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Jim Davis and His Fat Feline Celebrate an Anniversary

Most cats have nine lives. Garfield has over 2,550, one in each of the newspapers to which Jim Davis’ comic strip is distributed worldwide by Universal Press Syndicate. Arguably the most widely-circulated comic strip in syndicate history, Garfield appeared in scores of reprint volumes seven of which were simultaneously on the New York Times bestseller list in 1982 (unprecedented except by Garfield, who, the year before, had three bestsellers on the list), has won four Emmys for television specials, is published by 67 different book publishers, and is represented by 24 agents in licensing and merchandising in 111 countries. If the fat, lazy orange striped cat didn’t already have a name, perhaps Ubiquitous might serve.

Garfield and its eponymous cat celebrate their birthday every June 19, the date the strip debuted in 1978. This year on that date, both comic strip and cat were 33 years old, a nice roundly repetitious number that we salute herewith by posting a copy of the festive occasion as it transpired in the strip, concluding a week during which Garfield had a succession of nightmares about aging.

On the eve of Garfield’s twentieth anniversary thirteen years ago, I was interviewing his creator, Jim Davis, and I asked him if, looking back over the past two decades, he would have done anything differently had he the chance.

“Only one thing,” he said with a grin, “—I wouldn’t have given him so many stripes.”

We were sitting in the atrium of the 36,000 square-foot building Garfield had built in the gently rolling countryside near Muncie, Indiana. This is headquarters for PAWS, the corporation Davis created in 1981 to handle licensing his characters. The building is U-shaped around the atrium: two floors of offices and conference rooms on one arm, one story on the other arm and across the bottom rung. Here a staff of nearly sixty people keep the Garfield empire humming. Eighteen artists, writers, and sculptors work with Davis to generate material for books, greeting cards, apparel, giftware, stationery, games, and the like. A marketing and business staff keeps Garfield in the marketplace and protects the copyright as well as the “character” of the creation. All Garfield images are created at PAWS. Licensees cannot make changes without permission, and PAWS has developed its own computer software to track product development for approval.

In addition to the offices, the building houses its own cafeteria, fully equipped exercise room, and a spacious workroom for the artists. Nearby on the PAWS property are two more buildings: one is Davis’ personal studio and the other is the animation-recording studio. Davis’ home, yet another building, is out-of-sight, through the woods and behind a small hill.

I had an appointment with the PAWS public relations director, Kim Campbell, at 9 o’clock on Monday morning, April 20, and I’d planned to arrive earlier than that, allowing plenty of time to get lost en route. I usually do that—get lost, I mean; and I made no exception in this case: I almost drove right by the place. I’d missed one turn already, looking for East Country Road 450N just northeast of Muncie, Indiana. And now I had circled back and was tooling along the correct road, looking for Number 5440. I never did see that number, but when I saw a huge paw print on the side of a reddish-brown building, I knew I didn’t need to look any further.

I parked my car in the parking lot and was making my way to the building when I saw a tall man wearing a dark gray pull-over shirt and black trousers walking towards the same place, coming along a pathway that would meet my path at right angles. It was Davis. So instead of meeting his public relations person at 9 a.m., I met Davis himself. As we approached the apex of the two paths, I said, “You’re Jim Davis.”

“Yes,” he said, “and you’re—Bob?”

“Bob Harvey,” I finished.

He is taller than I’d supposed from his photographs. And not at all heavy—although his present rather svelte build may be the result of fairly rigorous dieting and exercise. He has a ruddy complexion and wears his hair in a pony tail.

We entered the building, but Kim Campbell wasn’t around yet. (I’d told her the week before that I’d probably get lost so she should expect me sometime between nine and nine-thirty; she evidently interpreted that to mean I wouldn’t get there until nine-thirty.) Davis, somewhat flummoxed at this turn of events, wanted to know if I’d like to tour the building first or do the interview. I said I’d prefer the tour first, but quickly saw that he would prefer doing the interview first because he had an eleven o’clock meeting. So we went into the atrium of his building and talked for about an hour.

Davis is a thorough-going Indiana native. He grew up on a farm in Indiana, went to Ball State University in Muncie, and thirty years ago, he started producing Garfield in the basement of his home in Muncie. The strip debuted in 41 newspapers. Davis had one assistant.

