thrift store finds: heathcliff rides again

(Thrift Store Finds is a mostly-weekly “column” of sorts where I discuss some of the cool books I’ve happened upon in my neighborhood St. Vincent DePaul store.)

Let’s play a game. I’ll say the newspaper comic strip… you tell me the cartoonist.

Peanuts? Easy. Charles Schultz.

Uh… The Family Circus? Ah, if you’ve been reading Thrift Store Finds for the past few weeks, you know it’s Bil Keane.

How about Heathcliff? Y’know… Heathcliff, the mildly bad-tempered orange cat? What? JIM DAVIS?

Nice try, but no… Jim Davis created Garfield. I can see where you’d be confused as Garfield is also a mildly bad-tempered orange cat.

This is something that I’ve always found interesting. Heathcliff is basically Garfield, only he presages Garfield by about five years. The origin of Garfield I’ve always read is Jim Davis’ syndicate (the company that brings all the comics to your daily newspapers) basically assessed the newspaper market and decided that there was a place to make money with a cat-themed comic strip that could be marketed for all sorts of stuffed animals and similar gee-gaws. That Garfield would share so many similarities with the already-established Heathcliff always stuck in my craw as a kid… even if I wasn’t an avid reader George Gatley’s comic strip (and yes, for those of you who’ve been waiting, that’s the answer. Heathcliff was created by George “Geo” Gatley.) What did Garfield have that Heathcliff did not?

Anyhow, a few weeks ago I found Heathcliff Rides Again in my neighborhood thrift store, and I thought it warranted a look… if only to satisfy my curiosity.

Printed in 1977 (a mere year before Davis’ Garfield would explode onto newspapers and rear windshields of cars across this great land of ours), Gatley has a nice clean style that I remember being a lot more scratchy from the times I looked at the strip in my youth. Heathcliff is a single panel gag strip with most of the jokes hinging on what a supremely badass little kitty he is.

The more I look at this strip, the more I like it. The composition is tops and the joke is just the right amount of vicious and sadistic.

Most of the strips in the collection are pretty timeless. Usually part of the fun of looking at old collections like Heathcliff Rides Again is finding weird references to the times, but aside from a muted reference to a brief 1970’s fad, I can’t come up with much.

I like the way Gatley “suggests” the background details.

So why was Garfield an insane success and Heathcliff less so? Well, I never carefully considered it, but reading this collection, I think I know the big reason. Gatley doesn’t give Heathcliff any inner life. We don’t get any perspective into Heathcliff’s point of view.  Whenever he does something, it’s always someone else (his owner, his owner’s grandparents, the guy who owns the fish store) talking ABOUT Heathcliff. Garfield, on the other hand, gives us a lot of leeway with his thought balloons… he’s more of a character. Heathcliff isn’t a character; he’s a force of nature. It’s hard to give a crap about a tornado, and it’s hard to really care about Heathcliff.

It’s a shame because between Davis and Gatley, Gatley’s easily the artist I prefer of the two. One panel gag comics are a very different beast than comic strips, but even when Gatley breaks away and does four panel or two panel strips, they’re way more visually appealing than the majority of Garfield strips, which are usually one line for foreground which Garfield stands on and Jon stands behind, and maybe a picture or some odd background detail.

I’m doing an awesome job of making Heathcliff sound like the Little Matchstick Girl here, but even if the comic didn’t attain HUGE levels of fame and fortune, it’s had a nice run. The comic still appears in papers today, although it’s become one of those awful legacy strips where the original creator hands his work off to someone else. In this case, George Gatley’s nephew Peter Gallagher has taken over the comic (much to its detriment, if a casual look at the last month’s worth of strips is to be believed). According to the ALWAYS CORRECT AND INFALLIBLE Wikipedia, a big CGI movie is being planned for the character, with a thespian no less than Academy Award winner Tom Hanks voicing the cat.

…and of course, there was that 1980’s animated series:

The weird thing about this cartoon is that besides being voiced by voice actor supreme Mel Blanc (the guy who gave Bugs Bunny his distinctive “What’s up, Doc?”), to me, the Heathcliff portions of the show were completely unmemorable. When I watched the show as a child, I was far more interested in The Cadillac Cats, a ragtag bunch of 1980’s stereotypes (One of them constantly wore a Walkman! They travelled around in a tranforming robotic tranforming car!) whose adventures made up the second half of the show.

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4 Responses to “thrift store finds: heathcliff rides again”

  1. I’ve always felt the same about the Cadillac Cats. They were the real reason we all watched that Heathcliff cartoon as kids.

    • Christopher Pearce Says:

      I think it’s interesting that the Heathcliff cartoon was the thing I remember most about the character… and look, one of the reasons is because Heathcliff had a voice and a distinct point of view. you knew why he was behaving the way he was.

  2. You spelt “Charles Schulz” wrong.

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