Garfield, the lasagna-loving comic strip cat who hates Mondays, has remained curiously relevant in the age of the internet. Credit the existential despair of offshoot Garfield Without Garfield, or perhaps the strange deluge of earnest inquiries into the intricacies of Garfield’s very existence. But Garfield hasn’t been funny, even ironically, for a very long time.

Enter Heathcliff, another orange cat who, despite being created five years before Garfield debuted, has always played second fiddle in the funny feline space. But he’s also persevered into the digital age, even if his fuzzy antics are more or less relegated to the ever-dwindling funny pages. A new piece on The Outline tries to explain why.

Heathcliff is no longer drawn by creator George Gately; now, it’s Gately’s nephew, Peter Gallagher, who, since 1998, has “steered Heathcliff in inexplicable directions that have only gotten stranger with time.” What author Max Genecov and the several people with whom he discusses modern-day Heathcliff comics can agree on is this: Heathcliff is still funny, and nobody can quite articulate why.

In the ‘90s, Seinfeld had a bit where Elaine harassed the editors of the New Yorker into admitting that a one-panel comic they’d run was actually just pure nonsense, something that looked and sounded like a joke without actually telling one. And, well, that pretty much sums up Gallagher’s Heathcliff comics, which are funny not in the way Garfield comics ever were, but rather in the way Garfield merchandise is.

They include bits like this:

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And then there’s Garbage Ape, a recurring character who Genecov describes thusly:

Perhaps the encapsulation of this bewilderment is the Garbage Ape, a recurring character in the comic that comes up frequently in my interviewees’ Heathcliff-related works and thoughts. The placid, silent Garbage Ape delights all the alley cats who see him, whether he’s swinging old-timey garbage cans by paradoxically holding them by the lids, blankly driving a tank, or transforming into an AT-AT from Star Wars. If you are to be comfortable with this comic and its Ape, you have to submit to its strange logic and simply enjoy its existence.

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Gallagher shares his own thoughts on his comics in the article, but even with his explanations, reading Heathcliff remains an inherently befuddling, mysterious experience. “[What] makes Gallagher an outlier in the funny pages, however, is that it’s impossible to tell how much ass he’s putting into his work,” Genecov asks early in the article. “A whole ass? A sixteenth? Does it even matter when what hits the reader is the comic’s peculiarity and not the effort behind it?”

Read the whole article here.

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