Garfield was in 2,000 newspapers by 1987. Only two other comic strips had achieved that kind of circulation (Blondie and Peanuts). And Garfield was not yet ten years in syndication. It was a phenomenal occurrence. I asked Davis what he was feeling when he heard he was in 2,000 newspapers.

“Actually,” he said with a chuckle, “it gave me a great sense of relief.”

I laughed: “You knew you’d found a job!”

“Yes,” he laughed, too. “I’d always wanted the security of being able to do this for a long, long time, so when I hit the 2,000 papers, I thought, Okay—I’m going to be around for awhile. And this is great! Also it’s very gratifying to know that what you’re creating is being enjoyed by a lot of people.”

Davis knew Garfield was going to be successful before the strip was a year old. The Chicago Sun-Times tried to drop the strip, and outraged readers protested.

“They received more than 1,300 phone calls and hundreds of letters,” Davis recalled. “That’s when I realized he was here to stay.”

Davis is a fairly hands-on person. He is involved in almost every project at one stage or another. The more important projects, he stays engaged with at every stage, I suppose; but most involve his simple approval of an idea or a proposal for merchandising. At one point during our conversation, he got up and motioned me to follow him into the artists’ suite. There, he met with three of his staff, all standing around a counter. I stood, too.

“These are going to be 3-D, Bob,” he said, taking up a sheaf of papers, each one bearing an elaborate inked drawing of Garfield and Odie (the dog in the strip) surrounded by piles of food. By “3-D” he meant “three dimensional.” And I eventually understood that each of the drawings represented a music box. And these music boxes were going to be manufactured for sale in a dozen or so of the different countries in which Garfield is published: each music box would be a sculpture of Garfield and Odie in the traditional native costume for that country a-top a pile of food which represented the eating habits of the country. At this point, I found out that the PAWS staff included two sculptors, and they would be creating the music box figures, following the drawings that Davis was now looking at.

He spread them out in front of him, murmuring approving sounds at each one. “This is fine,” he said, pulling all the papers together again. “Let’s go ahead.”

Then he turned to a fairly finished-looking pencil sketch that had been roughly colored. This was a proposal for a lithograph print of Garfield that would be offered for sale at the International Museum of Cartoon Art in Boca Raton, Florida. The Museum was mounting a special retrospective display of Garfield material in honor of the strip’s 20th anniversary in June. The picture in front of Davis showed Garfield and Odie standing in front of the Museum, which is a picturesque structure, very distinctive with a central tower and arches all along the front.

Davis looked at it for a while, then said, “Let’s try something else.” He turned from the counter to the work table behind him, pulled out a drawer in the table where he found a pencil, and taking the pencil and a piece of paper, he made another, very rough, sketch. In this one, Garfield and the dog are standing behind the Museum building, so the distinctive features of the building are visible.

“There,” he said. “Let’s try this. And we’ll put the name underneath,” he said, lettering in “International Museum of Cartoon Art” and the dates of the Garfield show, June 19-August 19, 1998. Someone asked if the date information shouldn’t be just June 19, Garfield’s official birthday, rather than the dates of the show.

Davis said, “Oh, I don’t know.” And then he turned to me. “What do you think, Bob?” I said put the show dates. And he seemed to agree, saying, “Yes, then people could buy the lithograph anytime—not just on the opening day.” (That, of course, is true; but it would be true if only the opening day date, June 19, were given, too. Still, most commemorative posters of this kind have the entire range of the show dates cited, so that’s why I said what I said.)

Then the artist attending this meeting wanted to know if the drawing he would produce to Davis’ specifications should be a finished, inked, drawing—or a pencil drawing, which would make it seem more casual. Davis, again, said he didn’t know—and, again, turned to me: “What do you think, Bob?” I opted for the pencilled look, adding that it should probably be colored in the same way the initial presentation drawing we’d been looking at first had been done. Davis apparently agreed. And he told the artist to go ahead along those lines. Then Davis and I went back into the atrium and resumed our talk.

