Before Grumpy Cat, Lil Bub, and, yes, Keyboard Cat, there was Garfield. Since first imagining how popular a cynical, sardonic, and pizza-loving feline character might be with comic strip audiences in 1976, Garfield creator Jim Davis has gone on to create an entire orange tabby empire that today includes television specials, live-action movies, video games, and thousands of merchandising products. Garfield is even a Guinness World Record-holder for “Most Widely Syndicated Comic Strip in the World." There’s no medium Davis and Garfield have yet to conquer.
Today marks the release of the new Garfield Holiday Collection DVD premiere, exclusively at Walmart (before hitting iTunes and digital download on November 11). In honor of that, we caught up with Garfield’s creator to discuss his doodling origins, maintaining a comic strip in a digital world, and where he continues to find inspiration.
When did you know you were destined to become a cartoonist?
I never wasn’t one, I guess. I was always drawing. When I was very little my drawing was terrible. I would draw a cow and I would have to write the word “cow” and draw an arrow down to it, so I was labeling everything. But I could make my mom laugh with my drawings. [Laughs.] I was asthmatic as a child on a farm, so I was in bed a lot. Mom always gave me a pencil and paper; I always had that there to entertain myself.
I grew up drawing and writing words and making my mom laugh. And then I went to school and that gave me school books and workbooks to draw in, so I just kept on drawing. I’ve got school books filled with doodles in the margins. The guys were always drawing planes and bombs and tanks and stuff in first and second grade and, one by one, they outgrew it, but I never did.
At what point did you realize that you could actually make a living doing that?
I never thought I honestly would make a living out of it. I did cartoons for the high school paper and then the college paper and then when I got out I was working in advertising. I was just a pay-stub artist, a layout artist, but I got to meet Tom Ryan, who does the Tumbleweeds comic strip. He lived in Muncie and I asked him how he got started and he liked my stuff and asked me to be his assistant. This was back in 1969.
I got to be an assistant to Tom Ryan, inking his characters, backgrounds, borders, and balloons, and answering his fan mail. At that point, I really honestly thought I could be a cartoonist, so I started drawing strip concepts. I did a bug strip for five years that ran it in a local weekly paper and nobody liked it. But the editor said, "The gags are good, the art style is good, but bugs? Nobody can relate."
So I took a long hard look at the comics and I saw dogs doing really well—Snoopy, Marmaduke, Fred Basset. I thought, well, if people like dogs, maybe I could do a cat strip? I grew up with cats on the farm; that was the inspiration.
In what ways did working with Tom Ryan on Tumbleweeds help you in getting your work out there and really expanding what you were doing?
Getting the discipline of hand was one; another was learning how to handle a brush and ink and seeing what size you work on the comic strip, just physically being able to do it and watching Tom really labor over every gag. He worked so hard on the writing. He had to get it just right, and the way he would handle the pacing and the interaction of the characters.
And then, getting to answer the fan mail, I got to see how people reacted to the stuff we were doing. Hildegard Hamhocker was always chasing Tumbleweeds around, she was man-crazy, so he would get these terrible letters from the National Organization of Women saying, "How dare you portray this woman as chasing men. Women are not just man-hungry and that’s terrible." He did a cowboy and Indian strip and would get letters from people sympathetic to the Native Americans and saying, "How dare you show them with the arrows," and stuff like that. He was getting all this terrible mail and all he was trying to do was make people laugh. And I thought, if I get a strip, I’m going to do an animal. [Laughs.]
When and how did the idea for Garfield specifically originate?
I was sending a lot of ideas to the syndicates and finally I said, "A-ha! A cat!" That was about 1976. So I started working up the thoughts and ideas for that, did several weeks’ worth of strips, and started sending them to the syndicates in late 1976, early 1977. And then I got syndicated in January of 1978 and they said they wanted to start the strip in June. I had to work really hard to do 12 weeks’ worth of strips before launching it in 41 newspapers.
When you look at a comic strip, it immediately seems to be a visual medium, but the narrative is really key. Do you prefer drawing or writing?
I can’t separate them; I hear the dialogue when I see the action. It’s simultaneous. Tom Ryan has always said, “Good art saves bad writing, good writing saves bad art, but it’s best to have good writing and good art.” So I worked really, really hard on the art. My writing is stronger than my drawing. Writing is easier for me than drawing. But I can't separate them.
Garfield has gotten nearly 17 million fans on Facebook. We’re in this period right now where there is very little difference, except for the opportunity to monetize the strip online.
