“I’m delighted that we started in only 41 papers,” Davis confided. “I’d have been terrified if we’d had a big subscriber list because I wasn’t very good then. It takes a while to get to know the character. It takes a while to fine-tune it so you can express yourself. So I had a year or two to hone my skills before he had any real media attention.”
Davis had picked a cat as his protagonist because he wanted a non-human character. Non-humans don’t usually offend readers or provoke controversy. But his first creation, Gnorm Gnat, about a bunch of insects, failed to spark any enthusiasm among syndicate officials. People don’t like bugs, they said. So Davis turned to animals. Domestic animals were the most familiar to most readers, he reasoned; and people like their pets. There seemed to be a lot of dogs in the funnies. And no cats. Or so he thought.
“Even though George Gately had started his Heathcliff in 1973,” Davis said, “I had not seen the panel, so I thought, I have the first cat idea! I was sure cat lovers would want a cat strip. And many people imagine human-types of feelings for cats because they’re not very demonstrative creatures, and that would allow me to put anything into the cat that I pleased. In fact, to this day, the more human-like I make him, the more cat-like people say he is. He lives in a cat world; he has a cat’s body, cat’s limitations. But beyond that, he can have all the human emotions.”
But the original plan—to avoid human characters—stemmed from Davis’ experience assisting Tom Ryan on Tumbleweeds. Among the ways the strip diverged from the romantic Hollywood vision of the Old West was the putative heroine. Not beautiful and shy but painfully plain and aggressive, she is desperate to trap the title character into wedlock.
“Tom had to be so careful,” Davis explained, “—certainly dealing with male-female relationships, between Hildegarde Hamhocker and Tumbleweeds. People are just very sensitive to this kind of thing.” (For the whole story of Tumbleweeds, visit “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds” in Harv’s Hindsight, January 2008, at RCHarvey.com.)
An even more sensitive area involves Ryan’s depiction of Native Americans. But Ryan defused the provocation with care, Davis said:
“He makes the most articulate and intelligent people in the strip the Indians. He treats them with great respect and sensitivity. Yet when there was a sit-in at Wounded Knee many years ago, he lost papers because of it—simply because there were Indians in the strip. I get responses sometimes. Just because it happens in a comic strip, people regard it as demeaning—regardless of how we treat the material.
“One time, I had Garfield and Odie on the fence,” he continued, “and I wanted Odie to do a rain dance and bring the rain. And I thought, Well, I’m not going to do an Indian rain dance for fear there’d be letters. So I had Odie do a Lithuanian rain dance. I picked Lithuanians for no particular reason. So there was the rain dance, and I had a gag. Well, an editor at a midwestern paper decided to make an issue out of it: he decided this was demeaning to Lithuanians. So I phoned him and asked him, Okay—what is demeaning about it? I made up a Lithuanian rain dance, does this mean Lithuanians are superstitious primitives? Or is it just that I said Lithuanian in a comic strip that makes it automatically demeaning? How do you feel? How do you feel about any of the material, anything that’s printed in the funnies?
“He didn’t answer,” Davis said. “He wrote his editorial. And then he started getting letters. Some wrote in saying, Why did you even waste space addressing this in your paper; we don’t get it. And then there were letters from Lithuanians saying, Hey, nobody ever mentions us—more power to him: it’s great to be recognized.”
So not even an animal cast protects the cartoonist from criticism.
As a general rule, however, Davis actually enjoys the challenges that the limitations of a comic strip impose.
“What can you do with it?” he said. “Seven inches, twenty-five words or less—and, given the morality of the present time—what can you do with it? The challenge comes from the limitations of the material and the process and the space itself. But I do wish comics could be published a little larger. Hopefully, we’ll be able to keep comics at a nice readable size.”
What about the future of the newspaper comic strip? [Asked in 1998.]
“The nature of cartooning simply will change,” Davis said. “At some point in time—five years from now, ten years from now, another twenty—the newspaper as we know it is going to evolve into something in the electronic environment. Young people are more comfortable staring at a computer screen or a video monitor than they are at a piece of newsprint. That’s the reality of the day.
“Many things we associate with newspapers will be offered in digital format,” he continued. “Common thinking is that more comics will be in color. And of course there’ll be some stop animation; there’ll be talking, and then there’ll be full animation. And that’s fine, but it’s not a comic strip any more. The timing’s different; not as much of it will take place in your head. The themes will be different. We can do all that. And we can make it funny. But once you put color in it—and sound, and animation—you’re looking at something very different. Now you’re staring at the future of animation; you’re not staring at a comic strip anymore. You’ve changed it. I’m certainly not going to press to change the look of the comic strip because the comic strip in and of itself is a very special case: it represents a unique experience as it is, and it needs to be preserved even beyond the newspapers.
“It’ll be interesting to see what happens,” he concluded. “We could animate our stuff today almost. And every day, too. But that’s not the comic strip. As soon as you get voice and animation, you don’t need the printed words any more. Now you’re not reading. You don’t have to. And that’ll be a loss. Kids learn to read with comic strips.”
At one point, very early in the development of the feature, Davis had called the strip Jon, after Garfield’s cartoonist owner. When I asked him why, he said it was because he knew he could write gags about a cartoonist, and he wasn’t sure he could sustain a strip with the cat alone. But Garfield very quickly took over.
“It was obvious almost right away that the strip belonged to Garfield completely,” Davis said. “Garfield was the strip.”
And Garfield belongs, these days, to PAWS. In May 1994, Davis bought out his syndicate, securing complete ownership of his creation. Kim Campbell told me that many of Davis’ colleagues were upset about the precedent Davis was setting. But Davis just pointed to the contract: by contract, the syndicate owned the strip, so if he wanted to own it, he had to buy it from the owner. So he did.
In talking with Davis, I wondered, with the large creative staff he has, whether he had ever been tempted to create and produce a line-up of several different comic strips. He allowed as how he’d surrendered to that temptation when launching U.S. Acres in March 1986. The strip, whose characters were all farm animals, a gesture at Davis’ own youth, was an unabashed attempt to reach younger readers. Partly, Davis was aiming to provide comics material to readers the age of his own son; but he had another purpose in the back of his mind.
“According to a survey run some years ago, two-thirds of all newspaper readers started reading by reading the comics,” he said. “Half of them were read the comics by parents or adults until they learned to read; the other half simply stared at the pictures until they learned to read. Then they went on to become newspaper subscribers. Kids with learning disabilities learn to read through the comics. People who move to America learn English through the comics. It’s a great service that comics provide. We’ve done a great service to literacy in America— unheralded. No real credit for it. You take the comics away, and there are going to be more illiterate people.”
I commented, “Do you suppose that newspaper editors are aware of the fact that a lot of people who buy their newspaper today wouldn’t be reading newspapers if they hadn’t started reading comics?”
Davis said, “The editor of the Boston Globe once told me, Kids don’t pay for the newspaper subscriptions.”
I said, “Oh, sure, they don’t. But they start becoming subscribers by becoming readers.”
In any case, U.S. Acres continued for only a few years before Davis decided to stop it.
I asked: “Were you as involved with U.S. Acres as you are with Garfield?”
“Oh, yes,” he said.
“Well, that answers my question then,” I laughed. “You’re not doing a half-dozen different comic strips because you yourself cannot do a half-dozen different comic strips.”
He laughed, too: “Correcto-mundo! Garfield is a full-time-and-a-half job, and we have a saying here: If we take care of the cat, the cat will take care of us. And I hope to have Garfield take care of us for a long, long time to come.”
Here’s a Gallery of Garfield, including an introduction to Gnorm Gnat and a few samples from U.S. Acres.