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Jim Davis and His Fat Feline Celebrate an Anniversary

A year or so after this interview, it seemed to me that the humor in Garfield had become almost entirely verbal. Then after another year or so, it seemed mostly visual again. Clearly, it wanders back and forth, my point being: the customary criticism of Garfield as a purely verbal joke machine doesn’t stand up under examination.

The personalities of the characters are important in developing gags—and reader loyalty. Davis gave an example:

“One time, when I first met Mort Walker, I said, ‘Gee, you know, Sarge has been beating Beetle to a shriveled pulp for so many years, you’d think that Beetle could save him the effort and do it himself—you know, just crumple up all on his own’. And Mort’s eyes kind of glazed, and I knew he was writing that gag. And sure enough, a few years later, the gag came out. And I thought it was terrifically funny. It’s taking advantage of a solid character trait that’s been established over the years and having some fun with it. I think it warms the readers to the feature when they’re privy to a little bit of inside humor based upon their knowledge of the characters. I think long after the gag, they remember the characters.”

I asked whether the international audience for Garfield influenced the generation of gags. “Honestly, I don’t think of the international readership when I write the gags,” Davis said. “I write the gags. And then when I’m editing the gags, I think about what I call translatability. Is this gag using words that can easily translate? Is this the kind of situation that would likely occur in, say, Japan? Or in Beirut or in Buenos Aires. And depending upon what I think about that, I either keep the gag—or not.

“So when I write the gags,” he explained, “I write strictly for the humor; and then, later, I cast a critical eye on the gag—from several standpoints. Taste, obviously. Is this something that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to have my parents read? Is this something that people will understand? Is this something that will translate? Those are my three main criteria.

“We’re in 111 countries,” he continued, “and to think that the humor goes across the board is very gratifying. The challenge, obviously, to do the kind of strip, the kind of gags, that make all people laugh, even if they’re from different cultures. And for that reason, we work hard to keep the humor basic, keep the humor broad—to make everybody laugh. I personally like all kinds of humor, and I feel that the kind of humor I use in Garfield is particularly effective because it gives you a good kind of laugh—by that, I mean you feel better after you’ve laughed than before. This humor is not shock humor. It’s the good natured kind of humor that you identify with rather than stand back and laugh at. And that served me well over the years—served Garfield well.”

I said, “You deliberately avoid social satire and political commentary. And that’s for the reasons that you’ve just indicated, I assume.”

He responded: “In part. Also I’m not that well versed in politics or subjects of that nature. I feel that should be reserved for the rest of the newspaper—unless you do it very, very well. Like Trudeau does in Doonesbury. I just don’t have anything to say on politics,” he laughed.

I laughed, too: “Like that little old lady in Dubuque who said she didn’t vote because she didn’t want to give them any encouragement?”

“Yes,” Davis said with another laugh. “That’s true. All I have to say in Garfield is that life isn’t so bad, and we should learn to laugh at ourselves. And if I keep driving that point home again and again, maybe after twenty years or thirty years or forty years, it’s going to catch on,” he chuckled. “So I stick with what I do best, and that’s the kind of humor that points out people’s foibles in a humorous way.”

Jon Arbuckle, Garfield’s hapless owner—and a cartoonist—is the strip’s resident foible. Three or four years ago, another foible—a real life one—Dan Walsh, realized that he and Jon Arbuckle were very much alike. Walsh came home from work in Dublin, Ireland, and sat around his apartment “watching bad movies, drinking lots of coffee, making catastrophic attempts at calling girls for dates, and playing my guitar when no one wanted to listen.” His life, he said, was like Jon Arbuckle’s—“lonely, disheartened, crazy, and disillusioned.”

With this realization came another: if Garfield weren’t in the strip, then Jon and Walsh were “kindred spirits.” Playing around with the notion, Walsh started photocopying Garfield strips without Garfield. He just cut the cat out, leaving Jon to blather on in his clueless way. Walsh recognized at once that he “wasn’t just looking and laughing at Jon’s existential angst”: he was also laughing at himself and his family and friends.

