If you encounter some kind of Highlander scenario and you need to choose one and only one orange comic strip cat to be in your life, it should be Heathcliff. (Hobbes, being a tiger and also a doll, does not count.) Even though George Gately started drawing him in 1973, five years before Jim Davis debuted Garfield, Heathcliff is thought of — if he’s thought of at all — as an also-ran, perpetually in Garfield’s shadow, nothing more than (sorry) a copycat.
To describe the Heathcliff comic strip itself is at once simple and impossible. Josh Fruhlinger, whose blog The Comics Curmudgeon offers pithy analysis of daily newspaper comic strips, characterizes it as “a sort of standard-issue rambunctious-cat-with-recurring-characters strip that got taken over by someone whose sensibility is a little more like the Far Side, and now after some years keeps circling around the same set of 10-20 running jokes played out in endless subtle variations.” That “someone else” is Peter Gallagher, nephew of George Gately, who took over the strip in 1998 and has, in his own way, steered Heathcliff in inexplicable directions that have only gotten stranger with time. Gallagher’s version of Heathcliff lulls you into a state of cognitive dissonance. It doesn’t seem to contain jokes per se — go through a few weeks’ worth of panels, though, and they develop an internal rhythm that doesn’t quite make sense, but nevertheless feels like it does.
If you don’t read the newspaper, it can feel like so-called “classic” comic strips stopped existing quite some time ago. The only exception is of course Garfield, a strip so easy to dunk on that overweening deconstruction of the comic has become a dialect on the internet. However, there exists a small but vocal contingent of mostly young, mostly internet-addled individuals who are intent on reading deeper, if unintended, meaning into Heathcliff. Through its lack of sense, each person has their own private understanding of the strip, and even if they’re not sure Peter Gallagher is going for some grand artistic statement, they all feel that Heathcliff is a special, frustrating, and entrancing exercise in anti-comedic anti-art, existing right there in the mainest of the mainstream.
Brandi Brown, a Minneapolis comedian and proprietor of the dormant but exhaustive blog Heathcliff, For Why?, views the comic’s opacity as an opportunity to overanalyze and go down the rabbit hole. “Heathcliff is terrorizing a neighborhood, getting arrested by the cops (can we talk about how animal control only goes after dogs but the regular shitty cops handle cats? And how there’s a cat prison his dad is in? And cat lawyers?),” she offers as an example. Though her blog is defunct, her Heathcliff antics continue — for a time, she DM’d the strips to Anthony Scaramucci daily.
The daily DM. pic.twitter.com/EWqhfXWpS6— Brandi, Panda Diplomacy Investigative Journalist (@ItsTheBrandi) December 9, 2017
Self-described “writer who’s worked in comedy and has a shitty podcast” Nick Wiger is baffled by Heathcliff’s dad’s presence in prison. ("He’s an escaped inmate? Or an ex-con who still wears the uniform in his everyday life for some reason? Maybe it comforts him because the life inside was all he knew, and freedom frightens him, a la The Shawshank Redemption?") He claims that the comic’s bizarre laziness doesn’t anger him, but by the time he’s done describing a comic where Heathcliff skateboards by some kids who can only respond “It’s him,” Wiger reverses course and says, “I think I am actually mad.” But to be more precise, the comic’s existence amongst the normcore dregs of the funny pages makes him feel “a dumbstruck bewilderment.”
Perhaps the encapsulation of this bewilderment is the Garbage Ape, a recurring character in the comic that comes up frequently in my interviewees’ Heathcliff-related works and thoughts. The placid, silent Garbage Ape delights all the alley cats who see him, whether he’s swinging old-timey garbage cans by paradoxically holding them by the lids, blankly driving a tank, or transforming into an AT-AT from Star Wars. If you are to be comfortable with this comic and its Ape, you have to submit to its strange logic and simply enjoy its existence. Fruhlinger describes the feeling by saying, “There’s no obvious ‘joke’ there, but just the constant repetition makes them… ‘funny’ is not the word, but they draw you into the world… Every strip has its running gags, of course, but I guess none of [its competitors] are quite so WEIRD as Heathcliff, and that includes strips that think they’re a lot weirder than Heathcliff is.”
