It’s no secret that I love newspaper and online comic strips — especially the traditional ones. Now, I don’t know if you follow the “Heathcliff” cartoon — you probably don’t — but, friends and neighbors, believe me when I tell you: It’s gone completely bonkers.
“Heathcliff,” a single-panel daily cartoon about an orange-striped cat, is perpetually upstaged by that other daily cartoon about an orange-striped cat, “Garfield.” But “Heathcliff,” which debuted 50 years ago this September, actually pre-dates the better-known strip by five years. “Heathcliff” hasn’t been featured in a movie (yet) but the comic strip has inspired at least two animated TV cartoon shows — one in 1980, one in 1984.
And there are some distinctive differences between the two orange tabby cartoon cats. Garfield is extremely lazy, gluttonous and sarcastic, offering snide comments about the world and people around him. Heathcliff is sneaky, but industrious, and he never talks, even in the form of word balloons — he pantomimes or simply “meows.”
And whereas Garfield more or less behaves as a furry human, Heathcliff’s behavior has always been more in line with that of a real tomcat — albeit one with human levels of intelligence.
That doesn’t stop him from engaging in different money-making schemes. Heathcliff is a bit of a con artist, a petty thief and a ladies’ man (er, ladies’ cat), who nominally lives with Mr. and Mrs. Nutmeg and their grandson, Iggy, but is generally on the prowl, on his own, all night and most of the day.
Created by cartoonist George Gately, “Heathcliff” (for most of its existence) relied on a rotating series of more-or-less traditional comic strip gags. The main character made life miserable for dogs, mice and goldfish. Heathcliff would steal food from the fish market and the butcher. He evaded the local animal control officers (unless he was helping them catch dogs). He would tip over garbage cans and root around in the mess, and he would “sing” (actually yowling and screeching) in the middle of the night, much to the annoyance of the neighbors.
Oh, and he’d go out on dates with his girlfriend, Sonja. Indeed, “Heathcliff” has long been one of the few funnies in your local newspaper where there was no doubt: The main characters are balling. Often, in fact.
Gately’s nephew, Peter Gallagher, took over the cartoon in 1998. And while the artwork hasn’t changed much — and the cast of characters remained largely the same — “Heathcliff” has over the past 10 years or so become increasingly surreal and sometimes barely comprehensible, on the level of “Zippy the Pinhead” or the classic early 20th century comic strip “Krazy Kat.”
Don’t believe me? Here’s Wednesday’s cartoon:
So Heathcliff has an android now? And the birds can talk but he can’t? OK.
Here’s another, from last week:
It works on a “Far Side”-type surrealistic level. But is it funny? I don’t know. I enjoy it, but I’m not sure why.
One of the running gags introduced by Gallagher is that Heathcliff sometimes expresses his opinions or advertises his activities by wearing a helmet with just a single word on it:
That particular trope is reminiscent of the late 19th century cartoon character “The Yellow Kid,” widely believed to be one of the first successful newspaper comic strips. The “Kid” never spoke, but expressed his opinions by wearing smocks with writing on them.
Another running gag introduced by Gallagher is the character of “Garbage Ape,” a mysterious creature who emerges at night and tips over the garbage cans for the neighborhood cats, making him a folk hero to them and other wildlife, including raccoons:
The raccoons in “Heathcliff,” like the birds, can talk. But Heathcliff, the star of the cartoon, can’t. No, I don’t know why.
I’m not disliking any of this, mind you. The real world is too darn serious anyway, and as I’ve written before, the world of newspaper comic strips is generally as boring as plain oatmeal and stuck at least 30 years in the past. Any weirdness that “Heathcliff” can put into the world — particularly on the practically comatose newspaper funny pages — is appreciated.
Gallagher is very aware that at least some newspaper readers regard “Heathcliff” as more confusing than humorous.
As it turns out, he doesn’t give a shit.
According to a 2018 article in The Outline, Gallagher is a rock ‘n roll musician from New Jersey who contributed weird (and slightly raunchy) cartoons to various alternative publications before taking over his uncle’s newspaper comic strip.
Gallagher told writer Max Genecov that he basically decided to bring his weird, alt-comix, rock ‘n roll sensibility to a mainstream newspaper cartoon, and see what happened: “I just felt like I had to go for it instead of going halfway and trying to please everybody.”
He told Genecov the cartoon is created through a process of doodling gags and pictures until he hits on “what I think is funny,” and he isn’t quite able to define what that means, except that he doesn’t want to do traditional newspaper gags any more.
Gallagher is also aware that various Internet nebbishes have written blog posts trying to explain the weirdness of “Heathcliff,” and that delights him.
So “Heathcliff,” it turns out, is written mostly to amuse its creator. Much like a certain Saturday afternoon oldies show in Pittsburgh is mostly programmed to amuse its host.
I can get behind that spirit. And I’ll keep reading “Heathcliff.” The pictures are reliably funny, even if the punchlines are sometimes incomprehensible. It may be weird, but at least it’s not boring.