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.”
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."
“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.