“Some of the results made me think, some made me sad, some made me titter, and some made me laugh until tears streamed down my face. It was so totally and utterly and perfectly hilariously depressing!”

Fascinated, Walsh started posting the doctored strips on the Web at garfieldminusgarfield.net. Before long, he realized to his utter astonishment that thousands of other idlers had found the site and visited it in stunning numbers. Then Davis found the site. He wrote Walsh, saying GarfieldMinusGarfield was “an inspired thing to do” and thanking Walsh for enabling him to see another side of the cat.

Just about then, Garfield Minus Garfield graduated into print. Walsh wrote an Introduction from which I’ve been quoting; and Davis contributed a “note” and more. “I was immediately struck by the simplicity and the honesty of Walsh’s concept,” Davis wrote. “Essentially, Garfield does the color commentary on Jon’s hapless existence. Strip away Garfield’s superfluous comments, and you’re left with the stark reality of Jon’s bleak circumstances: without Garfield, it’s more comforting in a lefthanded sort of way. More often than not when we laugh at a gag, it isn’t because it’s funny: it’s because we’re thinking, ‘Isn’t that true.’ After reading Garfield Minus Garfield, we realize that we aren’t the only insecure people on the planet. And loneliness? Who could be lonelier than Jon Arbuckle? How comforting. I guess loneliness loves company.”

Finding Walsh’s “variation on Garfield” a lot of fun, Davis contributed a few of his own manufacture to the volume, and we’ve posted a few here; see if you can tell which are Walsh’s and which are Davis’s.

After the strips are written—sketched up—and edited for taste and translatability and so forth, the pencil roughs (some by Davis, some by Koth) are passed on to Gary Barker, who “bluelines” the final art. Drawing with a nonphoto blue pencil, Barker keeps the characters “on model” precisely. Then the blue-pencilled strips are passed on to Eric Reaves for lettering and then to Lori Barker (no relation to Gary), who inks the strips with a Winsor & Newton Series 7 brush. [Both of these artists are still performing these duties, thirteen years after my visit to PAWS.] For Sunday strips, color is added by other artists.

The model for Garfield has changed quite dramatically over the years. At first, the cat’s body was much larger in relation to his head; now his head and his body are the same size. Most of the charge was, as Davis put it, “Darwinian evolution of the character”:

“You gradually change,” he said. “The only conscious thing I ever did was to put him up on his hind legs and allow him to walk on two feet. Walking on all fours took too much space. And when we got him up, he stood there and was able to stare Jon in the face, and that made for a better relationship.

“Also in animation,” he continued, “—for the prime-time tv special—he could dance, he could do things more easily. He moves for freely on his back feet than he did on all fours. That came about thanks to Sparky Schulz [Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts]. I was working on an opening dance sequence on our first special, and I was having a terrible time getting Garfield to dance. And Sparky took a look at my drawings and said, You’ve got to give Garfield a base, something to stand on. And he drew big feet on Garfield and said, There—now he’s got something to stand on. That works! I was out in California at the animation studio at the time, and I came running back here”—holding up an imaginary piece of paper between two hands—“Look at Garfield! I said.”

From the animated specials, it was for the big feet just a short step to the strip itself. “He just moved better,” Davis said. “And then it was perfect for the strip. I had been sensitive to keeping Garfield very cat-like. Walking on all fours. But putting him on his hind feet was the only thing that was conscious. The rest of it—bigger eyes for more expression; smaller stomach—just evolved. His stomach got in the way of his movement. Every time you get a new gag—when he kicked Odie, when he’d reach for something—his stomach was getting in the way.

“Everything started stretching then,” he went on. “He evolved as he ventured out into the world. We had him spend a lot of time just sitting there, reinforcing the fact that he was lazy. But then eventually he had to move from that tabletop or from that bed, and when he did, he evolved and got a lot more stretch to him. Plus, I got better. I am a better artist today.”

(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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