Old cartoons have a weird way of living forever on the internet. Through their sheer abundance of material and the help of a nostalgic, digital-savvy fan base, the anthropomorphic cast of Arthur found a second life as a vehicle for very funny, somewhat mature memes. Thanks to vast online databases like Frinkiac, The Simpsons’ intricate universe lives on in reaction GIFs and shitposting forums. And then there’s Garfield, the comic strip about a sarcastic cat that has become parodied enough to justify entire listicles of its variants. The internet has joyfully molded Jim Davis’s work like a putty ball, editing Garfield out of the panels, removing his thought bubbles, replacing him with a generic-looking orange feline, randomly recombining the comic’s panels to generate new material, and even re-creating the strips in deeply weird live-action videos.
But before this endless stockpile of Garfield parodies ever came to be online, a far more vast collection of them existed in the real world. Thanks to Davis’s liberal merchandising philosophy, Garfield variants are near omnipresent, existing in the form of shirts, mugs, cookie jars, Pez dispensers, Christmas ornaments, and on and on and on. After years of this free-for-all image licensing, physical embodiments of the cartoon cat now float around on internet markets like eBay, Craigslist, and Etsy as reminders of his bizarre significance in pop culture. Earlier this year, a 16-year-old high school student named Quinn Lee began documenting this fascinating cache of products on the Twitter account @ebaygarfield. It features a wide range of knickknacks and stands as a digital monument to the comic’s undying omnipresence. The Ringer caught up with Lee to ask what inspired the account, how he chooses his source material, and why the internet just can’t forget about the mildly entertaining concept of a cat that hates Mondays.
It’s one of those things where he’s just everywhere. He’s become such a weird commodity that he can connect with pretty much everyone on different levels. He’s made to. There’s so much Garfield merchandise for every demographic that you can’t not know about him. He’s such a weird, ubiquitous pop culture icon. To me, it was already just funny. I think he was so big in my mind always. It was like, “Oh hey, there’s my friend Garfield. My very good friend that I always get to see.”
Your feed reminded me of all the Garfield stuff I had as a kid, which included personalized Garfield stationery that read “From the desk of Alyssa.” What have you learned about the reaches of merchandising with this project?
One thing that’s actually been brought up a couple times in my mentions, sort of a recurring theme, is that speech [Calvin and Hobbes creator] Bill Watterson did on licensing. I sort of see Bill Watterson and Jim Davis on opposite ends of the spectrum vis-à-vis merchandising. Bill Watterson is notorious for saying, no you shouldn’t commodify art because it’s very personal, and Jim Davis is just, like, rollin’ in that dough. When that happens to something like Garfield, it becomes depersonalized but personal at the same time. Seeing the extent to which every company is willing to slap Garfield on its products was surreal.
Tell me about the source material. Have you noticed any subcategories within the categories of Garfield merchandise?
As far as categories, I think plushies are my favorite in general. If you’re making Garfield merchandise, it’s a no-brainer, because he’s a cat. But there’s a weird sort of dissonance. With the official plushies it’s this fun costume that Garfield is in. He’s a surfer, or skater, or a fun ’90s kid, or he’s wearing a T-shirt showing off his sardonic wit, a “How do you do, fellow teens?” vibe. But then there are some that are just Garfield, but really bad. There’s nothing fun about it. It’s not even like, “How do you do, prospective market?”
There’s a lot of mugs. So many mugs. A lot of ceramic figurines that end up looking a little off, too. Those can either be pretty good, or wicked way bad. I think it’s the black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. Some are made out of wood. And those are just sort of like, Hey this is an orange cat, and it has nothing to do with Garfield, but I’m going to list it under Garfield. Those are just funny. As the gatekeeper of this account I just sort of added those to the Katamari ball of comedic concepts that this has generated.
Do you feel like you need to be strict?
I remember I saw this Heathcliff ceramic cookie jar. And I know Heathcliff, but he came up under Garfield. The eBay lister was wrong, so I was just like, “Oh well, this is funny because it’s not Garfield, but it’s very close. It’s Garfield-aligned.” Occasionally posting something that’s definitely not Garfield is funny, but people get mad about that. I got more replies on the Heathcliff ceramic cookie jar than any other, like, “What is this? This is Heathcliff, stupid!” I was like, “Chill out.”
I guess people are protective of Garfield. In the same way Arthur is familiar to a generation of internet users, this cat is also just something people grew up with and there’s a wide enough breadth of material to pull from to give him a second life on the internet.
Definitely. I feel like that’s the reason he’s gotten so big, but that’s also why he’s like Icarus. I do actually read the actual original comic strip. If you look at the old ones versus the new ones, he does sort of change because of the weird pop culture status he took on. Even really in his simplest iteration, Garfield’s whole thing is, like, he hates Mondays. It doesn’t make sense because he doesn’t have a job. But he’s just like, “Oh man, Mondays.” And he likes lasagna. That’s innocuous enough.
It’s also the type of thing where people love to laugh about laughing about it.
I’m not the first person to make a Garfield parody on the internet, but it’s a really interesting thing to me. Online, if you do anything to alter the existing comic, it immediately becomes funny. Sort of like a Poe’s law thing, where it’s like, “I’m going to kick Odie off the table for the 100th time.” No one’s really laughing at that anymore. But if you do something where it’s like, “No, look, it’s bad on purpose,” then people feel comfortable laughing at it. Because then they won’t be mistaken for genuinely laughing at it. Garfield internet culture is such a weird ouroboros of irony that so much can be done with it in that sense. He’s got that attitude about him that is so easy to parody, because he’s a parody of himself already.
When you see a Garfield in the wild now, what goes through your mind?
It’s sort of like when you see somebody and you’re like, “I know that person.” But then you get closer and you’re like, “Oh, wait, I’ve never seen that person before in my life.”
Do you have a favorite?
They’re all like my children at this point. I really like just all of the fucked up plushies. There’s one mug that comes to mind where it’s Garfield in an apron and he’s throwing up a mop and a handful of confetti. He has this deadpan face and he’s saying, “Being a mom is a party a minute.” Like, does Garfield have children? OK! Another good one is a sun shield, and Garfield is on it. He’s got a piña colada or some kind of margarita, and he’s sitting in a hot tub with sunglasses. It says “Born to be pampered” or something. Then on the back, it says in big blocky red letters, “NEED HELP PLEASE CALL POLICE.”
The other side is an emergency message?
I’ve had this joke very generously explained to me by people on Twitter, like I didn’t already know. But back when not everybody had cellphones, if you broke down on the side of the road a lot of those sunshields would have letters that are easily readable. They’re huge, all caps. But taking it out of that context, which I feel like is half this account, it’s just a funny set of images.
Do your parents like the account?
My mom knows about it and she’s just like, “I’m glad you’re having fun.” She thinks it’s funny but that I could be spending my time more productively. She’s very, shall we say, supportive.
An earlier version of this piece referred to Quinn Lee as female; Lee is male.