Accidental Normcore Dadaism
April 7, 2018 7:38 AM   Subscribe

The internet oddballs who think the ‘Heathcliff’ comics are deep. The banal strangeness of second-most famous cat in comics, and it’s surprisingly hard to reach creator.
posted by 1970s Antihero (31 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Heathcliff isn't deep, exactly, but it knows it's a gag-a-day strip running on pure repetition, so it makes the repeated elements into such extreme shorthand that when some surface variation is added, the underlying gag on which the variation is hung becomes invisible to anyone not already aware of it.

Think about that old kind of joke where a dumb character -- Biff Tannen, say -- gives us a clichéd setup but mangles or mismatches the punchline. Do that twice over instead of once and you have the formula of Heathcliff.

Garbage Ape, for example, is a wacky play on the whole "alley cats like rummaging in garbage" trope from old cartoons. The idea is that the cats would appreciate another entity that spilled the garbage everywhere. Since it's an intelligent animal strip, that entity is another intelligent animal, an ape.

But it's just taken as....given that cats like trash and hat sealed trash cans, and then that there's this wacky Garbage Ape gag specific to this strip on top of that, so the end result is that it's hard see that Garbage Ape turning up as a Star Wars walker or whatever is meant to be a topical variation (Star Wars is back and its fans love it!) on a wacky spin (Garbage Ape exists and the cats are fans because he smashes open garbage cans) on a very old premise (cats love garbage and hate how hard it is to get into sealed trash cans).

Likewise, stuff like Heathcliff buying pizza with birds as a topping isn't the joke, but the premise for a joke -- the birds fly away. And it all works if you just go with the "he thinks he's people and everyone else is too cowed to disagree" premise of the whole strip, plus the "cats like eating birds" cliché.

Notice that the Sunday strip shown -- and the Sunday strips in general -- are less obtuse at first glance because they don't use this extreme shorthand and instead do a full setup and punchline structure.

The strip is more self-aware than, say, Marmaduke ever was, and the creator is clearly playing with how far he can take the shorthand and whimsy...but I believe Gallager when he says it's not meant to be a pisstake of a strip. It's just a strip boiled all the way down to its basics and its visual shorthand, then topped with wacky variations that are mildly surreal at times.

It's just that the foundational gags are so slight and (in some cases) so dated that all we notice is the effort at oddball variation of them without spotting the initial comedic reference point. In contrast, strips like Garfield or Marmaduke spends a lot of time pointing at and reestablishing the running joke to make sure we get it, so it just seems repetitive and boring.
posted by kewb at 8:05 AM on April 7, 2018 [38 favorites]

I thought the birds gag was a meta-riff on how they look, in the panel, like they are coming from the pizza, whereas they are in fact in the sky.

second-most famous cat in comics
B. Kliban drew many cats, not one cat character, but this still seems unjust.
posted by thelonius at 8:16 AM on April 7, 2018 [6 favorites]

From the article: "While composing Heathcliff, he’s “just doodling and drawing and writing words” until he hits something — like a sketch of Heathcliff flying in the air — and he starts to write a comic around it."

He also talks about how seeing the arguments about Heathcliff online made him say “I just felt like I had to go for it instead of going halfway and trying to please everybody."

I'm pretty sure that explains not just Garbage Ape, Garbage Ape Thanksgiving, and Garbage Ape AT-AT Imperial Walker, but also the progression between the three.

Also: Newspaper comics are inherently surreal as a concept these days. They used to make sense. You read the news, and you had the comics as either an aperitif or a desert. The comics were a way of drawing in readers, broadening out the already broad market base. This is true: When Blondie was first introduced a major bit of background was about a wealthy young man who'd been disinherited for marrying a flapper. That is the degree of cultural shift that has happened over the lifetime of 'the comics'. It came into existence in a time when it acceptable for men to wear hats and smoke pipes. Now it's a literal lifetime later. Newspapers are a dying medium and the concept of news seems to be taking a drubbing as well. But the comics page rolls magnificently down through history, not letting a little thing like that affect it. Gasoline Alley has been running for a century FFS. So as this awesome and enduring rubber unicycle of an illogical unjustified institution continues to wobble down into the future, is it not fitting that the comics themselves should begin to reflect the fundamental absurdity of their position? And as we are road hauled down the highway of time by a 2 ton truck covered in MAGA stickers and rolling coal, is it any wonder we look to the comics page in our turn?

This uh... seems to have gotten away from me. Still. It is all kinda weird right?
posted by Grimgrin at 8:51 AM on April 7, 2018 [26 favorites]

I totally agree with you, Grimgrim. I occasionally see the local paper's comic page, and half my struggle is trying to understand the current context of comic reality, which has diverged from our reality. There's "Peanuts", running its zombie paces with Charles Schulz long dead. There's "Garfield" on auto-pilot, Jim Davis long-satisfied with his income. There are comics that just fill slots, the "office-joke comic strip" and the "cute child comic strip". You've explained why "Blondie" is the way it is (stuck in a perpetual 1950s because it is pushing against its origin in the 1920s), but I can't even account for "Alley Oop" any more. I grab the comics, read them, and then wonder why I still have the eager anticipation of happiness that is in no way satisfied.