This episode at the counter in the artists suite of drawing boards was probably the most enlightening aspect of the morning I spent at PAWS. Clearly, Davis wanted me, the interviewer, to see him engaged with his staff in this give-and-take fashion. It was an object lesson, so to speak, in how he wanted to be perceived as the chief executive officer of PAWS. And his involving me in the decision-making was another gesture of the same sort of thing. My experience would persuade me that Davis was a sort of egalitarian boss, always working with his people rather than issuing orders from on high, engaged always in every aspect of the operation.

And that is precisely what I think the case to be. My experience, after all, included witnessing the behavior of his staff, who stood with him at that counter and commented on plans for the music boxes and the lithograph. They showed no hesitation in making suggestions or in asking questions. In short, they behaved exactly like people who are accustomed to conferences of this kind—and who are accustomed to being asked their opinions and having their opinions attended to. The experience shows more than that, however: it also shows how conscious Davis is of his image. But no one could so easily engage a visiting journalist in the process unless he was accustomed to seeking other people’s opinions in the decision making. So all around, it was a useful event.

The PAWS staff apparently likes its work. The turnover is very, very low. Kim has been on board for nearly thirty years (as of 2011); ditto Gary Barker, who pencils Garfield. Several years ago, Barker left Indiana, moving to Florida; but he continues blue-penciling the strip long-distance.

Later in the day, when Kim took me on a tour of the palatial workplace, we went to lunch in the cafeteria. Yes, there’s even a kitchen staff on the premises. Low-cal food, and lasagna sometimes. And an honor system for charging the cost of the meals to each staffer’s account; at the end of the month, the total is deducted from the staff member’s paycheck. Every staff person can earn points that can reduce his bill by doing healthy things: so many points for working out in the on-premises exercise room, for jogging, for drinking eight glasses of water a day, and so forth.

As the Garfield empire grew, more and more of Davis’ time was devoted to the multiplicity of projects and products that the cat generated. Davis may be weary of drawing stripes on his lasagna-loving cat, but he hasn’t tired of creating the strip and overseeing the entertainment industry that’s grown up around it. He’s a very engaged creative director as well as chief executive officer of PAWS. I asked him if he sometimes wished the enterprise wasn’t quite so huge so he could devote more time to drawing.

“Yes,” he said, “but one reason I grew this pony tail is to remind myself that I’m an artist, not a businessman. But I still enjoy the work. I still do the comic strip. Nothing’s changed from that standpoint. I do get a thrill out of working on the other creative projects—television, even the product design, designing the dolls, working with the voices. What would Garfield say in this situation? It takes a lot of focus, but it’s still creating entertainment—creating humor, making people laugh. So I really enjoy two aspects. Doing the comic strip and the other truly creative stuff.”

His staff takes much of the burden of the business from his shoulders, so although he’s involved in every aspect of the operation, his involvement is minimal. “I know my responsibility is to Garfield,” he explained, “—to keep putting words into his mouth and to make sure that he stays funny and entertaining.”

Davis focuses exclusively on the strip once a month, when, for an intensive three or four day period, he and a colleague brainstorm gags for a month’s worth of strips. Davis described the process: “Brett Koth is a friend, a writer, who lives in Florida; and he comes up for nearly a week every month. [Less frequently in recent years: they conduct some of their confabulation via e-mail and the Internet.] Brett does quick sketching. He does writing. We share gags. We bounce ideas and sketches off each other. We keep the energy level high. We do a lot of laughing. We watch funny movies. We look at funny cartoons. We basically laugh for a good part of the week! And we rough the gags up.”

I interrupted: “So you and Brett are sketching the ideas as you come up with them?”

“Yes,” Davis said, “because I see the gag at the same time as I imagine it.”

This method of idea production seems logical to me: it supports my observation that Garfield was, at the time of this interview, a very visual strip in which the humor frequently arises from the pictures—an action or an expression—in tandem with the words. In fact, if there were no physical movement of the characters in many strips, there’d be no gag. Particularly on Sundays.

On Sundays, Garfield is a highly visual strip—the jokes almost always depend upon the pictures not just the words. Daily strips continue to fluctuate between verbal jokes and visual ones, but the Sunday strip, as I said, is often a highly animated episode in which the pictures tell the tale—as we can see in the three examples at hand.

Good visual gags need the space that Sundays afford strips. But there may be another reason for such visual extravaganzas as these: Brett Koth has a history in animation, where gags are often extremely visual.

