations have been mined for humor. Perhaps Garfield is now a contextually blank canvas, suitable for repurposing. Lots of culture works this way.

Now I wonder if meme-makers are merely exploiting the familiarity (and former popularity) of the character as they search for ways hook audience attention. I also get the sense that the Garfield meme makers are engaging in playful transgressiveness by disrupting people’s warm-and-fuzzy feelings towards the character.

Melanie Wolske's picture

I wonder if this is the case

I wonder if this is the case for the ubiquitous Arthur meme that’s popular right now. It has been totally removed from the feel-good, innocent 90s child cartoon and taken to absurdly funny levels that are sometimes (to the creators chagrin)… how can I say, not exactly PG-13. And yet, the meme seems to be most popular among those who grew up with Arthur cartoons, so it looks as if some context is required to appreciate the meme.

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