‘Heathcliff’ Cartoonist Peter Gallagher On The Origins Of The Comic Strip’s Weirdest, Most Wonderful Characters

Tanks. Jimmy. Meat robots. These are the weirdos that make up the only extended universe that matters: Heathcliff.

If all you know about pop culture’s second most famous orange cat is that he eats fish down to the skeleton, well, that’s a good gag. But there’s more to the comic strip than that — for instance, he has a ham helmet. Also, he occasionally runs into an ape called the Garbage Ape, and he might be a god?

Heathcliff has gone on an increasingly absurd, beautiful journey since Peter Gallagher took over for his uncle, creator George Gately. Uproxx recently spoke to Gallagher by phone about some of Heathcliff’s most memorable recurring characters and the ever-growing “Weird Heathcliff” community.

Let’s begin with “bro.” Where did “bro” come from?

I think it’s just a word that I’ve always enjoyed and just throwing it on the helmets. Then the Bro Fish came from that, too. I think that when I’m writing stuff, I usually try to do something that I find amusing. Especially the image with the Bro Fish, having the word “bro” written a lot of times, I enjoy doing that.

What about the helmet? What makes a helmet funnier than a regular hat?

I think the first one that I ever did was a ham helmet. I had Heathcliff sitting right by the dinner table, and the caption was like, “He’s wearing the helmet again” or something. Then from there, it just took off. I started putting all kinds of things on helmets. There was one I did recently where I had the word “diversion” on the helmet, and there were two birds on the ground, and they said, “Watch out. He’s going to try to distract us with his helmet,” or something along those lines. Fitting “diversion” on the helmet was a little bit challenging. Usually, it’s meat, ham, bro.

Three or four letters.

There’s a bunch of different ones, yes. I think I just love drawing the helmet and just the idea of a helmet, I don’t know, it’s just a lot better than a hat or a cap. I just like the helmet.

Along those lines, did you immediately settle on ham as being the funniest meat, or did you go through other options?

I think the single syllable of ham made it very attractive to me. A friend of mine and his girlfriend, they foster a lot of cats. He said that they actually love ham. It’s one of their favorite things. I didn’t really realize it when I first started doing it. I don’t know. Cats are carnivores; of course, they’re going to going to love meat, but he said it’s a particular favorite of theirs.

I think at the beginning of the ham helmet thing, too, I had a running gag of him at a deli. He’s just sitting in the deli, and the guy behind the counter saying something to the customer, “Just don’t order ham,” or something like that, or, “Keep your hands away. Don’t go near the ham.” Just the implication that it was going to be very dangerous.

Do you have any cats yourself?

I don’t currently. I’ve had cats. At one time, when I was growing up, we had two dogs and three cats. I love cats and dogs both. I don’t have a cat to observe right now, but a lot of my friends have cats.

To get your inspiration from.

I know. It’d be great just to see. I just remember how crazy cats were. One of my favorite things was always how they would come flying into a room and just do some crazy thing. Then just stare off into the distance like it was completely normal.

It’s a real Kramer energy going on.

I love to have Heathcliff, who just has that matter-of-fact look when some crazy stuff’s going on around him.

Speaking of crazy stuff, one of the first Heathcliff characters to take off on Twitter was the Garbage Ape. Where did he come from?

The Garbage Ape, the first one I did, I think it might have been an Easter Sunday comic. I wanted something aside from the Easter Bunny, an alternative that Heathcliff would believe in. It comes hopping down the street. It wasn’t even called the Garbage Ape. It was called the Garbage Night Ape at first but quickly got changed to just the Garbage Ape. People definitely liked the Garbage Ape.

I try not to overdo it too much because I feel like if I did the Garbage Ape all the time, people would just get sick of it. Honestly, sometimes I’ll do a theme week, and usually by the end of the theme weeks, people are tired of the same gag being repeated a bunch of times, except for Jimmy. People missed Jimmy when he was gone.

Don’t worry, we’ll get to Jimmy. Was there a character after you took over that gave you permission, so to speak, to get a little weirder?

I would say probably the Garbage Ape was the first character that maybe I developed on my own, outside of the normal Heathcliff cast. Then from there, I keep trying out new characters all the time. I’m developing a couple of them now, but you never know if it’s going to work, but definitely, I think the Garbage Ape was the first one for sure.

Has there ever been a character that you thought would be too absurd?

That’s a good question. I’m trying to think. Well, there were a couple where I had a narwhal. Heathcliff had a narwhal in a tank in the house. The gag was that the narwhal kept turning the thermostat down and everyone was freezing in the house. It was just, I did a bunch of narwhal ones, but the narwhal as a house pet I thought was probably too far.

The narwhal is the mascot of the college that I went to, which probably says more about the college I went to than anything else. Anyway, one of my all-time favorites is the It’s Not Easy Being Orange band. I’m going to ask this from a place of ignorance. How did you not get sued?

In that one, of course, it’s Heathcliff playing guitar, Garfield playing guitar. Tony the Tiger, I think, is playing the drums. What’s his name? Tigger is playing the bass and Kermit the Frog is singing. I’ve used a lot of famous cartoon characters. A few years ago, I was doing it a lot more. I think most cartoonists consider it an homage as long as you don’t do anything terrible with their character. I’ve never had anybody give a cease and desist or anything like that.

