Publisher’s Note: Today starts our coverage of Heathcliff — yes, you heard me, that “other comic” about a fat orange cat. Over the last half-decade, Heathcliff has changed in ways that are both strange and wonderful. In order to dig into the strangeness that is the Heathcliff newspaper comic, we’ve enlisted a group of cartoonists, critics, and scholars to dig into what makes Heathcliff tick… or perhaps, why it doesn’t. Today we start with Andrew Neal’s evaluation, which gives a nice background to the series. Enjoy!
Several years ago, I asked a friend what she was laughing at. She waved me over to her computer and played me a youtube video which looped a line from King Chip’s “Interior Crocodile Alligator:”
Interior crocodile alligator
I drive a Chevrolet movie theater
“It’s just so random”, she said. “What does it mean?”
“Sounds like he’s rapping about his car,” I said. “He’s got crocodile interiors, and it’s big and comfy, and maybe even has a TV in it.”
“If you say so,” she said.
There’s a tendency to insist that the beautiful, abstract language of the creative must be the output of a neural network. A tendency to attribute a work of genius to mental illness, or to say it’s the result of experimentation with drugs, simply because the reader has to grasp for meaning rather than having it shoved down their throat.
A tendency to dismiss the caption “Children love the meat tank” as meaningless nonsense.
To that, I say: Bullshit.
Here’s the part of the essay where you get a history lesson. First off, Heathcliff, created by George Gately, began as a syndicated single-panel comic in 1973.
The Gately comics were collected in paperbacks, which is where I first encountered Heathcliff. I have on at least three separate occasions in my life found myself in ownership of a copy of Heathcliff: Triple Threat, which features Heathcliff wielding a scratching post as a baseball bat on the cover. I don’t remember ever purchasing the book, but, like a haunted doll, it seems to reappear no matter how many times I think I’ve gotten rid of it.
Next, there were cartoons, or, as they are known to the academic elite, “anime.” In the mid-eighties, I occasionally endured the second iteration of the Heathcliff cartoon. The most notable detail of this show is that the Catillac Cats shorts included a hot cat wearing basically the same outfit worn by Linnea Quigley’s character Trash post-striptease in the classic film Return of the Living Dead.
In 1998, duties on the Heathcliff newspaper comic were handed off by Gately and his brother John Gallagher to their nephew, Peter Gallagher, who has been drawing the strip ever since.
Somewhere between 1998 and now, shit got weird.
I became a Heathcliff fan in 2018 after the debut of the newest iteration of Nancy by Olivia Jaimes. Because I was enjoying that comic, I poked around online to see if there were any other newspaper strips I might want to check in on an ongoing basis, and I landed on Heathcliff.
In paging through Heathcliff entries on gocomics.com, I was struck by several comics. One involved a poker player complaining that Heathcliff brought an owl with him to the game. The joke wasn’t that the cat was playing poker. The joke was that the cat playing poker brought an owl to advise him to the poker game and he wiped everyone else out, and someone finally thought to question that situation.
“OK,” I said to myself. Looks like I’m readin’ Heathcliff now.”
Over the next few years, I read more of Peter Gallagher’s Heathcliff, going back to 2002, when the gocomics.com Heathcliff archives begin. As I read through years of comics, I saw patterns emerge.
I noted Gallagher would take a trope, or a joke, or even just an idea that was absurd almost to the point of complete abstraction, and he’d start messing with it, folding the idea in on itself and repeating it with slight variation each time, like a Four Tet track.
Those are the first four comics in a week’s worth of dirt-themed Heathcliffs, and in the fourth strip, his weeklong dirt theme slams headlong into his ongoing helmet theme, which surfaces on an irregular basis. Heathcliff is at times depicted wearing a helmet with a single word emblazoned on it, frequently HAM or MEAT. The helmets have appeared in the strip for years and were recently referenced in the most meta Heathcliff I have encountered.
This thematic repetition occurs with bubble gum, with comic strip and celebrity cameos, with helmets, with a hideous but always celebrated creature known as the Garbage Ape, with lemonade stands, with Heathcliff’s rancid breath… Gallagher has created a language all his own, and he’s not scared to use it. He exhibits an enviable confidence as he explores his ideas, never stooping to exposition. If you haven’t seen the ham helmet before, and you come across a ham helmet strip in isolation, you’re not getting an explanation. You’re just getting the helmet.
Some people respond to this confidence with the joy that comes from knowing that they were wrong… that there is something new in the world after all.
Others say, “I don’t get it.”
This relentless exploration and layering are thrilling to me both as a reader and as a cartoonist. As a reader, reading Heathcliff is almost like having a friend with whom I share dozens of in-jokes. We don’t have to get to them all when we talk, but when and if we do, it’s fun.
As a cartoonist, it’s inspiring to see someone with the guts to give people the art without the artist’s statement built in, and I believe I’ve begun to do that more in my own work since I started reading Heathcliff.
At the top of this essay, I implied that the current Heathcliff strips by Peter Gallagher are frequently misunderstood. This is even true among cartoonists, who are as disparate a batch of people with a shared interest as you could ever hope to find. To illustrate this divide, I interviewed cartoonist, animator, and Heathcliff hater Josh Pettinger via email.
SOLRAD.CO, RESPECTED COMICS JOURNALISM WEBSITE: What are your thoughts on Heathcliff, specifically the current iteration as created by Peter Gallagher?
