(Strip credit to Heathcliff strip and Creators Syndicate, Inc.)
I recently posted reviews of America’s favorite orange comic strip cats. In addition to the comic books and wrestling collections I also have a good size comic strip collection too. These used to be mass market paperback size collections or the long ones that Garfield made the most of and is now up to his 36th or something collection. Maybe higher. I watched both cartoon series in the 1980’s and have dipped back in to watch a couple episodes over the years. I always thought Heathcliff was an attempt to copy the incredible merchandising phenomenon that Garfield was in the 80’s. Imagine my surprise to find out Heathcliff came first.
Heathcliff debuted in 1973. Garfield was actually titled Jon after his owner in local papers starting in 1976 and then national in 1978.
Jim Davis was working as an assistant for another strip, Tumbleweeds, and trying to create his own series. He tried bugs which gave him respect as a creator but the theme of the strip never caught on. He looked at what animals were popular and noticed people love cats but there were no cat themed comic strips. Now, maybe. Maybe this is true. In 2020 if I created a comic strip I could easily search online to see if anyone else in the world has a similar idea. A task that would be much more difficult in 1976. Yet, he was already working for a strip that had national syndication. These various comic strip and newspaper column syndicate companies would be familiar with each other’s work. If two cat themed strips are coincidence both of these cats being orange begins to appear on purpose.
That said, these two cats are very different. Heathcliff has “owners” but is really more of a street cat. He wanders the neighborhood, steals things, has fights, loves female cats. He rules the neighborhood as the toughest animal on the block. It honestly reminds me of a cat that patrols our street. On the other hand, Garfield is content being a house cat. He might wander as far as the fence, but the majority of his tales take place within Jon’s property. Even trips to the vet, which are frequent, is not of his own free will. He controls his comfortable environment and rules over Jon, Odie, Nermal, and random mice or spiders. Most of his trips outdoors include anxiety over being taken away from his familiar surroundings. He is no longer the alpha feline that he can be at home.
There is also a huge difference in expression. Heathcliff never talks in the comic strip, nor does he have thought balloons. Garfield has thought balloons throughout his existence, which Jon can possibly understand depending on the reader’s interpretation. Garfield is a traditionally 3 panel long strip and Heathcliff a single panel. To express an entire scene in one panel without the main character talking or expressing his own thoughts at all is difficult.
Enjoying Heathcliff has become a way to support the under dog. Or under cat. He has struggled for years in the shadow of his Johnny cat come lately with the weight problem. New Jersey’s Asbury Park Press polled readers to pick just one cat for the comic page. Heathcliff lost by 2 votes. Two. He promoted cat litter. His strip always featured a final panel on Sunday’s called “Kitty Korner” spotlighting reader’s tales of the funny things their cats did.
In a way, Garfield is entitled whereas Heathcliff had to work for everything he’s ever had. Garfield sits in front of the TV, or the oddly high counter, and eats constantly. Jon shows concern about his weight but rarely concern over money. Even the strip moving forward to Jon and his veterinarian crush Liz dating, they only add more money to the household. Heathcliff meanwhile is out on the streets. He has to steal food. He has to fight. Yes, he has a home, but if you notice that home is never portrayed to have anything extra. Heathcliff’s “owner” Iggy either visits his grandparents often or lives with them. Based on his friendships with neighborhood kids, I’m leaning towards Iggy lives there. What happened to his parents? They are absent. The Nutmegs are an old couple. They already raised their kids. They were planning on living the rest of their lives on a fixed budget. A budget that not only did not include Iggy and all that he will need in his growing years. That kind of tight financial situation could be destroyed by something that seems so small as having a cat. Food, vet bills, paying back the local fish monger. There’s no end to the money pit that could be known as Heathcliff. That’s why he helps the dog catchers and enters so many contests. Any money coming into the house, no matter how small, helps the family. Meanwhile Garfield sits in his magic Christmas present chair and expects the world’s riches to be brought to him.
Heathcliff should be seen as the hard working every man. Every cat. Trying to live his life right and supporting his family and loved ones. Garfield has some great holiday specials but day to day for over 40 years is a selfish creature of ego and gluttony.
This was a ton of fun to write. I found two books featuring each cat in a box and the more I read then researched the more I had to write this piece. Of course I love both characters and most of this is meant as a joke. However, I am now searching for the Heathcliff comics from Marvel’s Star Comics imprint. I’m curious if he talked in those. Also, the history behind Heathcliff’s cartoons is fascinating.