The mere fact of the comic’s presence in hundreds of daily newspapers is strange enough. As Wiger puts it, “The idea that these have consistently made it to print as-is for years, knowing how many people you generally need to sign off on any piece of writing that gets published or makes it to air... it beggars belief."
Fruhlinger believes the sustained existence of Heathcliff is a consequence of inertia. In the modern era, people who want to draw comic strips will just go straight onto the internet to distribute their work rather than the newspapers. At the same time, people who still read the newspaper go to the comics section to see the familiar faces, not new ones. When a creator dies or retires, their successor has a built-in revenue stream from syndication with little consequence to change what they’re doing. “If a strip is firmly lodged in the consciousness of that core readership, and it doesn’t completely shit the bed in one way or another, it can just kind of keep going indefinitely,” he says. Gallagher could half-ass his execution, make a conventionally boring comic, and still make plenty of money. But what makes Gallagher an outlier in the funny pages, however, is that it’s impossible to tell how much ass he’s putting into his work. A whole ass? A sixteenth? Does it even matter when what hits the reader is the comic’s peculiarity and not the effort behind it?
The world of Heathcliff only becomes more confusing when you try to learn more about Peter Gallagher. To start, he is not beloved actor Peter Gallagher, Sandy Cohen on The OC. (I tried to contact the actor for his honest thoughts about Heathcliff, but didn’t get very far. His Twitter, however, indicates that he’s at least amused by the comic.)
According to his official bio, Non-Actor Peter Gallagher (as Brown refers to him) is a born-and-bred New Jerseyan, teaches at Montclair State University, and sings in a rock band called Holmes, “whose songs have appeared in many commercials and tv shows, including Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Dog: The Bounty Hunter.” Gallagher’s non-Heathcliff comics have appeared in the magazine Weird NJ, a repository for the disturbing New Jersey history and folklore. These comics fall under two titles, as far as I can tell: “The Jersey Tomato,” a strip about an impossibly sexy tomato that attracts both humans and vegetable people, and “Tales of the Jersey Devil,” where people interrupt the mythical Jersey Devil as he goes about his day. Both single-panel and are just as vexing as Heathcliff, though slightly dirtier. Most importantly, they are no Rosetta Stone to Gallagher’s process or personality. The Weird NJ co-publisher Mark Sceurman counts him as a long-time friend and says he is “a great guy,” but would not comment further.
If they had the chance to talk to Gallagher, Brown and Wiger wouldn’t criticize him for making an incomprehensible comic. They just want an explanation. Wiger wants to know what’s up with all the helmets that Heathcliff wears ("Like, you realize that’s not at all common in the real world?"). Brown wants information on the (rumored) Heathcliff movie and on how to get her cat featured on the Kitty Korner section of the Sunday edition of Heathcliff, which highlights the antics of readers’ pet felines. They want to get closer to the comic, however befuddling it is.
Though on first blush, the main thing that Heathcliff has in common with “modern art” in that it is drawn in the modern era, this feeling its turbo-fans speak of — the desire to commune with something opaque and out of the ordinary — is a central aesthetic experience of art since the beginning of the 20th century. Think of Bertolt Brecht and the sense of alienation that overcomes the audience when watching the stilted emotional stunts of everyday life in his plays; the mechanical art of Jean Tinguely, whose massive contraptions were created to tear themselves apart, beam by beam and screw by screw; or Nam June Paik waving a violin like a ceremonial knife before smashing it on a table.
