Sarcastic, slovenly Garfield - the world's most popular cat - is the creation of a man who couldn't be more cheerful or industrious. Jim Davis talks about the ginger tom that saved his life.
When Jim Davis, the creator of Garfield, the lazy, sarcastic cartoon cat, heard that President Obama was looking for a dog for the White House, he sat down and drew him a picture of Garfield with Odie, the slobbering dog that plays second fiddle to the cat. ‘‘Have I got a dog for you!’’ he had Garfield saying.
‘‘I never heard back from Obama,’’ chuckles Davis, ‘‘so Garfield is still stuck with Odie.’’ Little has changed about the strip over the past 31 years. ‘‘Garfield still sleeps,’’ says Davis, now 63. ‘‘He still loves lasagne. And he still beats up on Odie.’’ The one factor that has changed is the strip’s popularity.
Originally appearing in 40 newspapers, it now features in 2500 papers worldwide. It is the most widely syndicated comic strip in the world, with a daily readership of more than 260 million. Instead of producing Garfield single-handedly, Davis now has a staff of more than 50 people, working on the films and television series spawned by the strip - as well as on a vast array of Garfield merchandise: from clothes to food-products to the suction-cupped cat that used to be stuck to every car until Davis, sensing saturation, called a halt to the product.
We meet at his company Paws Inc, nestled in the Indiana countryside in the US, hidden by trees and almost impossible to find. The only indication that the low-rise building has anything to do with the famous cat is a large paw-print on an outside wall. Davis’s own office is set back from the main building - next to a greenhouse where a (real) cat lazes - and when I first walk in, the room is so dark that I cannot see anything. Suddenly, at the flick of a switch, all the blinds whizz up and the room is flooded with light. There in the centre - surrounded by Garfield memorabilia - is Davis himself, laughing.
I had seen photographs of Davis with a long ponytail, but the man who greets me looks more like a bank manager than a cartoonist. ‘‘I got rid of the ponytail because it got in the way of my golf cap,’’ explains Davis, a passionate golfer. These days he looks clean-cut and, well, unremarkable.
Which is just the way he likes it. ‘‘I can go everywhere and no one recognises me,’’ he says in his gravelly, slightly nasal voice - punctuated often by a staccato laugh. ‘‘Garfield is the one they recognise - he has 96 per cent familiarity.’’ He is recovering from the dermatologist’s scalpel and points out the band-aids dotted over his face. ‘‘That’s from golfing with no sunscreen, young man,’’ says his colleague Kim, who, like most of his staff, has worked at Paws for decades. ‘‘That’s from farming for 20 years,’’ Davis corrects her.
He grew up on a nearby farm with 25 cats. ‘‘I’m still a farm boy at heart. If I hadn’t suffered from asthma as a child, I would be a farmer today.’’ The illness changed his life. ‘‘I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone but it worked for me,’’ he jokes. ‘‘I was in and out of comas until I was nine and I would lose entire days and weeks. The novelty of being able to really do stuff hasn’t worn off - I still feel like I’m making up for lost time.’’
Despite the asthma, Davis describes his childhood as ’hilarious’. ‘‘We were extremely happy: I can still feel the warmth of the sun, walking through the yard and the fields, fishing in the creek.’’ As he recovered in bed from bouts of asthma, he would do lots of drawing. ‘‘I could make mom laugh at the drawings - she was an easy mark,’’ he says. In turn, she would read to him. ‘‘Or she would make up amazing stories. She’d say: ’Now you make up a story.’ But mine were terrible. I’d go: ‘Everyone went to a party and they ate cookies and - the end’. But mom’s were great: I could see them as she told them. That was part of why I wanted to do this: to tell stories, delight other people. I think I’ve got better at it.’’
At the moment Davis is working on a Christmas show and a Garfield musical, which will tour the world. ‘‘Right now Garfield’s popularity is sky-high,’’ Davis says, ‘‘because in times like these, people really need the humour.’’ Much of his inspiration, he claims, comes from the English sense of humour. ‘‘I love Monty Python and The Two Ronnies - they’re every bit as funny today. I love those left turns in English humour.’’
Davis says Indiana is the perfect setting for the Garfield empire: ‘‘You have to have a sense of humour to live here. We don’t have the beach, we don’t have the theatre, we don’t have a lot of the distractions that people have in big cities. As for the weather...’ he tails off, laughing. Today it is pouring with rain - we use Garfield umbrellas to dash between the buildings, but Davis doesn’t bother: he saunters slowly through the rain, getting soaked.