JOSH PETTINGER, WHO BELIEVES THAT DIZZEE RASCAL IS A BETTER RAPPER THAN BIG BOI: I have no opinions on the original Heathcliff because I’ve never read or seen them. My beef(cliff) started when people started sharing the current strips, which I find offensively unfunny, and drawn in a dated and unappealing style.
What is it you find offensive about the humor?
It’s zany but not fun, there’s no joke, just “Here’s a thing, and here’s another thing, these two things don’t normally go together, but here they are together, isn’t that funny?” and it’s patronizing.
Why do you think people have been sharing them?
I think the people who have been sharing them are probably in the midst of their mental faculties decaying as a result of this pandemic.
Would you say, then, that the humor is based in absurdity?
It’s a 50 year old middle-management-I-hate-my-wife-and-my-kids-wont-talk-to-me attempt at absurd humor.
Is there a comic that comes to mind that exhibits what you’re describing?
Meat helmet is particularly depressing but they’re all awful.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Just that I think people should enjoy Heathcliff if that’s their thing, but in the privacy of their home, and don’t share it because I don’t wanna see it.
Friends, I think you’ll find it unsurprising that I disagree with Pettinger. I don’t think there’s anything dated, depressing, or offensive about Heathcliff. But hey, it takes all types, right? And I did like his “beefcliff” joke.
Here’s the thing, though. Cartoonists are maybe not the best judge of how successful a comic is. For that, we need to talk to the common man, that dreary sap who goes through life not with a head full of colorful ideas, but with a pocket full of money from his job that actually pays him a living wage.
I found my common man in the form of my neighbor, Charles Roche, who, as I was working on this essay, walked brazenly into my yard by means of the sewer easement I’ve been mowing since the beginning of the pandemic so that I would have a place to exercise. Despite being scandalized by this invasion of privacy, I used my razor-sharp wits to coax Roche into an interview after he stated with some pride that he’d had a Heathcliff birthday party as a kid.
This interview was conducted in person and has been edited to remove twenty-three minutes of discussion of the hot cat from the Heathcliff cartoon.
SOLRAD.CO, THE PEOPLES’ COMICS CRITICISM OUTLET: Alright, I think this thing is recording now. You said you had a Heathcliff birthday party as a kid?
CHARLES ROCHE, CARPENTER, YARD INVADER: I guess it all really started around a sale rack with different varieties of birthday plates. I picked Heathcliff because I knew Heathcliff. I started off liking him from the newspaper comics. I remember Kitty Korner from the Sunday comics, and I was watching the TV show.
What year was that?
And you liked Heathcliff already. Before you saw the plates.
I liked him because, I mean, what were his contemporaries at the time? There was Marmaduke, Family Circus, Ziggy-
There’s of course Garfield.
I’m talking about he’s hanging out in the one panel.
In that single panel zone.
Yeah, and there was no competition there.
Maybe you had the Lockhorns, depending on your paper.
I never had single panel Lockhorns. I always thought they were a three panel comic?
Now that you mention it, maybe they ran three single panel comics together. And what was that in Parade magazine? Howard Huge?
I don’t know if I knew Howard Huge.
The worst Marmaduke rip-off, like a Saint Bernard.
So what you liked about Heathcliff –
He was unrepentant! Unrepentant is how I would describe Heathcliff. It’s because of his upbringing.
His parents are in jail! I assume his mom is there on prostitution charges.
A broken family.
He’s a baby in the alley, but then this weird family with grandparents and a kid take in this cat who doesn’t do anything but make their lives harder. I loved that he was in that situation: everybody’s life is harder and he doesn’t care.
So you’re saying Heathcliff’s entire personality is “fuck you!”
Yeah, and as a kid I really loved that about him. I identified with him… He was doing what I wished I could do. I’m not a cat person, but I still was into Heathcliff. He’s a horrible pet but a great cat.
Ah, out of the mouths of neighb’s!
“Unrepentant.” That’s the perfect description of Heathcliff as he is even now, and perhaps even of his current creator, Peter Gallagher. In Gallagher’s work, I see evidence of a cartoonist who works with intent, with precision, with the desire to take an idea and dissect and reassemble it until its meaning is so debatable that considering the strip is a truly collaborative experience.
There’s no wrong way to read Heathcliff. It’s a newspaper comic, after all. It makes sense that you might see it in your local paper every now and then. It stands to reason that you might encounter it on Twitter when a strip goes viral and people insist it must have been written by some type of robot.
But there is a right way to read Heathcliff: read a bunch of them. Pick a place to start – really any time in the last five years is great – and just go. Let Heathcliff wash over you. Feel the rhythm as helmets, robots, parachutes, and the Garbage Ape slide past you in waves, and you’ll begin to feel a tickle at the back of your brain.
Don’t be scared. This feeling is an invitation. An invitation to leave behind your preconceived notions of what a newspaper comic can be, of what a joke must be. I can’t promise you will understand your journey should you choose to accept this invitation. There are no guarantees. There is no obvious path to enlightenment. You may bash your head against a wall repeatedly, but if you keep at it, one day you may find yourself laughing at a newspaper comic as hard as you’ve ever laughed in your life, and your wife or brother or coworker or metamour will ask what you’re laughing at, and you’ll show them. And they’ll say…
“I don’t get it.”