But the artistic referent that readers of Heathcliff recall more than any other, at least on Twitter, is Dada, the anti-art movement. Living in World War I-era Europe, the early Dadaists wanted to deconstruct the sociopolitical conventions that led to the terror of the war — and what better way to do that, they figured, than to subvert art, the highest achievement of that society? Dadaists focused on disseminating printed matter during the war when they could not perform, creating nonsensical poems made from cut-up newspaper articles and distributing pamphlets promoting meaningless slogans. “Dada is the only savings bank that pays interest in eternity,” the movement’s founders asserted in the 1919 pamphlet Der Dada (translation from the original German here). They continued, “Dada is the war bond of eternal life; Dada is comfort in dying [...] Dada works in the cerebellum and in the cerebrum of apes as well as in the hindquarters of statesmen.” Squint your brain enough, and these half-digestible catchphrases might fit below an illustration of the Garbage Ape or Heathcliff himself.
Throughout the course of reporting this piece, all of my attempts to contact Peter Gallagher failed. I emailed his syndication representative, the account listed on his Montclair State University profile, an official Heathcliff account, and asked a couple of his friends and asking them to connect us, all to no avail. After nearly a month of trying, and after I’d already written a few drafts of this very article, an email from Gallagher fell into my lap like Heathcliff parachuting into the MEAT store. Apparently Sceurman of Weird NJ contacted him based on a question I’d asked about usage rights of the Jersey Tomato and Jersey Devil comics and that led to him learning that I wanted an interview. He wasn’t ignoring me; the emails just never got to him somehow. The entire process was roundabout and out-of-the-blue — which, truth be told, would be an apt way to describe his comic’s sensibility.
“Honestly, to me, what I get a kick out of is taking something like Heathcliff that everybody knows and doing something different with it,” he says, speaking over the phone in his avuncular North Jersey accent. “It’s not like someone doing a goof on a comic strip. I am the one doing it. And it’s still in the spirit of the comic.”
Helpfully, Gallagher cleared up plenty of factual confusion. One of his band’s songs was not, for the record, featured on the Kill Bill Vol. 2 soundtrack, he says, but it was used in a TV commercial for the movie. The Heathcliff movie is running smoothly in development, he claims. Also, he personally runs the (unverified) Facebook and Instagram accounts for Heathcliff. He’s not much of internet person — he has no personal social media — but he is currently revamping the Heathcliff website so that it is easier for people to ask questions and buy merch, some of which Gallagher plans on silkscreening personally.
And though he himself is not extremely online, Gallagher is very much aware of the internet community that loves/argues about/is perplexed by Heathcliff, and is happy those people exist. He brings up both Brandi Brown’s Heathcliff DMs to Anthony Scaramucci ("very funny,” in his words) and the jocular criticism from Fruhlinger on his Comics Curmudgeon blog. In the latter case, he says he had followed the blog for a while, dreading and hoping that Fruhlinger would lambast Heathcliff, and when he began to do so five or six years ago, the raucous discussion that followed in the comments section emboldened him to be more confident in his own sense of humor. He tells me, “I just felt like I had to go for it instead of going halfway and trying to please everybody. When I told him of Fruhlinger’s recent assessment of the strip — that it is weirder than any other newspaper comic — he jovially called it “high praise."
However, Gallagher did little to explain the weirdness in and of itself. Even when I specifically bring the stranger aspects of the strip up, he lumps them together with the traditional ones when describing his creative process. He describes his comic sensibility as “offbeat,” but goes no further than that, saying that he now avoids “traditional gags.” He kept referring to his sense of humor and “what I think is funny” but wouldn’t quite define what they actually were. While composing Heathcliff, he’s “just doodling and drawing and writing words” until he hits something — like a sketch of Heathcliff flying in the air — and he starts to write a comic around it. “The key for me is to be in a relaxed and positive mood,” he explains. Gallagher is proud of how this comic he has inherited has become his own, a repository for opaque thoughts that even he might not understand.
As we neared the end of our conversation, Gallagher let me know that he has loads of notebooks filled with non-Heathcliff drawings. After he’s done working at night, he will open one and “let my imagination run wild.” One can only imagine what arcane and wonderful confections fill their pages.