The same sort of unreality seems to exist in "Dear Abby"; people with the sort of problems we see in "Ask Metafilter" do not ask them of Abby; she gets the same questions her mother got, and seems to give the same answers. it's Performance Art designed to calm the queasiness of modern life: nothing has changed, the cat still tries to steal meat from the butcher shop (the butcher shop??); the toddler still steals cookies out of the cookie jar (the cookie jar??); the husband still won't do the dishes.
posted by acrasis at 9:22 AM on April 7, 2018 [15 favorites]

second-most famous cat in comics

Krazy Kat being first, of course.
posted by Splunge at 9:23 AM on April 7, 2018 [13 favorites]

Sadly, Krazy Kat is now the RC Cola of comic strip cats. O tempora, o mores.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:38 AM on April 7, 2018 [8 favorites]

Dammit, the second most famous ORANGE cat in comics.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 9:54 AM on April 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

Dammit, the second most famous ORANGE cat in comics.

Bill the Cat isn't happy to hear that. ACK!
posted by Liquidwolf at 10:14 AM on April 7, 2018 [24 favorites]

Acrasis, in the late 90s there was a Blondie strip depicting Dagwood complaining that she hadn't gotten the brand he liked. The next panel showed him pushing a cart in a market looking chagrined.
posted by brujita at 10:29 AM on April 7, 2018

Heathcliff the animated cartoon was on TV after school in the 80s. That sweet spot of the day watching cartoons with your dog, eating a bowl of cereal, a good hour or two before any one else came home. You got a lot of bang for your buck with that show. It was two episodes in one time slot. Without having to look it up, I recall the first episode always featured Heathcliff and his young owner. Hrathcliff would terrorize the neighborhood and chase after female cats. He liked to torture people with his awful singing at night. The second episode didn't feature Heathcliff at all. It was about a gang of junkyard cats. The leader wore a big poofy hat and had a beautiful girlfriend. The story usually centered around the three henchcats. They had a junkyard hideout that could transform into a Cadillac. Often Heathcliff would beat-up the henchcats in the first episode (I think).
posted by Brocktoon at 11:14 AM on April 7, 2018 [12 favorites]

The comments here are much better than the article.

I had completely forgotten about Heathcliff, and thought it was much older than that.
I must have been reading it when it was new.

I find the weirdness of the state of current newspaper comics fascinating, but I think in a lot of ways it's the state of comics in general. And a lot of it today, like music and other arts and media, is judged by whether one is involved in large traditional media or not.

I wonder what the reaction would be if Heathcliff or other older newspaper comics were presented as new indie web comics and vice versa.
posted by bongo_x at 11:32 AM on April 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thank you for sharing! What a great article. I had no idea about any of this. My only knowledge of Heathcliff was from the 1980s cartoon TV show.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 11:36 AM on April 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

At first reading the article I was a bit befuddled by the idea that Heathcliff was particularly weird. Sure, that AT-AT Garbage Ape was pretty odd, but nothing super weird. I didn’t think they were bad, in fact somewhat amusing, but I understood the basic premise. The comparisons to dada seemed way off the mark to me.

Then at the end there was the “Lincoln Gym” panel and as I tried to make sense of what the hell it was suppose to be my brain broke. And I started laughing.

It’s such an weird idea, treated as if it were completely banal, down to two entirely superfluous characters commenting in such a way that anyone would understand the point.

My mind is refusing to let go, attempting to come up with some kind of way to make sense of it, but failing. The off-political off-topicality feels very dada.
posted by Kattullus at 1:28 PM on April 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

Lincoln Gym
posted by RobotHero at 2:47 PM on April 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

When I was on the editorial staff of my high school paper, we had a fantastic single-panel cartoonist. My favorite panel was a perfect ripoff of Marmaduke holding a severed arm in his mouth. The caption: “Oh, Marmaduke...”
posted by TrialByMedia at 2:57 PM on April 7, 2018 [6 favorites]

Lincoln Gym seems like it's straight out of The Far Side. But Heathcliff parachuting into the butcher shop whose sign says only MEAT, with the resigned Greek chorus duo giving us the lamest of puns (cats don't have a sweet tooth, they have a meat tooth, get it?), seems less like a simply whimsical take on a foundational gag, and more like employing the gag in an Andy Kaufman style, so aggressively lame and hackneyed that that's the joke type bit.
posted by mubba at 4:43 PM on April 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

The premise of Garfield is that if you give a housecat thought bubbles, it becomes a comically disagreeable jerk/shlub.

The premise of Gallagher-era Heathcliff seems to be that plus erasing all the naturalistic constraints with the protagonist being a housecat. There is no internally consistent world before or after the moment pictured, so it doesn't matter that he's on a hang-glider heading for the butcher's shop.
posted by acb at 5:05 PM on April 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

the toddler still steals cookies out of the cookie jar (the cookie jar??)

