He's grown up!

Four decades on, Garfield the orange cat still epitomises lovable laziness. The comic strip's creator Jim Davis about the feline’s charm

Jim Davis, creator of the Garfield comic strip

He’s lazy, fat and selfish. He loves coffee, lasagna and sleeping. He hates Mondays, exercise and raisins. That’s our dear old Garfield who makes us secretly wish for his lifestyle. He’s turning 40 this Tuesday, but age has not withered his enthusiasm to poke fun at both his owner Jon Arbuckle, and the pet dog, Odie. Come to think of it, he’s a lot like many of us. And his creator, Jim Davis, should take the credit for giving us this adorable character who’s been a staple of the world of comics for decades now.

The funny lines, sarcastic wit, simple drawings — hallmarks of the Garfield comic strip — will surely make us believe that Davis was a born cartoonist, an artist for whom drawing came easily, as easily as Garfield polishes off lasagna. Not really, admits Davis. “Being asthmatic, I spent a lot of time in bed as a child. Just to keep me engaged, my mom would give me a piece of paper and pencil, and ask me to entertain myself. I would draw whatever I wanted. But, my initial drawings were so bad, so bad that I had to label them,” says Davis, who grew up in a farm in Indiana with his parents and a younger brother, surrounded by cows and 25 cats. His dream as a child was to become a farmer, like his father, if not for his asthma. Luckily for us, he discovered his talent for drawing and studied art and business in Bell State University, Muncie, Indiana. He probably knew the world needed the lazy cat.

But, Garfield was not his first creation. His tryst with cartooning started with bugs. Yes, bugs. The comic strip called Gnorm Gnat. It wasn’t popular because people couldn’t relate to bugs. That was when the idea of Garfield struck him. Drawing inspiration from the cats he grew up with in his farm, he came up with the idea of the orange cat. He called it Garfield, after his grandfather, James Garfield Davis, who he describes as “a rather curmudgeonly fellow with a dry wit.” “Many of Garfield’s characteristics are culled from my impressions of all the farm cats I remember from my childhood,” he says.

That was in 1977. And, on June 19, 1978, Garfield was presented to the world to love, laugh and adore. What started as a comic strip in 41 US newspapers now features in 2,500 papers worldwide, and has since become ‘The Most Widely Syndicated Comic Strip in the World’ according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Also, Garfield has been adapted to a number of animated series, holiday specials, live action films, and even video games.

Unlike the creator

Though there is a bit of Davis in Garfield, like his love for lasagna, TV and relaxing, Davis says he identifies himself better with Jon, who’s soft-spoken, wishy-washy, and “has a lot of dating disasters.”

This cartoonist, who learnt the ropes of cartooning under Tom Ryan, the creator of Tumbleweeds cartoon, idolises several cartoonists including Mike Peters (Mother Goose and Grimm), Lynn Johnston (For Better or For Worse), Walt Kelly (Pogo) and George Herriman (Krazy Kat).

However, his favourite of favourites is Charles Schulz (Peanuts). “In fact, it was Sparky (Charles Schulz) who was instrumental in Garfield’s progression from a feline on four feet to a walking, dancing superstar,” says Davis.

The story goes that when Garfield was just three years old, Davis was struggling to make him dance on his back feet for a TV special. He was then working in the Hollywood studio of Peanuts’s animator Bill Melendez. For Davis’s good fortune, Sparky walked in, saw the problem Davis was stuck in, and suggested that Garfield be given “big human feet.” The result: Garfield on two feet more often than not. “It’s fun being a cartoonist,” Davis says, “I work 12-14 hours a day, and I love what I’m doing.” He sets aside one week each month to focus on writing the comic strip, while his staff help him with blue-lining, inking, lettering, and colouring. He says he’ll continue drawing “until someone taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘Jim, you’re not funny anymore’.”

We’d love that, Davis!

Small Talk

What about cartooning fascinates you?

Acting like a 12-year-old.

Where do you write best?

My office, mid-morning, after several cups of coffee.

What keeps you awake at night?

Not much; I’m a good sleeper.

How do you relax?

Golf and time with family.

When did you realise your passion for cartooning?

The first time I made my mom laugh with my drawing.

Your favourite place in the world?

My backyard in Indiana.

Your most indulgent habit?

Doughnuts.

 What do you have on your desk at work?

A Cintiq, a computer monitor, a picture of the family, and an apple (the fruit!).

What can’t you live without?

A sense of humour.

Your worst habit?

Daydreaming.

Five favourite things...

Family, friends, good wine, good food, and golf.

Best advice you’ve ever been given?

Family comes first.

What is the last thing you read that made you laugh out loud?

An Off the Mark comic panel.

 Who would you most like to sit next to at a dinner party?

Groucho Marx.

If not a cartoonist, what would you be?

A farmer.

If you could swap jobs with anyone, who would it be, and why?

Maybe Steven Spielberg. He’s a gifted storyteller.

If granted three wishes, what would they be?

To write one comic strip that made everyone in the world laugh. A return to youth, but with my hard-earned wisdom, and a golf handicap of 2.

Your life as a cartoonist...

Lucky.

Your idea of happiness...

Doing what you love to do.

Your most marked characteristic...

Easy-going.

 Your present state of mind...

Tranquil.

 Your comfort food...

Lasagna.

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He's grown up!

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