The Pipe Strip Analysis

By Hieronymous, 2016

“The Pipe Strip” is a 3 panel western comic by cartoonist Jim Davis. It was published on the 27th of July, 1978 in US newspapers under the United Feature Syndicate network. It had an immediate and profound cultural impact, and still merits fresh discussion to the present day, 41 years later.

The Pipe Strip

The surface level of the strip is simple. We see a man. A plain-looking man who is not named in the comic (although we know he is called Jon) with large collars symptomatic of the style back then - he clearly cares about his appearance at least a little. Hes holding a newspaper, perhaps the Chicago Sun Times, which infamously dropped “Garfield” from its pages in the 1970s before public outcry forced them to reverse that decision. Or perhaps not. The newspaper, and its contents, are unknown to the reader. But we can surmise from the lack of images that Jon is, if not an intellectual, at least engaged and interested in the more cerebral side of current affairs. He is reading this newspaper, holding it up to his face. But even as his eyes scan the page, the fingers on his right hand creep out. They tentatively tap the table, searching for something. Something they can’t find. He stops. He lowers the paper - it’s in his lap now. He looks to the camera, eyes slightly askew, and it hits him. His pipe is missing. Where could it be? He returns his hand to the seat-rest and he thinks - not says - to himself “Now where could my pipe be?” Now where could my pipe be. A simple statement, on the surface, brilliantly condensing Jon’s apparent state of mind.

We don’t see it, but something remarkable happens off the page, hidden from us. Jon realises suddenly what’s happened to his pipe. The knowledge corrupts him and possesses him absolutely and he is suddenly all-too certain of where his pipe is. Garfield, an orange cat, has the pipe. And he is smoking the pipe. It is Jon’s pipe, but Garfield the cat is smoking it. Garfield has stolen the pipe, we assume. And Jon simply shouts a single resonating word: “Garfield!”

A very simple but important visual analysis can be made very early on in a student’s investigation of this comic. The shadow on the plain wall in the left hand pane slopes downward. There is nothing on the wall at all, no pictures or decorations, just this steady downward sloping drawing the eye to the next panel. And similarly, on the right panel the clear curved line of Jon’s pipe directs the eye back to the centre, which is the critical component of the piece. The central panel is central in many ways. Obviously geographically, but it is also the only panel dominated by flat horizontal lines, and also the only panel where Jon is looking toward the reader, breaking the fourth wall and commanding your attention. Unlike the other panels, there is no small copyright text or signature to detract from the clean lines - this panel is uncluttered and deliberately conservative to underline its importance. This shows Jon just before his fall. The Jon we see in this panel is pure and naive. He doesn’t yet understand what has happened to his pipe, but simply and childishly wonders “Now where could my pipe be?”. He supplies questions like a newborn babe, and is blissfully without the answers.

Jesus and Disciples

The genius of this comic is its ubiquity. Anywhere you look in the world you can see a microcosm of the missing pipe. Two characters. A naive and childish man, and a chaotic malicious cat. A missing object, here a pipe. That moment of realisation and destruction of innocence. A timeless saga that is played out over and over and over and over and over again in the very world we live in! In the wars men fight, in the dead leaves that flutter down from the tree, in the majestic dance of the heavenly spheres in their orbits, losing asteroids like pipes to smaller, faster planets, it’s all there if you just look for it. The man, the pipe, the cat. The central Jon is clearly a biblical figure from the way he is the only character staring at the reader, similar to Jesus’ or the Prophets’ portrayals in traditional Christian illuminations (right). On the left hand side of the strip is Naive Jon, taking the place of Jesus. Which leaves, in his traditional right-hand position, Garfield. He sits in the Angel of Death’s place, and it is clear why. The cat in this strip is superficially a force of pure chaos and evil, stealing a pipe and smoking it in a display of sinful decadence that clearly parallels the hidden degeneracy that Jim Davis saw in the intellectual societies of the 1970s. The pipe has long been a symbol of the intelligentsia, and its original ownership of Jon’s and its theft are by no means accidental. Take for example the famous pipe smoking character of Georges Simenon’s, Jules Maigret. A plain but intelligent man, Jules is a fair and goodhearted person, extremely similar to Jon in appearance and ethos. But compare and contrast this naive but saintly paragon with another famous pipe smoker - Josef Stalin. Stalin was given power by the far thinking political philosophers of the 19th century and Jim Davis here is suggesting that the kind of horrific mass murder and deprivation due to him are an inevitable consequence of unchecked and unbound free thought. The metaphorical pipe, representing the torch of knowledge, is bound to be purchased by the innocent (Naive Jon) before being stolen by the wicked (Garfield). Just as Jon was oblivious to the threat in the first two panels, so too were the Communist elites of the early 20th century oblivious to the monster they had birthed.

