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Garfield’s retro telephone

2011 December 18

Okay, apparently it’s “comics digression weekend” here, but it is the weekend after all, and work is winding down for 2011 anyway. FYI I have no idea what will happen to blogging the next couple of weeks; there may be more but I may take a break instead.

In the meantime, does anyone else find something a little bit odd about today’s Garfield comic strip?

Old timey telephone in 2011 'Garfield' comic strip

Copyright Paws, Inc.

Look at that phone. What year is this??

Now, I used to be a big Garfield fan (we’re about the same age as it happens). I loved the cartoon, read the strip daily and had the first 25 collections plus various other merchandise (of which there has never been a shortage). Then I went off to college, however, and now I don’t really ever see the good old “funny pages” or even print newspapers, period.

Still, I was at the supermarket this morning and saw this Garfield strip on top of a pile of Plain Dealers. And since I was waiting there, I took a closer look, and saw the panel in which the telephone rings (I’ve only excerpted part of the strip here). And I thought “wha…?”

I mean, when was the last time you’ve even seen a telephone like that in real life? Really, these days it’s arguably becoming an anachronism to even depict relatively young people making social calls on a land-line phone, at all. A boxy, corded model like this one, however, is just plain bizarre. It might as well be a rotary phone, or even an old “candlestick” model. I think the last time I recall encountering one of those boxy phones in everyday life was my college dorm, circa 1997. And I’m guessing those phones were already fairly old stock, even by then. Certainly by the time I got a phone of my own, anything with a cord was probably a slimline model (unless it was an office console phone), and most home phones were cordless.

And, again, it’s now 2011 going on 2012, and mobile phones have gone from being something we joked about only drug dealers having, back in the mid 90s, to pretty much universal and, for many people, the only phone they have.

Except in the panels of Garfield, apparently. Where, for whatever reason, John, Liz et al. still have phones from 20 years ago.

And I’m just curious about this, from a visual design standpoint, in particular. What’s the explanation? I notice that Jon and Garfield still have an old CRT television as well, seemingly in a wooden or wood-finish case even. Is this an indication that the strip is simply on autopilot, at least visually?

Or is this intentional, and if so, why? Does Jim Davis feel like the design of the strip is complete, and he’s got an established set of characters and props, and redesigning them at this point would be more jarring than anachronistic household electronics? It occurs to me that one can look at the old phone, and old TV, etc., and see them as icons for these things rather than specific models. Just like Jon’s car is a generic, cartoon compact car rather than a depiction of any specific vehicle from any point during the strip’s existence.

I know that Garfield has always been, intentionally, rather “timeless” and devoid of any sort of topical references, so maybe that’s part of the thinking behind a world in which technological change seems largely absent. Except the strip is still published on a daily basis within a world where technology does change, and in which there really is no truly “timeless” scenery or humor; sooner or later “timeless” inevitably turns into “period piece.” If Jon’s abstracted, cartoon car can manage to look contemporary longer than, say, the disguises of most of the original Transformers (most of which have been redesigned, unlike Jon’s telephone), that still doesn’t mean it won’t ever become an anachronism. As the boxy phone and television already have.

So what does Jim Davis think about that, I wonder. From what I know of the man I don’t think this is all simply unconsidered, or evidence of a strip on autopilot; accounts I’ve read of Davis suggest someone engaged in ongoing, close scrutiny of every detail of his funny-feline empire. So, is he cool with Garfield gradually turning into a 1980s period piece, particularly for younger generations? Given the demographics of newspaper readership and the time-capsule nature of the typical daily “funny pages,” that’s not really unimaginable. Though, of course, Garfield has long been much more than just a newspaper comic strip.

Maybe contemporary scenery is brought in for other-media adaptations, though, even as the comic strip clothing styles and props are unchanging; I haven’t seen the live-action Garfield feature film, but I imagine that it didn’t recreate some timelost world where phones and TVs hadn’t changed since 1986. (If it did, though, someone let me know.) As for the CGI animated Garfield Show, I’ve seen a few episodes online but at the time I wasn’t really looking for visual anachronisms. Although I do recall a general sense of cultural lag, particularly the concept of locally-produced TV, and kiddie-show hosts, which seem to have largely died out everywhere except cartoons. (See also: The Simpsons.)

Anyway, frankly I really have no conclusion, here; I’m really just musing on questions which I personally cannot answer. But I did think it makes for some interesting musing, all the same.

One Response
  1. December 22, 2011

    i think the old school technology is still being drawn because it’s bulkier and more pleasing (albiet in an antique way) to the eye… a modern smartphone is just a little rectangle. if a cartoon character were to put one of those up to their ear, the hand would totally obscure the phone… making it look as though the character was talking into his/her hand.

    i guess i get all nostalgic about phones that only used to do one thing…

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