Once inside, we hang our dripping coats on Garfield coat hangers, the hooks fashioned out of Garfield’s tail. Is your house like this, I ask Davis, all things Garfield? ‘‘We do have some Garfield at home too,’’ Davis admits. ‘‘We’re not afraid of him. But I do have work from other cartoonists too.’’
Later, I watch him drawing a strip. With a solid black marker, he deftly draws the eyes. ‘‘Always the eyes first,’’ Davis says. Humming and grunting, occasionally muttering, he works fast. Here is Garfield taking a sip from a mug. In the second frame he is grinning broadly. ‘‘Hmmm - coffee like dad used to make.’’ In the third frame, his lips are puckered in disgust as he spits a stream of coffee across the room: ‘‘Pooooo!’’ The whole thing is finished in less than four minutes. ‘‘I just made it up as I went along,’’ Davis says. ‘‘Usually I commit to something in my head and then I start drawing.’’ His drawings are then scanned and coloured on the screen. Although technological advances have made it easier to produce the strip, Davis says he still likes to use pen and paper as much as possible. ‘‘I always try to simplify - that’s part of the fun: give me limitations, give me a budget, give me four colours rather than 10, that’s when I start getting excited.’’
He spends a week of each month writing strips. ‘‘I can’t write them fast enough when they come,’’ Davis says. ‘‘It’s like a working meditation. If I’m in the right mood and I’m hitting on all cylinders, I’m giggling as I draw. I trust that mood and I just try to pass it through the strip. Once they hooked me up to a monitor and my heart rate was 120 as I was writing, my toes were tapping and I was pouring with sweat - I was on another plane.’’
He still does all the composition himself. Or rather, Garfield does. ‘‘I consciously put Garfield into a situation but what he does with it is his own volition. I can put him up a tree but then I just watch. When he makes me laugh, then I write it down. A lot of things make me laugh but the ability I have is knowing what makes other people laugh.’’ This ability, Davis thinks, derives from an intrinsic shyness. ‘‘I’m better at watching and listening than I am at talking. I grew up as a stutterer and when I talk about it, I stutter. So I do a lot of listening.’’
Davis has no interest in referencing the news in the strip. ‘‘I don’t really comment but if I say anything, it’s that life’s not so bad and we should learn to laugh at ourselves.’’ However, sometimes the cartoon becomes accidentally topical. ‘‘I did a strip about Jon [Garfield’s owner] going for a great day at the beach but getting destroyed: he gets caught in seaweed, a crab pinches his foot, a shark bites him, then there’s a big shout: ‘‘TIDAL WAVE’’. Of course, it runs in the week of the tsunami and I got lots of mail asking how I could be so insensitive.’’ In fact, he usually works a year in advance of publication.
I ask him how it feels to have 263 million readers a day. ‘‘I try not to think about it,’’ Davis says. ‘‘Recently there was a whole rash of cartoonists retiring, they were burnt out and someone asked me how I could keep going. I said: ‘‘It’s simple, they put all this pressure on themselves, they’re trying to write the perfect gag every single day. Me? I start to feel that kind of stress and I just lower my standards.’’
Nevertheless, Davis works enormously hard and I suspect is less carefree than he likes to make out. ‘‘I get up at 3.30 in the morning, which gives me some good quiet time to knock off emails and think about [television] programmes before the phones start ringing. Today I slept in till 4.30 as we were out last night. Twice a week I lift weights at 6.30am, then I shower, do more work at home and I’m in the office by 8.30.’’ He works a full day, then quite often works in the evening at home.
He has a huge empire, a large and capable staff, and financial freedom, so why doesn’t he take it a bit easier? ‘‘It’s fun, it’s great fun.’’ Besides, Davis adds, compared to farm work, this is nothing. ‘‘I’ve been semi-retired for 50 years,’’ he jokes. ‘‘On the farm I had so many chores. It was an hour and a half before school of carrying hay out to the cattle, breaking the ice in the water troughs in winter, then another couple of hours at the end of the day. At the weekends we’d haul manure and bale hay. It was hard work but our minds were still free to daydream and joke. You’d get very cold, very hot and very sick, so physically, this - he waves a hand at a Garfield strip - is easy work.’’