Many have called Jim Davis a Nazi, and while that case can be made, I think that the message he is sending about the strict controls he thinks should be placed on free thought is more complex than that. Once Jon realises the pipe (a pure manifestation of his ideology) has been taken, he knows exactly where it is. Jim Davis offers hope for the future of humanity with the accuracy and swiftness of Jon. Just as the Soviet Union fell in 1991, it is inevitable and obvious that Jon will get his pipe back (although we are only shown this implicitly). There are many more points in this vein that can be made, but alas these pages are too small to contain them all.

Consider the colour. The walls of the room are reddish pink. We assume it’s a house, but we cannot be sure. The floor is green. The walls are red, the floor is green. Red and green. This motif is a powerful one, and is directly related to the character of Garfield. Garfield is portrayed as a cat, and it is a little-known but stunning fact that cats are colourblind only in the red-green spectrum. Garfield must be too. He can see colours, but he can’t tell the difference between the wall, the floor and (we assume) the ceiling. His is both literally and spiritually confused, and in a humorous punchline Davis reveals the floor colour in the final panel - Garfield quite literally cannot tell up from down (in the room’s geography). But this is much more than just a hilarious joke.

Garfield’s rage and destructive personality may not be the product of inherent evil or even Original Sin like the biblical imagery seems to suggest on a shallow level. Rather, Garfield is a product of his environment. He is trapped in a featureless room with maddenly indistinguishable geography, a classic example of a cell designed to wear its occupants down mentally. While comparisons to the then-current and controversial leaks of CIA black site operations may be far fetched, it’s a point worth bearing in mind. Jon appears calm and peaceful, but if he is the person who designed this ‘rage cage’ then he is secretly the one responsible for Garfield’s angst and self-damaging behaviour. Smoking is bad for humans, but a cat who is several times smaller will feel the effects a thousand times more severely. By smoking Jon’s pipe, Garfield is shortening his life significantly - perhaps he has been manipulated by Jon into killing himself for Jon’s own sick and twisted amusement. His intelligence, showed by the dense print of his newspaper, thus takes on a more sinister aspect. In the central panel, Jon looks peculiarly calm and unconcerned - almost as if he knows what is happening the whole time. The central panel is the only panel without a black border and thus, we can surmise, may not even be a reflection of reality at all. Where does the white outline come from? Garfield’s pipe in the final panel.

There are two interpretations of this crucial fact. Firstly, the central panel may not be what is literally happening but rather what Garfield’s nicotine-addled animal mind thinks is happening. Garfield imagines himself to be in control and powerful now that he has stolen the pipe, and imagines Jon being in a state of confusion. Perhaps in reality, Jon is smiling evilly as he contemplates Garfield’s highly increased chance of lung cancer and respiratory problems. Notice how both the thought bubble and the speech bubble are extensions of this smoke - are we to conclude that the Jon depicted is an extension of Garfield’s pipe induced haze? It is quite possible Jon never behaved in such a manner but rather it is Garfield’s paranoia (stemming from stealing Jon’s pipe) projecting how he imagines Jon would react. Similar to how we as a species are so self conscious we believe everyone is thinking about us when that really couldn’t be further from the truth. The crushing possibility is Jon himself may even be too self absorbed to give any thought to Garfield or his pipe, such are the unknowns. Garfield can’t escape this anxiety whereby Jon is always critical of him, and is in fact the victim here, subjected to expert and cruel psychological torture. You see how quickly the moral values of each character swing around with each layer of analysis. A simple glance may yield the biblical similarity, and without the knowledge of feline optometry the deeper, more sinister truth may go completely undetected.

Another option that may be true (or at least a facet of the the truth) is more abstract and offers insight into the nature of the Universe itself. The smoke from Garfield’s pipe may be literally forming reality. With every deathbringing puff of Garfield’s, he literally creates the world around him for others to enjoy. Now behold this sudden reversal! It is Garfield, not Jon, who is the Christ-figure! He is sacrificing himself to grant the world life, a Messianic act which resonates powerfully throughout Christian history and thought. Although we thought of Naive Jon as being on the left hand side of Central Jon, if we look at it from Central Jon’s perspective we get the exact opposite result! Now Garfield is Christ, and the so-called Naive Jon is the Angel of Death! Just like in real-world conflicts and struggles, a complete reversal of moral positions can result from a simple perspective shift, and the real ‘good guys’ are impossible to determine. When this comic was first published in the majority of papers it was printed simply in black and white, to represent the shifting greys of morality and to show how unfathomable real ethical responsibility is to determine. The thousands of people who read the grayscale strip were, through no fault of their own, completely unable to perceive Garfield’s colourblindness and its startling implications for the true villain behind things. This was a metanarrative Jim Davis boldly explored to use his chosen medium, the newspaper comic strip, to its fullest.