Koth was working in animation at Marvel Productions in Los Angeles early in 1986 when he heard that Davis was looking for someone to assist on the art for his new strip, U.S. Acres—someone with animation experience who could also help with storyboarding on future tv projects. Koth and a colleague, Bob Scott, were both hired and split the drawing duties on U.S. Acres for the rest of its regrettably short run, after which Scott went back to California and Koth stayed on to help generate hilarities for Garfield.

Koth’s animation background may account for some of the more exuberant visuals in the strip, but he also worked in Southern California amusement parks doing on-the-spot caricatures on demand for $2.25 each, so past experience doesn’t always inform present behavior. Besides, Koth’s other enterprise these days is starkly static and markedly verbal. In March 2010, Koth’s syndicated comic strip, Diamond Lil, about a tart-tongued old bat, was launched. This enterprise is almost entirely verbal: 75-year-old widow Lil puts her long life’s experience to work every day, saying exactly what is on her mind. Words are her weapon; and they are the comedy.

Koth had been pitching comic strip ideas unsuccessfully to syndicates for years. Diamond Lil just fell out of his head one day. And she emerged fully formed, a whole personality at once. In his first attempt to put her into a strip, he drew her in a supermarket, where she purchased a cart-load of Lean Cuisine and a suitcase of Schlitz beer. “Once I had that,” Koth said, “I was off and running.”

His running includes the loosest loopiest line in syndicate strips these days: Lil may not move much, but Koth’s line is a joy to watch. You can find more about Koth and Lil at A Nickel’s Worth; Scott Nickel is another of the PAWS entourage.

Davis is enthusiastic about Koth’s new endeavor. “I’ve been his biggest cheerleader to get his own strip started,” he told Kevin Kittredge at the Roanoke Times when the paper ran a story about the local (Lexington) boy making good in the funnies. Like Koth, Davis spent a long time in “apprenticeship”—with Tom Ryan’s Tumbleweeds, a strip about the Old West that never lives up to Hollywood’s expectations for it; so Davis is quite conscious of what it means to get your name on your own creation: “Having your own baby is just extra special,” Davis said.

He sees Diamond Lil as a kindred character to the mother on tv’s “Golden Girls”—Sophia Petrillo, played by Estelle Getty. Said Davis: “She can say anything she pleases. She has attitude.” Diamond Lil is “pure Brett,” he concluded. And Ann Telnaes, a longtime friend of Koth whose animated editorial cartoons appear at washingtonpost.com, agrees: “She’s Brett in drag,” she joked.

Garfield‘s dependence on the visual aspects of the medium seems to me to make the strip a superior example of the artform, and I said as much to Davis: “It seems to me that there are many strips these days in which the drawings could be removed and the joke would remain—just in the verbiage,” I said. “That means the medium is not being fully deployed. But you certainly use all its resources. You use the pictures as well as the words. You really make the medium work.”

Davis laughed. “I need all the help I can get,” he said. “I worked in a mirror for years until I got very comfortable with Garfield and the other characters, using my own facial expressions to get just the right expression. As they say, good art can carry an average gag; great gags can carry average art. But I say, Why not work as hard as you can on both? Now, Garfield does not have much detail in the art. Certainly I don’t get cute with the treatment of the art. I don’t use different angles, silhouettes—things like that—because I’m very conscious of the tone of the gag.

“The trick is to get to the punchline before the reader figures it out,” he continued. “But only by a beat. The eye can move easily through the strip, and it’ll get to the last frame before the reader’s fully aware. I like three frames—having three beats, bum, bum, baddum—situation resolved. If Garfield’s on that simple tabletop and the camera angle’s the same, and there are twenty-five words or less, readers are going to race through that, and then we give them the gag, and they’re going to involuntarily laugh before they figure it out. If they’ve figured it out before they get to the last frame, then you’ve wasted your time with the strip, and people are disappointed.

“So I work very hard on the timing,” he went on, “and the timing in reading a comic strip is very, very different than the timing of telling a joke, or a story. Try reading a comic strip to someone, and see how funny it is. It’s not funny anymore. So I don’t read gags out loud; I don’t talk them out loud. The comic strip gag is in the head, and it has its own timing, its own way of looking. You’re looking and reading, looking and reading—and that’s different. It takes place in the head because it has to be done in the head. That’s what’s so unique about cartoons.”

