For the past several decades, it has been a ritual for people, both old and young alike, to read the Garfield comic strip. The yellow tabby cat has probably been the only famous pre-internet era cat that stole hearts of people across the world and lasagna too. Recently he turned 40!
On his 40th birthday, Jim Davis, the creator of Garfield and one of the most successful cartoonists shares a little about the journey with us. Excerpts...
When you first created Garfield, did you imagine it to be such an iconic character that it is now? What would you attribute its success to?
Truthfully, one of the happiest days of my life was the day I received the call from the newspaper syndicate saying they wanted to pick up Garfield. Since then, every other success has been gravy. When I started, I just wanted to make a living at it, and not have to take a second job to support myself. I thought if I could do that, I would be a success.
I think Garfield resonated with people for a couple reasons — one, I tried to keep the gags broad and the humour general and applicable to everyone. Most of the gags were about eating and sleeping. Everyone can relate. And then, I think people liked Garfield because it was the Jane Fonda era — everyone was being told to exercise and eat less. Garfield was saying, “Take a nap. Eat a donut.” He rebelled against the fitness trend and a lot of people needed that to relieve their guilt for being couch potatoes.
What exactly was the process of creating the character back then, when technology was not at your disposal?
I had several sketch books that I filled with drawings of the character. Once I filled all the big sketch books, I started using smaller notepads. Garfield started off without stripes but I figured the stripes gave him more movement and definition. I did hundreds of bad drawings until I came up with something I liked, and even then, Garfield’s looks evolved in the last 40 years. His eyes are bigger and more expressive, his legs are longer so he can dance and move around — that was done mostly for TV — but also, because comic strips are printed in such small sizes in the newspaper, it forces you to un-clutter your drawings.
Every artist draws some inspiration from his/her own life. Are there some similarities between Garfield and you? Or is he based or inspired by someone you have known?
His name came from my grandfather, James ‘Garfield’ Davis. He was a big man with a gruff exterior, but inside he had a tender heart. Garfield’s personality is really more of an amalgamation of all the cats I remembered from my childhood. We had a lot of barn cats that we kept to keep mice in check. They all had different personalities of course, but I was struck by how aloof they all were. You can tell when a dog is excited to see you — they make it very clear. But a cat — they’re a little harder to read.
Why did you choose to make Garfield a cat and not any other animal?
I knew cats! And, honestly, after I failed to get a comic strip about a bug off the ground, I took a studied look at the newspaper comics section to see what was working. There were a lot of dogs, but no cats! I saw an opportunity and my timing was good — there was a whole ‘cat chic’ thing going on in the US — cats were having their moment in the sun.
How would you describe your relationship with Garfield, over the years?
I don’t dream about Garfield and I don’t have a lot of Garfield stuff in my house, but when I want to write a comic strip or movie or TV script, I can bring Garfield to life. I put him in a situation and then sit back and watch what he’ll do.
Garfield has been very good to me. If you asked him though, he’d say I was just riding on his coattails.
Some of the common themes in the strip include Garfield’s laziness, obsessive eating, coffee, and disdain of Mondays and diets. Was there a hidden message that you wanted to give out to the readers and warn them of these guilty pleasures?
No — I was just being honest about what most people would say or do if they could get away with it. Garfield doesn’t apologise for his bad habits — he’s comfortable in his own skin. My goal with the comic strip is to let people take a break from the hard news and have a little laugh.
Garfield turned 40. What do you believe he has learnt over the years?
You have to step on a lot of dogs on your way to the top. No, seriously, Garfield is pretty much the same cat today as he was 40 years ago. He still believes you can’t be too rested!
The strip has also been made into a film. What inputs do you share when the Garfield is adapted for films/animation?
I wrote all 12 specials although I had collaborators on Garfield: His Nine Lives, Babes Bullets, Garfield on The Town (with Lorenzo Music), and the Thanksgiving special. I will admit that each one took a ton of time — the writing was one thing, then there were the storyboards, casting, animation approvals, etc. I also directed the voice sessions at Buzzy’s in LA which was time-consuming, but fun. I’m very hands on, especially with the script development on the movies. Once it gets to actual production, CGI or animation, I do approvals and make suggestions, but I leave the animation to the pros.
What is the future of Garfield? Is he going to retire (not that we want him to) or will continue to be the lazy cat that he is?
Neither Garfield nor I have any plans for retirement. He’s the lucky one though — he has eight more lives to go! I plan to keep doing the strip for as long as life allows.