I get that that’s not real normal; people are either writers or artists. The ability to move back and forth is not normal, but it is for me. I am bi-brainal. [Laughs.] I can’t do one without the other. The toughest writing I do is for Odie, because he doesn’t speak. That is the most fun, too. I think when I get a good Odie gag without words I’m probably proudest of those, because they take so much more effort.
Is it true that part of the character of Garfield was modeled after your grandfather?
Yes. He was a large, stubborn man. He seemed gruff, but if you looked in his eyes it always gave him away. He was really a softie. [Laughs.] He always had a quick smile and he always came off as gruff. People are always drawn to characters that have a crusty exterior but a warm heart, so I wanted to create a character like that. Garfield’s relationship with Odie is more of a sibling relationship. He will kick Odie off the table, but if anyone else picks on Odie he would be the first to stand up for him. There's a genuine affection between the two of them.
How has the character changed the most from when you first started the comic to now?
The biggest change has been in the art. Obviously the eyes are bigger and the ears are shorter. Everything expressive on him has become larger as comic strip pages sometimes are smaller. And certainly online, and on smartphones, the strip is not very large. So I’m making the features larger and more expressive in order to help communicate the gag a little more clearly than I used to.
His biggest personality change came very early on. I got a call from the Stockholm Expressen in Sweden. The editor there had been translating Peanuts since 1950. It was early on and he said, “I’m just calling to tell you that I think you are going to have a good long career with Garfield, but you should warm Garfield up; he’s always frowning. His frowns would be better if you occasionally make him smile so there would be some contrast. Warm him up and people will like him better.” And he was right.
I purposely gave [Garfield] Pooky as a result of that call in order to give him someone to confide in and to warm him up a little bit. I couldn’t imagine Garfield actually being nicer to Jon or Odie, but I could certainly give him a teddy bear. Giving him a teddy bear was probably the biggest personality change, because essentially he’s the same lazy, overeating character today that he was in 1978.
It’s interesting that you bring up people looking at the strip on their smartphones. How has the digital world impacted you or opened up your audience?
In many ways we're having a honeymoon, in that people are accepting the comic format from newspapers online and that’s the way most the strips are running, so that’s wonderful. The comic strips from the papers are running online and getting good readership. Garfield has gotten nearly 17 million fans on Facebook. We’re in this period right now where there is very little difference, except for the opportunity to monetize the strip online. People expect intellectual properties and content to be free online, so the newspapers are protecting them a little more now.
But frankly, I just throw Garfield out there. I am glad that people are reading him and are still enjoying him in that way. And papers are doing fairly well still. A few high-profile papers were over-leveraged and could no longer be supported by their advertising revenues and some of them had to close, but a lot of the smaller papers and chains and family-owned ones are still doing fine these days.
I think the biggest difference is with other cartoonists. When it was just newspaper syndication for cartooning, there were only about 350 of us; now there are about 350,000 of us because online you can declare yourself a cartoonist. You can build a strip and you’ve got instant readers. Nevertheless, the fact is that these kids are good. They’re very good. It’s good for cartooning to have all of these new artists in here and writing because communication’s becoming more visual anyway. The lines between cartooning and communication are going to become blurred. Well, they already are.
When you were first starting out, how long would the process of creating one strip take versus today?
I would say a daily would take easily a half-day—it would take an hour and half to pencil and about three hours to ink. A Sunday [strip] would take a day and half for some. And you know what? It still almost takes that amount today. I do the strip digitally now, but we draw it the same way; we still draw it, we still ink it, we still letter it. It really hasn’t saved us any time. [Laughs.]
You’ve been working on Garfield for almost 40 years now, and not just the strip, but television series, specials, and beyond. Where do you find the most inspiration for your work?
Observing people. Just yesterday I was at Kings Island amusement park—talk about a wealth of material! [Laughs.] Being at the mall, grocery shopping—just observing people. They write material I just couldn’t create. You can’t improve on real life. Garfield’s basically a human in a cat suit anyway, so it's living life and holding a mirror back to the reader and saying, "We should learn to laugh at ourselves. Don’t take anything so seriously."
The worse the times, the more popular comics are because we lighten it up a little bit. So that drives me. Going for that perfect gag drives me, too. One of these days I’m going to write something that makes the whole world laugh. [Laughs.]
Jennifer Wood writes about movies, television, travel, food, art, technology, cocktails, and beer for a variety of publications, which means that she considers binge-watching The Wire with a bottle of tequila "research." She is also an animal hoarder. She tweets here.