Oh shit are we no longer keeping our cookies in jars I feel like such a square now.

I have an Instant Pot. Am I supposed to be keeping them in that? Instant Pots are hip, right?

(Judging by the timeline of how soon comics creators digest the zeitgeist, I assume Instant Pots will make their debut in comics as unfunny, bewildering punchlines in about 5 years)
posted by jackbishop at 8:15 PM on April 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

But what if he was Romeo in black jeans?
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:12 PM on April 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

I hadn't realized Heathcliff had gone into full-blown surrealism, but I do appreciate the explanation of Garbage Ape.
Up until now, I've thought of Heathcliff as being to Garfield as Hydrox cookies are to Oreos - an early iteration of the same basic idea that somehow wound up being eclipsed in popularity by its successor. Guess there's a little more to it, though.
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 9:50 PM on April 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

Also, in case anyone's curiosity has been piqued: Heathcliff's GoComics website. There are certainly some repeated themes. There's been a week of strips recently where people can use bubbles blown through bubblegum to hover. For some reason. And yeah... I'm not sure if this, this, or this (unrelated to strips above or this) is Dada. On the other hand, I'm ALSO not sure if there is a meaningful distinction to be made between Dada and someone who has just stopped giving a fuck and now is primarily out to amuse themselves.
posted by Grimgrin at 12:58 AM on April 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

The second episode didn't feature Heathcliff at all. It was about a gang of junkyard cats. The leader wore a big poofy hat and had a beautiful girlfriend. The story usually centered around the three henchcats.

I am pretty sure you're thinking of Top Cat (TC) and his crew - Bennie the Ball, Chu Chu and Fancy Fancy. Different show, much more fun.
posted by tirutiru at 7:43 AM on April 8, 2018

I am pretty sure you're thinking of Top Cat (TC) and his crew - Bennie the Ball, Chu Chu and Fancy Fancy. Different show, much more fun.

Nah, he's thinking of Riff Raff and the Junkyard Cats - Wordsworth, Hector, and Mungo. Wordsworth roller skated and spoke only in rhymes; Hector was kind of crabby and Mungo was big and dumb. It was definitely the second episode in each of the Heathcliff cartoons. I was inexplicably fond of it.

(though Top Cat's theme song might have been a little better)
posted by DingoMutt at 7:46 AM on April 8, 2018 [4 favorites]

some of the comics featured in the article were hysterical, especially "MEAT".

It reminds me very strongly of Norm MacDonald, not so much stuff like the moth joke where it's overtly playing games, but some of his stuff from standup and SNL where he'll just tell a kind of bad and weird joke, often pun-based, and somehow make it hilarious.
posted by vogon_poet at 8:35 AM on April 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

This really makes me miss Permanent Monday
posted by churl at 8:55 AM on April 8, 2018

This Riff Raff wasn't broadcast where I grew up so I looked it up on youtube.

Verdict: Top Cat forever.
posted by tirutiru at 11:32 AM on April 8, 2018

Top Cat, voiced by Arnold Stang.
posted by Splunge at 4:02 PM on April 8, 2018

It is no wonder to me that Heathcliff has gone a bit weird. Imagine: You've been given a job that requires that you be funny, in the aggregate, once a day, in a unique and interesting way, and draw a picture of it, for the rest of your life.

Now imagine that a person who did that job dies, and now you have to pick up for him, and also try to mine new material from a premise that the prior person has probably rehashed dozens of times already.

I've been following Brandi's Heathcliff stuff for a bit. The Garbage Ape is just a surface manifestation of a deeper weirdness, and I'm not sure it can all be boiled down to kewb's summation. A favorite example is the Ham Helmet, an actual helmet such as a circus' human cannonball might wear, with the word HAM written on it, that Heathcliff sometimes dons to indicate his desire for that kind of meat. Why a helmet? Why not a lobster bib with HAM on it? And why does his family sometimes raise a flag over their house with the word HAM on it? Meat enthusiasm? The real answer: no reason.

When you try to create something logical, you intrinsically limit the size of the possibility space you're exploring. Even deep premises will get mined out eventually. The only true escape is whimsy, dada if taken to extremes.
posted by JHarris at 5:58 PM on April 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

Premise of gag: Heathcliff is devoted to ham, because cartoon cats are crazy for certain foods (in an exaggeration of real cat behavior).
Premise 2: When we are devoted to things, we emblazon them on flags.
Premise 3: Because Heathcliff is a powerful personality -- the classic "overbearing intelligent cartoon animal" -- he has bent his world to his drives.
Punchline: His family participates in his ham devotion by raising a ham flag.
Whimsical/Dada Twist: What if he put "ham" on something else? Maybe a helmet, for the alliteration.
posted by kewb at 3:37 AM on April 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Thanks for posting this. I had no idea how weird Heathcliff had gotten, and reading the article led me down a rabbit hole to this piece of brilliance.
posted by SystematicAbuse at 5:43 AM on April 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

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