The story of Garfield, an analog cat in a digital age

Garfield creator Jim Davis

Garfield creator Jim Davis   | Photo Credit: Photo Courtesy of M Magazine, The Star Press


At 40, the lasagna-loving, Monday-hating Garfield is adapting wonderfully, says his creator Jim Davis

While Garfield’s love for lasagna comes from Jim Davis’ fondness for it, the orange cat’s hatred for Mondays is not from his creator. “I love Mondays, but I am a cartoonist,” says Davis, talking on the phone from his studio in Indiana. “Monday is when you go back to school, to work. I thought this is probably not a favourite day for people. And boom, I started getting mail — everybody hates Monday! Even on social media, we have 17 million fans and Monday is the day I get the most likes and the most shares. It has resonated with the readers. I had no idea that Mondays were that evil! (laughs). I thought it would be a great vehicle for humour to have bad things happen to Garfield on one day.”

Garfield is active on social media “because that is the direction we would like to go. That is where the readers are. We have been on Facebook for sometime and we are getting into Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram. He is an analog cat, but this is a digital age. The nice thing is that people expect comic strips to still read like comic strips even online, so my three-panel gags have translated very nicely to the internet. We are learning more about the character by virtue of putting him online.”

Davis says technology has helped his work. “About seven or eight years ago, I took the comic strip digital. So rather than working with a pencil and paper, I work with a stylus. It has the same drag and feel as a pencil. My stylus is a pencil, a pen, a brush, an air brush... my inks don’t dry out any more. I don’t have to mix my paints any more. Technology has also made it easier to work with my assistants who are in different places — in Ohio and Virginia. I write the script, I make the rough, send it off and we pass it around in real time as opposed to having to copy it, mail it. Plus, I can work ahead as well. Comic strips have benefited from going digital. With that said, we do draw every frame. We don’t do what is called cloning. We don’t copy the character. They are fresh every time because Garfield is still evolving. We don’t want to stop that.”

Garfield creator Jim Davis

Garfield creator Jim Davis   | Photo Credit: Photo Courtesy of M Magazine, The Star Press

On the origins of Garfield, Davis says in 1969 he was an assistant to “Tom Ryan on the comic strip Tumbleweeds. It was a western humour strip about cowboys and Native Americans. I did Tom’s backgrounds and borders and also answered his mail. He was always getting criticised for having Native Americans in the comic strip. We also got mail from Native Americans saying thank you for paying attention to us and treating us with dignity. Women’s organisations attacked us for Hildegard Hamhocker. I was constantly defending Tom.”

Davis decided when he did a comic strip, he would not have humans in it as “they are so critical. I was going to work with animals. I tried a comic strip with insects. After years of failing to get it syndicated, an editor said, ‘The art is okay, the gags are great, but bugs? Nobody can relate to bugs.’ So I took a long hard look at the comics. I saw dogs doing very well but there were no cats. I thought ah ha (laughs), if dog lovers like dog strips, maybe cat lovers would like a cat strip. Having grown up on a farm with 25 cats, I knew cats well. I thought if Garfield was a human in a cat suit, he would be after the same things we are — food, shelter and love. With that, his personality started evolving.”

On the name, the 72-year-old says, “That was my grandfather’s name. He was a large man who had a lot of Garfield characteristics. He was kind of gruff, but you could tell from his eyes that he was a softie. The name had a nice ring to it and I had a frame of reference.”

Davis says Garfield is kinder and a lot more introspective now. “I started doing Garfield in 1978. I heard from an editor in Sweden who had been translating the strips. He said, ‘I think you have a great strip here. However, Garfield is not very nice.’ I gave him the teddy bear, so he could privately be nice to something inanimate rather than be nice to Jon or Odie. That said, his relationship with Odie, has become more of a sibling rivalry than a cat-dog relationship. Garfield will happily kick Odie off the table, but if anyone else were to kick Odie, he would be the first to defend him. He changes very slowly, even physically — his limbs are longer, his eyes are bigger, he is more expressive.”

Apart from the comic strips, Garfield is seen on a variety of merchandise from T-shirts to bookmarks. Davis sees it as “another opportunity to entertain. I always wanted to do a book. I hated the idea of a comic strip that runs once in a newspaper and then nobody ever reads it again. It is wonderful that they get to be put in books that people can read over and over again. Working with plush dolls, I get to know more about him when working with a three-dimensional Garfield. In some forms of licensing, I get to entertain, like on bookmarks and posters for education. I can have Garfield say and do funny stuff that he can’t do in the strip. I had a choice at one point of time on whether to go into merchandising or not, and most of me is glad I did.”

Garfield merchandise

Garfield merchandise   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Merchandising is another area where technology helped. “I wanted to do licensing right. I didn’t want to rubber-stamp Garfield on everything. Again, thanks to computers, we are in touch with our licensees and can control all the approvals.”

While Garfield has appeared in comic strips, television and in two movies, Davis says his preferred avatar of Garfield is the comic strip, followed by television and movie. “Actually, it is easier to do animation, as compared to the comic strip, because the strip has limited space, no music, no sound effects and you can only use 25 words for the gag. It is tough to introduce a plot, a twist and resolve it in seven inches! In animation, we can let the gag run for as long as it takes to get the point across. However, there are more people involved and movies are ten times more involved. But movies have a great cool factor.”

Bill Murray, who did voice work for Garfield in both the movies, was a perfect fit for the character, says Davis. “People who know Bill Murray know he has kind of Garfield’s attitude. We have another movie in the works, which will come out in four years. It is going to be completely computer-animated.”

Garfield will be next seen in 30-second shorts, according to Davis. “It is going to be 2D animation, but it has got a 3D software animation driver behind it. So while it is 2D, the characters will move a lot more naturally. We will be rigging them as we would a 3D character. Shadowing, movement, everything is going to be a lot more natural. Garfield is going to be a little more angular. The shorts will grouped by theme, so we can put five of them together for two-and-a-half-minute episodes — Garfield up a tree, Garfield swatting a spider... They would be ideal for digital streaming. Picture Pink Panther, no dialogue, music and sound effects, with occasional barks and meows. It is fun. We are doing 240 shorts to begin with. It would be coming out next year.”

And when I tell Jim to wish Garfield a very happy 40th birthday, he says with laugh, “When he wakes up I will!”

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Printable version | Dec 15, 2019 11:50:51 PM |

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