At college, Davis majored in art and business, then went to work in the art department of an advertising agency. After 18 months he quit to work for Tumbleweeds cartoonist Tom Ryan and created his own strip, Gnorm the Gnat, which he tried to sell for five years - unsuccessfully - before hitting on the idea of a cartoon cat. ‘‘There were several cartoon dogs but no cats at the time.’’ He named it Garfield after his grandfather John Garfield Davis, whom he has described as having a ‘‘gruff exterior but a soft heart’’.
Charles Schulz became something of a mentor to him when Davis was working in the Hollywood studio of Peanuts’ animator Bill Melendez. ‘‘Sparky [as he calls Schulz] taught me a lot. When I got syndicated, he said two words: ‘Get control’ - over the character, the programme, everything. He sat down with me and spent so much time just showing me his pen and how he would draw grass indications and the like. Once, when I was trying to draw Garfield standing up, Sparky was working in the next room on a Peanuts special and he walked by and asked how I was doing. I said: ‘‘Pretty good but I can’t get Garfield to stand up.’’ He said: ‘‘Let’s see your drawing: ahh, there’s your problem - he’s got these little cat feet, a fat cat can’t stand on little cat feet, he needs big people feet.’’ So he drew Garfield with big feet and it looked great. I said to myself: ‘‘Charles Schulz is touching my drawing, that’s like Leonardo da Vinci dropping by".
For a multimillionaire, Davis lives relatively simply. He used to have a private jet but has dispensed with it. ‘‘I don’t need it now as I do most of my work over the internet. But I do have a big house over there,’’ he gestures out of the window at his house, which is just visible through the trees. It has a large wraparound porch with wooden rocking chairs overlooking fields of prairie grass.
His luxuries are relatively modest. ‘‘I do have a wine cellar - I like wine, good food and golf, and we do some travel, but mostly it’s just family stuff: we take care of the grandkids a lot and all my family lives just here.’’ His brother David has a house a stone’s throw away; and Davis built a house for his mother and father in the same area. His parents, both nearly 90, have lunch with him in the office canteen every Monday and Thursday. Today they arrive with Davis’s second wife, Jill, and his two-year-old granddaughter, who flings herself into his arms. ‘‘You should be/ So fancy free,’’ Davis sings, swinging her into the air. His first wife, Carolyn - who was allergic to cats - is the mother of his 29-year-old son, a US Marine who recently returned from Afghanistan.
During lunch, Jim and his mother ping the salt shaker back and forth, a meal-time ritual between the two of them. The trick, one of his staff explains to me, is to get the shaker as close as possible to the edge of the table without it actually toppling off. There is lots of laughter - his mother wins every time.
Later, talking to Davis’s parents, it becomes obvious where his sense of fun comes from. ‘‘Do you remember that time you had a water pistol and were squirting the boys in the dark?’’ says his mother to Jim senior, a spry man much smaller than his son. She turns to me: ‘‘He’s an ornery one my husband.’’ Jim senior guffaws: ‘‘That’s right, the boys had gone to bed and I crept in and shot Davy with the water pistol and he thought it was Jimmy. Davy said: ‘Jimmy, you better quit that...’ So I waited a while then shot him again. So then Davy flies at Jimmy and they tangoed and I turned the light on and they see it’s me.’’
‘‘You can find Garfield right there,’’ says Davis’s mother, nodding towards her husband.
Her son says he also has some Garfield in him: ‘‘Like Garfield, I love to eat but I don’t share the sleeping thing. Garfield has little patience with some things - that’s like me, I don’t like to hang around either.’’ But Davis reckons he has more in common with Garfield’s owner, Jon. ‘‘I’m easy-going like Jon, an optimist: I’m like Don Quixote, always going after windmills. I pattern Jon after my college days - always trying to get a date, not exactly a snappy dresser, a geek really. Fortunately, geeks are now having their day.’’
Davis says he cannot imagine an end to Garfield. ‘‘I don’t know who’s going to take it over - there’s no heir apparent to the strip. But I don’t see it ending. I hope he goes on forever. For no particularly selfish reason on my part other than that he was created to entertain.’’ And although he says he is particularly pleased with certain strips, he is proudest of the body of work. ‘‘Anything I’ve done on an individual day really pales in comparison to 30 years’ worth of giving so many laughs to so many people.’’
Nevertheless, Davis says, he is still driven by a desire to come up with the ultimate gag. ‘‘Hopefully I’ll never get it. Then what?’’
The UK Daily Telegraph