Heathcliff is the original orange cat of the funny pages – predating Garfield by approximately five years. The strip began in 1973 and told of the exploits of an eccentric cat. Here, Heathcliff annoyed his neighbours, pestered local dogs, begged for food, and pursued female cats. All regular cat things, although presented in a cartoonish and humorous manner.
Heathcliff creator George Gately followed the format throughout his career. He eventually handed the strip over to his nephew Peter Gallagher in 2001, where Gallagher continued his uncle’s blueprint. However, over time, the strip has gone down the route of absurdism. This type of humour was sprinkled in the usual kinds of jokes but became more commonplace in the second half of the 2010s. By circa 2017-2018, this absurdity became the general mode of operation.
Before discussing the absurdity, I should explain the strip’s format to anyone unfamiliar. Heathcliff is a one-panel gag strip that contains a caption below. It’s a similar format to what you see in The New Yorker. A central square image captures Heathcliff in medias res, in the middle of the action but frozen in time. Below that is a single line of dialogue, quoted by an onlooker in the above image. Often this is a human, but it could be a bird or a snail. Together, they create the gag. The visuals are the set-up and the text the punchline. Here’s a classic strip as an example:
In this new mode, Heathcliff still does cat things occasionally. However, this eccentric cat became much larger than life. In some ways, he became Kramer from Seinfeld. An enterprising cat who lives an outlandish lifestyle. He’s an entrepreneur, a trendsetter, a fashion icon, an elbow-brusher with the rich and famous, and doing things by his own rules. Heathcliff is no longer bound by what a cat is meant to do. Whether it’s at home or around town, he’s getting out there and making the most of it.
Gallagher exploits the strip’s new direction by establishing a new set of recurring gags. Some of these have become mainstays of the strip, such as the variety of helmets, beards of bees, and flying bubblegum. Others are used more sparingly, such as the Garbage Ape or the Meat Tank, so as not to overexpose them. All these new gags become a deep well for Gallagher to draw from, getting topped up with new ones occasionally.
These gags are intentionally absurdist. Unlike a strip like Garfield, which has a strict set of rules by design and brand management, Heathcliff has an anything-goes mentality. It has certainly helped that the long-running strip didn’t have the same pressure to appeal to the broadest audience. As fewer newspapers are circulating syndicated comic strips, many legacy strips have had a strange second life (predominantly) online. Here they’re evolving into weird and interesting shapes while still capturing much of the core of what they have been for decades.
For some, this may feel chaotic. (A cat like Heathcliff could collapse society as we know it if he chose to.) You’re either going to love it or hate it. Heathcliff is a strip with a passionate fanbase, which really ramped up as many people discovered (or older readers rediscovered) it in the early days of the pandemic when some of the wilder gags went viral online.
However, the absurdist nature of Heathcliff can leave you scratching your head on first exposure. I didn’t “get it” when I first discovered the strip. I assume many others were the same. It’s understandable as the one-panel gag strip captures a particular moment and is bereft of context. The caption often doesn’t explain how or why it occurred or where it will go next. In a roundabout way, that’s the joke. Some will find that dumb and move on. Although, if you stick around, you’ll discover plenty of gold.
You’ll need to read more of Heathcliff if you want to “get it”. Go a few months into the strip’s archive and begin to read. Here, you’ll pick up the cadence of the strip’s humour, get acquainted with the recurring gags, and see a fuller picture of what it’s all about. It won’t “explain” anything, but you’ll begin to understand the strip’s humour.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to give it context. This is where headcanon comes into play. For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s the act of the reader filling in the gaps of a story or character when there isn’t an official explanation. It’s common for superhero comics readers, often filling in the small details not seen on the page. It could be as simple as imagining Spider-Man’s favourite NYC deli or trying to explain when Batman goes to the bathroom. It’s also quite common in Star Wars fandom, with fans making up histories for background characters.
Developing your headcanon begins to explain the how and why of every strip. Ask yourself “why?”, “how?”, and “where?” when you read a Heathcliff strip and let your imagination take over. Suddenly, you have an answer to where Heathcliff gets all of those helmets, why he’s using a fish as a baseball bat, or how he became the undisputed champion of Garbage Night. Heathcliff goes from being a strip you don’t understand to something that has an explanation that’s unique to you. It’s part of the fun of reading, even if it’s unofficial lore that’s not likely to be acknowledged by the strip.
Let’s go through the exercise, shall we? Here’s one I found from 2017.
Let’s start with the questions. Here are some you could ask yourself:
- What is Heathcliff in court?
- What is his crime?
- Is it a serious offence?
- Who stacked the jury against his favour?
- What will their verdict be?
- Will Heathcliff face any repercussions?
As I mentioned earlier, the strip won’t answer these for you. It’s up to you to come to your own conclusions.
I imagine Heathcliff is coming up on charges of being a public nuisance. A minor crime with a hefty financial penalty if found guilty. To make him look bad, an unseen enemy – possibly the District Attorney or maybe one of the neighbourhood dogs – has rigged-up a biased jury. However, our furry friend will get off when the jury member has a 12 Angry Men situation and turns all of the others around.
That’s my interpretation. You might have a different one. The great thing about it is that it can be anything you want.
The absurdism is what makes Heathcliff so great. Let it wash over you. Trying to find answers in them is a fool’s errand. Instead, let every strip become a prompt to use your imagination. You’ll soon see why many people love Heathcliff and perhaps why children love the Meat Tank.
You can read Heathcliff every day on GoComics and in select newspapers.