I know there’s a lot going on right now, and the politics of long-running comic strips about orange felines may seem especially trivial, but listen: Vice President Mike Pence, a key member of the corrupt and reactionary Trump administration, loves Garfield the cat.
And that should be a wake-up call to everyone in America.
Pence is a bad, stupid man who once publicly argued that the Disney film Mulan was liberal propaganda that encouraged women to serve in the military — where, he feared, they would have hot, sinful sex with men. In his law school days, he drew profoundly unfunny comics for the campus newspaper, and I am not exaggerating when I say it actually hurts your eyes to look at them. He’s a far-right religious weirdo and bigot, so it already stood to reason that his taste in art is worthless, but especially in the realm of cartoons, he is not to be trusted. That he spent five minutes on the floor of congress in 2003 wishing Garfield a happy birthday is a stark indication of the character’s inferiority:
In theory, Pence’s fondness for the comic is merely a regional matter; the famous feline lives in Muncie, Indiana, the home of creator Jim Davis, which lies within the congressional district Pence represented. As governor, he handed out Halloween candy with Davis himself.
Yet Garfield fandom, whatever its origins, entails the rejection of a different, entirely underrated orange cartoon cat. I’m talking, of course, about Heathcliff.
I happen to share an alma mater with Brandi Brown, a Minnesota comedian and writer who describes herself as the U.S. Heathcliff Laureate. Indeed, her expertise is formidable, and she often tweets about how much better Heathcliff is than Garfield — as well as Garfield’s unseemly connection to Pence. I figured she’d be willing to go into some detail on why America would do well to dump the lazier, more recognizable kitty and embrace the mischievous, independent Heathcliff, and I was right. “Yes. I will get yelled at by the internet for this particular thing,” she wrote back when I sent her a DM.
Brandi doesn’t see much to love in Davis’ comic strip. “First of all, Jon Arbuckle [Garfield’s owner] is trash and Liz [Garfield’s vet, later Jon’s girlfriend] should leave him,” she told me. “All the characters surrounding Garfield are terrible. Garfield is… fine? But Heathcliff… he is a better cat. He does stuff. He is out in the community. He stands up to the police. He is a jobs creator and he stimulates the economy of Westfinster. Unfortunately he sometimes robs people. But they let him back into their shops so he must still spend more money than he costs them in theft.”
“Also, he is clearly smarter than Garfield,” Brandi noted. “Heathcliff is privileged but does not forget that not everyone is as privileged as him.” Which makes it all the weirder, she said, “that Pence seems to think Garfield would have the range to run for President. There are plenty of Heathcliff comics where he is campaigning and has won over politicians. Or made their lives hell.” Garfield, meanwhile, “doesn’t do shit but hate Mondays and eat lasagna and be a dick to a dumb dog who isn’t even trying to fight him. He’s not self-sufficient.” Seriously. Take Jon away and he’s pretty well screwed.
Beyond the Indiana connection, I posit, Pence might have gravitated toward the Garfield franchise precisely because of its blandness. Lacking even a whiff of politics or ideology, it’s a low-risk proposition, offending no one — much like the hollow calls for bipartisanship and “civility” in government. Brandi agrees with that assessment, speculating that Pence may be a fan of similarly dull material: He “probably also reads Mary Worth with Mother [his pet name for his wife, Karen Pence]. And he’s definitely a Plugger,” she added, referring to the baby boomer fandom of a series that comics critic Josh Fruhlinger memorably called “lower-middle-class reactionary agitprop.”
“No one hates Garfield,” she continued. “I don’t even hate Garfield. But honestly, I can’t think of anyone more likable from Indiana than Garfield, and one of my best friends is from Indiana. Garfield is never gonna get himself canceled. Very easy hitch your harmful, dangerous self to that. But I just want to put this out there,” she wrote, sending me an especially disturbing Garfield strip — in which Jon forces himself on Garfield’s vet — and commenting, “Complicit-ass cat.”
And I thought the one where Jon drinks dog cum was bad.
Even so, perhaps it’s best to let the philistines have their Garfield and keep Heathcliff an acquired taste. Brandi doesn’t mind that Garfield debuted five years later and has proved more popular — which she chalks up to Heathcliff’s “troublemaker” status and Jim Davis being “a marketing wizard.” And Heathcliff’s creator, George Gately, passed away years ago, leaving his cat in the hands of a nephew, Peter Gallagher, who has brought his own strange sensibility to bear. Most importantly, though, Brandi doesn’t want to share her fave with the vice president. “Mike Pence is terrible and I’m glad he doesn’t fuck with Heathcliff,” she concluded. “I do wonder if Chris Christie fucks with Heathcliff though. Since they are both of New Jersey. I wonder if Anthony Scaramucci prefers Garfield and that’s why he never responds to my DMs.” Sounds likely to me.
But just to be clear, it’s not as if we don’t have room in our hearts for multiple cartoon cats — and politicians should probably have to disclose any preference. The voting public deserves to know where its leaders stand on Sylvester, Felix and Tom. Brandi’s best-case scenario? “God, I hope we find out Kirsten Gillibrand is a Hello Kitty stan.”