I suggested that there are at least two visual elements that are deployed in a comic strip. One of them is timing, which arises from the strip appearing in three or four or five panels.

Davis agreed. “In fact, many times, I’ll leave a panel blank, with no verbiage,” he said, “just to get the beat in, just to get the timing. Maybe Garfield needs the time to come back with something. I like to do that a lot because it’s like putting a comma in the middle of a sentence: you’ve gotta give it a breath, and then—boom—the punchline.”

And I continued: “But there’s another visual quality, and that is the degree to which the joke itself depends upon an image that we see. And I think Garfield has a lot of that, too, as I said. That’s what I mean when I say it’s a very visual strip: I think the gag comes out of the picture as well as from the words and the timing.”

Said Davis: “That’s true. We work very hard on expression, for example—what’s going on with the eyes. It’s acting. Garfield’s not a terribly physical character, so when he does have an expression, I think it carries even more weight. How do you take a slothful character—a slug—and give him humor? Sometimes by contrast—when we give his face a big expressive reaction. When there is a good sight gag, it really is funnier by contrast.”

(Continued…)

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10 Responses to Jim Davis and His Fat Feline Celebrate an Anniversary

  1. vollsticks says:

    I wonder if there’ll ever be a critical re-appraisal of Garfield in the next decade or two and Fanta’ll give him the “Peanuts” treatment; maybe get a cartoonist who’s in the early stages of their career now to do the design work; someone like Michael Deforge….that’d be excellent.

    And I like how Garfield was drawn in those early strips, too. He has a real mass, almost like a fuckin’ Kirby drawing, or something. Hahah. I just wrote that.

  2. Kim Thompson says:

    No.

  3. Chris Stangl says:

    Since the entire run of Garfield is in print and readily available in numbered volumes — in color and black and white, in single volume and omnibus editions— there would be little reason to mount another reprint series, unless one is desperate for Garfield hardcovers.

  4. michael L says:

    lol @ kim’s reply

    but there’s something to be said for that buoyant, rubber-stamp art style that davis perfected. dumb as it is, garfield has a certain “scanability” that Davis (like bushmiller before him) utilizes to draw the eye and deliver the gag as expeditiously as possible, with an aggressive simplicity of text, layout, and image. though i admit theres an awkward ugliness that kind of grates the eye

    i remember in grade school it seemed like garfield (and maybe tintin) was the only comic that /everyone/ read, and i think that was due to the immediacy of its aesthetic rewards (bright colors, expressive characters, and clear contours) — so much so that it didn’t seem to matter that most of the gags were pretty “whatever.”

  5. Gar Molloy says:

    The first comic I ever read was a collection of Garfield strips my brother had brought home from the U.S. (to Ireland) in 1984. They made such an impression on the family that when we adopted a kitten later that same year, we named her Garfield (gender-appropriateness be damned!)

  6. Dominick Grace says:

    I remember Garfield as being extremely funny in its early days and even had several of the early collections. I should go back and reread those early strips now, I guess, to see if I still respond that way, because today, nine times out of ten, I scratch my head in bafflement as to what’s even supposed to be funny about the strip.

    On a totally unrelated topic, what in God’s name has happened to the Adam comic strip? It used to be at least mildly amusing consistently when Bassett did it, and I thought his art was very good. Then, some time back, the art style shifted when someone else took over (and the humour quotient dropped signififantly, along with the quality of the art). . . and for the last few weeks . . . . yikes!

  7. Bob, another great profile!

  8. Sluggodie says:

    The Davis/Bushmiller comparison is so apt that a hundred alt-comics cartoonists just simultaneously shot themselves.

  9. DanielJMata says:

    The timeline is all over the place. How long did it take to write this piece?

    I never did care for Garfield, but I am impressed at how big PAWS is. Kudos to Mr. Davis. He really does know how to write everyday humor. That craft bit was my favorite part.

  10. James says:

    If Mark Newgarten wrote an analysis of Garfield it would be about three sentence long.

    The most enlightening thing about Garfield is GarfieldMinusGarfield.

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