In fact, Jim Davis, I’ve done a bunch where I’ve had Garfield in it and Jim Davis and I have swapped originals. I got an email from my syndicate and they’re like, “Jim Davis wants that original, and he’ll swap you.” I have a Garfield Sunday page on my studio wall. We swapped on a couple of occasions. He was very generous. He wrote a really nice note at the bottom of the original too saying something about how I think this orange cartoon cat thing is going to work out.

Pretty good.

Do you know the comic strip Mother Goose and Grimm by Mike Peters?


He’s used Heathcliff a few times, and I’m honored by it. People use it. As long as they don’t do something terrible to Heathcliff, I consider it an honor.

Wasn’t there a tradition back in the day or maybe it still exists, on April Fools’ Day, where cartoonists would swap strips?

That sounds familiar, yes. There have been times, because I’m a member of the National Cartoonists Society, and things will come up. This past year, it was Charles Schulz’s 100th birthday. To honor it, they asked all the cartoonists to put Peanuts characters in their comic strip. I think the one that I did was Lucy, instead of holding the football, she was holding a ham like the football. Heathcliff was wearing a ham helmet and about to kick it. Charlie Brown was saying something like, “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

The next character I’m interested in is the fire-breathing Chihuahua.

I just loved being able to have something with gigantic flames flying out of it. I think I had done one somewhere where Heathcliff was maybe eating a chili dog, and he was breathing fire. But the idea of being the tiniest dog I could think of and just being this menace. Then I think at one point, him and Heathcliff team up too, and the guys at the meat store are on the roof or at the fish store, I forget. He’s using the fire-breathing chihuahua to chase them up onto the roof, so he can plunder the store.

Do you tend to come up with the caption or illustration first?

That’s a good question. I’m actually trying something… Last night, when I was writing some stuff, I just wrote the captions for all of them. I have no idea what I’m going to do. They were old adages, and I want to see if I can fit something into them. That’s the case with that. I’ve really never done that before. A lot of times, it’s like when I sit down to come up with ideas, I’ll just doodle and draw things. Sometimes there’s just an image that I’m like, “Oh I got to somehow get that in there.” It varies. Sometimes I come up with a good caption, but for the most part, it starts with a drawing, I would probably say most of the time.

Now let’s get to the MVP. What is Jimmy’s origin story?

It’s funny. There’s a Twitter Heathcliff community, and there are all these fan accounts of Heathcliff. One of them is Heathcliff But Frog, like Hopcliff. I had a running gag where Heathcliff kisses a frog, and it turns into a dog catcher or something. Then I had one where he kisses the frog, and then Heathcliff turns into a frog. I’ve always had frogs around, and I don’t know why. The first Jimmy comic, I had him at a merch table in front of the house with Jimmy T-shirts and the huge Jimmy banner and Jimmy mugs and all this stuff. Nobody was interested and Heathcliff is bummed. I just like the idea that Heathcliff is desperate to — he just believes in Jimmy so much.

I did another one where everybody is just not interested at all. Heathcliff can’t understand it, but his faith in Jimmy is unwavering. When I finally did Jimmy Week a few weeks ago, I had some people write to me, and somebody was like, “Boy, you’re really giving it to Jimmy this week,” because he was really getting no love at all. That’s where it started with that.

It’s interesting when I started doing Heathcliff, of course, it was back in the days when you got fan mail in the mail and emails and stuff. With social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter and Facebook and Reddit and everything, you get instant feedback, and it was like getting Nielsen ratings with Jimmy. Instantly, people liked it a lot. I was like, “All right, I’ll keep going with this.” There are a lot of Jimmy fans out there, which I’m very grateful for.

Obviously, there are lots of animals in your strips, be it cats or birds or frogs or etc. Is there an animal you’ve wanted to include in the strip but haven’t because they’re too difficult to draw?

Yes, that’s interesting. I’ve had so many different animals. Even when my son was little, kids have a favorite animal. I remember going out to California. We were at the San Diego Zoo. Of course, you had to go there. It’s great. It’s the best zoo. Okapi, which is a cross between a giraffe and a zebra. It’s really a strange-looking animal. I did an Okapi, but having an Okapi standing on two legs was really challenging. I’ve done giraffes, elephants, I think a buffalo. Musk ox, I’ve used a bunch of times. I would say the musk ox is a challenging one for sure because they have weird horns and a big humped back.

I’m looking it up right now on the computer. That’s a weird-looking guy.

I’ve always loved drawing animals. Finding the right balance of making it look like the animal and stylizing it enough is key. I’ve been doing Heathcliff for a long time. Even when I was a kid, I was always drawing every day. I feel very fortunate that I get to draw for a living. It’s so enjoyable to me.

It’s really resonated with Twitter and beyond that, too.

I know it’s great. When you’re doing it and you’re coming up with some stuff that maybe is a little questionable or you’re not, I feel very fortunate because you can also flop and just be a dud and go nowhere, which is always the case. It can happen next week, too. Especially, with the more attention on social media, I feel like it makes you step up your game; try to stay sharp as possible.

How far ahead do you usually schedule things out?

For the dailies, it’s about four weeks. For the Sundays, it’s six weeks, and I’m pretty much right on the deadline. There have been times when I’ve been ahead more. I think back in the day the legend had it that Charles Schulz was actually a year ahead. I think it’d be nice to be ahead, but I don’t think I’d want to be that far ahead just because you miss out on- something that comes up in the zeitgeist, in the news. Not that I do it all the time with Heathcliff, but if something comes up, you can jump on it if it’s not too fleeting.