But there are further layers. For example, the pipe is a classic phallic symbol, and Garfield’s theft and sexually provocative smoking of it is a way to spite Jon, the patriarchal figure. Garfield is a tabby feline, also known as a “pussycat”, not a coincidence. Garfield represents the 1970s’ burgeoning feminist movement, and so in this way the comic is like a time capsule, granting future readers an insight into the political events and culture of the time. In 1976, the same year as this comic strip was released, Susan B Anthony day was declared a US national holiday and the first marital rape law was enacted in Nebraska, making it illegal for a husband to rape his wife. This comic can be read as a triumphal display of the changing attitudes towards women’s rights and the strength of the organised disobedience of second wave feminism, especially in the US (due to the nature of Davis’ audience) but also throughout the entire Western world.

The comic’s comment on familial structure and assigned roles (Jon the homeowner, Garfield little more than a pet) echoes this idea and also demonstrates an understanding of Structuralist Lacanian thought. Lacanianism is also briefly explored in the pipe’s imagery - questions of unconscious fantasy or delusion are raised and not answered, but the primary thrust of this argument is toward the symbolic order of kinship and even family. A key part of Lacanianism is the idea of the mirror stage to demonstrate the imaginary nature of the ego, and this idea is represented full force in the comic which is itself symmetrical about Central Jon’s face - two fundamentally similar and bonded characters seated either side to him in profile. If this seems like a stretch, consider this later comic strip by Jim Davis, explicitly palindromic and inherently mirrored in nature. Lacan’s psychoanalytical thought prevails throughout the majority of Garfield’s thousands of strips as this clearly demonstrates. Note the red and green colour scheme, a striking and powerful callback to the earlier “Pipe Strip”.

Palindromic Strip

An idea which is both incredibly obvious and incredibly deep is the inherent absurdity in the Pipe Strip’s premise. A cat, as everyone knows, would have great difficulty smoking a pipe due to its lack of opposable thumbs and the idea of a cat being motivated to perform such an arduous task is even more incredible. On the surface level then, this comic uses this surprising ending as a devastating comic punchline, but it also has inextricable ties to Jim Davis’ many thoughts on existentialism. The pipe is important to this - it is of course a clear reference to the Magritte painting "The Treachery of Images" where a pipe is painted above the words ‘ceci n’est pas une pipe.’ The painting is perhaps the best-known example of a metanarrative conveyed by paralanguage, and the simple text underneath the pipe is extremely similar to the way comic book dialogue hangs immaterial around and in between the world depicted. By having this pipe metaphor, Jim Davis reminds us that ‘ceci n’est pas un chat’, or ‘This is not a real cat’. He tells us that this comic is not meant to be read literally, as it is of course a foolish and unrealistic premise - he tells, no urges, the reader to look deeper to discover what the strip really is, if not an accurate recording of events.

And so we conclude - what is the Garfield strip of the 7th of July, 1976? Surely an enigma, but equally generous in the knowledge and enlightenment it provides to those who dare to investigate it. A blank slate, yet full of meaning nonetheless. It stands alone in the pantheon of great human art, proudly keeping its deepest secrets to itself. Just as Michelangelo’s Pieta has survived the civilisation and culture that birthed it, so too will The Pipe Strip. Jim Davis will die, Western society may collapse and the world itself may crumble, but The Pipe Strip will be there, waiting, educating the children of the far future in beauty, conflict and strife in the troubled universe we live in. I tremble with joy to think of the far-off minds that will examine this masterpiece, and only wish that I could be there to hear their divinations and findings. Alas, the strip’s final tragicomic lesson for me and you is this: unlike art, humans do not last forever. The shadow of mortality casts its gloom over the comic and ponderously reminds us that even the lifetime of study that many devote to The Pipe Strip is not enough to even begin to understand it on a fundamental level. Stars will die and be reborn before such a thing can be even contemplated.

The Pipe Strip

In that sense the Pipe Strip is one thing, and one thing only: the physical manifestation of death and ruthless Time itself.


If you have found a mistake, have a complaint, or for any reason wish to get in touch with me, you may use the email below.